for the Saints in Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, Schomberg
We read Paul’s letter to the church in
, and the image of the congregation that comes to mind is – is what?
– a congregation of several hundred, meeting in a resplendent
building, with no anxieties about its future or its finances?
The truth is, while it isn’t inappropriate to speak of the
church in Rome in view of the fact that the church is the body of Christ
and this body cannot be divided or dismembered; while it isn’t
inappropriate to speak of the church
in Rome, we know from the conclusion of Paul’s Roman letter that there
were at least five house-congregations in the city.
Homes were small in ancient
; at least the homes that Christians owned were small. Then
how many people would a home hold when the congregation gathered for
Sunday worship? Fifteen at
most, I imagine. Fifteen
times five is seventy-five. Seventy-five
Christians in the city.
What was the population of
in the year 57 when Paul penned his missive?
One million. There
were seventy-five Christians in a city of one million.
In other words, the Christian concentration in
was seventy-five parts per million.
What was the attitude of both the apostle
who wrote the letter and those who read it?
Was the shared attitude, “We are hopelessly outnumbered.
We might as well give up right now.
No work or witness can be expected of us when we are only
seventy-five parts per million”? On
the contrary, the apostle thought that seventy-five parts per million
heralded nothing less than triumph.
Let’s jump ahead from first-century
. It’s the year 1750.
The Great Awakening has been underway for twelve years.
John Wesley has preached thousands of times and ridden thousands
of miles on good horses and bad in bad weather and worse.
How many people have joined the Methodist movement?
He’s quite pleased with the number, and regards it as a triumph
of the gospel. What was the
number? In 1750, after
twelve years of indefatigable effort, the Methodists numbered one-tenth
of one percent of
. Forty-one years later,
1791, Wesley died. He and
his helpers had laboured relentlessly during that time.
By now the Methodists numbered on-sixth of one percent of the
maintained that a revival had occurred.
Schomberg in 2011.
What attitude should characterize the saints in Schomberg?
What are you people supposed to do?
I think we need to listen to another apostle, this time the
apostle Jude. We need to
listen to him as he encourages the people dear to him.
First, says Jude, “Build yourselves up in your most holy faith.”
“Your most holy faith” refers not to the individual’s act
of believing but rather to what
is believed, to the substance of the
faith, to the truth of the
faith, to that gospel which has been handed down from the first century
to the 21st. The
gospel isn’t something we invent; it isn’t religious opinion.
The gospel is given to us along with the self-giving of Jesus
Christ. At the beginning of
his stark letter Jude speaks of “the faith which was once for all
delivered to the saints”. It’s
as though the divine equivalent of Priority Post delivered a weighty
parcel to us and said, “Here it is.
This parcel contains inexhaustible riches.
It’s been given you. You
would never be so silly as to think you invented it and could therefore
alter it. Just sign here to
indicate that you are owning the parcel -- and then benefit from it
No doubt someone wants to say that it isn’t quite this simple
in view of the controversies that have abounded concerning the gospel.
If so much about the gospel is disputed, then to what extent has anything
been delivered intact?
Actually, the controversies pertain not to the core of the gospel
but to the periphery. Unquestionably
there is disagreement about baptism, for instance: should believers only
be baptized, or should believers plus their children be baptized?
There is disagreement about church government.
Should congregations be governed only by themselves, or by
bishops, or by a system of church courts?
But concerning the core of the gospel there is no disagreement:
- Jesus Christ is the Son of God become Incarnate among us.
- his death has effected atonement, making God and God’s
estranged creation “at one”.
- the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the first
“instalment” of God’s end-time
restoration when the creation will be freed from the last
disfigurement of the Fall.
- the Holy Spirit is the power that
Jesus Christ uniquely bears and uniquely bestows, and
therefore the power by which all Christian proclamation, witness
are rendered credible and fruitful.
This is the core of the gospel.
All Christians -- Quakers, Pentecostals, Eastern Orthodox, Baptists
-- affirm it without qualification or reservation.
There is no dispute concerning this.
When Paul writes to Timothy, a younger minister of the gospel,
Paul reminds the young man that a trustworthy
witness is someone who “rightly handles the word of truth.”
Two comments have to be made here.
To say that our task is to “handle rightly” the word of
truth, only to handle it, is
also to say by implication that we need not invent it or fashion it or
fabricate it. In the second
place, to handle rightly the word of truth
is to admit that truth, by definition, cannot be invented.
It is certainly possible to invent any number of falsehoods, but
no one can ever invent truth. We
can only recognize truth.
By God’s ordination the gospel, “our most holy faith”, is
as true, lasting, unalterable, as the law of gravity (or any other
unalterable aspect of a structured universe).
