Walking away from Jesus


Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in …ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ… scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.… It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. [Jude 1:3-4, 18,19]

I write in the immediate aftermath of our General Assembly, where the debate on the issue of same sex relations in the ministry resulted in a resounding defeat for those, like ourselves, committed to the orthodox, historic Christian gospel, to the absolute standard of authority upon which the Church of Scotland was founded, the Bible, and to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the principal subordinate standard of the Church of Scotland.

Let me quote directly from the official News Release from the Church of Scotland on Monday evening (called Good News from the Church of Scotland which is an ironic misnomer if ever there was one):

“Commissioners voted by 351 to 294 to adopt deliverance 7B, which means a move towards the acceptance for training, induction and ordination of those in same-sex relationships for the ministry.

The Assembly also voted to allow ministers and deacons in same-sex relationships ordained before 2009 to be inducted into pastoral charges (by 393 to 252.)”

[these are very decisive majorities as far as our GA is concerned - often votes are very close]

“A theological commission will be set up to bring recommendations to the 2013 General Assembly, as well as considering whether ministers should have freedom of conscience to bless civil partnerships and possible liturgy for such occasions.”

Speaking after the debate, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Right Reverend David Arnott, said.... ‘We as the National Church will continue to provide guidance and spiritual leadership for the people of Scotland.’ ”

"What kind of guidance and spiritual leadership can possibly be given by a denomination that has thus departed so dramatically and decisively from its moorings in the biblical faith?"

That the last paragraph will be greeted with astonishment by Christian people who must wonder what kind of guidance and spiritual leadership can possibly be given by a denomination that has thus departed so dramatically and decisively from its moorings in the historic, reformed and biblical faith.

The Church of Scotland was established as we know it today when the Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland in Matters Spiritual were declared lawful by Parliament in the Church of Scotland Act 1921. The first declaratory Article states clearly

The Church of Scotland adheres to the Scottish Reformation; receives the Word of God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as its supreme rule of faith and life; and avows the fundamental doctrines of the Catholic faith founded thereupon.

The Scriptures of both Old and New Testament, our ‘supreme rule of faith and life’, speak with one voice and unequivocally on the issue of same sex union. Sexual sin is not the unpardonable sin, but like all sin, must not be acquiesced in—far less celebrated as holy—but must be repented of, or else one cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, that is, cannot find salvation.

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

When the church faces controversial questions, The Westminster Confession of Faith (which the Second Declaratory Article states as ‘the principal subordinate standard of the Church of Scotland’) is clear about how these things are to be resolved:

The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. [WCF I.X.]

The Confession realistically acknowledges that people will often try to justify sinful behaviour, and warns us presciently: this is not a secondary matter; to use the language of Christian freedom and love to justify sinful behaviour in fact destroys the gospel itself, because the gospel’s whole purpose and goal is that we are saved from sin for holiness and righteousness:

They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end [goal] of Christian liberty; which is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. [WCF XX.III]

Thus, the decision of the General Assembly this year has set a clear ‘trajectory’ (to use the words of the Special Commission) that leads away from the Christian Scriptures, the Christian gospel, and the love of Christ himself, for Jesus said ‘whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me’ (John 14:21)

It is not that the voice of the truth was not heard; faithful brethren articulated clearly, competently and graciously the truth of God, and warned against the consequences of such a departure. Many interventions were made. But every attempt to amend the deliverances—even those which would have served simply to give more time and discussion—was defeated heavily. In the end, the revisionists won by a large and decisive majority.

"The centre of gravity of those who claim to represent the Church of Scotland today, has shifted to the point of no longer being recognisably Christian."

