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Archive for the ‘Ordinary Means Ministry’ Category

patrick-fairbairnI’ve recently been picking away at a great 19th century treatise on pastoral theology by Free Church of Scotland minister and professor, Patrick Fairbairn.  A must read!  In the introductory chapter, he deals with foundational issues of ecclesiology that shape and mold the practice of shepherding souls.  Without the foundation, the house is shaky at best.  Here’s a very insightful quote on the bearing of right views of the Church as visible and invisible on the pastoral office:

“To the visible Church, then, belongs the public administration of the means of grace; and as it is by the instrumentality of these means that the true Church is gathered in, it is obvious that it is no more possible to sever the one from the other, than it is to sever the inward grace of the sacraments from the outward sign; and that, in fact, as in the sacraments the outward sign and the inward grace are not two sacraments, but the two aspects, the inward and the outward, of one and the same ordinance, so the visible and the true Church are not distinct communities, but one and the same, regarded from different points of view. The true Church depends for the maintenance of its existence on the visible Church; and, in turn, the visible Church is supported by the true. Thus a reciprocal action is ever going on : the visible Church, as such, dispensing the means of grace by which Christ works to the gathering in of His elect; and the true Church, as such, upholding and perpetuating the visible use of those means by furnishing faithful recipients of them.”

Sadly, it’s out of print.  But there appear to be several used copies on Amazon, and you can access it on GoogleBooks.

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“We must not sit still and look for miracles. Up and be doing, and the Lord will be with thee. Prayer and pains through faith in Jesus Christ will do anything.”

-John Eliot, Puritan missionary (c. 1604-1690)

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Is the Gospel preacher practical?  The man who gives himself to prayer and the ministry of the Word, who delegates to others the lesser ministry of waiting on tables – is such a man a blessing or a bane to the  Church and society?  Perhaps in the short-term, it may seem that way.  But when we take a step back and view aright the man of God who sacredly devotes the lion share of his time to the ‘closet’ labors of his study, we will see him not only as highly practical.  He will emerge as the best doer of good to His fellow men.

The following extracts from Alexander’s Thoughts on Preaching explore this mystery with profound insight.

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§ 74. To do gimagesood to men, is the great work of life; to make them true Christians is the greatest good we can do them. Every investigation brings us round to this point. Begin here, and you are like one who strikes water from a rock on the summits of the mountains; it flows down over all the intervening tracts to the very base. If we could make each man love his neighbour, we should make a happy world. The true method is to begin with ourselves, and so to extend the circle to all around us. It should be perpetually in our minds.

§ 75. Beneficence.—There are two great classes of philanthropists, namely, those who devise plans of beneficence, and those who execute them. If we cannot be among the latter, perhaps we may be among the former. Invention is more creative than execution. Watt has done more for mechanics than a thousand steam-engine makers. The devisers of good may again be divided into those who devise particular plans, such as this or that association or mode of operation, and those who discover and make known great principles. The latter are the rarer and the most important. Hence a man who never stirs out of his study may be a great philanthropist, if he employs himself in discovering from the study of the Scriptures and the study of human nature, those laws which originate and condition all effectual endeavours for human good.

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A masterful and balanced statement from William Young on the duty of self-examination before partaking of the Lord’s Supper:

“Self-examination, conducted according to the directions of Scripture, is a profitable exercise in preparation for the Lord’s Supper. The phantom of morbid introspection is the invention of that proud presumption that fails to distinguish between the precious and the vile. Surely on our American scene, the danger of unhealthy preoccupation with the abominations in our deceitful hearts, to the neglect of the remedy provided in the gospel, is very slight in comparison with the externalism and formality with which presumptuous sinners, puffed up with their imaginations of ‘blessed assurance,’ eat and drink damnation to themselves. Evangelical hypocrites are the natural product on the one hand of Arminian evangelism and on the other of Kuyperian Hyper-Covenantism, opposed to one another as these two errors are. A spurious assurance may arise either from confidence in a ‘decision for Christ’ made by the act of one’s ‘free will,’ or from the presumption that mistakes an external relation to the covenant of grace for a living relation to Christ, the only Mediator of the covenant. Such self-deception can be destroyed, and a well-grounded assurance of grace and salvation be established in the soul, only by way of serious and thorough self-examination.

