Friday, January 05, 2018

Blogging in the Name of the Lord: Stephen Kneale

GD: Hello Stephen Kneale, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

SK: Hello! My friends call me Steve (some very close friends and family run with Stevie) I prefer being called Steve but hate it in conjunction with my surname, hence Stephen Kneale. Err... anyway that’s my name (hope you’ve made room for this). I was born in Oxford, began my schooling in Birkenhead, finished my secondary education in W. Berks, did my undergrad degree in History & Politics 10 years ago at Liverpool, where I also met my wife Rachel. From there, I took a Religious Studies & Philosophy PGCE  and had a very brief career as a secondary school teacher in Newbury. After a hefty bout of depression, I left teaching and completed an MA in Theology (I had intended to do it with the Artist formerly known as WEST, but their distance programme wasn’t suitable for me at the time). At this point, we were in Shrewsbury due to my wife’s work. From there, we followed my wife’s work again to Manchester where I became a self-employed researcher serving the recruitment sector and serving with a church in Moss Side. From there, I was called to be the pastor at Oldham Bethel Church around 3 ½ years ago. Since then, you asked me to do this a few hours ago, marking the zenith of both my theological development and overall growth as a person.

GD: It doesn't get munch better than this. You blog at What made you start blogging?

SK: My blog began as a primarily political blog with a bit of theological comment thrown in. It has morphed somewhat since then, moving from Blogger to Wordpress and undergoing a couple of rebrands before landing on the form it takes today.

I began for a variety of reasons. I spent the early part of my university years shouting at people for not being political enough and, in a brief flirtation, knocking around with the SWP. Blogging seemed like a more efficient way to shout at a wider range of people. It became apparent that some of the radical SWP views didn’t quite square with the radical Socialism with a Christian bent I tended toward. As I began writing, much of the material was drawn from whatever I was studying or reading infused with a theological twist and a soupcon of my own thoughts. It soon became less a tool to shout my rightness at people and more a means of formulating my own views on a given subject and starting a discussion.

As it morphed into more theological and social comment, I found it helpful in forming my own views or pushing against things that struck me as sub-optimal in the Christian world, as I perceived them. It has also proved to be a making our little corner of the UK, and our unique challenges, a little wider known.

GD: Which blogs do you enjoy reading and why?

SK: You can hardly be reformed and not read Tim Challies blog. Funnily enough, I have valued his a la carte feature as much as anything as it has led me to several blogs I would never have read otherwise.

David Robertson at The Wee Flea is always good value. He is so insightful and absolutely excellent on the pressing social issues of the day.

Then I have valued several smaller blogs of folk working in similar areas to us. Duncan Forbes at Council EstateChristianity has much to say as does Dave Williams at Mez McConnell is normally churning out something interesting at the 20Schemes blog too.

GD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of blogging as a medium for reflection on theological and ministry matters?

SK: At its best, blogging can bring real clarity to an issue. More usually, it is helpful in starting a discussion and process of thinking. Occasionally, it descends into arguments because one cannot say in everything 1000 words (particular if someone has a particular something in mind that you chose not to say!)

I have found blogging valuable in offering a quick response, or a basic outline of thoughts, addressing issues that arise in the both the local and wider church. It has also been a useful exercise in offering a position to the church that we would work toward. Due to a combination of character traits (some good; some less good) I appear to have a particular penchant for puncturing what I perceive to be blind spots that are passed around, especially as they relate to how things are on the ground in our particular context.

I have found blogging exceptionally helpful in raising the profile of our work in Oldham. It has also given me room to make clear to those who might support our work to “prove” I am kosher and share their core convictions, rather than relying on some unspoken shibboleth or a secret Reformed handshake (no one has shown it to me yet!)

GD: Do you use other forms of social media, and why/what for?

SK: Being the appropriate age, I joined Facebook when it first hit universities and never really came off it. I joined Twitter much later with almost minimal use and am on Linkedin but rarely visit.

Since becoming a pastor and determining to blog much more frequently, I primarily use all of these as a means of publicising my blog. However, I have since come to value Twitter the most. I have built up a small, but supportive, group of people who are either in similar situations to us, theological training or are inclined to support work such as ours. More than a few excellent steps forward for our church can be traced back to Twitter in some respect.

