Category: Pastor’s Word

How Are We, 40 Years On?

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Where were you on Thursday 22nd June 1977? No, it’s not the date of moon landing or the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. After years of discussion and two nation-wide votes, two-thirds of the Presbyterian Church of Australia left the denomination to join the new Uniting Church in Australia.

Union with other churches was on the agenda of the PCA since its own formation by the federation of state-based Presbyterian Churches in 1901. At the first meeting of the new national church in 1901, our first Moderator-General Rev. John Meiklejohn said, “Through Union we have placed ourselves in the position in which we can consider the question of a wider Protestant union without the risk of further disunions among ourselves… Our Church looks with longing eyes towards a larger union of Protestant Churches in the noble service of God and His Christ.”

Discussions about uniting with the Methodists and Congregationalists failed in the following decade because the Presbyterians also wanted to unite with the Church of England (though the inclusion of bishops in the united church proved an insurmountable difficulty). A renewed attempt in 1920 made it to a national vote of members, but failed as less than 50% of Presbyterians voted at all. The negotiations which resulted in the Uniting Church began in earnest in 1955, with pivotal meetings of the Joint Commission on Church Union held in 1957, 1959 and 1963. The first congregational vote for Church Union was held in 1972 with another in 1974.

In the intervening years, sectarian divisions in Australian culture had become less pronounced, which was a good thing. However, the push for organisational unification misrepresented Jesus’ prayer for unity among His people. The unity Jesus prayed for is a spiritual unity based on a shared commitment to the truth of His teaching (John 17:6, 8, 11-12, 14, 17-21; 1 John 2:18-27).

The doctrinal basis of the Uniting Church was a compromise document aimed at minimising areas of disagreement and ultimately undermining the authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God. Davis McCaughey (who before Union was a Presbyterian and later became the Governor of Victoria) said that the church “must be prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church.”

The position of the Uniting Church on a range of moral, ethical and doctrinal issues has met and exceeded the warnings of continuing Presbyterians against the theological compromise that the Basis of Union represented.

But we must hear Jesus’ warning against presuming to remove the speck in our brother’s eye when we may have a log in our own (Matthew 7:1-7). How has the Presbyterian Church of Australia fared since 1977?

The determination of the ministers, elders, and congregations which continued as Presbyterians was outlined by Rev. Neil Macleod in a protest at the 1974 General Assembly (which took the decision to unite). They declared that the PCA would seek:

  1. “The promotion of the glory of God;
  2. The extension of the gospel throughout the world; and
  3. The building up of the people of Christ’s church.”

And all this would be done:

  1. “In humble dependence on God’s grace and the Holy Spirit;
  2. While maintaining the Confession of Faith; and
  3. According to the Word of God.”

This much has been true, and we should be very thankful to God for that. As John Sandeman writes in the July edition of Eternity, the Presbyterian Church of Australia is “a church that, like its members, has been born again… Rather than 40 years in the wilderness like Moses, the PCA has had 40 years of rebuilding in which it has transformed into a (nearly) completely evangelical church.”

The present Moderator-General, Rev. John Wilson, describes the PCA as “almost unrecognisable from what it was in the 1960s.” A recently published book of essays entitled Burning or Bushed: The Presbyterian Church of Australia 40 Years On (edited by Paul Cooper and David Burke) describes the transformation. Some states have struggled and turned the corner, others languish, and others seem self-assured of a strong future.

What challenges remain?

John Wilson boldly identifies six characteristics of the PCA today:

  1. A tendency towards theological pride and self-sufficiency;
  2. A failure to appreciate the shortness of the time until Jesus’ return (especially in our evangelistic efforts);
  3. A reactive (rather than proactive) stance to cultural changes;
  4. A tendency to fight among ourselves (including with other Reformed and Presbyterian groups);
  5. A nominal commitment to Presbyterianism, which is actually strongly individualistic rather than connectional (both in our understanding how people relate to God and one another, and in how congregations work together);
  6. A love of money, with many of our resources dedicated to maintaining property and programs as they are rather than taking the Gospel to the lost.