“The critics of this wholesome exercise often misconstrue its purpose. Self-examination does not aim at the production of doubts and fears, leaving the troubled soul in a state of perpetual uncertainty as to its being in a state of grace. A faithful declaration of the demands of the law and of the deceitfulness of the human heart will, no doubt, give occasion for doubts and fears. But the truth is not the cause of the condition of the soul, arising from the suggestions of Satan and the weakness of the flesh. Self-examination as to whether one is in the faith is designed in fact to bring weak believers to the knowledge that Christ is in them and that they are not reprobates. To this end the Scripture has enumerated an abundance of marks of grace, especially those found in the First Epistle of John.

“In preparation for partaking of the Lord’s Supper, self-examination is in order both as to one’s state and as to one’s frame. If in applying the marks of grace, one finds that the great change has not taken place, then one’s first duty is to come to Christ to receive pardon and cleansing by His blood and only after that, to come to the table in obedience to the command, ‘This do in remembrance of me.’  If the happy result of self-examination is a well grounded assurance, then one may with confidence and thanksgiving enjoy a blessed communion with Christ and one’s fellow Christians. And weak believers may have to be reminded that the Savior’s gracious invitation is also a commandment, and that there is guilt in unworthy refusing as well as unworthy partaking. The assured believer is not called on to doubt as to the soundness of his faith, but may find comfort in seeing his title clear to mansions in the sky, only on the ground of the Redeemer’s merits. At the same time inquiry as to his frame leads him to see both the fruit of the Spirit and the sinful imperfection of his graces, and thus serves to foster spiritual growth in repentance, faith, hope, love, humility and every grace.”

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“And because we are all too fond of ourselves, we are not able to recognize or judge our own deeds properly. Therefore, if we do not have a good and high opinion of those whom the Lord has placed over us, and who are to instruct, exhort, admonish and correct us on his behalf, and do not immediately receive their words and teaching with all fear and trembling as the Lord’s own words and teaching, then we will get nowhere and will not progress in the pursuit of godliness, as is our current and daily practice.”

Martin Bucer (1491-1551)

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Another stately quote below by Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) on the parish system.  Here, he affirms the absolute sovereignty of the Spirit in the conversion of men, yet urges the necessity of ecclesiastical infrastructure for broadest distribution.  Without rain, there is no life.  Yet there is a place for ‘aqueducts!’ 

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“The truth is, that whenever a more copious descent of the Holy Ghost shall come down upon us, it will pass through all the channels of conveyance that have been furnished for it in the land—entering into pulpits, and then spreading itself over congregations, and finding its way, most readily, through the most free and frequented pathways of communication that have been opened up between the ministers of religion and the people among whom they expatiate.  By subdividing parishes, we just multiply these pathways; and by localising parishes, we just make the pathways shorter, and more convenient and accessible, than before. We do not set aside the doctrine of a spiritual influence; for we believe that it is this which will be the primary and the essential agent in that great moral regeneration that awaits our species. But just as in the irrigating processes of Egypt, the reservoirs are constructed, and the furrows are drawn, and every field on the banks of the Nile is put into readiness for the coming inundation—so we, knowing that the Spirit maketh its passage into the human heart, by the word and the ordinances of the gospel, are just labouring at a right process of spiritual irrigation, when we provide such arrangements as will bring the greatest number of human beings into broadest and most recurring contact with this word, and with these ordinances.”

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Call me a curmudgeon.  Or an arch-conservative, allergic to all things new.  And I will freely admit that I romanticize earlier days, fully aware that they were never so rosy as I fancy them.  But I am just not ready to jump on the small (‘cell’) groups bandwagon like so many other Reformed folks.  I have already raised some questions on the subject in a previous post.  I really do question how ecclesiologically Reformed it is after all.

But here’s another thing that makes me nervous of them.  I fear that they detract from a robust pulpit ministry, from Lord’s day to Lord’s day.  In some circles, cell groups aim to provide meaningful biblical study for preachers who want their Sunday services to be ‘seeker sensitive.’   In my judgment, that makes cell groups a crutch for an impotent ministry.

Related, it seems that they are now being touted (or maybe I’m just noticing it) as suitable vehicles for ‘missional’ outreach.  Unbelievers need a ‘safe’ place to be welcomed, where they will not feel judged.  So we can win them over to church, with all its trappings, through the back door.  Now, I am all for loving unbelievers and making them feel loved.  But what about public preaching as a means of grace?   What of God’s choice of the foolishness of preaching?  What of the scandal of the cross?  And does that scandal come in bold face through the small groups, or is it in the fine print on page 236?

Why are Reformed people enthusiastic about this?  Am I off, or is this broad evangelicalism, low churchism, or even anti-churchism sneaking in under the radar?

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