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Why is the Church in the West so Weak?

April 17, 2018

 

In many parts of the world the church is flourishing and growing rapidly.  This is not the case in the west, especially in the UK.  In his helpful little book, Knowing the Times: How British culture impacts our mission,[1]John Stevens, National Director of the FIEC, writes: ‘The best statistics would suggest that little more than 3% of the population as a whole are born again believers who are meaningfully associated with a local church.’  He further writes: ‘The situation of the church as a whole in the UK is dire.’ While, from a biblical perspective, there is no reason for pessimism as God is sovereign and in the long-term the Kingdom of God will triumph, nevertheless, both the Bible and church history testify to the danger of complacency and the possibility of local churches, even over a wide area, being wiped out.  There is but a pitiful remnant of the once strong church in North Africa and what is now Turkey, for example.

 

The church in the UK has a long and impressive record of strong churches, powerful preaching, Christian publishing and successful missionary enterprise.  But today, in spite of this glorious heritage, the church in the UK is relatively weak today.  Why is that? I believe there are three main reasons, though no doubt others could be mentioned.

 

  1. Many Christians today have become so worldly.

There is little or no difference between the average Christian and most unbelievers in the UK. Divorce is as common among professing Christians as it is in the world.  Many professing Christians see no problem with abortion.  The lifestyle of many Christians is indistinguishable from the lifestyle of pagans.  There seems to be little discernment and discrimination.  Many non-Christians are as law-abiding, kind and generous as the average Christian, who seems to have nothing extra, no distinguishing quality. Christians watch the same films and TV programmes even when these portray sin and lewd behaviour.  They listen to the same pop music even though in many cases the lyrics are lewd and vulgar and the performers live ungodly lives.  Yet the Lord Jesus said that we are to be lights in the world, we are to be the salt of the earth, and, he warned, if the salt has lost its distinctiveness it has become useless.

 

Now, when we use such terms as ‘world’ and ‘worldly’ we need to define our terms as non-Christians and badly taught Christians may be confused.  Words often have a variety of meanings.  For example, if I type the word “row” the reader will not know what I mean.  That word needs to be set in a sentence, and often in a wider context to give it specific meaning, so that we know whether I am referring to a row of chairs, or someone trying to row a boat, or even the row that the children are making that has woken grandma up!  In the New Testament we read that God loves the world (John 3:16), but we also read that the same apostle wrote, “Do not love the world.” (I John 2:15, 16).  In John 3:16 John is telling us that God loves the world of men and women as lost sinners so much that he sent his Son to save them. But in his First Epistle the same writer is warning us about a different kind of world.  Let us see the whole immediate context.

‘Do not love the world or the things in the world.  For if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world’ – [here is the explanation – not trees and flowers or mountains and rivers, nor even men and women as lost sinners, but -] ‘the desires of the flesh[2]and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world.’ (I John 2:15, 16).

Yes, worldliness is pandemic in the modern church and lack of separation from evil is one of the weaknesses of many Christians today. One result is that many non-Christians might think, ‘You have nothing that I want, except a few theories about God.’

 

  1. A second cause of weakness is the insidious infiltration of liberal theology.

John Stevens refers to this in his booklet, but some who warn against it might unknowingly have imbibed this error.

The late Graham Harrison formerly of Newport once remarked that (naming an evangelical publishing house) “– now publishes books that a few years ago would have been classed as ‘liberal theology’.”  This gradual infiltration has affected the church more than many realize.  Careful observers of the religious scene will have noted how many, once evangelical, Bible colleges have lost their cutting edge, become liberal, and some have actually closed down.  How many evangelicals no longer accept Genesis 1-3 as divine revelation of facts?  This has enormous implications for the interpretation of many New Testament passages, and even for our Lord’s own teaching.  For example, this raises questions over the existence of Adam, original sin, the origin of marriage, etc.  Recently I read in a supposedly evangelical movement’s literature that God could not have breathed into Adam as God has no lungs!  So this means Ezekiel’s vision of the Spirit breathing into the reconstituted corpses (Ezekiel 37) was wrong, and also we should not sing such hymns as “Breathe on me, breath of God.”  Many evangelicals today could do with reading some of the older books that deal with liberalism, such as books by Gresham Machen.

 

  1. The third cause of weakness that I detect is harder to define, but I would express it as a lack of aspiration among Christians.

Many evangelicals, having been put off by the false interpretations, foolish antics and weird behaviour of extreme charismatics have stepped back into a lethargic and self-satisfied state.  They have come to the conclusion that there is nothing else beyond conversion so they seek nothing more.  Now in a sense they are correct.  We do have all we need in Christ – potentially.  But the New Testament is very clear that there is progress to be made. It speaks of spiritual babes, children, young men and fathers (I Peter 2:2, 3; I John 2:12-14). Judging by the standard of Christian living so often evident in many churches some Christians have no desire to make progress.  There is a lack of hunger, a lack of desire for holiness of life or for more effectiveness, no sense of a need for the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is in stark contrast to what is laid upon us in the New Testament.

 

The great apostle Paul writes of himself: “Not that I have already obtained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has laid hold of me.  Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:12-14).  To those who had already been baptized in the Holy Spirit he wrote: “Be not drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit (literally, ‘go on being filled with the Spirit.’ Eph. 5:18).

It is a great mistake to imagine that the standard evangelical and reformed position is that there is no progress beyond conversion.  This is what George Smeaton writes:

‘[N]o more mischievous and misleading theory could be propounded, nor any more dishonouring to the Holy Spirit, than the principle that because the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, the Church has no need, and no warrant, to pray any more for the effusion of the Spirit of God.  On the contrary, the more the church asks [for] the Spirit and waits for His communications, the more she receives.’[3]

 

The same applies to the desire for and prayer for revival.  There is today very commonly a lack of desire, of aspiration.  Several of the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation chapters two and three find their echo in the church of the UK today.

These, then, are in my view, three reasons why the church is weak in the UK: worldliness, liberal theology, and lack of prayer for and desire for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

 

[1]FIEC, 2017.