GD: Who has had the greatest influence on your theological development?

SK: Without doubt, my Dad. I was brought up in a sound Evangelical family. My Dad’s family were traditionally raised in the Brethren and, whilst my Dad was at Bible College in Birkenhead, we attended a Brethren Assembly on a ‘problem estate’. Whatever else one may say about the Brethren, I have no doubt that my Dad’s evangelistic zeal stemmed from here and passed down to myself (now a pastor) and my brother (now a missionary). When we moved down South, we ended up in Grace Baptists circles – partly due to a lack of Brethren Assemblies and my Dad’s theological shift – and it was here that I essentially became the convinced Reformed Baptist that I remain to this day. But that is all background really. My Dad’s consistent love for the Lord, clear devotion to the word and obvious zeal in evangelism – leading him into a full-time role as Executive Officer with United Beach Mission for a decade – has without doubt had the biggest impact on me, hands down.

GD: Which character from post-New Testament church history would you most like to meet and what would you say to him/her?

SK: What a great question (almost impossible to answer)! I am struggling, I’ve already come back to this twice. It would perhaps be fascinating to go back and ask John Stott for his views on 1966 in the wake of current goings on in the Anglican communion, but that is nothing more than dissenting rubber-necking really isn’t it?

GD: Tell us how you felt called to pastoral ministry:

SK: I’m going to point you to a blog post I wrote a while ago re calling (here). It is a little relevant to the answer. I essentially did my MA for two reasons: (1) a vague sense of wanting to ‘do something’ in ministry at some point in future; (2) as a means of recovering from depression, being well enough to need something to focus my mind but without being able to go back into work. It fit the bill perfectly and the setup of my distance-learning course meant I could fit all this around how I was feeling. I mention this because at that point I wasn’t specifically looking.

I was quite happy serving in our church in Manchester and working in recruitment when I was called. I very definitely was not looking at the time. The outgoing minister was retiring and my pastor at the time had made contact through the NW Partnership and offered to cover their preaching for a time. I was duly dispatched to help, not knowing the church were on the lookout for someone to come in. At some point, my training and background must have been discussed (alongside potential future plans) but I honestly don’t remember much about it. Having made myself available to help fill their pulpit with some frequency, as far as I was concerned I received a call out of the blue asking if i would consider becoming their pastor.

My wife and I prayed about it and, frankly, weren’t sure but couldn’t find any reason to object. I took it to our elders, fully expecting them to laugh at the idea. I intended to speak to all of them together but ended up talking to two independently first (one being the pastor). Both of them was individually very encouraging and said it was a confirmation of their own thinking at the time – the other two elders agreed when we got to meet with all of them. I spoke to my parents, who similarly told me I should go for it. In the face of one church asking, another church telling me it was a good idea and my Dad also affirming the idea, it seemed hard to say no really. So, as per my linked post, I felt called when I actually was called, to be honest.

GD: Where did you train for the ministry and what did you find especially helpful about your training?

SK: All of my undergrad and postgrad work has been useful. But, my direct theological training came in the form of an MA at Kings Evangelical Divinity School.

The course was great for handling the Bible and considering (from an academic stand point) cultural issues pertinent to ministry. But my degree was a purely academic one.

GD: What would be your three top tips for budding preachers?

SK: I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment! Everything I have learnt from preaching has come from Stuart Olyott’s writing and watching others.
I’d probably go for: (1) Stick closely to the text; (2) illustrations are useful but overrated i.e. preach as though what you’re saying is inherently interesting; (3) be yourself in words and dress so that the guy apart from the sermon sounds/looks like the one delivering it.

GD: Describe the situation where you are now ministering. What are some of the key challenges you face?

SK: Oldham is the most deprived town in England. The borough is 230,000 people and is in the top 10 of all the polls you’d rather you weren’t. The town is very segregated with S. Asian Muslims areas almost entirely separated from working class white estates. Joblessness, poverty, homelessness, racial tension and asylum seekers are all rife. We are the only FIEC church in the borough and one of only two gospel partnership churches.