We speak incorrectly when we speak of law-breakers.
People do not break laws; they break themselves over
the law. We can never break
the law of gravity; if we leap out of a tenth-storey window we merely
confirm the law of gravity. In
the same way there is a givenness to the gospel that is simply
“Build yourselves up in your most holy faith.”
We do this as we saturate ourselves in the truth, wisdom, and
promise of that gospel whose substance cannot be diluted and whose
perdurability cannot be diminished.
the second place, says Jude, “Pray in the Holy Spirit.” To
say that we are to pray in the Holy Spirit is to recognize that we live
in a universe that is spirit-charged.
We have no difficulty understanding that we live in an
environment that is charged with many different forces.
Physicists speak of the ‘force fields’ – many such – in
the midst of which we live: gravity, light, magnetism, radiation, for
instance. We live in a
Everyone knows we live as well in an environment that is
electronically charged: radio, television, radar, satellites.
Radio programs and television programs are coursing through this
room at this moment. Right
now there is coursing through this room a gospel-sermon from a church in
as well as a display of pornography also from
. Which one are we going to
bring in to our mind and heart? We
aren’t going to bring in anything unless we are equipped to discern an
electronically charged atmosphere; that is, unless we have the proper
Because humankind is most profoundly a creature of spirit (this
is not to deny that we are creatures of body and mind); because we are
most profoundly creatures of spirit we are born
equipped with the capacity to “pick up” or “bring in” something
of what surrounds us in a spirit-charged atmosphere.
The problem, of course, is that not all the spirits are holy.
Most are exceedingly unholy.
What’s more, in the wake of the Fall our natural spiritual
receptor doesn’t discern the Holy Spirit.
Our receptor has to be renewed.
Then we must always pray for and pray in the Holy
Spirit lest we become victimized (without even knowing it) by the
spirits that are anything but holy.
To say that we are most profoundly creatures of spirit, and to
say as well that we live in a spirit-charged atmosphere, is to say that
the human heart is the site of spiritual conflict, the site of competing
loyalties. The human heart
is the site of stealthy commando operations (i.e., subtle spiritual
sabotage) as well as frontal spiritual assaults.
In view of the fact that the human heart is the prize territory
that both the Holy Spirit and the unholy spirits ceaselessly contend
for, the only sensible thing to do is to pray in the Holy Spirit.
In making this point let us be sure to emphasize something most
strongly: to pray in the Holy Spirit is never
to discount reason. If we
are most profoundly creatures of spirit we are at the same time
profoundly creatures of reason. Irrationality
is never God-honouring. When
people who are perplexed about some aspect of the Christian faith ask us
earnestly for help in understanding, it is inexcusable to say to them,
“Don’t try to understand; don’t even think about it; just pray
about it.” To stifle
reason or circumvent reason is to confuse faith with fanaticism and to
foster folly. At the same
time, when we have exercised our rationality to our utmost we must still
pray in the Holy Spirit, for we are creatures of spirit ultimately.
Suppose we deny that we are creatures of spirit ultimately.
(After all, we live in a secularized society that denies we are
creatures of spirit.) We are
then left saying that we are creatures of matter
There are two kinds of materialism.
The philosophical kind (found, for instance, in Marxism) states
that matter alone is.
The non-philosophical kind, the popular kind (found everywhere in
the affluent Western world) states that matter alone matters. At the end of
the day, both have the same force. Whether
we believe that matter alone is or believe that matter alone matters,
the “bottom line” is the same: we believe that we are creatures of
But we aren’t. We
are creatures of spirit ultimately.
We are the venue of intense spiritual conflict; our hearts are
the prize sought by warring spiritual forces.
Therefore the quintessentially human thing to do is pray.
Then we must pray in the Holy Spirit, pray as believers in our
Lord Jesus Christ (whose Spirit the Holy Spirit is), pray expecting to
be given greater spiritual discernment as we pray ever more diligently.
the third place, says Jude, “Keep
yourselves in the love of God.”
We are to keep ourselves in the love of God.
But doesn’t God love us regardless?
Won’t God always love us, continue to love us at all times and
in all circumstances? Then
what does Jude mean when he urges us to keep
ourselves in the love of God?
Our question is answered as soon as we probe the writings of the
apostle John. In the 15th
chapter of John’s gospel Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so
have I loved you. Abide in
my love.” To abide in
God’s love is to dwell in it, lodge in it, settle in it.
In everyday English to abide means to
dwell. To abide in my home
is to dwell in it. But in
everyday English “abide” also has a second meaning: to abide by
something is to obey it. In
John 15 Jesus says, “If you keep
(i.e., abide by my commandments you will abide
in my love.” Only as we
abide by can we abide in.