Well, what about us here in the Parish of Benalla? Have those features of the wider denomination been seen here among us in the last 40 years? Please permit me as a relative newcomer to say that I’m afraid that all six have been, and still are today.

  1. We can recognise the theological faults of other believers, but we are slow to see our own (or the ways in which we fail to live out what we say we believe);
  2. Our evangelistic efforts are rare (recognising that inviting people to church events is not the same as telling them the good news about salvation in Jesus Christ);
  3. We decry the changes around us but do little to encourage the good things which remain;
  4. Each of our congregations has been diminished since Union, not so much by theological differences, but by the failure to repent, forgive and be reconciled. This has brought shame on the Gospel and damaged the reputation of the church before the watching world (John 13:34-35 & 17:21);
  5. Our ideas of what it means to be Presbyterian often don’t include taking an interest in or praying for the spiritual life of others in the same congregation, let alone those in the other congregations of this parish, of the Presbytery or the wider church. Our commitment to being ruled by elders (the literal, grammatical definition of ‘Presbyterian’) often fails when their decisions could be unpopular, even when they are made with the word of God and the best interests of His Church at heart. A notable instance of this is the lack of preventative and corrective church discipline (see also the previous point);
  6. We have yet to make the Gospel our highest priority in all decision-making, and are instead committed to maintaining our bank balances. This doesn’t mean we should have an irresponsible attitude to the financial resources, but we need to be more generous and deliberate in using what God has given us to ensure that we are serving His work of evangelising the lost and strengthening His people.

In his essay on the history of Church Union, Rev. Peter Barnes quotes historian Manning Clark: “He asked whether we are ‘bored survivors, sitting comfortless on Bondi Beach, citizens of the kingdom of nothingness, who booze and surf while waiting for the barbarians?’ That is the question that the PCA has to answer.

Well, what about it, brothers and sisters? Are we simply glad to have survived 1977, resigned to the ineffectiveness of our present methods, and waiting to be wiped out by a hostile culture?

What will the next 40 years hold for us? That’s a question for next time.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

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The Meaning of the Cross

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

We are told never to judge a book by its cover. A better approach is to judge a book by its table of contents.

As Easter approaches, I’ve been thinking of a wonderful little book by John Piper entitled ‘Fifty Reasons Jesus Came to Die’. Just reading the table of contents is worth the price of the book! The death of Jesus was not simply the result of jealousy on the part of the religious leaders, the fear and self-protection of Pilate, or Judas’ greed. It was the sovereign plan of God, which Jesus came to accomplish (John 4:34, 5:30; 6:38-40; 12:27-28).

Piper highlights the multi-faceted purpose of the death of Jesus. It’s not that the Bible contradicts itself over the reason for Jesus’ crucifixion. To the contrary, the purposes of God in Jesus’ death are compatible and interrelated. Like a diamond with many sides, the many aspects of Jesus’ death together form a more beautiful picture.

And because one aspect of Jesus’ death was to create a band of crucified followers (Luke 9:23), what we think about the crucifixion will be a determining factor in our Christian life and obedience. Focusing on only one or two aspects of Jesus’ death to the exclusion of the others will produce an unbalanced and unhealthy Christian life.

Yes, the cross is a ‘call to follow His example of lowliness and costly love’ (Titus 2:14), but it is more than that. In His death Christ also ‘absorbed the wrath of God’ (Romans 3:25).

On the cross, Jesus was securing so much more than only ‘the forgiveness of our sins’ (Matthew 26:28). Indeed, it was the cross (not just the resurrection) which means he can ‘give eternal life to all who believe on Him’ (John 3:16). Jesus’ death gives us confidence to enter the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 10:19) while at the same time making Jesus the place where we meet God (John 2:19-21). The Scriptures tell us that the death of the Jewish Messiah was designed ‘to destroy the hostility between races’ (Ephesians 2:14-16). It gives marriage its deepest meaning (Ephesians 5:25) and makes us holy, blameless and perfect (Colossians 1:22).

