Archive for November, 2009

Cessationism

November 25, 2009

Cessationism has had a bad press and is often misunderstood.  The fact that there may be different types of cessationism tends to cloud the issue.  But taking the term in its generally recognized meaning it is fair to say that many Christians do not understand what those who hold a cessationist position believe, still less why they believe it.

Christians who hold to a cessationist position are not sceptics, nor unbelievers, but generally are concerned conservative or reformed evangelical Christians who hold certain views about miracles, signs and wonders.  Cessationist do not deny the omnipotence of God.  They believe that God can do anything (except lie, deny Himself, or change), when and where He chooses, in terms of miraculous happenings, spiritual gifts, unusual experiences and the like.  Consequently cessationists have no problem with remarkable insight or knowledge of events being given miraculously as in the days of the Covenanters in Scotland, nor with the occasional inexplicable healing being given in answer to prayer, nor with instances of remarkable power being supplied in preaching resulting in many conversions at one time as in the revival at Kirk O’ Shotts, nor, of course with genuine revival.  But that is a very different position from believing and expecting miraculous signs and gifts to be manifested at all times, still less believing that men and women can produce such things more or less at will.

Cessationist believe that the sign gifts have ceased.  What are the sign gifts?  They are the miraculous events and wonders that accompanied Christ’s incarnation in order to demonstrate His deity and Messiahship, and the signs and wonders given to authenticate Christ’s apostles.  In a general sense, they also marked the advent of new revelation into the world.  It is these specific things that cessationists believe have ceased.

When John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus asking whether He was the Messiah or not, Jesus pointed to His miracles as evidence that he was the One who should come (Luke 7:17-23).  It is important to observe two points here.  First, if anyone else could have performed these ‘signs’ they could not have been the exclusive proof that Jesus was the Messiah.  Secondly, since His work on earth is completed, and our Lord has returned to heaven, there is no need of such signs.

With regard to the apostles, we must first note that there were two types of apostle.  The word apostle means ‘representative’ or ‘sent one’.  There were apostles of Christ and apostles of the churches, that is, those sent by the churches.  The apostles of Christ were foundational of the church (Ephes. 2:20).  Once laid the foundation does not need to laid be again.  Now the foundational apostles had these characteristics: they were chosen by Christ, sent by Christ, taught foundational truths, wrote Scripture and performed signs and wonders to authenticate their ministry (2 Cor. 12:12). No one today can do that.  The signs of the apostles have ceased.

Whenever God brought in new revelation remarkable things happened such as during the Exodus, the giving of the Law on Sinai, the Incarnation and the founding of the church.  The New Testament brought in a completely new era.  The ‘mystery’ was revealed (Ephes. 3); Christ has given the final word; He is the final Word (Hebrews 1:1ff).   Nothing must be added to the word given by Christ and through the apostles of the Lamb (Rev. 22:18,19).  Since revelation has ceased, no new signs are needed.  Signs and wonders were never given for their own sake.  They always had a purpose, usually to confirm new revelation. So, since the final word has been spoken, such signs are neither necessary nor possible.

As already stated, that does not mean that God cannot or will not occasionally do some remarkable thing for His own reasons, but that is very far away from the charismatic position of expecting signs and wonders as a part of normal Christian worship and experience.  Such an expectation leads to all kinds of errors such as manufacturing gifts, trivializing gifts, expecting prophecy and elevating it above the written word of God, calling silly remarks prophecy, accusing people of sin or unbelief if they are not healed, and downgrading or displacing the Word of God.

Nevertheless, God in his sovereignty may intervene and do remarkable things through people.  He may reveal something otherwise not easily known, such as the state of a person’s heart.  These things are entirely within his prerogative.

Call to the Ministry

November 22, 2009

Call to the Ministry

“For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him.” (2 Chronicles 16:9).
“So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land that I should not destroy it, but I found no one.” (Ezekiel 22:30).
“He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor…” (Isaiah 59:16a).
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples,  ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.'” (Matthew 9:36-38).

