A house divided…

2014_07 July Cover

Church of Scotland in General Assembly

(view online version here)

500 years after the birth of John Knox, the church he founded is still part of the fabric of Scottish life.

Before this year’s General Assembly (May 17–23), however, newspapers reported that membership of the Church of Scotland is under 400,000 compared with 1.32 million in 1956. There is a shortage of 107 ministers and this deficit is likely to rise to 220 by 2022 with retirements. There are presently only two ministers below the age of 30.

Kirk in denial

The Kirk denied that this decline has anything to do with the ongoing controversy about same sex relationships; claiming just 1% of its 1,389 congregations have seen their minister and a proportion of their members leave the denomination for this reason. This controversy concerned an openly gay minister who was inducted to a church in Aberdeen in 2009. His call was upheld by the General Assembly and further debates followed in 2011 and 2013.

The church’s theological commission prepared a detailed report on sexuality and offered two trajectories to the assembly of 2013. The traditionalist view would not permit ministers in same sex relationships from ministering while the revisionist view would. However, at the last minute a third option was introduced: that the church would uphold its traditional teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman but also allow individual Kirk sessions to depart from this doctrine and practice if they wished. This compromise was quickly hailed as a victory for the peace and unity of the church. Two further groups were instructed to look into matters and report to this year’s Assembly.

‘Mixed economy’?

A Theological Forum explored the question of ‘mixed economies’. They argued that we already live with a ‘mixed economy’ on questions such as baptism, communion, and the re-marriage of divorced persons. The church, then, should allow space for ‘constrained difference’ on the issue of same sex relationships. During the debate it was highlighted that each of the existing differences has at least some support in Scripture, whereas, as the theological commission of 2013 recognised, every single reference to homosexual practice in the Bible was ‘negative and condemnatory’. Despite this the report was voted on and accepted.

The Legal Questions Committee then presented their proposals as to how the compromise motion of 2013 could be implemented. They acknowledged that there was a ‘low’ risk that a mixed economy may leave the church vulnerable to claims of discrimination under the Equality Act. During this debate the Revd Jerry Middleton graciously and eloquently proposed a counter-motion. He asked the Assembly to affirm its belief that Scripture teaches marriage to be between one man and one woman and to recognise its pastoral responsibility in helping those experiencing same sex attraction to live and serve in the context of a celibate life. This counter-motion was voted against 369 to 189. The legal framework supporting the ‘compromise’ motion will now be voted upon by presbyter-ies before returning to next year’s Assembly for debate and final approval.

Where does this leave us?

Firstly, as the denomination becomes smaller it is also becoming broader. Indeed ‘breadth’ is now seen as a virtue. In his closing address the Moderator, John Chalmers, said that he personally would like to challenge the Theological Forum to reframe, ‘our doctrinal standards’ [i.e. the Westminster Confession] in line with ‘the theological pluralism which is the Church of Scotland’. It appears that the peace and unity of the Kirk are being valued above faithfulness to Scripture, as this move would allow individual congregations to make up their own minds about a controversial issue.

Secondly, conservative evangelicals are increasingly seen as the ‘odd ones out’. Earlier in the Assembly, a previous moderator railed against ‘sexism’ in the church and described those who do not permit women to serve as elders or ministers as ⎯ among other things ⎯ ‘oddities at the extremities’. It seems there is no question of a ‘constrained difference’ for the complementarians on this matter!

Thirdly, there is a great deal of soul-searching. A number of evangelical ministers, elders and members have resigned in the past five years, feeling they can no longer submit to a General Assembly and work for the peace and unity of a church which ignores what Scripture has to say. The leadership of some fellowships have been sufficiently united to exit the denomination. In almost every case the majority of the congregation have followed.

Despite this, the Kirk has, with one exception, retained the church buildings and bank accounts for its own continuing purposes. There is a cost – financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually – to leaving to begin new fellowships.

Other evangelicals are persuaded of the need to stay in, to work for the reform and renewal of the national church. They have no small battle ahead of them. Please pray that all who seek to uphold the authority of Scripture and the integrity of the gospel – within or without the Church of Scotland – may love one another.

 Euan Dodds – evangelist at Holyrood Abbey Church, Edinburgh.

