Friday, 22 June 2018

2.4 Of those who have expressed repentance towards God

As I write, my devotional readings have taken me to the book of Jeremiah, in the Old Testament. When I read and listen to this prophet, I am struck by the determination of God, expressed by the prophet, to bring His people through a process of refining, leading to renewal and restoration. I am struck, too, at the apparent intransigence of a people mired in sin, and the urgent call of God that they should repent, turn back to God. What is repentance? And why is it something we do not often speak much about, in contemporary Christian circles?

Repentance is a two-edged sword: that is one reason we find it hard to handle. It involves both a turning away from and a turning towards. Turning away from sin and practices that displease God. Turning towards God, pursuing righteousness and justice and practices that please God. Which comes first? The question can sound like ‘the chicken and the egg’ conundrum. Yet repentance is a necessary precursor to faith: that to suggest that faith could or should precede repentance is to misunderstand the meaning of faith, in a New Testament sense. Faith, in the way it is sometimes spoken of it, can be emptied of its meaning. It is not a proof of faith, for example, that a person believes or accepts that there is a God who is the Creator: even demons believe this (James 2.19). Nor, it would appear from Holy Scripture, is it a proof of Christian faith that a person recognises that Jesus Christ died for our sins: the call to Christian faith, in the New Testament, is that we should confess Jesus Christ as Lord (Romans 10.9). Christian Faith, we would contend, involves an investment of ourselves in the substance of that faith: Jesus Christ. We shall see more of this in the next section.

The Gospel narratives of the New Testament leave us in little doubt as to their prioritisation of repentance. John the Baptist prepares the way for the Messiah through preaching a message where, announcing that the Kingdom of God was arriving on Earth, repentance was necessary and called for: a turning back to God in renouncing practices that are contrary to the express will of God (Luke 3.10-14), to produce fruit that are in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3.8). The baptism that John baptised people with was one that acknowledged this repentance: John understood that the baptism that the Christ would bring was a subsequent one, a baptism ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Matthew 3.11; Luke 3.16).

 At the beginnings of Jesus’ own ministry His declaration, concerning the immanent arrival and manifestation of the Kingdom of God, was accompanied by a call to repentance (Mark 1.15). Later, in the New Testament Epistles, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews would identify the call to repentance as foundational to the Christian message (Hebrew 6.1), as the Apostle Paul did, in giving account of his preaching (Acts 20.21).

What does this tell us about repentance? Repentance is not simply expressed through a private attitude of the heart: it involves turning away from and renouncing practices that are displeasing to God. Why might this prove to be a challenge or a problem for us, today? I would suggest that there are two reasons.

The first reason is a continuing belief in ‘decisionism’, the contention that simply ‘by believing’, a person can become a Christian: that what is involved is basically a change of attitude or inner persuasion. It fits well with a belief in the ability of each and every person to freely choose their identity and ideology; and with societies and cultures that view wider society as being constituted as the sum total of the individual, separated people that come together to constitute it. This, in itself, betrays the crisis of so much contemporary culture: the conviction that society exists only in so far as individuals choose to identify with it and be part of it.

A second reason follows from this. Our Declaration of Principle’s insistence on a call to repentance challenges the way we understand the constitution of a healthy and robust society. The Biblical vision is that a healthy society is made up of communities of conviction; and that the Christian life has a pattern of practices, that indicate and arise from our convictions. Some of these practices are grounded, not in transient cultures and contexts, but in the essential substance of Christian identity that arises out of the humanity of Jesus Christ. That these practices might differ from and contrast to the dominant or politically promoted practices, found in the wider society around us, is not our immediate concern. What matters is that we understand that practices are indicative of convictions; and that convictions constitute communities. Without communities of conviction, with recognised practices and norms, there can be no stable society.

The priority that lies, in the call to repentance, concerns this need to constitute communities of conviction, wherein we demonstrate and model what it means to be part of a society that honours and worships our God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. We lose our sense of the need for repentance when we lose our vision of salvation as being that which God effects for His people:  a faithful society, made up of people as constitutive parts, rather than viewed as the simply the sum of individuals who believe. It is possible for contemporary church to fail in preparing people for faith, through repentance, when sight is lost and our focus is moved from an understanding of Christianity’s community nature. The call to repentance is to build church as a society of believers who share convictions, regarding the revealed will of God, demonstrated through practices that are consonant with the authority of Jesus Christ, expressed through the testimony of the Holy Scriptures and the leading of the Holy Spirit, as discerned by the community of the church.

Questions for reflection:

·         What has ‘repentance’ caused you to turn away from? What has it caused you to turn towards?

·         In what ways can we encourage people to move from their first ‘decision’ to believe, to living as a ‘disciple’?

·         How important is church, as community, to you? How could it be better?