Our main challenges are severaly fold: (1) the church has been through something of a journey over the years. Whilst the eldership is overtly and decidedly Reformed, the congregation is not. We are working with many from Pentecostal backgrounds and trying to lead them to Biblical truth; (2) trying to break into the local Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities (we are making some inroad but it is a drop in the bucket); (3) We function bilingually due to the large number of Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers coming into the church and converting (we are now 50% Farsi-speaking). This has difficult challenges in discipling and teaching new believers when hardly anything exists in Farsi and what does is typically rubbish that leads to the similarly bad delivery of English stuff by English guys like us and the hope it is being adequately translated on the hoof. (4) Reaching asylum seekers and the jobless means we are not solvent as a church (we have a regular £1500 deficit), are unlikely to ever be and thus rely on outside supporters. We have a few but not nearly enough to cover the gap in finances caused by a combination of people unable to give substantially, my salary and deep practical needs among the membership. [Info on how to Give in support of the work].

GD: How can Reformed Evangelicalism reconnect with disadvantaged communities?

SK: By teaching the truth of the gospel. The false promises of the Prosperity Gospel take hold easily but always fail to deliver. Methodism has had a stranglehold in Oldham for decades, but a social gospel is great for those using its services but quickly falters for those doing the serving (and does little for the souls of those coming). The borough is littered with failing Methodist churches that have dwindled down to a handful because, essentially, people got sick of serving just because it’s a nice thing to do.

It is only the gospel that will reconnect with the poor. That is what Jesus called good news – not the feeding of the 5000, but the gospel itself. If we want the promises we offer people to last, we need to offer them the unfailing promises of Christ in the gospel. If we want people to stick in the church, we need to give them something more than ‘serving is nice’. We need to serve them and give them the reason for the hope that is in us.

GD: Is the church you serve part of a wider group? If so, what are the benefits of belonging to the FIEC/NWP

SK: We are a part of both the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and North West Partnership. Both these groups have given us churches we can pass new converts who have had to move onto. They have also given us a ready made network of churches with whom we can work in the gospel both locally and more nationally. They have also provided something of a platform for us to share our work with those who would otherwise never have heard of it. These links will come into their own, particularly as we look to plant into unchurched areas of the borough.

GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?

SK: There are several that are good contenders. We were doing a lot of work on polity and membership this last year. Whilst Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church was extraordinarily helpful, I think Thom Rainer’s I am a member was probably the simplest and easiest that laid out in the clearest possible work what membership should be from a members point of view. I suspect it would be the book to have the biggest impact on our members if we all read it together as a church.

GD: In a recent blog post you argued that it isn’t necessary to wear a suit and tie in the pulpit. Since when was scruffiness next to godliness?

SK: When in Rome... (and, of course, according to the Bible!) According to my Facebook comments, the turning point seems to be somewhere around 55.

GD: What do you do to relax?

SK: My wife would say, ‘not much’. I genuinely like blogging and find it quite cathartic. But, if that sounds too close to work, I tend to veg out of TV of some sort. Streaming boxsets are very helpful.

GD: Care to share your top three songs or pieces of music?

SK: Just 3? I’m not sure they’re top 3 but they are 3 I have really been enjoying lately:
  1. Start a War – The National
  2. Hail to the Lord’s Anointed – The Welcome Wagon
  3. Tom on the Boulevard – The Innocence Mission
GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

SK: Presuming we are saying in the UK, it is hands down the overwhelming white educated middle class and Southern nature of British Evangelicalism that is seeing swathes of the poor and needy heading for Hell because we are unwilling to go to them because we are, frankly, comfortable where we are in our middle class enclaves. Evangelicalism will always remain minority unless we revive the missionary spirit and make a concerted effort to reach those in deprived communities, not just those people like us with whom we are comfortable, where the schools and cafes are to our liking.

GD: Agreed. Thanks for dropping by for this conversation, Steve. 

Wednesday, January 03, 2018


Want to know more about the Christian faith? We may have just the thing for you. We are holding All Age Services on the first Sunday of each month. They are especially for people who want to explore what following Jesus might mean for them. The meetings will include prayer, the singing of hymns and a simple message exploring an aspect of Christian teaching from the Bible. Our aim is to make these services as accessible as possible for children and adults alike. You won’t need to be a regular church goer to get something out of them. Light refreshments will be served following the meeting.