[2]Perhaps I should mention that according to Professor F. F. Bruce, the word ‘flesh’ has at least five meanings in the NT.  But I must not go down that trail now!

[3]Smeaton, George, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: London, the Banner of Truth Trust, 1958, p. 255.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts

March 16, 2018

 

Apparently there was a form of torture and execution that was used by the Chinese from about 900 AD to 1905 AD when it was banned. It was used only for the most serious of crimes. The guilty person was tied to a frame and a cut made each day until the person expired.

 

Most of us have cut ourselves at some time or another, and cuts vary enormously in their seriousness. Occasionally I have discovered that I have suffered a small cut without realizing it, and only discovered it when I have felt a sore spot or seen a small smear of blood. Much more serious is when we have an accident and suffer a severe cut or slash.

 

This term has been used metaphorically many times since, and I want to apply it to the way Evangelicalism is gradually losing its distinctives and its power through ‘a thousand cuts.’

 

It is not that important doctrines are jettisoned suddenly, or even traditional standards are abruptly abandoned. What happens is that very often beliefs and practices are quietly considered to be ‘secondary issues’ and so gradually abandoned. Obviously there are some things that are not very important and can be abandoned or ignored. But sometimes matters that are fundamental are considered to be of secondary importance which results in them being gradually abandoned. The difficulty is that many Christians are not able to distinguish between essentials, or serious matters, and non-essentials. One long-term result of this is that each new generation tends to accept the status quo as the normal standard.

 

Another example is when things die out from neglect, and a new generation does not realize that such things once were the norm, but now are not practised at all. Sometimes practices are abandoned without realizing that though the thing in question may not seem to be very important, it has a knock-on effect and produces unexpected results.

 

Among more important ‘cuts’ I have observed recently – and in print, too – are these subjects listed as of ‘secondary’ importance: Baptism, the historicity of Genesis 1-3, Hell, separation from worldliness, the concept of a ‘state church’ versus independency, abortion, homosexuality and gender issues. Are these really secondary issues?

 

There are a number of apparently less important matters over which there is disagreement. At first glance they may seem to be trivial, but so often they lead on to more serious effects. Here are three examples; please read the implications carefully:

 

  1. Dressing down. Please do not skip this! I know all the arguments: culture, the type of meeting; what the world is wearing; the country lived in, etc. But consider the following:
  2. Many men who dress down for the public worship of God are rather inconsistent, in that they dress smartly for a wedding, a funeral, or special civic occasion, such as attending Buckingham Palace. Which is the more important?
  3. I observe that very often sports commentators on television are very smartly dressed. They consider it right to dress ‘up’ for the worship of their ‘god’.
  4. The more important the profession and the occasion, the more smartly people tend to dress. For example, a minister is supposed to be an ‘ambassador for Christ.’ How do the UK (or other country) ambassadors dress when they are on duty?

 

I believe that if we consider the worship of almighty God to be relatively unimportant and dress down, it tends to affect our attitude. Consequently I have observed that where churches have adopted a ‘dress down’ policy, the worship leader tends to behave more casually in the pulpit, putting his hands in his pockets (which used to be considered bad manners when addressing older people or higher ranks) and awe and reverence are frequently missing.

 

  1. Making people feel welcome. I am all for that. But that is not the same thing as making them mentally comfortable. When the Word of God is preached sinners should feel distinctly uncomfortable. The Holy Spirit’s work is to make people uncomfortable (John 16:8, 9)! There is no regeneration where there is no repentance, and there will be no repentance where there is no conviction of sin. And if we take this making them comfortable too far we may be working against the Holy Spirit. We must, of course, welcome people. But this is sometimes taken so far that the real purpose of a worship service is forgotten, and everything is tailored to suit unbelievers! Worship services are meant to be for the church. Evangelism is meant to be carried out by the members outside the church, and the church services are for the edification of Christians, the exaltation of the Lord Jesus, and the worship of the Holy Trinity. A notorious example of this error is Willow Creek Church founded by Bill Hybels. Hybels set out to model the church on what the local populace wanted. A penetrating PhD study by G. A. Pritchard[1] revealed that this procedure has had unexpected consequences. In a nutshell, the Sunday services are more or less an entertainment with little congregational participation. The believers are ministered to at a mid-week service. The New Testament does not normally expect unbelievers to come to the services. I Corinthians 14:23-25 mentions the possibility that an unbeliever might come in. But if he does, he is judged, convicted and falls down in fear, convicted of his sin and aware of the presence of God.

 

  1. Hymns. Good, sound biblical hymns are being side-lined and so generations are growing up in ignorance of them. Let me begin by saying that a hymn is not good just because it is old, nor is it bad because it is new. There were rubbishy hymns in the past, but most have faded away. Generally speaking, it is the good, sound hymns that tend to last. There are some good hymns being written today, but there is also a lot of rubbish around, with poor poetry, monotonous tunes, and negligible theology. The tragedy is that many of the excellent hymns of the past are not being sung and learned by the new generations. Recently I was in a service in which the speaker had chosen the hymn ‘Crown Him with many crowns’ to be sung before his sermon. The young man who was leading worship said, “I have never heard of this hymn before, I don’t know it!”

Well, you can’t know them all, but if good sound hymns were regularly sung all the young people would get to know them. This is very important because, according to Colossians 3:16 hymns are meant to be didactic. People tend to learn much of their theology by a process of osmosis through good sound hymns. The trouble is some people hear a song on a CD by a modern Christian vocalist; they like it and think, “Oh, that would be good to have in church.” But that is not necessarily the case at all. Songs that are meant for private listening are not necessarily suitable for congregational worship.

 

What are the signs of a good hymn? I believe there are three necessities.

  1. The words must be sound and biblically based, allowing, of course, for poetic licence, such as the trees of the field clapping their hands, and so forth.
  2. They should be written in attractive and effective poetry, not doggerel.
  3. The tunes should be singable, memorable and worthy of the truth contained in the hymn.