Yet, ultimately, the cross is not about us. In His death, Jesus was pleasing His heavenly Father (Isaiah 53:10, Ephesians 5:2), ensuring that he would be crowned with glory and honour (Hebrews 2:9, Revelation 5:12), and that we should live for Him and not for ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:15).

The events of that first Easter are foundational to Christianity. The sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus are the bedrock on which our faith rests; the fact they agree with the Old Testament Scriptures is essential (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). If they were only an uncertain tradition or a myth, our faith would be utterly futile and all Christian teaching would be a blasphemous lie (1 Corinthians 15:15, 19). Of course the Old Testament promises, the incarnation, and the assurances about the coming judgement are indispensable too, but at its heart, Christianity is about the obedient sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of His people for the glory of God.

The more we know of this, the greater our joy should be, not only at Easter, but all the time.

Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, marking the first post-resurrection worship service as Jesus came to meet with His disciples (John 20:19, cf. 20:26 & Revelation 1:10). As each new week dawns, we should awaken with rejoicing that “The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.” So why not put aside some time each Sunday to consider one of the fifty reasons Jesus came to die?

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

The Gospel for Believers

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

If January is anything to go by, 2017 is going to be a busy year. Although I’ve been on leave, there has been a lot going on in the Parish. We’ve enjoyed and been challenged by the ministry of Matt Cole during his placement here. His sermons through Joel especially struck deep with many of us.

It has been encouraging to hear of his visits with so many of the congregation. Thanks to Graeme Hayes for arranging many of these visits. Alongside the sharing of Christian fellowship, there were direct discussions of eternal issues like the coming judgement and how we can have assurance of salvation. I pray that Matt’s presence with us has been a significant time for us all.

And a big thank you to Norm and Della for putting Matt up for his first week in town, and to all of you who invited him for a meal. I hope that this experience of having a final-year student with us will spur us on to having another student in the summer of 2018 and in the following years.

But as for this year, what lies ahead? The major projects of 2016 are virtually completed. Once again, you have an ordained and inducted minister, and (God-willing) the work on the Manse will be done in a matter of weeks. I pray that in 2017 we’ll tighten our focus on our main purpose: proclaiming Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:28).

Over my holidays, I’ve been meditating on how much we all need to hear the Gospel of Jesus. Sometimes we may think that the good news about Jesus is something which only unsaved people need. They certainly do! And let’s tell them. But the message of Jesus is something we need to hear too. In his excellent book Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges writes, ‘The truth is, there is never a day in our lives when we are so “good” we don’t need the gospel.’

The words of Augustus Toplady’s hymn “The Solid Rock” are likely familiar to most of us:

‘Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.’

We rightly focus on the need to be cleansed from the guilt of sin. However, we also need to be cleansed from its power. This doesn’t stop when we believe. Although we ‘died to sin’ (Colossians 1:13) we still need to be told, ‘Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions’ (Romans 6:12). Sin doesn’t rule over us, but it still tries to take over. That’s why we have to ‘put to death the deeds of the flesh’ (Romans 8:13). As the Puritan writer John Owen reminds us, ‘Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.’ Thankfully, God gives the Holy Spirit to help His children in this deadly fight (Romans 8:15-17).

Only as we face our sin each day and apply the Gospel to ourselves will we grow in maturity in Christ (Colossians 1:28). He is our model and our goal. But the sin we tolerate in ourselves will draw our energy away from growth, stunting and weakening us. Like mistletoe on a tree, unaddressed sin will make us go backwards in our faith instead of forwards. The only solution is to recognise and confess our sins to God with determination and dependence on Him to change, then to reassure ourselves of His forgiveness and our acceptance because of Christ’s perfect obedience (not any obedience of our own). That’s why those who trust in Christ need to hear the Gospel.