It has been said that the Christian faith is a pool in which elephants can swim and children can paddle. Adopting an attitude of faith seeking understanding, some of the greatest minds in history have failed to plumb the depths of what God says about himself in the Bible. Our finite human minds cannot fully comprehend the infinite God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet the essential message of Christianity is simple and straightforward.

It’s all about Jesus and us. Jesus is the one through whom we were made who became one of us. He died on the cross for our sins and rose again from the dead to bring us back to God. The church exists to tell people about Jesus and to equip those who believe in him to follow the Lord in their daily lives.

The next All Age ‘Explore’ Service will be on 7 January, 10.30am at Providence Baptist Chapel. We hope it will be a great way to start the New Year. None of us knows what 2018 is going to bring, but God does and he is able to help and guide us as we entrust our lives to him. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11). 

Monday, January 01, 2018

2018 Reading List

I had John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat by Crawford Gribben for Christmas. I've been looking forward to this ever since it came out in 2016, but was waiting for the considerably cheaper paperback edition. 

Michael Horton's The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way is my current 'big read'. I'm about half way through and am enjoying Horton's treatment of major Christian doctrines. He interacts well with contemporary concerns and employs a theodramatic approach. 

I bought Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline of Evangelical Ethics by Oliver O'Donovan at an Affinity Theological Studies Conference some years ago, but haven't yet got round to reading it. I must dust it off this year. 

I'm a school governor and like to try and keep abreast of what's happening in the world of education. Much Promise: Successful Schools in England by Barnaby Lenon  offers a survey of the evidence on what makes for successful teachers, pupils, governors, etc.  

Last summer I read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a thought-provoking dystopian novel. I plan to pack, The Buried Giant for this year's summer hols. 

Nigel Biggar has been at the centre of an academic spat over the ethics of the British Empire, which has piqued my interest in his Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation

There will probably be more, but this is enough for starters.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Just saw this. We watched Paddington 2 the other week. Missed Paddington 1 because we thought it was just for kids. But so many grown-ups raved about it that we succumbed. Watched the first film on telly and then headed to the cinema for the follow-up. Really enjoyed both. Hugh Grant was a superior villain in the sequel, which made for a better film. Very funny. 

I guess adults watching kids films based on childhood TV characters is all about nostalgia. The Star Wars reboot is an attempt to tug on that same sentiment. The 'story so far' bit told by the bold yellow lettering that slowly recedes into the distance transported me back to when I watched the original films back in the 1970's. In a galaxy far, far away. Well, the Odeon, Newport. Or was it the ABC? Can't remember. Was a time long ago.

I enjoyed The Force Awakens and thought this one was pretty good too, building momentum towards the inevitable clash between Jedi-girl Riley and Darth Vader #2, Ren in the next episode. It's visually pretty sunning. The fight sequences are nicely realised. Riley, Ren and Finn are developing as characters, but don't seem to have the same charisma as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Darth Vader.

What the Rebel Alliance really needs to defeat the evil First Order is not a lightsaber-wielding Jedi, but Paddington bear. Think of what he did to that bunch of prison inmates. Even the hard bitten cook. Had him making cup cakes. If only Paddington could get Ren to sit down and share a marmalade sandwich, he would soon be lured from the Dark Side. Failing that, a hard stare should do it. 

More seriously, the theme of self-sacrificing love in The Last Jedi hints at the true way dark forces have been defeated, 1 John 3:8. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christmas Special: David Sky vs Martin Luther

'Here I stand! Here I stand!' I had a Playmobil Martin Luther for my birthday in August. He's kind of cute with his little feather and tiny German Bible. But Luther been playing havoc with delicate balance of my study's ecosystem. He and David Sky don't get on for starters. 

My pet monkey was removed from being chair of governors at his daughter's primary school. The other board members got fed up with being zapped by Robo-Clerk. That and the school being rated totally and utterly inadequate by Ofsted. 