Monday, 11 June 2018

2.3 Of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

God is unique. Our Creator, who loves with an everlasting love, reveals Himself to Israel as a singular entity: ‘the Lord our God, the Lord is One!’ (Deuteronomy 6.4). He alone commands our worship, adoration and service. God is One.
Our Declaration of Principle affirms that God’s authority is expressed by Jesus Christ. The Declaration also represents baptism as an induction into participation in the life of the One God, who reveals Himself to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How is it that we are to make sense of this revelation from God, as He reveals Himself, as He is?
In the Bible, Jesus is the one in whom we recognise God our Father to be revealed, as He truly is. All the qualities of God’s glory and goodness are made manifest in Jesus Christ. So it is that, when the disciples look at Jesus, Jesus tells them that they see God their Father; for it is the Father, present in Jesus, who is at work in all that He is and does (John 14.10). In Jesus, we are confronted with God’s character (Hebrews 1.3), for Jesus Christ is the icon – the exact image – of the invisible God (Colossians 1.15). Where Jesus is our meeting point with God, it is the Holy Spirit who is the dynamic presence of God, teaching us and touching our lives with an infilling presence and power: the ‘other’, whom Jesus asks the Father to send (John 14.16-17), the Spirit whom the Lord Jesus pours out on His disciples (Acts 2.33).
In my own worship and prayer to God, I am always aware that I come to God who is One. When I approach Him, I know that God my Father makes Himself known to me in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. I know that when I read about Jesus in the Bible, I am meeting with a revelation of God that is that of a Son to a Father: ‘like Father, like Son’. I am also very much aware that I am coming to meet with a living Jesus, who has been raised from death and now reigns in the Heavens, exercising all power and authority in heaven above and over Earth below.  I know that there is no power in the heavens or on earth that can match the power of Jesus; and I know that the presence and the power of God’s Kingdom, released and expanded throughout the Earth, comes through Jesus Christ alone.
It is because the Holy Spirit comes to us to fill us, from the Father and through the Son, that I delight to receive and looked to be filled by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings the flavour and the presence of God’s holiness to my life. It is the Holy Spirit’s presence and power, infusing me and embracing me, that fills me with unsurpassable delight and joy. In this sense, I experience God: I apprehend Him through His presence in me and anointing upon me.
When I read the Holy Scriptures, when I am contemplating what to say or do, I look for a sense of ‘rightness’ that fits with the Holy Spirit’s presence within me, as well as what fits with what is written in the Bible. When what I sense is then confirmed, in what my fellow Christians are sensing and understanding God to be saying or wanting, I experience gratefulness and confirmation of God’s revelation into my life and theirs.
In my walk with God, it is vitally important to me to hold on to this relationship, between the invisibility of Father, the image and identity of God that is met with in Jesus Christ and the immediacy of experience and empowerment that comes through the Holy Spirit. This is a dynamic reality of meeting with the One God: a meeting with the invisible Father, through the definition that comes through the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, applied into our culture and context through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. It is the reality of meeting One God: from the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit. It is the knowledge and experience of this dynamic relationship with God that animates and enables faith within me.
This is the representation of the One God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Scriptures speak of. Many have and continue to try and explain how it is that God operates in this manner: this is not something I would presume to do, nor encourage others to attempt. What I do find is that approaching God in this way elicits a response within me. Firstly, it reminds me that there is much I do not know or understand about God. The Father is not directly visible to me: I do not yet fully comprehend what God is like, although when I pass from this life into His presence, hopefully then I will (1 Corinthians 13.12). Secondly, I find it wonderful to know that all that I can grasp about God and that which God wants me to know for now, in this present life, is met with in the person of Jesus Christ. Not only that I can read about Him in the Bible; but that I can know that He knows what it is like to be human, as I am human, sharing and understanding all the struggles that I deal with; and that He loved me enough to die in my place and bear me up, through Himself, into our Father’s presence (Ephesians 2.6). Thirdly, I love to look to and long for repeated experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit’s presence – the very presence of God – infusing my whole being with God’s love and presence. I am addicted to seeking the presence, empowering and enabling of the Holy Spirit. I delight to know and sense the presence of this Holy Spirit living within me; and it is a delight and a joy when I recognise His presence in the lives of others, and see His power at work, bringing healing and quickening hope: the Holy Spirit working through us, into the lives of those in need, touching those who have never before met with the presence and the power of God.

God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: not a theory or a formula. This is the way that the One, unique God, who is our Creator and our Saviour, deals and meets with us, that we might grow and develop as His children for now and into all eternity.
Questions for reflection:
·         In what ways, if at all, have you experienced the presence of God?

·         How does the revelation of God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ inform and instruct us as to how we might approach God?

·         I what ways has your appreciation and understanding of God grown, or been challenged, in the last year?

Sunday, 22 April 2018

2.2 Into the name

To act in a person’s name can be a powerful thing; and it can also be presumptuous, if authority has not been delegated and authorised. In the main Christendom traditions, the authority of the church has normally been understood as being established through relationship, if not in explicit partnership, with the power of State or Empire. The Reformation, by and large, did little to change this. The naming of great theologians, such as Luther and Calvin, as ‘magisterial Reformers’ recognised that the authority they exercised in people’s lives was one that acknowledged by and depended upon cooperation with the power of civil magistrates.

For baptists, the source of authority and therefore the shape of our identity could rarely, if ever, be confused with the authority of the State. Baptists, throughout history, have resisted the call to  conform to the dictates or expectations of the political establishment. Authority and identity has been looked for elsewhere. In the second part of the Declaration of Principle, the authority that we affirmed in the first part of the Declaration – the authority of Jesus Christ – leads us to reaffirm the true nature of our new identity; and to review the implications it bears.

The extended narrative of Exodus 3, in the confrontation that takes place between God and Moses, exemplifies the profound mystery there is in divine encounter, both as recorded in the Holy Scriptures and as found in present experience. To be confronted by God is something we might apprehend, but never fully comprehend: we cannot contain or define, within the parameters of our understanding or experience, the One who authors and holds the Cosmos in existence. Yet we can enter into a relationship with God that shapes and changes us, at God’s initiative and at His volition. We see the self-conscious limitations of Moses caught up and countered by the dynamism and power of God’s initiative, where God declares Himself as, ‘I will be who I will be’ (Exodus 3.14). God redefines Moses, moving Moses from a place where he seemed to enjoy independent and free, self-determination, to a place where God becomes the centre, the subject; and where Moses becomes the satellite. Furthermore, the revelation of God’s name draws Moses into a new identity and a new purpose for living. This reorientation of Moses proceeds, God revealing Himself and dealing with Moses, as God did with the patriarchs who came before Moses, in ways he does not expect. It continues on through the Book of Exodus, reaching its climax at Mount Sinai, in Exodus 34.6-7. Here, the apex in Moses’ experience of God, is where God reveals His goodness - but not the full extent of His glory. The event is recalled by Peter in 2 Peter 1.3-4, when Peter rehearses the nature of the participation that God draws us into, a participation that is in the life of God Himself. An appreciation of this meeting with God is echoed in the writings of Paul, as He too reflects on the effects of that meeting by Moses with God, which is paralleled in our own experience (2 Corinthians 3.17-18).