So, when we meet through the week and when we gather on Sunday, let’s make the Gospel central to our conversation. When someone is feeling down, gently remind them that we don’t deserve for God to treat as how we would like, but that in Jesus He has done and can do far more than we could ever ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). When we experience God’s help in overcoming sin or in growing in understanding, let’s share that too, recognising that none of us has arrived at perfection yet. That way, we can do that what writer to the Hebrews commands us to do: ‘Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today”, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.’ (Hebrews 3:13).

Let it be our goal this year to speak the Gospel to ourselves and to others.

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

December 25th?

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Just how did we end up celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on 25th December? Is it a good guess at the actual date? Did the church compromise with the pagan Roman culture? The answer is not straightforward.

At the outset, we are not given a specific date for Jesus’ birth in the Gospels. The only thing which comes close is the mention of shepherds keeping sheep when they hear of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:8. Perhaps that means it was lambing season (sometime in the spring, rather than the depths of winter, as December is in the northern hemisphere).

The writers of the early church don’t mention any celebration of Jesus’ birth, and several of them dismiss the celebration of the birthdays as a pagan practice. In 200 A.D., their best guesses at the date of Jesus’ birth didn’t include 25th December. Two centuries later, the favoured dates were either 25th December (in the western part of the Roman Empire and in North Africa) or 6th January (in the eastern part of the Empire).

In contrast to the uncertainty about the date of Jesus’ birth, there is one date in Jesus’ life that we can know with reasonable precision. His death was just after the Passover, which always fell on the 14th day of Nisan. However, the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, rather than a solar calendar as ours is, so the date of the Passover (and consequently Easter) keep moving according to the timing of the full moon.

Early Christians marked Jesus’ death and resurrection every week as they met with him to worship him (John 20:1, 19, 26; Acts 1:3, 2:1-4). Australian historian Andrew McGowan notes that a distinctive annual celebration was being held by the mid-second century (How December 25 Became Christmas, Bible History Daily, 12/02/2015). It is true that the Roman Emperor Aurelian established a feast called Sol Invictus on 25th December in 274 A.D. and some have alleged that the church adopted this date for reasons of convenience or compromise.

However, as McGowan explains, there is no mention of this in Christian writings; the idea isn’t suggested until the study of comparative religions took hold in the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead the early church saw the date in December as a divine proof of Jesus’ importance. December 25th is 9 months before March 25th, the date of the crucifixion in the West calculated by Christians in the West. In the East, Easter was celebrated on 6th April and Christmas on 6th January, again 9 months apart.

The early church thought Jesus’ conception and his death were on the same date. Therefore, his birth would have been 9 months after the date of the crucifixion. For Christians from the earliest days, the fact that Jesus came into the world was always held tightly together with the reason for his coming: his death for sinners.

Reflecting on the significance of the Passover in the Gospels (and in John especially), one may note that the Jews had this idea: At Passover, God’s deliverance could well be expected again (John 6:4-15f). If anything, it is a Jewish idea (not a pagan one) that God’s redemptive actions can be expected at the same time of the year.

At this point, the church had not compromised its celebration of the Lord’s Day even though Sunday was a working day. Christians often met close to sunrise and sunset. If they had resisted the pressure to just meet on Saturday, why would they be so keen to accommodate paganism by picking one of many pagan holidays to celebrate Jesus’ birth?

They might have chosen any date, but their choice was a day which acknowledges God’s sovereign direction of all events and ties together his incarnation and his resurrection. Marking Jesus’ birth on 25th December is not based on a clear statement in the Scriptures. But for the believer who considers Jesus’ death and resurrection to be central events of history, recognising that his birth is part of the same unbroken plan is a God-honouring thing to do. It shows what we believe about who Jesus is, where he came from, and why. As C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘The Son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.’ So, like the early Christians, when we celebrate the beginning of His work, we should celebrate the end of it too (Revelation 12:5).