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

Prayer fuel: News from around the world

Prayer Fuel

Here are a handful of news-bites from around the world included in the July issue of EN. May these encourage us as well as spur us on to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world facing severe persecution.

Pakistan: call to protect

Pakistan’s National Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling on the government to take steps to protect the worship places of the country’s religious minorities, it was reported in May.
The motion urges the deployment of special security personnel at sites located in ‘areas at risk of terrorist attacks’. Though non-binding, the resolution has symbolic significance as a statement of intent to protect Christians and other minorities, who are regularly targeted by Islamic extremists in Pakistan

Barnabas Fund


Palestine: stabbing

A Christian man was stabbed and around eight others injured in an attack on a church near Bethlehem in May.
Muslims interrupted a church service in the village of El-Khader in the West Bank, turning violent when they were asked to leave. They started throwing stones at the building, causing damage including broken windows. The incident comes amid increased attacks on churches in Israel; 14 have been reported in the past year, several of them in late Spring. Threats have also been made against senior church leaders.

Barnabas Fund


USA: prayer permitted

In early May, the US Supreme Court backed a town council’s freedom to pray at the beginning of its meetings after two local residents complained.
Judge Anthony Kennedy said the prayers do not exclude those with no religious faith and that judges should not rule on the content of prayer because it could lead to lawmakers censoring chaplains’ messages in order to make them ‘acceptable for the public square’.

The Christian Institute


For more news and prayer fuel from around the world, go to our website or subscribe to EN for monthly updates.

Youth leaders column from Dave Fenton: The urge of the urgent

Youth Leaders Column

(view online version here)

We live in a fast pace generation.

We want fast food and immediate contact. I’ve just read a secular book called Wait by Frank Partnoy, who suggests that many actions and decisions were made too quickly, resulting in disastrous consequences. In response, some diagnoses now take days as a ‘first guess’ answer might be fatal (I had always feared my resistance to ‘fast replies’ was an old dinosaur phenomenon). He cites examples from various aspects of life. One of the most telling was a surgeon’s use of a checklist which he would consult at various stages of his operation to check all was well. Apparently it has reduced operational errors by 40%.

Slow cooker

Perhaps we have lost what he calls ‘the gentle art of procrastination’ which he defines as being the wisdom to know when the action time comes at the end of your planned delay. The Bible encourages us to wait on the Lord and I wonder if we have fallen for the ‘microwave’ solution rather than using the ‘slow cooker’. But does this have anything to do with youth ministry? I think so.

Young people come to us with tangled relationship questions either about their family or their peers. We feel an immediate piece of wisdom is needed for them to go away happy. I can think of situations where quick answers have been wrong ones. We say we want to give ‘biblical answers’ to their questions but we rely on our memories to, perhaps, quote verses out of context. Perhaps we should say – ‘I’d like to think and pray around your question and see what the Bible has to say’. We should be training our young people in using the Bible to answer their faith and life questions.

Press the pause button

Our own decision making can be another victim of too rapid response if we are considering a change in the way we do things. Partnoy points out that very few amazing discoveries are the result of a sudden flash of genius. There may be a moment where light dawns but it comes after months or even years of work and study. We wouldn’t have ‘the moment’ without the years of work and study. Surely our commitment to pray for our work involves, in one sense, delay. We pause to pray to seek God’s will on a pastoral issue or on a major decision.

I am concerned that the received email assumes immediate response. As I book speakers for major events, I am increasingly finding that they will use both delay and councils of reference before they give me an answer. I find it frustrating when I don’t get a prompt reply but maybe our haste shuts our sovereign God out of our thinking and decision making.

By the way – some emails can be answered promptly and some of us are guilty of too full inboxes. The routine ones can go straight away. Don’t make good decision making an excuse for inexcusable delay.

Dave Fenton – associate minister at Christ Church Winchester and Training Director of Root 66 which runs training courses for youth ministers across the UK. 


This article was first published in the May 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates

Anglican update: Always grace and truth

Anglican Update

(view online version here)

Someone once remarked that we shouldn’t be aiming for a ‘balance’ of grace and truth – but rather, a full measure of both.