 

There are many other matters one could mention, but the general area of concern should be clear. We must not allow the gospel and true church practice die the death of a thousand cuts.

I would recommend the small book, What is an Evangelical, by Dr. D. M. Lloyd-Jones for a thorough examination of what evangelicalism really is. This is also included as a chapter in Lloyd-Jones’ larger book, Knowing the Times, [Banner of Truth].

[1] Willow Creek Seeker Services by G. A. Pritchard. Pritchard is not antagonistic to Willow Creek, but he is a realist.

Acknowledging Indebtedness

February 27, 2018

For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you glory as if you had not received it? [I Cor. 4:7, NKJV].

It is so easy to forget those who have taught us and shaped our lives. When I think about it I am so grateful to God for those who have influenced me for good and taught me the things of God.  Do you give credit where credit is due?

First of all, my parents taught me to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. They took me to church and Sunday School. When I was quite a small boy in Sheffield my great grandmother, Grandma Walker, used to take me on her knee, pray with me and sing children’s hymns to me, hymns such as ‘When mothers of Salem,’ and ‘A little ship was on the sea.’ Then I remember the various Sunday School teachers and Superintendents, including my father. He taught us that we ought to belong to the ‘RFA brigade’, that is, be ready for anything. He also taught us the chorus, “Teach me how to love Thee, teach me how to pray; teach me how to serve Thee, better day by day; teach me how to serve Thee, better day by day.’

The various ministers, lay preachers, evangelists, conference speakers all played their part, in emphasising the importance of the inspired Word of God. I remember the conventions and conferences held in the very large garden of Mrs Alexander Dixon’s in Moor Green Lane, Birmingham. Mrs. Alexander Dixon (nee Helen Cadbury) was founder of the Pocket Testament League.

Frederick P. Wood, co-founder and leader of the National Young Life Campaign, had an influence upon me, especially his teaching on worldliness, in his two books, Questionable Amusements and The Question of Worldliness.

Then there were those who were so helpful when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Sandy and Ella Sanderson of the CLC bookshop in Birmingham were a great encouragement. So were Ieuan Jones, Jim Parnell, Henry Brash Bonsall, and the leaders of the Young Warriors (WEC) who lived in Edgbaston at the time. It was they who introduced me to my first all nights of prayer.

Lorne Sanny of the Navigators, teaching at the Follow-up Instruction classes at the first Billy Graham Crusade at Harringay, London was used to confirm my call to full-time ministry. Andrew MacBeath, Principal of the old BTI, and Geoffrey Grogan, resident tutor, added their influence, and so did Don Summers, evangelist, who used me in his Bristol Crusades, through which I became known to Bristol churches and received my first call to the pastorate. And so it goes on.

Thank you, Lord, for all those you have used to chisel and shape me. Thank you especially for your precious Word and the blessed Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

Walking with God

February 15, 2018

We read twice in Genesis that Enoch walked with God (Gen. 5:22, 24), as also did Noah (Gen. 6:9).

The concept of walking with Almighty God is awe-inspiring.  Here are seven things about it that come to mind.

  1. Walking with God implies companionship.  When a young man and a young lady began to get acquainted it used to be referred to as “walking out.”  That God should deign to be our Friend and acquaintance is staggering.
  2. Walking with God implies conversation.  You do not usually walk out with someone in total silence.  But conversation is by definition a two-way communication.  This means we must learn to listen to God  as well as talk to him in prayer.  It also greatly influences the topics of our conversation.                                                        “Talk with us, Lord, Thyself reveal, While here on earth we rove; Speak to our hearts, and let us feel The kindling of Thy Love.  With Thee conversing, we forget All time and toil and care; Labour is rest, and pain is sweet, If Thou, my God, art here.” [Charles Wesley].
  3. Walking is exercise, and exercise is essential to health.  So walking with God is spiritual exercise and is essential to our spiritual health.
  4. Walking implies a goal or destination, either a location some other aim such as pleasure or deeper acquaintance.  If we want to know God we must walk with Him.
  5. Walking implies progress.  It is no good marching on the spot.  When we walk with God we shall inevitably get somewhere.  We shall make progress.
  6. Walking with God is hugely different from walking with anyone else.  It makes a difference whom you walk with.  When I walk with my wife I can talk about things and say things I would say to no other.  When I was at college I developed a friendship with another brother largely because we had a similar sense of humour, as well as both loving the Lord.  This was a life-long friendship, shared by our wives as well.  He went to be with the Lord s few years ago, and I know no one with whom I could talk in quite the same way.  To walk with the Almighty, Holy, glorious God who is our Saviour and Lord is one of the greatest possible privileges we could ever have in this world.
  7. Walking with God implies guidance.  We must go His way or we walk alone.  ‘Where He leads me I will follow.’  Having been saved from the punishment of sin (EPH. 2:8, 9), we are being saved (I Cor. 1:18) from the power of sin by walking with Him.  And one day we shall be saved (Rom. 5:9) from the very presence of sin when we walk with Him into our heavenly home.

Forgive us our denominations

January 10, 2018

 

I confess that I am amused at the length to which some go in order to argue that their particular grouping or ‘stream’ is not a denomination. In order to do so they invent a definition of ‘denomination’ which does not apply to their association! Of course if a church is actually and in reality independent (though perhaps not isolated; the two states are not identical), then it is not in a denomination. But to ‘denominate’ simply means ‘to give a name to,’ and the word ‘denomination’ means ‘the act of naming; a name or title; a class or group.’ [Chambers Dictionary]. In other words, if a group of churches is known by a distinctive name, in order to distinguish them from other churches, they are a denomination, whether they like it or not.

 

In order to clarify whether a particular association, group of churches or ‘stream’ is a denomination I simply ask these questions: Does the group of churches have a distinctive name? Is there a definite membership? In other words, is it clear which churches belong and which do not? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, that is a denomination. Other questions, such as the following, may make that designation even clearer. Is there a common acknowledged doctrinal standard or confession? Are there recognized leaders of that group? If an individual church departs from the doctrinal standards or recognized practices of the group, can they be removed from fellowship or side-lined in some way? There are, of course, different levels of commitment in the various denominations. Some groups, associations or ‘streams’ are more loosely affiliated, while others are more closely related.