If there is some comfort in all this, it is that God has now granted great clarity as to the true position and direction of our denomination. Those who have been naively deceiving themselves about the severity of the situation must now see the truth as it really is. We must all face the facts that some have been reluctant to acknowledge hitherto: the so called ‘win-able middle ground’ of the church simply does not exist. There is no middle ground. In so rejecting the Scriptures and the reformed confessions the ‘middle’, the centre of gravity of those who claim to represent The Church of Scotland today, has drifted to the point of now no longer being recognisably Christian in the sense understood by all Christians historically and the majority worldwide Christian Church today.

Nor are these simply impersonal ‘forces’ dividing the church, as if people were caught helplessly in the midst and we can all ‘work together for unity’. No. The rift is being caused by many—the majority, it seems—of people choosing wilfully to walk away from the biblical gospel, and walk apart from those who cannot and will not likewise abandon the faith once for all delivered to the saints, the faith of our fathers, the faith of the worldwide Church, and of our Church.

As the debate went on and I watched online (I was not a commissioner this year) it was as if, with Ezekiel, one could see the glory of God departing. One after another, speeches of increasingly blasphemous character seemed to indicate the withdrawal of all divine restraint, the Lord giving this institution over to self-destructive folly, and the inevitability of self-inflicted disaster. In the days of Samuel, when wicked corruption of priesthood and people was left weakly unopposed by good but feeble Eli, in the end the Ark of the Covenant—representing God's holy presence—was removed from the midst leaving people crying "Ichabod": The Glory has departed.

This week I was reading my father, James Philip’s Bible readings and came upon these words, on 1 John 5:16

There are some sins in believers which bring them to their death. God is more honoured in taking them out of the way than in healing and restoring them…. All human sin is an admixture of ignorance and wilfulness, and one can visualise the possibility of sinful attitudes becoming more and more wilful and deliberate and presumptuous, and less and less partaking of the ignorance that makes sin ‘forgivable’ (see 1 Tim 1:13) until the possibility of forgiveness is past, and the irrevocable step has been taken which puts a man beyond the reach of the grace of God… ‘the sin unto death’ concerning which John says ‘I do not say that one should pray for that’…

He went on to speak of the corporate application of this same principle, citing the example of Jeremiah, where repeatedly the prophet is explicitly told by God not to pray for a people confidently proud of their status as “the national church” with their mantra ‘the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’, but whose hearts were far from the God whose temple it was (see Jer 7:16, 11:14 and 14:11).

In the experience of Judah there came a point beyond which God would have no more to do with them. They had by the persistence of their sins passed the point of no return, and nothing then would have availed to turn away the threatened doom. And nothing did; for the people of God were swept away into captivity in the judgment that came upon their ‘sin unto death’.

So, it seems, in today’s Church of Scotland; his merciful hand of restraint has been lifted. As the apostle Paul describes in Romans chapter 1

Claiming to be wise, they became fools...Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity...because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.... And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (Rom. 1:22...28)

"We are simply not at liberty to walk away from Christ and his gospel, or depart from the historic foundations of our Church or separate from communion with orthodox believers globally."

Where, then, does this leave our church fellowship in St George's-Tron?

Alas, it seems, greatly at odds with the clearly expressed official will of the denomination to which we are affiliated. But, notwithstanding the deliberations and decisions of even the highest court of our denomination, we are simply not at liberty to walk away from Christ and his gospel, or depart from the historic foundations of our Church or separate from communion with orthodox Christian believers globally. To do so would be sin against God, and sin against our Christian brothers and sisters worldwide, many of whom are facing great persecution for their adherence to the truth. It would be to choose fellowship (koinonia) with the works of darkness and break fellowship with the worldwide believing church. This we cannot do. It is an instance when we must obey God rather than men. Our own Westminster Confession is plain here also:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. [WCF XX.II]

Dear friends, as has become increasingly clear over recent months in the hostility we have already experienced from our presbytery, we are entering days of uncertainty and difficulty as a fellowship when our faith is going to be tested in many ways, some of which we cannot easily anticipate. This should not surprise us. Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [Mark 8:34]. He warned that to be faithful would mean being at odds with many in the world and in the religious establishment, and indeed this has been the history of the church throughout the ages, and in our own land also.