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

The Purpose of Suffering

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Is it wrong for Christians to be sad? After all, we are the recipients of ‘every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.’ Meeting some Christians, you might get the impression that a Christian is never troubled, or that they shouldn’t be (and if they are, they definitely shouldn’t let on). Is this right?

Even the greatest of Christians, full of faith and mightily used by God, have been subject to great sorrow.

As he considered the privilege of being entrusted with the Gospel, Paul openly confessed that he held ‘this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us,’ (2 Corinthians 4:7). Part of that weakness is being ‘perplexed, but not in despair’ (2 Corinthians 4:8). So a Christian may be unsure what is happening to us or what we should do, but we should never be completely without hope.

Indeed, the confirmation comes as we look at the life of Jesus. We find that He experienced every sort of emotion, yet without sin as we are reminded in Hebrews 4:15.

In John 11:33, we read that Jesus about Jesus coming to the tomb of Lazarus and seeing the mourners wailing. He was ‘deeply moved in His Spirit and greatly troubled’. The first phrase ‘deeply moved’ should be more strongly translated as ‘indignant’, but what about the second phrase ‘greatly troubled’? When He came face to face with death, He was strongly affected by pain and sorrow. So much so, that He wept (John 11:35). Yet, Jesus did not despair because He knew that it was the will of His Father for Him to raise Lazarus and to conquer death for us all (John 11:11, 23, 25-26).

Christians suffer. It may be caused by ourselves, other people, God or indeed Satan. There may be more than one cause. Some causes are internal, as we either respond to our circumstances by worshipping God or by serving something else. Other causes are external, as we respond to our fallen world, the influences of our world, or the work of the Devil. In some cases, we may never know the reason for suffering.

Even if we never find the cause, we can know the purpose of suffering: It is to answer the questions ‘Whom will I trust?’ and ‘Whom will I worship?’ Christian counsellor, Ed Welch points sufferers to God: ‘Somehow, turning to God and trusting him with the mysteries of suffering is the answer to the problem of suffering.’ (Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness, pages 30-31).

If we seek answers in the Bible, we find that Jesus has experienced and is moved by our suffering, and that God has generously given us Jesus (Romans 8:32). This should prompt us to cry out to the Lord in dependence and worship; to believe that we are engaged in warfare for Christ against our own desires; to remember that God forgives sinners such as us; to recognize that our reason for living is not about us but about fearing God; and to hope in God (who Himself perseveres) even when suffering and depression say, ‘Surrender!’. That’s how we reveal the life of Jesus even though we live in mortal bodies, with weak minds and bodies (2 Corinthians 4:11).

It is not wrong for Christians to mourn but we should always remember that God is God, that He is good and that He is working everything together for our good, if we are His (Romans 8:28).

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

Improving Your Baptism

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I don’t remember my baptism. I’m told that it happened at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Gore on the South Island of New Zealand sometime a few decades ago, but I don’t remember a moment of it. So what good does it do me?

The very fact that children don’t remember their own baptisms is one reason why some Christian people object to baptising infants at all. What good does it do to go through this ritual if you have no possibility of looking back on it?

But many events I don’t remember have changed the world in which I live. I have no memory at all of the Berlin Wall coming down or ‘the recession we had to have’, and yet they profoundly influenced the world in which I grew up.

As for my baptism, it has influenced me in ways I cannot imagine. The act of being baptized doesn’t change anyone (1 Peter 3:21) but God’s promises always have their effect.

And more crucially, the very fact that God commands that infants be baptized shows that it isn’t about what you or I can do or remember anyway (Genesis 17:7-9; Galatians 3:9, 14; Colossians 2:11-12; Acts 2:38-39; Romans 4:11-12; 1 Corinthians 7:14; Matthew 28:19; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15). Before God saves us, we are all dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-7). And despite that (in fact, because of that) He makes a promise to us that if we repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we will be saved (Acts 2:38-39).