 

In the early stages, denominations often form around one particular leader. John Wesley and William Booth are typical examples from the past, though modern examples could be supplied. This leadership may be authoritarian, or quite benign. In either case the grouping is often identified by association with the man. Sometimes, when the leader passes from the scene, the group dissolves. In other cases the organization has a structure and is carried forward by its own momentum. Again, modern examples could be mentioned.

 

With regard to joining a church, or coming into membership of a church, there is no perfect church. Even churches with a sound doctrinal basis are composed of sinners saved by grace but still far from perfect. However, most sincere and biblically taught Christians will want to belong to a church which, in their judgment, most closely adheres to biblical teaching and practice. The state of things in the UK is such that it may be hard to find a biblical church in one’s area. But if we are honest in our endeavour to obey all that the Holy Spirit enjoins in the New Testament, then we must not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some (Heb. 10:25).

 

Years ago I came to see that every local church is like a tree in God’s forest. Every tree in a forest is different, and every church is different. Men sometimes plant trees of one kind, say pine trees, in rows to form a plantation. That is like a denomination. But even in a plantation, every tree is unique.

 

More recently I have come to use the illustration of every church being like a family. When you visit a family you do not normally criticize their décor, their choice of music, or their diet, etc. But if we are invited to join that family then we look carefully at these things before committing ourselves. We need to know that the diet is healthy and whether we can accept, or just tolerate, other things which may not be to our liking.

 

Denominations are a matter of convenience and are almost inevitable, at least, associations are. Any attempt to bring all denominations together must of necessity result in compromise of doctrine or practice or both. One day all our denominations and associations will be dissolved and all the elect will be gathered for the marriage supper of the Lamb. Our doctrinal errors will be corrected, our mistaken practices forgotten, and we shall all worship the glorious One who redeemed us and be together with Father, Son and Holy Spirit for evermore.

Why has the church in the West declined?

December 20, 2017

The church is prospering in many parts of the world, but in the West in general, and in the UK in particular, the church seems to be in decline. In fact there has been a steady decline over the last one hundred years. Apart from a few bright spots, and a certain amount of ‘whistling in the dark’, the prospects for the visible church in Britain seem, humanly speaking, rather bleak.

Why has this happened? There may be a variety of reasons, but three stand out to me.

  1. The church has become too worldly, and individual Christians seem almost indistinguishable from their non-Christian neighbours. They follow the same fashions, often even when such fashions border on immodesty, they listen to the same music, even when the lyrics are, to say the least, risqué; they enjoy the same entertainments, even though the New Testament warns against enjoying the portrayal of sin (Romans 1:32); they read the same books, even though some books describe evil deeds in detail; they unthinkingly follow the current fashion for disfiguring their bodies with piercings and tattoos, and they are often vague or unsure of their beliefs. That they go to church perhaps once a week seems to be the only outward evidence of their Christian belief. Non-Christians often match or exceed some Christians in their friendliness, kindness and compassion. Sometimes workmates and neighbours do not realize that those close to them are even professing Christians.

Yet the Bible is very clear that Christians should stand out in society. They are to be in the world but not of it. (e.g. Matt. 5:13-16; Ephesians 5; Philippians 2:14, 15; II Corinthians 6:14-18; I John 2:15-17).

Apart from some, often vague, beliefs about God and a future life, there is sometimes little to distinguish Christians from unbelievers.

  1. A second reason for the decline of the church is academic compromise in order to be thought ‘scholarly’. This includes not only accepting critical and rationalistic views of Scripture, but also surrender to the atheistic beliefs of evolutionary so-called science. Macro-evolution has enormous implications for our Lord’s teaching and indeed the teaching of the whole New Testament. This compromise has been going on for over one hundred years, steadily increasing year by year.
  2. A third reason is failure to obey the command to ‘go on being filled with the Spirit’. (Eph. 5:18). The denial of any work of grace beyond conversion is understandable for at least two reasons. First, the dislike of any idea of two classes of Christians. Second, the heretical views and ungodly behaviour of some who claim to have been ‘baptized in the Spirit’. But to react against the biblical teaching of progress in the Christian life is to leave the church powerless. While we must acknowledge that every Christian born of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3, 5) has the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9; I Cor. 6:19), nevertheless we must not ignore the command of Ephesians 5:18, nor the promise of Christ in Luke 11:13. It is quite undeniable that the early Christians, though filled with the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, were filled again, and again (Acts 2:4; 4:31; cf.6:3; 7:55,etc).

This point is well expressed by George Smeaton: “[N]o more mischievous and misleading theory could be propounded, nor any one more dishonouring to the Holy Spirit, than the principle that because the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, the Church has no need, and no warrant, to pray any more for the effusion of the Spirit of God. On the contrary, the more the church asks (for) the Spirit and waits for his communications, the more she receives.” [The Holy Spirit, Banner of Truth, p. 255].

I believe that these three failures, worldliness, compromise with unbelief, and lack of Holy Spirit power, are some of the main reasons foe the weakness of the church in the West.

What many Christians do not know about alcohol

September 8, 2017

Probably not one in a thousand Christians knows what the Bible actually says about fermented grape juice, or ‘wine’. One reason is because in the Old Testament there are two main Hebrew words translated ‘wine.’ One means either fermented or unfermented grape juice, the other only means unfermented juice. This will be explained in detail below.

Another point that most Christians never seem to notice is that the actual word ‘wine’ is never used in any of the narratives about the Lord’s Supper! Of course we know that ‘wine’ was used, but what sort of wine was it? And could we guess why the Holy Spirit who inspired the words of Scripture, never used the Greek word oinos, translated ‘wine,’ in the Lord’s Table narratives? This point is also discussed below.

Should a Christian drink alcohol? For Christians living in Muslim countries the answer is clear. Alcohol is forbidden in those lands. A superficial reading of the Bible may seem not to give a clear answer. But deeper study throws more light upon the subject, and there are principles taught in the Bible which are meant to influence our behaviour.