I abide in my wife’s love.
At the same time I’ve always known that I shall continue to
abide in her love only as long as I abide by (obey) the claim to exclusivity essential to marriage.
If I cease to abide by (obey) the claim to exclusivity essential to marriage, I shall
cease to abide in her love.
To be sure, she might continue to love me, but I would have ceased to
“keep myself” in her love.
The false teachers of Jude’s day maintained that one could
abide in Christ without having to abide by him. What they
practised themselves they eagerly commended to others.
They were false teachers. They
weren’t merely false with respect to their teaching, however; they
were false in themselves, phonies. They
were deliberately deceptive;
they flattered those they planned to exploit; they posed as visionaries;
they twisted scripture; they described themselves as spiritual elitists
when the only spirit to possess them was unholy.
In all of this they said we can abide in God’s love without
having to abide by his claim upon our obedience.
Jude was outraged at these teachers who were false and
We are to keep ourselves in the love of God.
We do keep ourselves in the love of God as and only as we also
keep his commandments.
Jude urges us to “wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”
In scripture to wait, wait for, never has
the force of “waiting around”. To
wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ never means that we loiter
and loll, hands in our pockets, putting in time absent-mindedly while we
To wait, in scripture, is to anticipate;
specifically it’s to anticipate confidently the public manifestation
of that truth and reality which God’s people know to be operative now,
even as it is denied by the world at large.
There is another way of saying the same thing.
The New Testament carefully balances the reality of Christ’s
Easter triumph with the coming manifestation of that triumph.
Our Lord has been
raised from the dead. He is
victor. His sovereign
presence is a singular instance of God’s effectual mercy.
Christ’s people know this and rejoice in
it. None of it, however, is
publicly evident and therefore is publicly disputed.
For this reason we wait for its final manifestation.
In his letter to the church in
the apostle Paul reminds us that every
knee is going to bow eventually, and every
tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:10-11) This
is not to say that every last human being is going to come to a glad and
grateful abandonment of herself to Jesus Christ as Lord; it isn’t to
say that every last human being is going to delight in the praise of
Christ’s truth and triumph. But
it is to say that the day has been appointed when God can no longer be
mocked. The day has been
appointed when the gospel is vindicated and is seen to be what believers
have always known it to be: God’s visitation of mercy for the world
and the vehicle of believers’ restoration before him.
The day has been appointed when the simple faith of God’s
people is vindicated too and these people are displayed before the
world, no longer the silly fools that pseudo-sophisticates wrote off,
but now those friends of Jesus who were unashamed of him for years and
of whom he will now be unashamed eternally.
Several years ago I was the week-long bible teacher at a church
. At the camp I met several
people who made my heart sing as they chatted informally with me in
their quiet, unselfconscious way, of their faith in our Lord and the
undeniable alteration of their lives that had arisen from it.
I shall never forget two such people.
I mention them in that they are contemporary illustrations of
Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, mentioned in Acts 17 as two people
who came to faith through Paul’s ministry in
. Dionysius and Damaris, a
man and a woman, represented the two extremes of the social spectrum in
. Dionysius came from the
most exalted end of the social spectrum, Damaris from the most despised.
One man who spoke to me at the summer camp had been a professor
of engineering at
. Subsequently he and his
family lived in
for a year on an exchange with an engineering professor from
. While he was in
he came to faith in our Lord. Upon
his return to
he offered himself as a candidate for the ministry of the
, however, having eroded theologically to the point of gospellessness,
spoke with him through officials who sneered at his experience of God
and ridiculed him. Whereupon
he moved to
and became a minister of the gospel in a smaller denomination where he
has remained ever since.
The other fellow I met in the same summer, from the other end of
the social spectrum, is a used-car salesman of very limited formal
education, missing several teeth, who enjoys a great deliverance from
years of substance abuse. In
ungrammatical English but with utter transparency he spoke to me of the
huge turnaround in his life and all that it has meant for his family.
These people are alike “waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus
Christ.” They aren’t
waiting around. They are
busy day-in and day-out at the tasks to which the master has assigned
them. Nevertheless, they are
anticipating that day when, in the mercy of God, the world’s delusion
ends and the gospel is vindicated and God’s people are exalted and the
faith of the simplest saint is seen to be what the saint herself always
knew it to be: the bond that bound her to that Lord who will henceforth
honour her eternally.
Then what are the people in Schomberg to be about week-in and
Build yourselves up in your most holy faith.
Pray in the Holy Spirit.
Keep Yourselves in the love of God.
Wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.
(Victor Shepherd May 2011)