Robo-Clerk had a battery failure on the day the inspectors visited and it was evident that Sky didn't actually know anything about the school. He thought Pupil Premium was a superior kind of tea for kids. 'Just guessing.' he said. 'But what about the gaps?'  the inspectors persisted. 'Gaps? We prefer to call them perforations in the trade.' Sky explained, helpfully.

The school is going to have to join a MAT. One that doesn't allow monkeys to act as chair of governors, and where Robo-Clerks are banned. A story on the debacle featured in one of the National Governance Association's Friday newsletters. Top item. The monkey was so chuffed.

Anyway, Sky now has some time on his hands and likes to hang around my study. Just like the old days. Apart from the presence of Martin Luther. 'Here I stand! Here I stand!' he keeps exclaiming and then goes around standing on stuff. Even David Sky's head. 'What do you think I am, the diet of Worms?' the monkey complains. Then Luther tickles Sky with his feather, which he really hates. Cue big row.

It's getting a bit much, really.

What's especially awkward is that I'm currently reading Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lindal Roper. It's a bit 'warts and all' and little Luther has been reading it. Makes him really mad, 'But I was right! I was right! Here I stand! Here I stand! Karlstadt was my enemy. He took the bent coin. He took it! And I do not have an Oedipus complex!' Sky chips in, 'Oh give over. Calvin was a better Reformer than you. Everyone knows that. Much more biblical. Why were you so mean to poor Karlstadt? And who's Oedipus Complex exactly, when he's at home?'

You can imagine what it's like with those two arguing. Once Sky offered Luther a nice cup of tea as a peace offering. 'Nein. Get me Wittenberg beer.' was the reply. Cue another big row. 

'Bad case of 'Founder's Syndrome', you, mate.' opined Sky. 'I looked it up on Wikipedia. Suits you  to a T': 
Founder's syndrome (also founderitis) is a popular term for a difficulty faced by organizations where one or more founders maintain disproportionate power and influence following the effective initial establishment of the project, leading to a wide range of problems for the organization.The passion and charisma of the founder(s), sources of the initial creativity and productivity of the organization, become limiting or destructive factors.
'Ring any bells, Marty?' 

'Look', Luther shot back, 'I'm the most popular Playmobil figure in the world. Over 1 million of me sold. I was the first Reformer. 95  Theses. Diet of Worms. Here I stand! Here stand!'

'95 Theses, eh?' replied Sky. I read somewhere that rather nailing them to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church with an actual hammer and nails, you used glue. Glue. Afraid of hurting your poor little thumb? Blu Tack, was it? Pritt Stick, perhaps?  Like a little kid. Anyway, you're only a toy, not the real Martin Luther. And don't go all Buzz Lightyear, thinking you're real. You're not, OK?'

'Has serious academic Lyndal Roper written a biog of you, monkey boy?' asked Luther. 'Have they made a film of your life with Mike Reeves doing the voice-over in his best interesting voice for children? And if I'm not real, you're not.'

Sky: 'If I'm not real, why are you arguing with me, weirdo?'

Luther: 'Aaaaaarghhh! You're the worst Anfechtungen ever!'

Me: 'Right, you two. Behave or Bathsheba and Kate are coming round.'
Just then the doorbell rang. Carol singers. The strains of Silent Night could be heard from the study. Sky chimed in, 'Silent night, holy night' and Luther sang out, 'Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht'. Harmony at last. It's Christmas Eve and all's well with the world. Well, almost. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

After Darkness Light

December is the darkest month. 21 December is the shortest day of the year, with only 7 hours, 49 minutes and 44 seconds of daylight. But it is also the brightest month of the year when High Streets and houses are lit up with a dazzling array of Christmas lights. 
The association of darkness and light is appropriate for the message of Christmas that Christians celebrate at this time of year. Of Jesus it is written “the light shines in the darkness”. 
It is true that the world can sometimes seem a dark place, what with conflicts, natural disasters and personal tragedies. We hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel can sometimes seem very long and very dark. 
In his account of the Christmas Story Luke tells of shepherds watching over their flocks by night. Suddenly an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord around them. Some Christmas lights! Not even the grandest High Street illuminations could beat that. 
The angel had been sent with news that would light up the shepherds’ lives, ‘Today in the City of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Christ, the Lord.’ The shepherds hurried to see the sight. That very night they saw a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a lowly manger. That baby was none other than Jesus, the light of the world. He came to, 
shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace. 
Jesus took on the darkness of sin and death by dying on the Cross for our sins.  He rose again from the dead, the ultimate triumph of light over darkness. The Lord Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ Are you following the light of the world?