Such is certainly the need as Anglican evangelicals seek to be faithful to the gospel in a denomination full of difficulties – but also, still, many opportunities.

The vexed question of sexuality is one which isn’t going to go away. There is a ‘conspiracy theory’ school of thought which sees ‘the bishops’ conniving to change church policy on this issue, and which almost views Justin Welby as some Machiavellian figure manipulating people into change.

Well, maybe there are some bishops doing exactly that. But I continue to see Justin Welby as a man who is basically traditional on this issue (as he has stated several times), genuinely wrestling with it in his mind, but nonetheless seeking to do what is right under God.

Some of the criticism of him for his interview with the gay newspaper Pink News reminded me of the criticism of Jesus for hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. Which other evangelical or Anglican leader has ever spoken to them or even been offered a hearing? Nevertheless, it wasn’t a perfect interview – as well as being substantially misrepresented in some reports.

Welby’s gay secretary?

However, sometimes conspiracy theories do turn out to be true. Thus the website Virtue Online revealed at the end of May: ‘An ex-gay Anglican blogger in England is charging that Archbishop Justin Welby’s secretary is gay and is deliberately blocking correspondence that might help gays break free of homosexuality from the evangelical archbishop.’

It would indeed appear that the story has substance to it. The blogger in question, Phelim McIntyre (at whose website, aflame.blog.co.uk, you can read the material in full) has indeed taken a courageous stand – full of grace and truth – in tackling the individual in question head on about it.

Unfortunately, however, grace and truth seemed missing in the way that Virtue Online – which calls itself the ‘voice for global orthodox Anglicanism’ – then covered the story. As McIntyre subsequently explained: ‘I chose specifically not to name the person at Lambeth Palace as I believe that it is the issue that is important…’

He continued: ‘Virtue Online posted an article, which I had no involvement with and have complained to Virtue Online about, which names the Correspondence Secretary in tones which I disagree with. To me this is an example of tabloid journalism at its worst. The first I knew about the article was when a friend told me about it via Facebook!’. He concluded: ‘I used to have time for Virtue Online but after this I do not’.

It’s a classic example of an evangelical own goal. And I rather fear similar mistakes may be made in approaching the Church of England’s ‘facilitated conversations’ on sexuality. Should Anglican evangelicals take part? Not if the terms on which it is run make it impossible to do so per se – for example by going against conscience.

But otherwise, if possible, yes – certainly. To fail to do so would merely hasten the outcome which is feared; would let down the many genuinely wrestling with the issue; smacks of running away from the battle scene; deprives our archbishops of support; and makes conservative evangelicals look aloof, self-righteous and closed in on themselves. Grace and truth, people. In full measure.

David Baker, rector of the churches of East Dean with  Friston and Jevington, East Sussex

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to EN for monthly updates

Prayer fuel: News in the UK

Prayer FuelHere are a handful of news-bites from around the UK included in the July issue of EN. May these spur us on to pray for our country and issues we all are facing.

Wrong or rights?

Children in Church of England schools could be given sex education materials provided by gay rights groups, according to new guidance launched by the Archbishop of Canterbury, it was reported in mid-May.
Critics have raised concerns that within the 72-page guidance, produced by the CofE, Stonewall is mentioned more than Jesus Christ. The guidance is entitled ‘Valuing All God’s Children’. The Archbishop said: ‘No sense of something being right or wrong justifies another wrong’.
The Christian Institute

Scotland: evangelism

Grace Edinburgh are thanking God for his help and favour during their week of evangelism during the Spring.
10,000 homes were reached in tract distribution. 600 gospels were distributed by hand. Hundreds of homes were visited and around 100 people had lengthy gospel conversations. Over 20 visitors came to church services and some have continued to stay in touch.
Grace Baptist Partnership Scotland

Resist assisted suicide

An online petition asking people to resist the legalisation of assisted suicide in the UK was launched in May by Not Dead Yet UK, a network of disabled people in the UK opposing the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Signing up to the online petition will help fight against Lord Falconer’s forthcoming Private Members Bill which Not Dead Yet fear will begin to open the door to state sanctioned assisted dying.
The Right to Life Charitable Trust

For more news and prayer fuel from around the UK, go to our website to subscribe to EN for monthly updates.