However, before we examine the Scriptures let us take into account the modern situation, for it is very different from Bible times in several respects.

In the first place, as far as beverages containing alcohol are concerned, in Bible times there was basically just fermented wine and a form of beer, though there was also unfermented wine. Today there are many alcoholic beverages including very strong spirits and for many young people a tempting step down to the abuse of other substances, in other words, drugs. The possibilities of becoming seriously inebriated are very much greater.

Second, modern civilization has produced many potentially dangerous situations, such as driving motor vehicles and planes, etc. In Bible times if a man got drunk and mounted his donkey he would be unlikely to cause a serious accident, but a driver of any motorized vehicle today who is under the influence of alcohol can become guilty of manslaughter within seconds of starting to drive. This is also why airline pilots are forbidden to drink while on duty, and are we not glad to know that? The modern situation is therefore much more complicated.

Third, modern science has discovered much more about alcohol and the human body than could have been known in Bible times. In a programme shown on BBC television doctors stated that alcohol can cause many diseases. It is now classified as a drug, and affects the brain and bodily functions in a variety of ways.

Again, before we look at the Bible evidence, let us remember that in Bible times, apart from water, milk and freshly squeezed fruit juice, wine was about the only common beverage available. Water would not always be safe, hence Paul’s advice to Timothy, who was having stomach trouble, in 1 Timothy 5:23. But what kind of wine was Paul recommending? Many people just do not give consideration to this matter. So we have the careless and inaccurate statement that ‘red wine is good for the heart.’ But it is not the alcohol that is of benefit, but an element in the redness of the grapes. So red grape juice has exactly the same benefit. Some people might remark that the juice of grapes begins quite quickly to ferment. So it does.

When I was at Bible college some of us students, in order to supplement the rather limited diet, made a fruit salad, put plenty of sugar on it and left it in a spare bedroom overnight for consumption the next day. When we went in the next day a distinctive aroma alerted us to the fact that it had begun to ferment!

Therefore it is very important to remember that throughout history, and (for our purpose in this article) in Bible times, several ways of preventing grape juice from fermenting were known (see Columella, On Agriculture, 12.29; cf. Cato, On Agriculture; and Pliny, Natural History, 14.11.83). The simplest and most common was simply to boil it. This killed the yeast. If the resulting thickened liquid was then stored in a new wineskin, i.e. one not tainted with yeast cells, it would remain unfermented for a long time. To use it people would squeeze a portion into a cup and dilute it with water.

Now when we turn to the Bible we must consider the various words used.

  1. Old Testament.

There are mainly two Hebrew words translated ‘wine’ in the Old Testament, and another translated ‘strong drink’ or ‘beer’. There are two or three other words used once or twice with various meanings that do not affect our discussion.

(1) The most common word is yayin. This is a generic term used about 140 times to indicate both fermented and unfermented wine. It is used of fermented wine in such passages as Genesis 9:20-21; 19:32-33; 1 Samuel 25:36-37; Prov. 23:30-31. On the other hand the same word is used for the sweet unfermented juice of the grape. It is even used of the juice as it is pressed from the grape, as for example in Isaiah 16:10 and Jeremiah 48:33. In fact Jeremiah even refers to juice still in the grape as yayin. The Jewish Encyclopedia (1901) states: “Fresh wine before fermentation was called yayin-mi-gat [wine of the vat] (Sanh. 70a).” The Encyclopedia Judaica (1971) states that the term yayin was used to refer to the juice of the grape in various stages including “the newly pressed wine prior to fermentation.”

(2) The other Hebrew word translated “wine” is tirosh, a word meaning “new wine” or “harvest wine”. Tirosh occurs 38 times in the OT. It never refers to fermented wine, but always to the unfermented juice of the grape, such as the juice that is still in the grape cluster (Isaiah 65:8) or sweet juice from newly harvested grapes (Deut. 11:14; Prov. 3:10; Joel 2:24). Brown, Driver, Briggs (A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament) states that tirosh means “must, fresh or new wine”. The Jewish Encyclopedia (1901) states that “‘tirosh’ includes all kinds of sweet juices and must, and does not include fermented wine.”

(3) In addition to these two words for wine there is another Hebrew word that occurs 23 times in the Old Testament. This is the word shekar, usually translated as “beer” (e.g. 1Samuel 1:15) or “fermented drink” (Numbers 6:3). This word seems to refer most often to a fermented beverage perhaps made from palm juice, pomegranates, apples or dates.

  1. New Testament

The main Greek word for wine is oinos. This can refer both to fermented and to unfermented grape juice. The use of this word to refer to unfermented grape juice is testified to in various pre-Christian and early Christian writers. But this fact can be seen within the Bible itself, because in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) oinos is used to translate both yayin (a generic term referring to both fermented and unfermented grape juice) and tirosh (unfermented juice). The context normally indicates which is intended. But this is not always the case. So, for example, the oft quoted “use a little wine for your stomach’s sake” (1 Timothy 5:23) may refer to either.

What about the Lord’s Supper? One fact that surprises many people who assume that fermented wine was used in the institution of the Lord’s Supper is that nowhere in the New Testament is the term “wine” used in connection with the Lord’s Table! Nowhere! Consistently, when the contents of the cup are referred to, the phrase “fruit of the vine” is used. Otherwise, the word “cup” is employed. That could leave the matter undetermined.  Could we surmise why the Holy Spirit did not use the word ‘wine’?  May it be because people would automatically assume that it was fermented?  The words used are ‘fruit of the vine’ and the Lord says he will drink it ‘new’ in the kingdom. However, there are other considerations.

It has been suggested that since in I Corinthians 11:21 some of the Corinthians got drunk, they must have become inebriated on communion wine! But that is a gratuitous assumption. For verse 20 plainly says that “when you come together in one place it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating each one takes his own supper…” {emphasis added]. Did their supper consist of unleavened bread? Were their stomach’s filled with communion bread? I think not. Neither should we assume that what they drank was communion wine. It was their “own supper.” There is no proof that the wine they drank was communion wine, nor that the food they ate was unleavened bread. In any case, since when have the Corinthians been our example and pattern of behaviour? Our Lord’s example in the context of the Passover meal is the benchmark for our observance of the Lord’s Supper.