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Westminster Conference 2017 Report

Stephen Clark
When I was at the London Seminary many moons ago, students used to refer to the Westminster Conference as Back to the Future because attending was a bit like travelling back in time. Without the aid of a DeLorean. We were young and foolish then and didn't perhaps appreciate the value of what might be learned from the past. 

We tend to think that how we see things now is 'it', while years ago peoples' views were historically and culturally conditioned. The fact is, we're just as culturally situated today as people were years ago, but just in different ways that we don't always appreciate. 

Also, we can get into thinking that how we understand things now is inevitably better and more enlightened than in the past. 'This is the 21st century, you know'. You'd have hoped that in some ways, having benefited from the breakthroughs of yesteryear, that we would have more light than our forefathers. At least that is how it ought to be. But if we see further it is only because we stand on the shoulders of theological giants such as Tertullian, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Bavinck, and so on. 

It needs to be said that progress in understanding and isn't always a case of 'onwards and upwards'. Important gains can be lost, vital insights forgotten that then need to be re-appropriated. If we lack an awareness of the Great Tradition of church history, the danger is that we will read the Bible simply in the light of our own personal limits of knowledge and experience. 

We can then be blinkered to some of the things that God is showing us in Holy Scripture because they fail to resonate with where we are. That can especially be the case in the realm of spiritual experience and communion with God. We only see in the Bible the what we have thus far experienced ourselves, rather than allowing Holy Scripture be the measure of our experience of God. 

That fact is that Reformed Evangelicalism in the UK isn't exactly in the throes of a mighty revival at the moment. We may view expressions of our forefathers like, the 'felt presence of God', or 'full assurance of faith', or a 'plentiful outpouring of the Spirit' as rather quaint, or weirdly mystical. But perhaps they knew something in their communion with God that is more rare today. That is what made them better able to expound upon what it means to experience the 'joy unspeakable and full of glory' of which the Bible speaks. 

In his paper on 'The Holy Spirit and the Human Heart' Stephen Clark drew upon the wisdom of the past to show that in the Reformed tradition the Holy Spirit is said to work 'in, by and with the Word' in regenerating and sanctifying the heart. As a sovereign, divine Person, the Spirit is not so bound to the Word that Scripture read and preached always has the same unvarying effect upon its hearers. The Spirit's work may be more or less intensified and dramatic in its effects. It is therefore both legitimate and necessary to pray for more of his empowering presence. 

I spoke on Thomas Goodwin's work, A Child of Light Walking in Darkness: Knowing, Losing and Recovering a Felt Sense of the Presence of God. John Owen urged his readers to pursue a deeper experience of God, “If there are no such things, the gospel is not true; if there are, if we press not after them, we are despisers of the gospel. Surely he hath not the Spirit who would not have more of him, all of him that is promised by Christ.” Goodwin would have us, "Sue this promise out" that "Holy Ghost [may] come and fill up your hearts with joy unspeakable and glorious, to seal you up to the day of redemption." 

Andrew Young gave a paper on 'Calvin - Worship and Preaching', setting before us the Reformer's high view of the worship of the gathered church ordered according to the pattern of Scripture. It is true that the whole of life is worship, or at least should be. But there is something distinctive about the collective worship of God's people on the Lord's Day, where our God addresses his people by his Word and receives the prayers and praise they offer. 

Phil Arthur spoke on Jacob Arminius, his life and views. A warm, insightful and generous-spirited paper on a theological opponent from a good old Reformed Baptist. Benedict Bird charted the Calvinistic response to the challenge of Arminianism at the Synod of Dort (1618-19). Both papers served as a reminder that we have much to learn from the theological controversies of the past, as well as from what those who went before us knew of the presence of God in their lives.