Editors commentary: Our future in Europe?


Late May saw elections to the European Parliament.

It is the largest exercise in democracy in the world apart from in India, with nearly 400 million EU citizens eligible to vote.

The main story in this country was the success of the UK Independence Party, UKIP, led by Nigel Farage. (He grew up in Downe, in Kent, and attended Downe Baptist Church Sunday School as a youngster). But this was part of a wider move across Europe, as voters got behind anti-EU and nationalist parties in many countries.

Freedom of movement

Political commentators put UKIP’s success mostly down to concerns over the EU immigration laws. It is argued that free movement of workers across Europe is good for the economy. But it lacks common sense in the eyes of many people.

First, our island is small and how can it possibly absorb the numbers of people who want to settle here? Don’t we already have a chronic shortage of affordable housing? And to be labelled a ‘racist’ for even asking such obvious questions does not help.

second situation stares me in the face. We have a family in our congregation whose son was born here, grew up here, went to school here and later decided to study at Moore Theological College in Australia. There he took out dual British-Australian citizenship and married an Australian girl and they now have children. Before God he feels he would like to work for the Lord and pastor a church in the UK. But that is not so easy. Though he is English and is married to a Commonwealth citizen there seem to be insuperable hurdles to his returning with his family. Why?

Thirdly, a few months ago we had the strange spectacle of the government pleading with Muslim women to try to dissuade British Muslim men from going to fight for Al Qaeda-related groups in Syria (and now Iraq). They were worried that such men would promote violent jihad on their return to this country. Of course, people have the freedom to choose to go, but it seems that the government under EU rules can do nothing to stop their return. There was nothing from the government along the lines of ‘if you go, you can’t come back’. Go and fight for a terror group and you can come back; go to Bible college and marry an Australian and you can’t.

No wonder many voters wanted to give the main political parties a kick up the backside by voting for UKIP in May.

Low turn out

But beneath the Euro headlines there is another story. It has to do with lack of participation. Only 43% of those eligible to vote across Europe participated. And it is age related. Two thirds of those aged 18-24 did not vote in the 2004 elections. Abstention rates were even higher in 2009 and I am informed that this trend is likely to have continued in May. Church is not the only thing young people have given up on. They also appear to be giving up on democracy. Brought up on a ‘feel-good’ world of entertainment, virtual reality and social media, are young people turned off by the hard world of politics, which rarely feels good, especially that of the distant and bureaucratic ‘kingdom’ of Brussels? Former EN Chairman Sir Fred Catherwood, an MEP himself in times past, would remind us that the EU has been instrumental in keeping the peace in Europe since WWII. Whether he’s right, I don’t know. But such things are perhaps being forgotten by a rising generation.

John Benton

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, check out our on-line version of the paper.

The forgetful prayer group

Forgetful Prayer GroupBeth Laing looks at developing a prayer ministry for people with dementia

Billy Graham published a book called Nearing Home.

He writes: ‘Old age is not for sissies! I never thought I would live to be this old. No one ever taught me how I ought to live in the years before I die. I wish they had because I am an old man now and, believe me, it’s not easy’.1

Care of the elderly is a huge issue and is always in the news. There are over 800,000 people with dementia in the UK and this figure is rising rapidly. Dementia is a progressive, terminal disease that causes problems with memory, communication and individuals cannot live without care and support. Many older people in care homes feel lonely, forgotten and without hope. We need to provide regular church services, prayer and pastoral care in a new and dynamic way.

Remembering God

The questions that get asked are: If people can’t remember their family, how can they remember God? Is God still interested in us when we are old and frail and can he make a difference? How do we pray with someone who has dementia?

Many of us find this so difficult because there may be other people in the room and that can be distracting, or perhaps we don’t know where to begin. Finding a fail-safe formula to follow to make a connection can seem daunting. One of the common difficulties is that we often feel inadequate. Eric Alexander writes that we all have this deep sense of inadequacy because prayer is intensely personal.2 There can also be a perception that you can’t have much of a reciprocal relationship with someone with dementia.3 When we go in to take a church service we are unaware of how each individual person is that day — only God knows that.