Baptism by immersion leads us to experience something of what it means to be united with Jesus Christ. We are also called to a deepening appreciation of the way in which we are renewed and redefined as persons, in the light of God confronting and embracing us, ‘into the name’. Our identity is not simply augmented or adjusted by conversion to Jesus Christ: it is radically repositioned.

Scottish, evangelical Christians, standing in the traditions of mainline, western churchmanship, will appreciate something of what God has done for them. We are acquainted with the news that we are saved as both ‘saints and sinners’. We are thankful for God’s mercy and forgiveness. We are delighted with the revelation of God’s love. Yet the inheritance of Christendom, in seeking to shape Christians as good citizens of Empire, Kingdom or State, has encouraged us to focus upon the passive, receptive quality of discipleship: appreciation of what we have received from God. What, however, of the way that baptism ‘into the name’ commissions us, a commissioning into a journey of wondrous redefinition and discovery of who and what we have become, through God’s embrace of our lives?

The manner of Christian living that most of us have been conditioned into has, I suspect, been founded on perspectives of the Christian life based on conformity, not non-conformity. We instinctively adhere to the desires and dictates of the State; and to an understating and practice of Christianity that conforms to these. I recall my own sense of shock and surprise when, some years ago whilst visiting in Eastern Europe, a Russian colleague asked me, ‘what is the attitude of Scottish baptist to the laws of the secular State?’ When we live with an assumed attitude of conformity, we adopt a restricted perspective that cannot fully appreciate, apprehend or embrace what it means to be brought, by baptism, ‘into the name’. Yet when we are baptised ‘into the name’, it is into a life where each of us has a new identity and a new empowerment, not least in terms of gifting. This will call us into a life of ministry that, in turn, releases the power and presence of the Kingdom of God to confront the powers and principalities that Christ has overcome, including those that govern this world we live in.

At the heart of our identity, the new identity in Christ that God has called us into, is the issue of empowerment. We now share a life where we have been initiated ‘into the name’, one that has been made possible through God’s embrace of all that we are. We have been brought into the life, ministry and victory of Jesus Christ. Sacramental traditions, interpreted and perpetuated through centuries of Christendom, can foster both a receptivity and understanding that restrict us to a passive participation ‘in the name’. The narratives of Scripture, however, would suggest that a ministry that functions ‘in the name’ is one that is proactive and empowered. Moses was raised up by God, in power, so that God’s name would be declared in all the earth (Exodus 9.16). It was by the power of the name of Jesus, Peter declared to the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, that the lame man at the Beautiful Gate was made whole (Acts 4.7-10). It was with empowerment, in the name of Jesus, that Paul adjured the Corinthian church to act against immoral behaviour (1 Corinthians 5.4). 

Grasping what it means, to act in empowerment, ‘in the name’, is something that Jesus Christ exhorted and called the first disciples to realise: that God would not refuse them a request that conformed to Him. Jesus Christ called them to look to, act and undertake in His name, in a manner consonant with His mission and ministry (John 14.13-14). Around the world, where this is understood and laid hold of, we see the church in advance. Pray God that we, in our generation today, rehearse and rediscover the meaning of baptism ‘into the name’.


Questions for reflection:

·         In what ways has your life become ‘repositioned’, as you have journeyed as a Christian?

·         Do you view yourself as a person with authority, under authority, or both together?

·         In what ways might your life be described as characterised by seasons of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ faith?

Saturday, 14 April 2018

2.1 That Christian baptism is the immersion in water

In affirming the significance of baptism, we recognise that for two millennia the prevalent baptismal practice has been that of infant baptism. In the light of this, why would the practice of believer’s baptism by immersion in water be so important to us, that it punctuates the second part of our Declaration of Principle? Two reasons stand out, arising from the first part of our Declaration of Principle.

The first is the recognition that, ‘the Lord Jesus Christ our God and Saviour is the sole and absolute Authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice’. The practice of believer’s baptism is a hallmark of our nonconformity, distinguishing Baptist churches from those that seek recognition or legitimisation from the political establishment within their culture and context. The second is that believer’s baptism, as ‘revealed in the Holy Scriptures, is mandated by our Lord Jesus Christ.  Our starting point is neither a philosophical nor a theological construction of baptism. It is the recognition of baptism as a practice that is an act of submission to the authority of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Perhaps the best way to start, therefore, is not to discuss what connections there may or may not be between the practices of believer’s baptism and the baptism of infants; whether baptism is a sacrament or an ordinance; whether there is an impartation of grace or not: these questions are not our concern here. We begin at quite a different place: a reflection on what occurs, in terms of human experience, when people are baptised by immersion in water.

In coming to immersion in water, some preparation will normally take place before people are admitted to baptism. It may be very simple: having made a profession of faith, they are accepted for baptism. More commonly, there will be interviews with the candidate, prior to baptism, to clarify that they have come to understand what it means to confess, according to the first part of our Declaration of Principle, ‘Jesus Christ as God and Saviour’. Additionally, there may be special classes held, to prepare the candidate for baptism. The decision to admit people to baptism is usually entrusted to the appointed leadership of the local church.