The Full Life Study Bible contains these notes:

“(2) The Lord’s Supper was instituted when Jesus and his disciples were eating the Passover. The Passover law in Ex 12:14-20 prohibited, during Passover week, the presence and use of seor (Ex 12:15), a word referring to yeast or any agent of fermentation. Seor in the ancient world was often obtained from the thick scum on top of fermenting wine. Furthermore, all hametz (i.e., anything that contained any type of fermentation) was forbidden (Ex 12:19; 13:7). God had given these laws because fermentation symbolized corruption and sin (cf. Mt 16:6,12; l Co 5:7-8). Jesus, the Son of God, fulfilled the law in every requirement (Mt 5:17). Thus, he would have followed God’s law for the Passover and not used fermented wine.

(4) Some Jewish sources affirm that the use of unfermented wine at the Passover was common in NT times. For example, “According to the Synoptic Gospels, it would appear that on the Thursday evening of the last week of his life Jesus with his disciples entered Jerusalem in order to eat the Passover meal with them in the sacred city; if so, the wafer and the wine of … the communion service then instituted by him as a memorial would be the unleavened bread and the unfermented wine of the Seder service” (see “Jesus,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1904 edition, V.165).

(5) In the OT, fermented drink was never to be used in the house of God, nor were the priests allowed to draw near to God in worship while drinking intoxicating beverages (Lev 10:9-11). Jesus Christ was God’s high priest of the new covenant, drawing near to God for the sake of his people (Heb 3:1; 5:1-10).

(6) The value of a symbol is determined by its capacity to conceptualize the spiritual reality. Therefore, just as the bread represented Christ’s pure body and had to be unleavened (i.e., uncorrupted with fermentation), the fruit of the vine, representing the incorruptible blood of Christ, would have been best represented by juice that was unfermented (cf. 1Pe 1:18-19). Since Scripture states explicitly that the process of corruption was not allowed to work in either the body or blood of Christ (Ps 16:10; Ac 2:27; 13:37), both Christ’s body and blood are properly symbolized by that which is uncorrupted and unfermented.

(7) Paul instructed the Corinthians to put away spiritual yeast, i.e., the fermenting agent of “malice and wickedness,” because Christ is our Passover (l Cor. 5:6-8). It would be inconsistent with the goal and spiritual requirement of the Lord’s Supper to use something that was a symbol of evil, i.e., something with yeast.

(8) In Proverbs 23:29-35 God prohibited gazing at wine that has been fermented and makes one drunk. Christ would not sanction conduct that God had previously condemned. He came “to fulfill” the law (Mt 5:17).”

[Cited from The Full Life Study Bible, published by Life publishers International, Springfield, MO, copyright 1992]

Having established that in the Bible the term “wine” refers to both fermented and unfermented juice, and that only the context can (normally) tell the reader which is meant, we can now examine some of those passages which clearly refer to fermented drink.

In Genesis 6:9 Noah was noted as a righteous and blameless man, yet by chapter 9:21 he was drunk, incapable, and manifesting uninhibited behaviour.

Genesis 19:30-38 tells of the shameful incident in which Lot’s daughters got him drunk and then committed incest with him.

In Genesis 27:25 Jacob was able to deceive Isaac into blessing him instead of Esau, and it seems that wine was involved to help in the deceit.

In Leviticus 10:9 priests were forbidden to drink when on duty and this was a perpetual statute for all generations.

The Nazirites were to abstain from wine and strong drink (Numbers 6).

In Deuteronomy 21:20 rebellion is expressed in gluttony and drunkenness.

In preparation for the birth of her extraordinary son, Samson’s mother was commanded not to drink wine (Judges 13:4, 7, 14).

The first chapter of Esther tells how the king wanted to show off his queen to the assembled nobles. He called for her to come and exhibit herself, but she refused, so he dismissed her. He had been drinking for seven days (Esther 1:10).

The book of Proverbs, a book of wisdom, has many warnings about drinking. In 4:17 it is related to violence (don’t we know about that in our modern age!); in 20:1 it mocks and brawls and those who get intoxicated lack wisdom. Chapter 23:21 warns that drinking leads to poverty. Verses 29 to 35 of the same chapter are an extended warning about the sorrow, contentions, complaining, wounds, red eyes, unsteadiness caused by drinking fermented wine, adding that it harms all who drink and is addictive. Proverbs 31:4, 5 give a warning: “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” It may, however, be used as an anodyne for thse dying or suffering (verses 6, 7).

The Prophets issue many warnings about strong drink. Isaiah utters woes against those who pursue it (5:11), and against those who boast in their ability to drink (5:22). The prophet warns those who, instead of repenting, are careless and dissolute, that judgment will be inevitable (22:12-14), and exclaims that “strong drink is bitter to those who drink it” (24:9). It produces reeling, staggering, confusion, false spirituality and vomit! (28:7). Spiritual blindness, sleepiness, and lack of understanding come on those who drink (56:10-12). Daniel and his companions refused the king’s wine and drank water instead, and were blessed in their stand (Daniel 1:8-17). Hosea warns that wine takes away the understanding (4:11), and produces sickness (7:5). Joel links wine with injustice and immorality (Joel 3:3), while Amos links it with the oppression of the poor and needy (Amos 4:1) and lack of concern for God’s people (6:6). Habakkuk declared that wine produces proud and haughty behaviour (Hab. 2:5). There is no doubt at all that the consistent testimony of the Old Testament is that fermented wine is bad news.

In the New Testament, there are various warnings. In Romans 13:13 drunkenness is linked with sexual immorality. The whole of Romans 14 is very pertinent to this matter, but two verses may encapsulate what our attitude should be. Romans 14:13 reads:

“Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.”