Prayer bridges the gap

We have to be prepared for brutal honesty when older people tell us very personal things. God brings hope and helps us put ourselves in the shoes of the person — what is it like for them? No one ever wants to end up in a nursing home! When we read the gospels, we see that Jesus made a life-changing difference to everyone he met. When we go in with God, this gives us the courage to balance the scales of dealing with dementia with love and compassion. We are links in a chain and prayer bridges the gap to enable people to think about the love of God. We need to be ready for these precious opportunities when they arise.

When we pray alongside someone, we acknowledge God — and realise that many things in life are outside our control. We address God — and ask for help in that situation; God sees the all the circumstances. Psalm 139.1-2 reminds us: ‘You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise, you perceive my thoughts from afar’. Knowing that God can just step into that person’s life right there and then is amazing! We don’t have to be eloquent — just sitting with the person, saying a short prayer is the place to start. The Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23 can be said together and is always appreciated.

God has not forgotten

It is so important to take time to chat and pray with the residents after the service. Earlier this year we met a lovely couple. The lady had just come into the nursing home and she was very distressed and disorientated and her husband was finding it hard to cope. We spent time praying for them after the service and they were both quite emotional. The next time we went in, the lady was calmer and much more settled. When we spoke to them, the gentleman said he had ‘not thought much about God’. They were both so delighted when we said that ‘God had not forgotten about them’. It has been remarkable to see how coming to the services has really been a comfort to them.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones summed up the power of prayer, writing: ‘What prayer does is to fill the lungs of the soul with the oxygen of the Holy Spirit and his power’.4

Weighing heavily

When God answers prayer, our faith is always increased. However, watching someone with dementia fade away is heartbreaking. The pain and sadness weighs so heavily upon our shoulders and it is almost as if our life stops too. In these dark times, it’s difficult to hand over to God. We are not promised that we will never have difficult circumstances, but God always answers prayer. In Romans 8.26, the apostle Paul reminds us how the Holy Spirit pleads on our behalf: ‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words can’t express’.

You can’t have prayer without pastoral care because we have to be willing to take the time to listen. When you visit the nursing home regularly this helps to become a trusted point of contact. So often people don’t know who to turn to and a compassionate listening ear is a godsend when circumstances are tough.

Finding new life

Older people should not have to wait to the last minute to talk about salvation and prepare for death. It is eternally important for people to find new life and hope in Jesus Christ. Everyone needs to experience forgiveness and have the chance to restore broken relationships. Anger, grief or disappointment impacts the mind and spirit and takes a physical toll, causing depression and feelings of abandonment.5 People with dementia can simply lose the will to live because of these unresolved issues from the past.6 However, not having the chance to tell someone you love them before they pass away always leaves family members struggling with feelings of regret. Acceptance is always the first step to restoration because prayer shines the love of God into difficult situations.

Before we go

Developing a vibrant prayer ministry also means praying before we go into the care environment. If we’re honest, prayer can sometimes be the last resort instead of the first thing we do. Even though we know that God answers prayer, we often suffer from spiritual amnesia — is God going to help this time? When we see the ravages of dementia we may be tempted to think ‘it’s too late for them’!

However, on so many occasions, we’ve met people with significant communication problems who want prayer. Just a few weeks ago, a lady with advanced dementia in the nursing home needed prayer. On our next visit, she was just bursting to tell us that she was feeling so much better. Right through the Bible, God’s love is radical — God is far greater and there is always hope with God. Everyone wants to experience love, joy, peace, compassion and patience. Showing compassion can help ease for a moment the overwhelming sense of vulnerability experienced by those living with death. We can provide this spiritual care by simply acknowledging the power of God and thereby demonstrating the sanctity of life.

Beth Laing is a research associate in dementia at University of Sterling and part of Ochil Hills Community Church, Dollar.


1. Graham, B. (2011). Nearing Home: Life, faith and finishing well. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 2. Alexander, E.J. (2012). Prayer: A Biblical Perspective. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth. 3. Wilson, N. (2013). ‘Pastoral care in nursing homes.’ Evangelicals Now, May, 2013. 4. Sargent, T. (2007). Gems from Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Milton Keynes: Paternoster. 5. Stanley, C. (2012). The effects of unforgiveness. Christian Post. Accessed at: http://www.christianpost.com/news/the-effects-of-unforgiveness-84769/#GDkeQwITbGR42zVC.99 6. O’Hara, D. (2010). ‘Hope — the neglected common factor.’ Therapy Today, November, 2010.