In most of our churches, baptism will take place during a worship service on a Sunday, in either a pool that is built into the fabric of the church building or in a mobile baptistry, kept or borrowed for the occasion. Some churches favour baptisms in a river or, on occasions where they are nearby, a loch or the sea. The baptismal party normally comprises two ministering persons who, together with the candidate, enter the water. The candidate may be asked questions, prior to the moment of baptism: some of these questions go back to the earliest baptismal practices of the church. Among the more common are, ‘Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord?’ and, ‘Do you renounce Satan and all his ways?’

Once the questions are over and the candidate has answered them in the affirmative, the candidate for baptism takes up position in the water, the others standing one on either side. The water will probably be of a depth of between three feet and waist height. The candidate is firmly held and then supported as they drop back into the water, until they are fully immersed.

Imagine the sensation. Above the waters, the anticipation and noise of music, or the chatter of the assembled witnesses. Then, being laid back down under the water. Silence there. Then, suddenly, lifted in strong arms upwards out of the depth of water and back onto your feet, embraced and supported by your helpers. You are baptised! Following this, a hand and possibly anointing oil placed on your head, prayer called out and a blessing declared. Then you step up and out of the waters. 

For those who are baptised in such a manner, this is a powerful experience, full of rich imagery. When it has been explained to a candidate that this act of baptism represents our being united with Jesus Christ, in His death and also raised up with Him into His resurrection life, the reality of what Jesus Christ has done for us and now does for us begins to saturate our senses. This was how the Apostle Paul represented the practice of believer’s baptism to the early Roman church (Romans 6.1-4).

Now, why this approach to discussing baptism? Where we seek to live our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ, actively submitting to Christ in both ‘faith and practice’, as the first part of our Declaration of Principle declares, we are addressing experienced reality. The experienced truth of Jesus Christ as God and Saviour, knowing that we are united with Him in His death and raised with Him in His resurrection, energises and motivates our Christian living. Experiencing this truth matters. The church, especially in her Protestant traditions, has placed immense emphasis on the importance of cerebral understanding: of proposition and argumentation in presenting truth. Certainly, understanding of truth matters; but being embraced and captivated by the experience of truth matters even more: especially when that truth is found in and through the person of Jesus Christ. To know and to have met the living Saviour, in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. To have confessed Him as Lord. To enter into the waters of baptism, acknowledging the wonder of His death and His resurrection: this anchors our experience in pursuing a path that would take us in the footsteps of our Saviour, to the glory of our Heavenly Father.

What relationship should exist, if any, between baptism and membership of a local church? The answer to that question will vary from church to church, depending on how people view the distinction between members and those non-members who are involved in the services and ministries of the congregation. What should not be in doubt, however, is that baptism is the enactment of a covenant relationship with a Christian believer, a relationship that has been initiated and realised by their God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. In baptism, we demonstrably and freely recognise that His death was for us. Through baptism, we tangibly respond to God’s initiative and the new relationship that God has drawn us into, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The pressing question, for many of our churches, will not be concerning baptism and membership. The more fundamental question will be, ‘how can we better bring the gift of new life in Christ to people, drawing them into a life of Christian discipleship’? One practice, that invites further investigation, is that of covenanting together. There is a strong precedent for this both in Scottish, Reformed churchmanship and in historic, Baptist practice. Covenant also features large in an understanding of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22.20). Approaching both baptism and the Lord’s Supper as practices, that enriches the expression of covenantal commitment within a local Christian community, could well be revisited and further explored. The experience and symbolism of believer’s baptism by immersion could serve as a significant part of this process.

Questions for reflection:

·         What part has believer’s baptism played for you, in your path of discipleship?

·         In your path of discipleship, how big a place has experience, as distinct from understanding, had for you?

·         What significance has membership played in your experience of church?

Monday, 9 April 2018

1.7 To interpret and administer His Laws

Is there a place for Law, properly understood, in the Christian life? Indeed there is. Christ came to fulfil the Law of God. He reveals to us the Royal Law (James 2.8), as we are called to live by the Law of the Spirit of God (Romans 8.1).

In seeking to interpret and administer God’s laws, the reading and understanding of the Holy Scriptures is paramount. A rule of ‘non-contradiction’ is good to follow. In the first place, given that the Holy Scriptures are a gift for our upbuilding and equipping given to us by God, it should follow that any interpretation or explanation of any part of the Bible, applied to our lives, should neither contravene nor contradict a proper understanding of any other part of the Bible. Neither is it for the expositor to try and explain that the text does not really mean what it says! Explanation of a text, set within a narrative that recognises the variety of cultures and contexts which the books of the Bible address, should explore how any given text be related to our lives. Regard should be had to distinctions between what is prescribed for Israel and what is expected of those who follow Christ, who has fulfilled for us the requirements of the Law given to Israel. Likewise, there needs to be a recognition of the distinction between what we yet are, as both saints and sinners, and what we are to become, when fully sanctified and transformed into the likeness of Christ.