Some months ago I was in conversation with a former President of a major denomination about the difficulty of finding a suitable pastor for a vacant pulpit. We agreed that there is a dire shortage of suitable men. There are some men available, but not enough to fill all the vacant pastorates. Besides, not all the men are suitable, for one reason or another. The few excellent men available are quickly settled into a pastorate Some of the men who have made themselves available are already in a pastorate but want to move. Either they want to leave or have been asked to leave their present position. Some of those men may be very able and sound and have good reasons for wanting to move. In the case of others it raises a question in the minds of those responsible for finding a pastor. The Scriptures cited above suggest that, in a sense, God Himself is looking for men suitable for His service. In considering this shortage it is worth asking the question, what are the necessary and the desirable qualities in ministers of the Gospel? This is how I see these matters.

1 A definite call from God.
Some would deny this. A few months ago when I mentioned in a discussion this need for a call a prominent evangelical minister retorted that “there is no difference at all between the call to be a minister and the call to be a dentist”. Another evangelical minister said to me, “The only call in the New Testament is the call to be a Christian. There is no such thing as a specific call to the ministry.” Now granted that we use the word ‘calling’ in a general way to describe any person’s job, and therefore every person has, in that sense, his or her ‘calling’, is there really no difference? The Scripture does use the word ‘calling’ in that general sense in 1 Corinthians 7:20. But is there no difference between the sacred ministry and any other calling? Surely the vast majority of people in what we may term ‘secular’ employment actually choose their vocation. While in school or college they consider the various options and select the one that most appeals to them. In some cases they may have had that goal in mind from childhood, perhaps following in a parent’s footsteps. It is certainly possible that in a very few cases their particular vocation was impressed upon them by God, but that is surely rare. It is certainly possible that a person may feel that God has specifically called them to be a dentist or a dustman, a farmer or a fisherman, but the impression one gets is that most people choose their vocation. Please note that to be doing one’s job as to the Lord and serving Him in one’s chosen calling is not the same thing as to be called by God in the first place to do it. But for a man to choose the Christian ministry as his option without any sense of it being God’s will would seem to fly in the face of biblical teaching. Normally the ministry chooses the man, or the Lord does! Let me stress that I am not seeking to deny that a person may strongly feel that God led them into a particular secular employment, but merely seeking to make clear that the call to the ministry is a definite and distinct calling, different from other callings.  Consider the Biblical evidence.
In the first place, we are told quite clearly in Hebrews 5:4 concerning the Old Testament priesthood that “no man takes this honour to himself, but he who is called by God.”  John the Baptist was “a man sent from God” (John 1:6), and Jesus said to the apostles “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” (John 15:16). Again, in Ephesians chapter four we read that the ascended Christ “gave gifts unto men” and “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers.”  In Acts chapter Thirteen we read that  “as they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’.”   Clearly that was not the call to salvation, but a distinct and definite call to ministry. Of course there are several ‘callings’  in Scripture which are common to all Christians, such as the call to salvation, the call to holiness, etc (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:1-9). But the calling to an Ephesians four ministry is not common to all Christians, for Ephesians 4:11 states that it is only some that are so called. This calling may not come in a dramatic way. In fact one of the striking features about those called to ministry in the Bible is that each call to ministry seems to have been distinct; Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul. Only the fishermen friends and brothers seem to have been called in a common way to be Christ’s apostles.
Now if it is being taught that there is ‘no difference at all’  between the call to be a dentist (or any other work) and the call to be a minister, which means in effect that you can choose to be a minister if you like, is it any wonder that there are men in the ministry without a sense of definite call from God? And is it any wonder that, if the idea of a distinct call from God to the ministry is denigrated, men do not expect to hear it or, if there are a stirring within them from God, His voice is ignored as being an erroneous suggestion?
Jesus looked with compassion on the multitudes and said to the disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:37,38). Surely that passage implies that labourers are specifically sent by God into the harvest?  But why bother God with such prayers if there is no definite and distinct call into the ministry?  Why not spend our energy in persuading men that they should choose that vocation?  The answer to the dearth of ministers is to earnestly beseech God to send forth labourers, and to expound the Scriptures so that God may use such preaching to call men.
James M. George in his chapter on The Call to Pastoral Ministry writes:

The call of God to vocational ministry is different from God’s call to salvation and His call to service issued to all Christians. It is a call to selected men to serve as leaders in the church. To serve in such leadership capacities, recipients of this call must have assurance that God has so selected them. A realization of this assurance rests on four criteria, the first of which is a confirmation of the call by others and by God through the circumstances of providing a place of ministry. The second criterion is the possession of abilities necessary to serve in leadership capacities. The third consists of a deep longing to serve in the ministry. The final qualification is a lifestyle characterized by moral integrity. A man who fulfils these four qualifications can rest in the assurance that God has called him to vocational Christian leadership. [Rediscovering Pastoral Ministry, John MacArthur, et al, Word Publishing, 1995, p. 102].