Mark Thomas brought the conference to a fitting conclusion with his address on 'William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-91). The life of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist leader, preacher and hymnwriter was sketched out and valuable lessons were drawn out from his works. Williams embodied a combination of solid Calvinistic doctrine and deep experiences of God. Mark urged us not to allow our current experiences to place a limit on what might be know and experienced of our glorious God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Sometimes we need to go back to the past to be stirred up to pursue more of God in the future than we have yet known of him. It is surely not unbiblical mysticism to seek what God holds out to us in his Word: full assurance of faith, our Father’s smile and loving embrace, joy unspeakable and full of glory in Christ, and the direct witness of the Spirit. As Goodwin would say, let us ‘sue this promise out’ of a ‘more plentiful communication of the Spirit’ than we have hitherto known or experienced.  

Times of discussion followed all addresses bar the final one. The papers will be published sometime in 2018. 
1. Speak, I pray Thee, gentle Jesus!
O, how passing sweet Thy words,
Breathing o’er my troubled spirit
Peace which never earth affords.
All the world’s distracting voices,
All th’enticing tones of ill,
At Thy accents mild, melodious,
Are subdued, and all is still.
2. Tell me Thou art mine, O Savior,
Grant me an assurance clear;
Banish all my dark misgivings,
Still my doubting, calm my fear.
O, my soul within me yearneth
Now to hear Thy voice divine;
So shall grief be gone for ever
And despair no more be mine. 
(William Williams)

Monday, December 04, 2017

Westminster Conference 2017

I'll be off to the Westminster Conference bright and early tomorrow morning. Early anyway.

I'm due to give a paper on A Child of Light Walking in Darkness: The Felt Presence of God. The Child of Light... bit in the title refers to a work by the Puritan Thomas Goodwin. It's essentially a series of sermons on Isaiah 50:10, with some extra 'box set' material thrown in for good measure.

My brief is to reflect on what Goodwin has to say on knowing, losing and then recovering a felt sense of God's presence and favour. Also interacting with the views of Goodwin's old pal, John Owen.

Getting hold of Owen's stuff is easy enough. Banner of Truth published his 16 Volume Works decades ago and they are still in print today. I purchased my set when a student at the London Seminary (1988-90).

Goodwin ain't so easy to obtain. Banner has only published Volume 8 of his Works. Odd titles are available as e-books, but not A Child of Light Walking in Darkness. Only realised that after I'd agreed to speak at the conference. Something of a problem. 

Handily, my old church history lecturer at the seminary, Robert Oliver lives nearby.  He is also a member of our local Ministers' Fraternal. Robert kindly lent me Volume 3 of Goodwin's Works, which includes A Child of Light...

Goodwin's piece isn't too long. Owen on Psalm 130 takes up most of Volume 6 of his Works. Took a while to wade through. But, as ever with Owen, was worth the effort. 

I was a bit unwell towards the end of September and into October, which slowed me down when it came to writing up the paper, but I got there in the end. 

I'm looking forward to hearing the other speakers (see here for the programme) and also to meeting up with some old friends at the conference. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Seven Leaders: Preachers and Pastors by Iain H. Murray

Banner of Truth Trust, 2017, 279pp 

The author wrote this book out of the conviction that lessons of abiding importance may be learned from godly and able preachers and pastors across the ages. It will be of interest to men aspiring to pastoral ministry, or who are just setting out in that work. Here they will find role models to follow whose example will both challenge and encourage them. More seasoned pastors will also find help here. If we are not careful it is easy to drift into going through the motions of ministry, rather than our work being the overflow of deep communion with God. These pages will provide a necessary corrective. Those not called to preach or pastor will none the less find their souls stirred by Murray’s accounts of seven exceptional Ministers of the Gospel.

Attention is given to seven men: John Elias, Andrew A. Bonar, Archie Brown, Kenneth A MacRae, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, W. J. Grier and John MacArthur. Murray does not so much give us potted biographies of these varied characters, as attempt to show what made them tick. These are very different men, called to serve the Lord at different times and in different situations. Some had more academic training than others. All were wonderfully used by the Lord to accomplish great things for him.