The Declaration of Principle invites us to hold together, as church, two other conversation partners, as we seek to interpret and administer God’s Laws as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. The first is that of Jesus Christ’s personal authority: the primacy of the pattern of His life, lived out in our humanity. We, as His disciples, are to seek to walk in the discipline which He followed, in obedience to Father and in compassion towards mankind. The second is to be found in the deliberations of church today, as each congregation of Christians seek to work out what it means to live in the liberty that Jesus Christ has called us into. Local churches can both learn from and inspire one another. In all of this, there is the need for a conscious dependency upon the persuasive presence of the Holy Spirit, as His guidance and direction is looked to and regarded by the church together.
The local church carries a responsibility in seeking to hear and recognise God’s commands; but it does not stand alone. Our Union of churches is constituted on the basis of interdependence, not of independence. Local churches, in seeking to discern and apply God’s Laws, will look for common cause among others sharing a commitment to the convictions and practices laid out in our Declaration of Principle. The Declaration does not suppose that the local church acts in isolation. Rather, the intent is that the local church be supported, in their commitment to adequately and properly interpreting Christ’s laws, by other ministries and congregations throughout our Union.
This intent is expressed in the way that the first of the three parts of our Declaration of Principle prepares the way for those convictions, regarding the interpretation and administration of Christ’s Law, that are laid out in the second and third parts. These are matters of common interpretation that all member churches share and are committed to pursuing. In like manner, there will be other aspects of interpretation of God’s laws that the churches of our Union will want to visit, rehearse and reflect upon, so that we can aid and assist one another in better pursuing Christ’s mission and ministry.
The focus of our Union remains, however, the delivery and administration of mission and ministry through each local church. The apparatus of our Union, together with the administration of those resources that we share and pool together, operates with this in mind.  Our interdependence always leads us to seek to discern what God is doing in and through the local church. We look to see effective convictions and good practice expressed and worked out in the local setting, seeking to commend and make these known throughout our Union as a whole. We do not look to formulate strategies and policies abstracted from the local church. Rather, we look to assist and encourage awareness of the good things that God is doing in and through His people, that churches throughout our Union, sharing in a variegated yet common culture, find example and encouragement from initiatives in mission and ministry that are taking place among us.

Questions for reflection:

·         What convictions and practices that Jesus pursued most impress you?

·         What practices are most important for you, as rules to follow in your own life?

·         What practices, seen in other churches holding to the same principles, have inspired you?

Monday, 2 April 2018

1.6 Under the Guidance of the Holy Spirit

Is it possible to have a church that lacks the presence of the Holy Spirit? There are marks of His presence that we can look for, for His delight is to draw us deeper into Jesus Christ. The most immediate are renewed praise of God; personal assurance and experience of fellowship in the love of God (John 14.13-18); pursuit of a deepening, developing relationship with our Heavenly Father and fellow disciples (John 17.20-23); a desire to do what Jesus models and commands (Philippians 2.5). Jesus taught His disciples to look for (Luke 22.49) and ask for (Luke 11.13) the Holy Spirit.
How does the Holy Spirit guide us? The answer, as our Declaration of Principle testifies, is towards that which is in harmony with the authority of Jesus Christ and the revelation of the Holy Scriptures. These provide the parameters, the boundaries wherein the Holy Spirit will guide us, where we can confirm that it is truly the Holy Spirit leading and guiding us.
Is this limiting the Holy Spirit? No, for the Holy Spirit enables and actively regenerates what is at one with God our Heavenly Father’s will and the way of Jesus Christ. As we have seen, Jesus Christ undertakes nothing other than what is in harmony with His Father in Heaven. The evidence of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit indwelling people is their acknowledgement that this Jesus Christ, clothed in our humanity, has come among us to accomplish these things (1 John 4.2). The Holy Spirit, the Spirit who ushered the substance of the Cosmos into existence, brings about nothing other than that which is ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31). He, the Breath of Creation (Genesis 2.7), is the one who renews the fabric of the Universe, bringing us a first taste of the New Creation (Romans 8.23): what is redeemed, refined and renewed in and through Jesus Christ.
How is it, then, that the Holy Spirit now communicates with us? The Scriptures recognise that God spoke through His prophets, before the coming of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1.1). They also recognise that God today prepares His people for works of service, to build up the body of Christ, through the ministry of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. This way, our unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God matures (Ephesians 4.11-13). How, though, is this plurality of ministry provision to find expression in the local church?

God willing, He will speak through the preacher, as they seek to open and apply the Bible’s meaning to our life. The Holy Spirit can and will use a man or woman, consecrated to God and commissioned for such a task. Yet His powerful presence cannot be presumed upon: it must be sought, together with a conscious looking to Jesus Christ Himself at the centre of the church gathering. Persuasive though a sermon should be, we are gathered under the authority of Jesus Christ, not a preacher. The focus of God, outworking His provision and preparation of the gathered church for further acts of ministry, should be looked to in and through the whole of the gathering. The Holy Spirit visits, resides and expresses Himself through various members present in the gathering. The Apostle Paul, whilst an enthusiastic proponent of preaching, emphasises the multiplicity of ministry that the Holy Spirit enables within a church gathered together: all present are to look for the Holy Spirit’s manifestation of ministry in Jesus’ name, in and through them, for the strengthening of the church (1 Corinthians 14.26).
 A realistic appraisal of what happens in church will lead us to review, again and again, the dependency we express and have upon the presence and manifestation of the Holy Spirit when we gather. My sense is, through my own ministry and in sharing with others, that a conscious dependency upon the Holy Spirit and attentiveness to His promptings is often duller than it should be. Certainly, there are times when utter clarity of conviction breaks through; but I suspect that occurs not as often as God would have it, in our lives. I have noted a fearfulness that comes among men and women, in allowing ourselves to become more dependent upon God. Whatever else we profess, our tendency is to want to control and and regulate the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Losing control – especially among those who lead and teach – is something that we can come to dread. This can lead to a resisting of the Spirit, a presumption on our part that God will conform to our expectations. Equally, it can lead to an opposite extreme, of theatre and absurdity, as we seek to mimic or simulate the ministry of the Holy Spirit, craving the manifestation of gifting more than the presence of the Giver. How can we best avoid such abuse?