2. A Knowledge of the Bible.
This may seem obvious, but, alas! It cannot be taken for granted today. Many men coming from Bible Colleges and University Theological departments just do not know their Bibles. A minister showed me a letter from an officer of one of the largest city missions in this country, in which he gave examples of five candidates for posts as city missionaries who, in a fairly simple and straightforward Bible examination, revealed an appalling ignorance of Scripture. Three of those applicants had degrees in theology from British Theological colleges. A graduate of Oxford University told me that a lecturer in Theology there complained that he found it extremely difficult to get theological students to study their Bibles. When he set them a passage to study they went straight to the commentaries and quoted them, rather than studying the passage itself. This may be a reflection on the churches from which those students came, but sadly one hears of supposedly evangelical churches where drama, testimonies, family services have replaced the reading and exposition of the Word of God. And how many churches have dropped their Bible Study meetings? A minister must know his Bible.

3. Doctrinal Integrity.
If there is a lack of Bible knowledge in the churches today there is certainly also an ignorance of basic doctrine, or at least woolliness about fundamental truths. A man must be sound in doctrine if he is to be a preacher of the Gospel. A leading evangelical minister stated recently that every evangelical minister ought to be able to preach on the doctrines of grace without any notes. In other words, he should know basic doctrines so well that he could preach on them extempore.

4. Preaching ability.
It goes without saying that if a man is to be a preacher he should be able to communicate truth in a clear and compelling fashion. This ability will grow, however, if someone is called. This alone, however, is not enough. Even non-Christians can be eloquent speakers, and many liberal ministers are able communicators.

5. A man of prayer.
The apostles refused to take on other tasks because they insisted that they must give themselves “continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.” Notice the order, prayer first. Notice also that they were to ‘give themselves continually’ to these matters. It is a sad reflection on our churches that few candidates for the ministry today seem to have experienced spending a day, a half-night or a whole night in prayer, still less done this with any regularity. What is even more alarming is that some will confess that they do not have a daily time of prayer and meditation on the Word. Some pour scorn on the term ‘Quiet Time’ but cannot suggest a better name for it. It is usually reckoned to be wisdom not to destroy something good until you are ready to replace it with something better, and the danger is that publicly denigrating the title of a ‘Quiet Time’ may result in the practice of it suffering as a side effect.

6. Consecration.
The ministry should be their all-absorbing passion. Like Paul they should be able to say “this one thing I do…”   They may, of course have other interests. It is good for a man to have a hobby, a means of relaxation. But if the hobby, the sport, television, or whatever it is, looms too large in his life so that at times the ministry takes second place, the balance is wrong. Some men today are so obsessed with sport that the ministry seems like an avocation and the sport is what they live for. The hymn, Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee must be a reality in a minister’s experience.

7. Separation.
This is a contentious issue, and standards and opinions vary widely among evangelicals today in a way that they did not fifty years ago. Worldliness is an increasing problem in Western churches at the present time. But let us take an issue which is very clear; our use of time. It is surely incontrovertible that before the advent of television no man of God would have spent as long in the cinema each week as some ministers today spend in front of the television. Oh yes, we all know that some programmes are informative and interesting, but the vast bulk of television is distinctly unedifying, and much of it is degrading and depraved. It seems to me that one application of Romans 1:31 is that to ‘have pleasure’  (AV) in those who do wicked and depraved things could include being entertained by watching people enact them. That would rule out all the ‘soaps’.  But let us assume that a godly minister will not allow himself to be entertained by watching evil perpetrated on the screen. Let us simply draw attention to the amount of time spent watching TV. A recent survey revealed that many ministers spend very little time reading. It is a question of priorities. There are many other smaller issues one could mention such as dress, demeanour, general attitude, behaviour of children, attitude of wife, use of money, etc, which in themselves might not debar a man from ministry, but when added to the more serious matters turn a congregation off, or even more seriously, lead a congregation into worldly ways.  By way of illustration, think about buying a second-hand car. If you are getting it for a good price then one small defect that can easily be remedied, such as one cracked wing mirror, or one worn tyre, might not put you off. But if there were many such ‘small’ defects you would almost certainly look elsewhere. It is just the same with ministers. One small defect such as a fondness for television, keenness on sport or a less than tidy appearance, might not deter some churches. But if the candidate watches a lot of TV, is very keen on, say, football, is untidy in appearance, his wife uncooperative, his children undisciplined, etc, a church would have to be either very undiscerning or desperate, or both, to call such a man.