While certainly not like peas in a pod, these ‘Magnificent Seven’ Ministers had a number of things in common that helps account for their usefulness. They were all strongly Calvinistic in their doctrinal emphasis, some at times when the Reformed faith seemed to be going out of fashion. They maintained their stand for the sovereign grace of God because they were convinced that the great truths commonly labelled ‘Calvinism’ were in fact nothing less than biblical Christianity.

The importance of prayer and communion with God in ministry is highlighted in the chapter on Andrew A. Bonar. The thoughtful reader will be humbled, challenged and made to yearn for a deeper walk with God through Bonar’s example. A missing note in some Evangelical circles today is the need for the empowering presence of the Spirit in preaching. The preachers described here were men of the Word, yet they also longed and prayed for the Spirit’s work upon their preaching and in the lives of their hearers. He alone is able to give the Word preached its life-transforming effectiveness.  

All were evangelistic preachers, in that they intentionally addressed their messages to the unconverted, aiming at their salvation. In addition, Murray shows that these gifted preachers worked hard to make their content-rich sermons as clear, logical and easy to follow as possible. Helpful instances are given as to how they did just that, especially in the chapters on Lloyd-Jones and MacRae. 

Martin Luther once wrote, “It is not by reading, writing, or speculation that one becomes a theologian. Nay, rather, it is living, dying, and being damned that makes one a theologian.” The same may be said of pastors and Murray describes how the Lord made these men tender hearted shepherds of the flock by bringing suffering and trials into their lives, This is especially brought out in the chapter on C. H. Spurgeon’s friend and contemporary, Archie Brown. 

Some chapters are stronger than others. Elias, Bonar, Brown and Lloyd-Jones are highlights. I'd barely heard of MacRae, but enjoyed Murray's pen portrait of the Isle of Lewis pastor. I found the one on W.J Grier a little hard going. The MacArthur chapter was good on preaching and Scripture. 

The book as a whole is a standing reminder of one vital fact, “what a preacher is as a Christian is of greater consequence than his natural gifts. In the words of M’Cheyne: ‘It is not great talents that God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.’” The great burden of this work is a call to return to the apostolic pattern of gospel ministry, 'we will give ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word' (Acts 6:4). In that order. 

* Reviewed for Evangelical Times

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Too young to die? by Andrew Stone

Day One Publications, 2017, 125pp 

I can't really attempt to review this book, as it's difficult to be objective about the story of a family who are dear friends of ours and members of Providence Baptist Church, which I pastor. But I'm more than happy to recommend it. 

The book is based on emails Andrew Stone sent to friends and family give updates on his daughter, Hannah's health situation. She was delayed in going to study history at Bangor University, as acute kidney failure necessitated a transplant. Early in the second year of her studies Hannah was diagnosed as having a lymphoma tumor at the back of her nose. Chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy seemed not to have been effective in removing the tumor. The family were told to prepare for the worst. But God had other ideas.  

It was a privilege to have been asked to contribute a brief foreword to the book. Reading it brought so many memories flooding back. Some of them painful, some of them joyful.

The Lord has not promised to insulate his people from times of suffering and trial in this life. Knowing that in theory is one thing, experiencing the reality of intense suffering is another. This book gives us a glimpse of faith in the crucible of affliction, as the Stone family learned to trust in their God and Father in unimaginably difficult circumstances.

Andrew’s emails reproduced here were written to keep family and friends informed of Hannah’s latest news in order to stimulate prayer and thanksgiving to God. As you will see, they are heartrendingly honest, full of gratitude to God, and above all expressive of the reality of the Christian hope in the face of suffering and death.

Seeking to give pastoral support to the Stone family during the period of Hannah’s illness and recovery, I often found myself asking the question posed by Paul in connection with his ministry, “who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

The apostle supplies the answer in following chapter, “our sufficiency is from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). As these pages testify, Andrew, Susan and Hannah certainly proved that to be true in their own experience. All who trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will find the same. 

This is an ideal book for believers facing times of suffering and trial. It is also a powerful and moving testimony to the grace of God to place into the hands of non-Christians.  May it be widely used by the Lord for his glory.