We should not forget that the Spirit of God is God and that He is Holy; and that to speak against Him or demean Him is, according to Jesus, the one thing we do not want to do (Matthew 12.32). All the Holy Spirit does and all He facilitates induces, within us, a release into effectiveness in furthering the advance of the Kingdom of God; and a large part of that involves forming and developing, within our lives, holy constraint and consecration to God. Holiness is marked by our setting ourselves apart to God: to be arrested in His promises, seeking His presence, pursuing His purposes and the ministry of Jesus Christ. Where there is a holiness born of the Holy Spirit, there will be a respect and reverence that proves the qualities that God looks for among His people, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

This will be a fruitfulness that the Scriptures speak of: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There will be a renunciation of arrogance, criticism, broken relationships. There will be fashioned a culture of self-emptying, service, humility and obedience. The Holy Spirit is jealous, that He should guide us in the path of Jesus Christ (James 4.5). We would do well in seeking to keep in step with Him (Galatians 5.24-26), not quenching His purposeful presence (1 Thessalonians 5.19-21). When such a focus is present in the gathering, we can look with expectancy to discern together what the Holy Spirit is saying, in a way we can then come to say, ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15.28).
Questions for reflection:

·         How does reliance upon the Holy Spirit express itself in your life?

·         In what ways and by what means has the Holy Spirit guided you towards important decisions?

·         How would you plan to deepen your communion with the Holy Spirit?

1.5 And that each Church has Liberty

Liberty. But liberty from what? ‘Liberty’ suggests a state of bondage or oppression, from which there is need of escape or deliverance. There are three aspects of liberty to note.
Firstly, for our baptist forefathers, there was an understanding of liberty as escape from politically prescribed religious observance. In the Scottish tradition, baptists were dissenters from a form of religion that was joined to the institutions of Government and State. In this sense, baptist have always been ‘non-conformists’, seeking liberty from the constraints of political and social conventions. Linked to this first liberty, there was a second perception of liberty that was important to them: the freedom to read and interpret the Scriptures, both personally and together as church, gathered in Jesus’ name. This is a liberty to gather as disciples, seeking after the revelation of God’s will and way for our faith and its practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. Thirdly, there is the liberty that the Scriptures speak of, for those who belong to Jesus Christ: the freedom to be free from the dictates of culturally contrived law and regulation (Galatians 3.1-18), as we are gloriously liberated into life as the children of God (Romans 8.21).

This said, it leads us towards another question, to ask of ourselves. Are we free from patterns of tradition, religious regulation and a relationship with God defined by observing cultural norms? What is it that we need to be freed into? In that we are to have liberty, what is it that we should have liberty to be or do? The answer to these questions has been laid out in this first part of our Declaration of Principle. We are to have freedom to recognise the Lord Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour, as the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice in our lives. We are to have freedom to recognise His authority, as revealed and indicated in the Holy Scriptures. The primary aspect of the liberty that we share together, within our Union, lies in the conviction that our lives, in terms of faith and practice, are under the authority of Jesus Christ and Him alone. The basis of our conversation, discussion and decision making, as to what this means and leads to, is to be founded in our reading and shared understanding of the Holy Scriptures, in discovering what the practical implications and outworking of this liberty might be.

Let us note two, pastorally important aspects of this liberty, that flow from we have outlined above. On the one hand, we are freed from the imperatives or dictates of the preacher or church leader! The role of preaching, within a baptist context, must not be confused with the authority of Jesus Christ Himself. For the baptist, the role of the preacher or teacher must be to open up the Scriptures and their possible interpretation and application to faith and practice, so that other believers present may weigh up and consider what is being said or shared. Those of us who listen have a duty to reflect on whether the message is consistent with faith and practice, expressed under the authority of Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.  Preaching and the advices of leadership should be persuasive, not prescriptive, towards the gathered church. In contrast to other traditions, where the role of the preacher or leader may be taken as definitively stating or interpreting the will of God, the baptist congregation never surrenders that right. We are gathered to the Lord Jesus at the centre, not to the preacher’s sermon nor a leader’s dictates. The message of the sermon needs to be considered thoughtfully, weighed and confirmed or rejected in the light of Jesus Christ’s authority, as attested to in Scriptural testimony.

On the other hand, a second reservation must be that we have not been liberated by God to be autonomous individuals, self-regulating and self-governing as isolated persons. No society, civil or religious, can operate on this basis. We need structures and we also need good leadership. Where these functions are managed and exercised properly, we are liberated to discover and discern together, as Christians gathered as church, what is the will of God and the way of Jesus Christ. Together, we discuss and discern how it should be outworked within the culture and context in which we find ourselves.
In seeking to better grasp a Biblical perspective on ‘Liberty’ and what it means for care of each other within our contemporary culture, there are two further aspects that we need give attention to.

Firstly, we need to pursue and develop, as Christ’s disciples, an understanding of liberty as propriety and proper behaviour in Christ. In this, we recall that Jesus came to fulfil the righteous requirements of the Law of God and its prophetic interpretation (Matthew 5.17). Ignoring the history of Israel’s relationship with the Covenants of God, which finds fulfilment in Christ, does not simplify matters, but obscures them. We have to encourage each other to live lives that exhibit how our life in Christ is a fulfilment of the standards and intention of Old Testament imperatives and directions, where these express the unchanging character and purposes of God.