This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, check out our on-line version of the paper www.e-n.org.uk
for more information.

What’s coming up in the July issue of EN

July 2014 highlightsA few highlights to look forward to in the July issue of EN! It’s scheduled to arrive from the printers on Friday June 20.

As of now, you can also go to our web-site if you’d like to take a look at the online version or to subscribe!

Under the rainbow (book review)

UNDER THE RAINBOWParents worst nightmare?
By Catherine Campbell
Monarch. 192 pages. £7.99
ISBN 978 0 857 214 638

This book is about God and his love, every day, ‘common or garden’, right where it is needed. It is also very ‘harrowing’.

A harrow is a heavy frame with metal teeth or disks for breaking up ground after ploughing. The people in this book were harrowed. And God made the ground fit for his glory, and their joy.

Love and grief

There is a man and a woman loving their God, and then came their hardship. They had a child, who brought a new kind of blissful love into their lives. Too soon however, it also brought with it heart-rending grief and sorrow, not only to them, but also their fantastic families. The child is so ill, terminally. Then the joy of another child, the bliss of a healthy one. Again, some time later, another little bundle of joy, also so very ill. All through this are the very great struggles of the mother, fighting to hang on to God, who surely is loving and mighty and everything we are told about in his Word. And also the great love for each child. And, the great husband, who insists on knowing God first and that is where his strength comes from, this is where his love comes from. Everywhere, there is our loving God, in and through it all.

Lots of detail

I recommend it to all parents and grandparents, potential ones as well. People who want to serve in churches, men and women. For some it may go into too much detail, but I would say that in the detail comes the understanding.


This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

Do we all come the same way?

Do We all come the Same WayProfessor Donald Macleod argues that we don’t

Or, in the language of Jonathan Edwards, that: ‘God makes men sensible of their misery before he reveals his mercy and love’.

Most of it is devoted, however, not to expounding this doctrine, but to a historical survey designed to prove that this has been the prevailing view in Reformed theology from the beginning (including Luther and Calvin), but particularly among English Puritans. Modern attempts by Perry Miller and others to show that significant figures diverged from this consensus are reviewed and (as a rule) refuted.

Historical discussions

At the same time Doctors Beeke and Smalley lose no opportunity to point out that this Reformed preparationism was completely different from the Roman Catholic doctrine of congruent merit, according to which grace is infused as a reward for doing the best we can; and they are no less insistent that Reformed preparationism has to be distinguished from the Arminian idea that, once sinners are motivated by a sense of spiritual need, grace merely assists them to Christ, without any invincible input on God’s part.

These historical discussions have their undoubted value, but far the most important aspect of this book is the core idea itself. Regardless of the views of the Puritans, is it in fact God’s normal way of dealing with sinners to prepare them for conversion by awakening them, through the law, to a sense of sin and of imminent spiritual peril?

Biblical texts

When we turn to key biblical narratives, the ‘preparatory law-work’ pattern certainly did not always apply. John the Baptist never experienced the agony of soul experienced by his namesake, John Bunyan. Nor is there any hint of a preparatory law-work in the case of the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John (Mark 1.16, 19-20); nor again in the stories of Philip and Nathanael (John 1.43-49), Matthew (Luke 5.27-28) or Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10). Instead, there is instant compliance with the call of Jesus. Self-knowledge would come, of course, particularly in the case of Peter, but it would come later.

At first glance, the story of the Philippian jailer confirms the book’s thesis. Immediately after the earthquake, he appears trembling and suicidal. But this was hardly due to any law-work; or, if there was a law-work, it was of very short duration. And when he asks ‘What must I do to be saved?’, Paul and Silas do not first confront him with the law before presenting him with the gospel. They call him to faith in Christ, speak the ‘word about the Lord’, and baptise him: all, probably, in less than an hour.

The law our schoolmaster?