8. Willingness to sacrifice.
It is deplorable how some churches treat their ministers. But entering the ministry is for most men a sacrifice in that they could earn more money and live more comfortably in secular employment. A man may have to go to a church that can afford only a small stipend at first, until God has blessed the work and the church has grown. Indeed he may have to take a part-time job as well as the pastorate to support himself, as the apostle Paul did.

9. Godliness.
Godliness is a general term for a way of life that is God obsessed. Some years ago the writer was at a conference and sitting next to the Principal of a well-know Bible College. In conversation it came out that we were seeking to train men for the ministry in the church I was pastoring at the time. I remarked that my aim was to produce men of God. To my astonishment the Principal remarked. “Oh, that’s impossible in Bible College. The students are so bolshy, wanting their rights, and so on.”  What are things coming to?

10. A stable home life.
In the qualifications for an overseer in I Timothy 3, two out of the seven verses refer to the candidates family life. A minister has to set an example in this and in other areas of life (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-3).

These are some of the issues the present writer considers essential for a call to the ministry.

Why I left the charismatic movement

November 13, 2009

It is over twenty years since I distanced myself from the charismatic movement. I have often thought of writing a book to explain ‘why’. There are many reasons. One of which is the number of charismatic leaders that have fallen morally. Yes, I know that Reformed and Evangelical leaders have fallen also.   But there is this difference: charismatics claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit.   Furthermore, they claim to manifest spiritual gifts such as prophecy which can reveal what is in a person’s heart (1 Cor. 14:24,25, cf. John 4:17-19; Luke 7:39, 22:63, 64).   Why, in the many cases of moral failure in charismatic circles, did no one manifest a ‘gift’ to reveal this?  I do not necessarily mean publicly, but even privately to the person concerned.   ‘Brother, the Lord has shown me that you are committing adultery’ or ‘that you are helping yourself to the funds’.   That would really bring about reality.  This is sometimes mistakenly called a ‘word of knowledge’.   But that is a teaching gift, a ‘word’, ‘message’ or ‘sermon’ characterised by knowledge.   I once heard a minister, purporting to manifest a ‘word of knowledge’  in a congregation of ten thousand, say, ‘Someone here has got a bad kidney’!  Really!  Other reasons for separating from charismania  include the multitude of  false, foolish or banal prophecies, the downplaying of Scripture, constantly seeking miracles or gifts, etc. etc.   God can do what he wants to do, which would include giving extraordinary power to certain people for specific tasks. He can also reveal things to people in unusual ways. But the claim that these things can or should be experienced by all Christians at all times is false to both Scripture, history and experience.  Preachers need both the Word and the Holy Spirit, but you do not need to be a ‘charismatic’ to preach the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Unlike some anti-charismatics, I want to acknowledge that there are many sincere, genuine Christians in the charismatic movement.  But I believe that in many of their beliefs and practices they are mistaken.  I am using the word ‘charismatic’ in its popular sense.  Strictly speaking, all true christians are ‘charismatic’ even if only because ‘the charisma of God is eternal life’ (Rom. 6:23).

Perhaps, to balance things up, I should also say that many churches and ministers who are ‘sound’ in doctrine, orthodox in theology and scriptural in preaching, also give the appearance of being lifeless, if not dead.  To be an effective minister we need, as John Calvin put it, both prayer and study, to which we may add Luther’s ingredient, suffering.  Earnest, fervent, believing prayer is often the missing ingredient in today’s churches, not pseudo-gifts, carnal excitement or pretended revelations.  See Power Through Prayer by E. M. Bounds.