Secondly, we need to work hard, in an increasing atomised and fragmented society, to comprehend how our newfound liberty is to bring us into interdependence as church, not independence from one another. Individualised authentication of faith or practices is not part of our Scottish, baptist tradition. What we are called into is the liberty of a collective consciousness, as communities of conviction. In other words, being baptist should not be mistaken for nor confused with a mandate for individualised anarchy. We are only Christ’s when we understand our calling is to belong to and love Him; and to express that liberated, holy love towards others (Galatians 6.2). Freedom in Christ brings with it the responsibility to manifest what we are freed from; and what we are freed into. We have liberty to live as those who belong to the God of holy love. Such liberty is that which is birthed, enabled and directed by the Holy Spirit, as He works to equip and build up the church as the Body of Christ.
Questions for reflection:

·         In your journey of faith, in what areas have you experienced most liberty, developing your discipleship?
·         In what areas have you been most encouraged by others, in seeking counsel as to the will of God?
·         In what ways might increased interdependence better enhance our witness to Jesus Christ?

1.4 As Revealed in the Holy Scriptures

That we pursue a holy path, leading to words and actions conforming to the express will of God, is integral to our living as disciples of Jesus Christ. We have been called to live under Jesus Christ’s authority, that our faith and practice should demonstrate that He is our God and Saviour.

 How, though, are we to identify and confirm that the appropriate indicators and consequences of Jesus Christ’s authority are present in our lives? How are we to envision the shape of faith and practice outworked? And how are we to relate our responses to the manner in which we live out our lives, within the cultures and contexts in which we find ourselves?
So far, we have observed that our Declaration of Principle affirms the need of each and every Christian to enter a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to live under His authority. It invites us to grasp that God is interested in forming not simply isolated individuals, but a society of persons – a people – who are together a ‘royal priesthood and a holy nation’ ( 1 Peter 2.9). In doing so, He calls us to come to and listen to the distinctive voice and command of God, expressed in His dealings with His covenanted people. We are called to measure our lives and style of living against the yardstick – the cannon – of royal and holy life recorded in the Holy Scriptures: the Bible.

The Bible is a comprehensive collection of sixty six different books, presenting us with a variety of forms of literature, formed and shaped over many centuries and through different cultures, tracing God’s dealings with His covenanted people, in and through to the time of fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Because of this, the Bible is an invaluable and vital component in guiding us towards discerning how the authority of Jesus Christ be outworked in our lives. On the one hand, the diverse nature of its writings – Law and regulations, Prophetic and apocalyptic utterances, Poetry, Prose and historical narratives, with the further addition of biographical accounts of Jesus Christ and the Apostles’ letters in the New Testament – does not easily allow us to form a uniform template of Godly living that is normative and prescriptive in all matters of living, for all cultures and contexts. God wants us to work out the implications of faith, as it effects our discipleship and witness. The Bible draws us into a conversation with people whose faith and practice make them one with us, in that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ called and commissioned them, as well as us. In the Bible, we observe their struggle to live in faithful, covenantal relationship with God.

 For the people of faith found in the Bible, as for us, all that God has promised and commanded would find fulfilment in the person of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1.20). For those whose lives and stories are told in the Old Testament, it was a life lived in anticipation and longing for the fullness that would come, one day, in and through Jesus Christ. For those of the New Testament, it is the consequences of the impact and implications of meeting with and being grafted into the life of God’s Son, the Word of God made flesh (John 1.14), that we are confronted and challenged with. Their story in our story. What was real for them is real for us.

Here we come to what is mandated, in our Declaration of Principle, as the proper use of Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture is there to guide us in matters of faith and practice. In this, our Declaration of Principle is true to the testimony of Holy Scripture itself. That is, the purpose of the Holy Scriptures is to equip us ‘for every good work’ ( 2 Timothy 3.17). The Bible is not given for purposes of speculation (1 Timothy 1.4; 2 Timothy 4.3-4). The Holy Scriptures are to be read in public (1 Timothy 4.13) as well as private, for ‘all Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3.16). In our use of Holy Scripture, we are to hold it as God’s gift to all His people to be heard by all His people, that we might together listen, discern and learn its message, applying its lessons and discovering its implications for our lives.

In engaging in this process of listening, learning and discerning, it is important to remember that we have no mediator, who stands between the people and God, other than Jesus Christ. It is important to test what is said, by any teacher or preacher, in the light of what we find spoken of in the Scriptures (1 Timothy 1.5-7; Jude 4). As the Scriptures remind us, there is a propensity to look for a person of human stature and authority to lead us, rather than to seek after teachers that model the way of Christ (Hebrews 6.12, 13.7). It was true of Israel, in their longing for a King. It was true of the first believers, in the apparent readiness of some to embrace teachers who challenged the stature of the apostles (2 Peter 3.15-16;). Equally, there is the danger of treating the Bible as a talisman, a source of revelation in all matters, beyond those of faith and practice. This is not what is it mandated to be used for. The Scriptures are there to point us to and bring us to the one authority that is over our lives: Jesus Christ Himself (Luke 24.27).

 Properly used, the Scriptures are given to teach and help us discern the way and the will of God. They are there for us to read both privately and publicly together, testing what preachers and teachers say. The Scriptures help to amplify and apply the revelation of God’s way, in and through Jesus Christ, for our lives. With the guidance of the Holy Scriptures, we have a light to our path (Psalm 119.105). Without their guidance, we are quite likely to stray from the path of God’s pleasure and blessing (Joshua 1.8; Jeremiah 10.23).

 Questions for reflection:

·         Which parts of the Scripture do you look to most readily, for guidance?
·         Which books in the Bible do you find most difficult to relate to? Can you explain why?
·         What matters wold you like to gain clearer guidance on, from the Scriptures?