Having lived for generations in days of peace we have forgotten that those who have stood for the biblical faith in Scotland have often been persecuted; just visit the graveyards of the Covenanters in Ayrshire for a reminder of the terrible ‘killing times’ of the 17th Century when many of our forebears gave their lives for the faith we proclaim today. The original Wynd Church, the antecedent of our present-day congregation, was itself formed in 1687 in dark days, by a determined group of believers who would not bow the knee to the imposition of high church episcopacy by the establishment, and courageously stood for their evangelical biblical faith against the odds. We thank God that we are unlikely to face the extremity of violence of those times. But violent opposition we may well have to endure, and we shall need great grace, courage, and unity if we too are not to be found unfaithful in facing the challenges the Lord is allowing us to meet in coming days.

We are not alone, of course. There are other churches in Scotland who feel as we do, grieving deeply over the decisions of the General Assembly and mourning together with us over such defiance of his Word. Grieving together, but also standing together, and acting together. I am sure that Dick Lucas is absolutely right in the words of encouragement he sent to us this week

I see one thing in your favour … a clear cut and final decision, even if it is to embrace depravity. This at least means for you that no biblically minded Minister or congregation, can temporize over the matter.

"I see one thing in your favour...a clear cut and final decision, even if it is to embrace depravity. This at least means for you that no biblically minded Minister or congregation, can temporize over the matter."

We commit to praying and supporting all such, as many congregations now enter days of uncertainty and great difficulty and the rupture of communion becomes evident. We must pray for ourselves and for all with whom we unite in solidarity that we shall have courage to make whatever stand our Lord calls us to, however difficult and misunderstood it may be by some. May we all, as Faber’s hymn says, ‘learn to scorn the praise of men, and learn to lose with God’, that being found faithful in word and deed, the name of Christ may be honoured in us and through us.

Much prayer is needed. But not prayer alone. Having cited two of my chief mentors in life and ministry, let me quote from the third, William Still. Both he and my father, though greatly loyal to the Church of Scotland ministry, spoke to me often of a day when faithfulness to Christ and loyalty to the denomination could (and very probably would) come into such conflict that one would have to give way to the other. Neither was in any doubt where their loyalties would lie. They also saw clearly how it is that real cleansing and change is effected in a corrupted church. Writing in his Congregational Record as long ago as 1970, Mr Still’s words could hardly be more apt today:

“I am amazed at the ineptitude not only of individuals, but of whole schools of thought, and even denominations, in respect of evils which beset and bedevil their work. … What the Christian church needs in so many situations is great rows! The Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles is not afraid of disturbance. Sometimes it is necessary.… Major evils, radical departures from biblical orthodoxy, deep corruption, bitter feuds, and adamant worldliness may not be dealt with by prayer without action…. If anyone ever used the Word of God as a hammer to break the rock in pieces, or as wildfire to set the straw, or as we say in Scotland, the heather on fire, it was Jesus.”

This week, indeed, the touch-paper of such a fire of disturbance has been lit. Let us pray that through it what William Still called the real Church of Jesus Christ in Scotland would grow and be strengthened even as a result of all that has happened, and that these things, which seem calamitous, would ‘really serve to advance the gospel’ as Paul's own trials and imprisonment certainly did (Phil 1:12).

Finally, beloved in the Lord, in all that lies ahead, in all we may be required to do, and in all we may have to face, let us remember and cherish the command of the apostle we were considering together the very week of the General Assembly:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…. Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good’ [Rom 12:21]

and also the comforting words of our Lord Jesus himself:

‘In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world!’ [John 16:33]

Yours, in the truth that is in Jesus Christ, who alone is the Divine King and Head of this Church,

William J U Philip

Related items:
— Listen to: What is an evangelical?
— Scottish Ministers' and Elders' Meeting (June 17): ListenWatch