Romans 14:21 continues the exhortation:

“It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby your brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak.”

Our example is important. Putting this matter in the form of a question, we may ask, “Does drinking alcohol cause some to stumble or be made weak?” It certainly does. Also in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul warns against using our freedom in a way that causes others to stumble.

1 Cor. 8:9 warns:

“But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak.”

1 Cor. 8:11‑12 goes on to explain:

“And through your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? [12] But when you sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.”

If I just took a tiny drink of wine at a wedding or at Christmas, young people, or others, observing would not say, “the pastor only drinks a tiny amount occasionally,” but would simply conclude, “the pastor drinks”. Thus I could become the ruin of someone else. For this reason alone I have been a life-long teetotaler.

But there are other considerations. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 6:19,20). We should do our utmost to keep them pure, and that surely includes doing nothing that would ruin their health. Alcohol is notorious for the many health problems it causes. So the best plan, because of the many warnings of Scripture, because of the importance of our example, because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, is to avoid it altogether. As stated above, perhaps not one Christian in a thousand knows these facts.

When I was a pastor in Bristol in the 1960s I came across a nursing sister who worked in Southmead hospital. At a hospital function a Hindu brain surgeon observed that she did not partake of the alcoholic drinks but only soft drinks. He asked her why? She gave her testimony and added that as her body was a temple of the Holy Spirit she did not want to defile it. Knowing the devastating effect alcohol has on the brain this doctor was intrigued, went to her church, was converted and, to cut a long story short, went back to India as a missionary and founded a hospital and a Christian medical work. The power of example!

Taken as a whole, the overwhelming evidence of the Bible is against drinking fermented wine, or indeed, any alcoholic beverages. The tragedy is that alcohol is addictive, and some people are so gripped by it that it destroys them. Some Christians defend their drinking of alcohol, not on any sure biblical grounds, but because they like it. In other words, they are mildly addicted to it.

When I was in my first pastorate, the elderly church secretary, had worked at the Fry’s chocolate factory, but had retired some time before. He told me that he had a discussion with a colleague at work who drank. The latter claimed that my friend was as addicted to tea as he was to alcohol. So my friend challenged him to abstain for a week and he would also from tea. But the alcohol drinker could not last the week out and had to admit that his addiction to alcohol was much stronger than my friends fondness for tea.

Let us aim for the highest level of commitment.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1, 2, ESV).

The Tragedy of the Downward Drift

January 2, 2017
A week or so ago a shocking statistic was mentioned in a TV programme. In 1950 70% of the UK population attended church on Christmas Day; in 2013, only 4% went to church on Christmas Day. Oh, I know, all sorts of excuses and mitigating factors might be advanced, such as, many of those attending in 1950 only went to church on Christmas Day. But that is probably true of the 4% in 2013 as well.

 

Whatever we may say or think, there has undoubtedly been a astonishing downward drift ever since the Second World War, and even earlier. This is evident not only in church attendance figures, which are simply one significant indicator, but also in morality, attitude to sexuality, Christian practice and also doctrine. Think of the millions of babies slaughtered in the womb, the negative changes in certain laws, the promotion of homosexuality and now even transgenderism. Consider also the emphasis upon toleration, which produces an attitude of toleration of every aberration but is militantly intolerant of biblical and Christians views and standards.

 

Sadly, there has also been a downward slide in the Christian church as a whole and in individual Christian beliefs and behaviour also. False doctrines are ignored and erroneous religious practices meekly tolerated, heresies and practices, which, for opposition to, our forefathers suffered fines, imprisonment and even death. What our ancestors died to oppose, many Christians meekly accept or ignore today. Even some churches that profess to be ‘Reformed’ are filled with heresies and ungodly behaviour. Worldliness is endemic among many churches and holiness is rarely mentioned and even more rarely taught.

 

We all know that there are sparks of fire and gleams of light here and there in this now pagan land of ours. But unless we bury our heads in the proverbial sand the wider outlook is very bleak. It is only too easy, if we find a ‘good’ church, to settle in comfortably and more or less ignore what goes on elsewhere. But even if we are aware and concerned about the situation in the land, it is not enough to “tut, tut”, shake our heads, point the finger at others and bury our heads in a ‘sound’ book, and listen to ‘good’ preaching. Much, much more is needed of true, faithful, obedient, sensitive Christians. Obviously what is needed is a mighty outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, in other words a revival. But what can we do? We can repent for a start.

 

One of the biggest mistakes that Christians can make is to imagine that repentance is something only unbelievers need to do. In the Book of Revelation, chapters two and three, seven letters are written by the glorified Christ to seven real churches existing at the time the apostle John recorded his visions. Five of those churches are urged, no commanded, to repent. Repentance is not just to be sorry or feel remorse, though sorrow is undoubtedly included (See 2 Cor. 7:8-11). Repentance means a turn around. It means stopping what we have been doing wrong and starting to do what is right. It means also being very sorry that we have failed to do the right things and to start doing them zealously. It means abandoning false doctrines and unbiblical practices and beginning to obey the Scriptures fully, and not only the bits that are convenient. So many Christians practise a ‘pick and mix’ procedure with the New Testament. We must study the Word of God as revealed in the New Covenant and put it into practice.

 

The other thing desperately needed is earnest, zealous, faithful, prolonged prayer. This is not just saying prayers. It is not repeating a liturgy. It is crying to God in sincerity and truth and earnestness and compassion and love for God and for the honour of Christ.

 

Is it not amazing that some of the most uplifting and inspiring parts of Scripture were written by a Christian suffering imprisonment for his faith (the Prison Epistles of Paul). It is perhaps no accident that some of the most inspiring non-biblical writings were also written by a Christian suffering imprisonment for his faith (John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, etc). Yet so often today we want to stay comfortable, and in order to do so, tolerate unbiblical practices and doctrines. We ignore them or label them ‘peripheral,’ ‘unimportant,’ or ‘non-essential.’ No wonder the world does not take many of us seriously.