Friday, 23 March 2018

1.3 In All Matters Pertaining to Faith and Practice

How are we to understand the relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘practice’? When we read the Gospel accounts we see that, for Jesus, faith is always expressed through our attitudes and actions. Faith appears as a response to revelation that leads to a spoken confession, an appropriation of healing, an act of obedience, of compassion or of mercy. Above all, faith is focussed as a response to the person and ministry of Jesus. In this, we might describe Christian faith as ‘purposeful participation in the life, ministry and victory of Jesus Christ’.

An emphasis on ‘Jesus Christ as the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice’, reminds us that the focus of our faith is to be Jesus Christ and all that He conveys to us, in and through His life, death and resurrection. The focus of faith is not introspective searching for surety. The focus of faith is Jesus Christ Himself and all that He calls us into, in our participation in His life. Our focus is to be on a faith that issues in practices in our life that conform to Christ; and not simply statements of belief or opinion.


This distinction, between a Christ-centred faith and mere belief, is important. Belief on any matter, in today’s culture, has become privatised and thereby made socially impotent. Shrouded in a secular philosophy that can be both relativistic and nihilistic, belief has become an opinion or perspective hidden in the mind of each person. This fits well where, in the public sphere, acquiescence to political correctness and conformity to the dictates of those in power is demanded of all. Such an anodyne perspective on faith was not always the norm. The earliest extra-biblical accounts of interaction between Christians and political authorities show that it was the refusal of Christians to conform to societal norms, when these norms demanded expression of allegiance that contradicted the authority of Jesus Christ in their lives, that led to the persecution of early Christians. It was seeing the distinctiveness in the lives of Christians, however, that also led to the conversion of many to Christianity. Such was the nature of faith. As the Apostle James states, ‘show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do’ (James 2.8).

It is necessary for us, in our day, to redeem the word ‘faith’ for its full, Biblical usage. We need to separate it from the popular term, ‘belief’. Yes, people may believe what they like; because belief, in the end of the day, is whimsical and fanciful. But faith? Faith is a declaration of conviction and commitment to action. The seeds of faith lead to the fruit of practices expressed in our deeds. This was clear in the thinking of the first Christians where we see, from the book of Acts, how their faith – as with that of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself - caused them to speak and act in a way that brought them into conflict with the dominating powers and principalities, the forces that exercised spiritual, social and economic oppression over the culture and context in which they lived.

Faith in Jesus Christ is found in an offering of all that we are to God our Father, to be empowered and enabled by the Holy Spirit, that we might be conformed (2 Corinthians 3.18) to the likeness of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Hebrews 1.2). Christian faith, as the Bible understands it, is captured in the acronym, ‘Forsaking All I Take Him’. It is a self-conscious response to the embrace of God our Father’s unfathomable, holy love. As He sweeps us up into His arms, through the workings of the Holy Spirit, He prepares and positions us for our deeper participation in the ministry of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ.


‘Practice’, as our Declaration of Principle speaks of: what does it entail? Practice is what is expressed out of our faith. Practice springs from convictions formed and rooted within us, through the teaching and promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is what is born in worship, not only in song, but in the expression of the Hebrew Shema in the life of God’s people: that the One God is our God and that we ‘love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and strength’ (Deuteronomy 6.4). Such a ‘practice’ is what arises out of our being engrafted into participation in the life, ministry and victory of Jesus Christ (John 15).

It is important, in all of this, that we distinguish between the necessary evidencing of ‘practice’, as the fruit of faith, from what are termed, ‘works of the Law’. As the Apostle Paul makes clear, when we focus on our own deeds rather than upon Christ’s authority over our lives, we do not make ourselves acceptable to God: works of the law, in terms of our conforming to our own, modified interpretation of God’s will, are futile (Romans 3.27, 9.23; Galatians 2.16, 3.19). Faith that is rooted in Jesus Christ, on the other hand, leads to our participation and fruitfulness in ministry (Galatians 3.5). True faith is moulded in Christ as modelled by Abraham who, as our forefather in faith, invested in God’s covenantal faithfulness. Abraham trusted in what God declared, concerning what would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Romans 4). Faith focusses on the fullness that comes in Jesus Christ.

In All Matters

What of the expression, ‘In all matters’? This tells us that God is interested in what we invest in, participate in and do with our lives. When it comes to the development and exercise of our faith, in the manner of our living, there is no area of our life that is to be outside the jurisdiction of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here is the essence of our calling, as God’s children. God is moulding and maturing within each one of us an identity that will carry us forward into the New Heavens and New Earth, where we live and minister as the children of God. We will serve Him, as He holds and fashions the Cosmos, in a way He designed us for, as He intended for the first men and women (Genesis 1.26-27).

Moreover, this expression reminds us that there are some matters essential to faith; and others that can be viewed and treated as incidental to our living, within our culture and context. God is interested in honing and cultivating our faith and life-practices into conformity to Christ, whatever the particular culture or context that we find ourselves in. Whether we catch a bus or drive a car, whether we are poor or rich, God is interested in how we engage with our society.

God’s primary interest lies neither in validating nor negating the structures of the society you find yourself embedded in. God is interested in the spread of His Kingdom rule, come in and through Jesus Christ (Mark 1.14-15). God wants you to bring the presence and ministry of Jesus Christ to savour society around you. This is why the Creator Spirit, the Holy Spirit, would comes to you in intensified power, to enable (Luke 4.18-19) you to live in a way that declares and demonstrates the glory of God (Acts 2.11).

Questions for reflection:

·         Is there a difference, in your understanding, between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’?
·         What practices are most important to you, in your Christian life?
·         Which, of your practices, most need further development?