Even in those New Testament passages commonly appealed to in support of the idea of a normative law-work, all is not as it seems. The best-known of these is Galatians 3.24, which the KJV renders, ‘the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ’. However, the Greek paidagōs was not a schoolmaster. He was a slave placed in charge of an under-age boy, and while one of his duties might be to conduct the boy to and from school he was not himself the schoolmaster. A further difficulty is that what Paul actually says is not that the law was put in charge of us in order to lead us to Christ, but ‘until Christ came’ (ESV) and the ‘law’ referred to was not the law in the narrow sense of the Moral Law, but the law that was introduced 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant (Galatians 3.17) – in other words, the Torah in all its breadth. In fact, this law did not lead the Jews to Christ; and today we are no longer under it.

The principle that Paul lays down in Romans 3.20 still stands, however: ‘through the law we become conscious of sin.’ Yet here, too, caution is required. What the Westminster Confession (10.4) calls the ‘common operations of the Spirit’ can sometimes produce serious conviction of sin in people who never actually come to Christ. How, then, can we tell whether the ‘law-work’ is the effect of a ‘common’ operation or of a ‘saving’ operation?

It can only be, as the Westminster Confession assumes, that those who experience it ‘truly come to Christ’. From this point of view, the intensity or otherwise of the conviction does not matter. It may appear quite unremarkable, but if it leads us to Christ it is sufficient; and, conversely, it may be awesome to behold, and yet if it does not lead us to Christ it is nothing. Here again the cross is the test of everything. Have we come to it?

Creating a stereotype

Faith is indeed born of need, and to divorce it from repentance is, as Bonhoeffer argued, to preach ‘cheap grace’. But the Puritan model of preparatory grace carries its own dangers. One of these is that it suggests a stereotypical pattern of conversion, including not only the same elements but the elements in the same order. Beeke and Smalley are aware of this danger, but nevertheless, as Mark Noll points out, the conversion narratives which Jonathan Edwards recounts in his Faithful Narrative (1737) ‘rapidly became templates for the way many others would picture the normative spiritual journey’; and prominent in these narratives was self-despair and intense conviction of sin.

In reality, no two Christians come to the Lord in the same way.

Once we create a stereotype, anyone whose experience is different may well lose all assurance of salvation, either because she did not begin where others began, or because she never experienced the terrors of the law as others did. We then lose sight of the fact that all that matters is whether we have come to Christ.

There is a danger, too, of linking repentance too exclusively to the law. In the very nature of the case, the law can produce only a legal repentance, in which fear of punishment predominates and in which there is no inducement to return to a heavenly Father. Such a repentance may certainly be an element in the journey to faith, but not all Christians experience it, and not all who do experience it become Christians. In fact, there is no outside-of-Christ state from which there is a guaranteed progression to the one place of safety: ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3.3).

Evangelical repentance always includes a turning to God, and as such it is a result of faith, not a preparation for it. In David’s case, for example, his broken heart (Psalm 51.17) comes after God’s declaration of forgiveness (2 Samuel 12.13) and reflects his confidence in God’s steadfast love (Psalm 51.1). The Shorter Catechism sounds this same note (A. 87): the sinner turns to God not only ‘out of a true sense of his sin’, but also with ‘apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ’. His mercy is there before our repentance; and it is because we have faith in his mercy that we cast ourselves upon it.

Three offices of Christ

We have tended to see Christ primarily as the answer to guilt, the one who brings relief to troubled consciences.One result of this has been to throw his priesthood into special prominence. But Christ is not only priest. He is also prophet and king, and while faith will eventually attach itself to all three offices, it seldom does so all at once. It usually begins with one. That one is often his priesthood, and the sinner’s starting-off point is often a tormented conscience. But that is not the only point of entry into the Christian life, because sin has brought more than guilt. It has also brought ignorance and anxiety. While many, then, will first come to Christ to find peace for their troubled consciences others will come because he is the answer to their quest for the truth; and others because they seek assurance that someone has the world in his hands.

They set off from different points and they will tell different stories. But each will have the Son; and she who has the Son has life.

Donald Macleod is former Professor of Theology at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh, now retired. The full version of this review is available on Donald Macleod’s blog at www.donaldmacleod.org

REFORMATION HERITAGE BOOKS. 297 PAGES. £15.10 ISBN 978 1 601 782 342


This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057