 

Two books to stir and challenge: Battle for the Church, by David Gay (Amazon), and Revival Sent from God, by Raymond C. Ortland (IVP).

Which worldview is your child absorbing?

December 1, 2016

There are, no doubt, many world views, but I am concerned with only two at present: the Christian, biblical worldview, on the one hand, and the naturalistic, atheistic, humanist worldview on the other.  These two are mutually exclusive.

When I was a child over seventy years ago, a Christian act of worship began every school day. Homosexuality was illegal, as was abortion.  Evolution was mentioned as a theory, and then only in the science class of the upper forms.  Religious instruction was almost always basically Christian.  I never heard a teacher swear or blaspheme.

While outward morality may have been shallow, it was based upon a Christian foundation. That Christian heritage has now almost gone in the UK.  Education and the media are now almost entirely secular and anti-Christian.  Naturalism (evolution) pervades practically every subject.  Humanism, evolution, and sexual confusion are dominant forces in schools and colleges today.

We need strong, well-taught Christians in every walk of life, including, and especially, in education.  We need Christian teachers. That is a very different thing from assuming that sending unconverted, untaught, untrained children from Christian homes into these secularized State schools in the vague hope that ‘they will be a witness,’ is effective evangelism.  In fact the opposite is so often the case.  Under the onslaught of humanistic brain-washing, many children from Christian homes become confused, and some reject their parents’ faith.  This is, of course, what the humanists want.  As Dr. Voddie Baucham writes in his book, Family Driven Faith, ‘We cannot continue to send our children to Caesar for their education and be surprised when they come home as Romans.’  This is why more and more thinking Christians are beginning to educate their children at home, or in a truly Christian school.

Gathering a crowd or building a church

September 13, 2016

In the last few decades there have been a number of fine preachers who have gathered significant congregations and, having gained a reputation as preachers, they have received many invitations to preach and even have become regular speakers at conferences and conventions.

Unfortunately, some of these men, though they have gained a reputation as conference speakers, have failed to build a strong church.  After they have moved on, unless an equally competent preacher has succeeded them, the church they pastored for some years has gradually dwindled and become small and weak.

What has gone wrong?  The answer is that they have gathered a crowd but failed to build a church.  Now while it is true that ultimately only Christ can build his church (Matt. 16:18), nevertheless he does use men as co-workers with himself (see I Cor. 3:10-15 for example). We do not need extra-biblical gimmicks in order to build a church; all the principles required are found in the Word of God.

Before we look at these principles let us attempt to diagnose the disease.  Basically there are generally two or three problems that have led to the decline.  First, the sound teaching which they enjoyed and appreciated was the preacher’s but it never actually became the possession many of the hearers.  It was never their deep conviction.  Some may not even have fully understood it.  Secondly, several of the metaphors describing the church have been enjoyed as ‘pictures’ but have never been worked out in practice.  Thirdly, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has never been thoroughly understood and put into practice.

What are some of these principles?  First there is the principle of following the practice of the Lord Jesus Christ who not only preached but he also taught.  The Gospels frequently tell us that the Saviour went about preaching and teaching.  This is not mere tautology.  Though there is obviously some overlap in content, the methods of preaching and teaching are different.  Preaching is declaration without any necessary interaction.  The preacher is a herald who announces the good news.  But teaching is different.  Here I am talking about method not content.  Every good teacher knows that unless the pupils or students can express what is taught in their own words they have not grasped the lesson.  What did Jesus do?  He asked questions.  He answered questions.  He gathered small groups; sometimes the twelve, sometimes only three, sometimes he dealt with individuals.  Only if a teacher has some form of interaction will he know whether the pupils have understood and grasped what is being taught. Unfortunately many young ministers have been taught almost entirely by lectures.  A lecture has been cynically described as the process by which the notes of the lecturer become the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either!  This sometimes means that a new minister thinks that he must work hard at lecturing his congregation.  And many faithful men do just that.  They lecture (preach) twice on Sunday and again in the mid-week meeting.  And they are often grieved and frustrated that some of their church members do not seem to grow spiritually.  They must learn to teach and disciple people.  Teaching is best done in small groups.  Every educationalist seems to know, at least in theory, that small classes are better than large classes.

There are various ways this may be done in a church.  In our own church we practised this in two ways.  First we had All-Age Bible School on Sunday mornings before the main service.  The adult section was divided into small groups, each taught by a trained leader.  They did not lecture or preach.  They led discussion based upon prepared study.  The other channel of teaching was in the Home Groups, again led by a trained house group leader.  In addition to that I met with the elders both individually and as a group for training, fellowship and discipleship.  In these ways church members are much more likely to grasp the teaching and make it their own than if their instruction was limited to hearing the sermons on Sunday, no matter how good the preaching.

The second principle is the realisation in practice some of the metaphors for the church.  For example, the church is described as a body, the body of Christ.  A body has life flowing through it.  The limbs are closely and firmly attached to one another.  It is through these joints that life and blessing flows (Eph. 4:16).  If you were walking along  and saw a severed hand  on the pavement you would recoil in horror.  But when someone extends their hand to shake yours you do not react in that way, I trust.  Remember that the word ‘member’ in I Corinthians twelve and elsewhere in the New Testament does not mean someone who belongs to a society or club; it means a limb of a body.  We use that word when we speak of a corpse being ‘dismembered’, i.e. cut up.  The teaching of I Corinthians twelve on the various limbs of the body should be carefully studied and applied.

Another metaphor is the church as a building (I Cor. 3:10-15; Eph. 2:20, etc).  There is a huge difference between a pile of bricks and a building.  Anyone can steal a loose brick.  A brick on its own has five of its sides exposed to the elements; but built into a wall only one side is exposed.  Individual bricks or stones in a building are supported and in turn support others, and so on.

The third principle is the application of the truth of the priesthood of all believers (I Peter 2:4, 9).  All members are to be active in prayer, worship and witness, though not all in the same way.  Every one has a gift and needs to be encouraged to exercise that gift.

These are some of the ways in which a church may be built.  All such methods must be accompanied by earnest, fervent, continued prayer.