That’s why we should take the opportunity to remember our baptism whenever we can. Paul repeatedly reminded believers of their baptism (Romans 6:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:11-13; 12:13, 25; Galatians 3:26-27). He tells us about the righteousness we receive from Jesus Christ by being counted a part of Him; that we should no longer live as we once did, because we have been baptized; that our allegiance must be to Jesus Christ, not to any other significant Christian in our lives or in history; that we are called to live as a single body, having been made part of it by Jesus; and that we are empowered to live as God’s children, growing up into the likeness of Christ. Baptism illustrates many of the intensely practical parts of the Christian life.

Witnessing a baptism should make us think of so much more than how cute the baby is. It should remind us of our own baptism, what it means and the reason God has given it to us The fact that you or I were baptized once is something to remember when we are tempted: God has promised to save sinners like us and to make us His children, so we need not give in to sin because Jesus has conquered it in His death and He gives us His new life because of His resurrection. Baptism pictures for us the reason we need to be saved and the effect of the salvation God gives. Seeing someone baptized should spur us on to live the life Christ has promised to us and to encourage one another to live lives of holiness and righteousness because we belong to Christ and to one another (Westminster Larger Catechism Q167).

Baptism isn’t about experiencing a life-changing ritual. It isn’t even about the promises which we make (whether as new believers or as the parents of covenant children). It’s about the promise God holds out, that if we repent and believe, He will wash away our sins, and that just as Christ has gone down to the dead and been raised again, so those who are united to Him share in His death to sin and His resurrection to new life. And if we know the reality that God promises to those who believe, then it changes how we live (whether we remember receiving the promise or not). That’s something we should want to be reminded about!

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald

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Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that I was baptized at Knox Presbyterian Church in Gore. Obviously my recollections are pretty fuzzy!

Confidence in God

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

The Scouts motto is ‘Be Prepared’. I was never a Scout, but their advice is worth taking. But there are some situations in life which no amount of knot tying or fire starting can prepare you for.

How can we be ready for the unexpected?

On Friday 29th July, I was stilling at home pondering Psalm 16 when Sarah told me something wasn’t right with our baby. Within the hour, we were in the car heading for the hospital in Wangaratta. Another hour later, I was sitting outside the operating theatre and Sarah was inside. A few people said hello to me as I sat there in surgical scrubs and a funny hat, obviously waiting to go in. But most of the time I was the only one sitting there.

But I wasn’t alone.

In Psalm 16:8, David tells us how we can be prepared for anything. He says, ‘I have set the LORD always before me; Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved.’ As I sat there, I chewed over those words. Two truths stood out:

  1. Meditating on God builds my confidence in Him. I must practice thinking about God in every situation all the time.
  2. Nothing I do is the reason for my confidence. The assurance that He is close by me is a better reason to be at peace than my own ability to deal with problems.

That was a comfort to me. God was with me and my family, and we would not be moved, whatever happened.

David knew this reality. He knew that things don’t always go well. Even when he was being hunted down by his father-in-law, King Saul, when he was betrayed by his own people, and when he was usurped by his son Absalom, God never abandoned him.

Because of this, David was confident that God would be with him even in death (Psalm 16:9-10). Even though he may die, yet he would live forever at God’s right hand enjoying the pleasures He gives (Psalm 16:11). We may die, but we can be confident about the future of our bodies and souls, because God raised Jesus from the dead (Psalm 16:11, Acts 2:22-33, 1 Corinthians 15:17-20).

Jesus promises to be with us (Matthew 28:18-20, see also Joshua 1:8-9), so this confidence can be ours too: the eternal LORD is with His people and will not allow us to be shaken, even if we die (John 11:25-26). Do you believe this?

Yours in Christ’s service,

Stephen McDonald