Sunday Sermon

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For our Sunday Sermon, what follows is, I dare say, a funeral sermon unlike any you are ever likely to encounter. Moreover, it is profound,  and it is, I think, a funeral sermon well suited to our time.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Smith Candlish [1806-1873] was one of the founding members of the Free Church of Scotland and a noted pastor and expositor of the Scriptures. Our sermon today is taken from the first portion of the sermon offered up by the Rev. Dr. Buchanan in memory of Dr. Candlish, preached in Free St. George’s, Edinburgh, on Sabbath, November 2, 1873. To read the full text of this sermon, click here.


Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Robert Buchanan.

“The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart; and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come.–Isaiah 57:1.

There could hardly be a more fatal sign of the condition and prospects of any community than the existence in it of such a state of things as our text describes. When a people cease to cherish and venerate moral and religious worth; when the death of eminently good and holy men hardly attracts notice and awakens no regret, and when the solemn lessons which so great a public calamity is fitted to teach are totally disregarded, the fact is ominous of coming wrath and ruin. It painfully indicates that the cement which binds human society together is undergoing a process of dissolution.

In the course of its eventful history, our fallen world has often exemplified this truth. In the days that were before the flood the righteous perished, and no man laid it to heart. The sons of God—those who had the spirit of an Abel, a Seth, or an Enoch, disrelished and opposed by the ungodly spirit of the age in which they lived—were at length, in God’s divine displeasure, taken, one after another away. And what was the terrible consequence? The earth became corrupt and was filled with violence. Engrossed with their eating and drinking, their planting and building, their marrying and giving in marriage, the men of that sensual, antediluvian world considered not that the righteous, in whose gradual disappearance they rather rejoiced than grieved, had been taken away from the evil to come. But their reckless levity and selfish unconcern did not hinder the evil, from which the righteous were being removed, from overtaking themselves. The heavens grew dark with judgment, when the despised lights that once shone in it, had all sunk back into the depths of the sky. The vengeance of the Almighty was let loose, and the flood came and took them all away!

The same truth was illustrated, in a hardly less terrible form, subsequently to the coming and the crucifixion of our Lord, in the case of Jerusalem and the Jews. Piety had long been upon the decline among God’s ancient people. The men who sat in Moses’ seat, and who ought to have been the guides and guardians of the nation’s moral and spiritual life, had become the chief transgressors. Even that partial awakening to a sense of sin, and that temporary revival of religious thought, which attended the solemn preaching of John the Baptist, and which spread still wider abroad under the ministry of our Lord, served only, in the long run, to rouse into intenser activity the ungodly spirit of the time, and to turn it with a fiercer enmity against the cause and kingdom of God. The righteous and merciful One HImself, after being publicly disowned and rejected, was, by a national act, put to a cruel and ignominious death, and neither princes, nor priests, nor people laid it to heart. Loving and God-fearing men, like Stephen, were stoned and slain; and none considered that, by such savage deeds, they were only taking these righteous and merciful men away from the evil to come. Piety and purity, goodness and holiness, systematically discouraged in the midst of this abounding wickedness, fled up to Heaven. And the salt being thus withdrawn from the increasingly corrupt mass of Jewish society, its crimes, ere long, rendered it intolerable alike to God and man. The measure of the nation’s iniquity had come to the full. He who is slow to wrath, but who is also of great power, and who will not at all acquit the wicked, uplifted His avenging arm, and their city, their temple, and their nation perished.

Nor is it only in the records of Scripture that we can trace the fatal influences of such a state of things as that to which our text refers. The thoughtful student of history will not fail to recognize that state of things as the sure precursor of disaster and overthrow wherever it has appeared. In his great work on the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, its author, sceptic though he was, and little either disposed or qualified to mark the operations of God’s mighty hand, is, nevertheless, constrained to acknowledge that not the power of Rome’s external foes, but the canker of her own internal corruptions, brought on her ruin. Such virtues as even Pagan Rome once knew,—severe simplicity of manners—patient industry—indomitable hardihood and courage—a proud sense of honour and truth—stern, self-sacrificing devotion to the interests of the state,—were no longer held in esteem. The few who retained and cherished such virtues, perished; and no man laid it to heart. The very soldiers, enervated by luxury and ease, pusillanimously abandoned both the nation’s defence and their own. The material prosperity of the empire died out with the virtues of its citizens. Want and misery grew apace. And yet at the very time when destitution and disease and death were at the height in one class of the population, the wildest excess and extravagance were running riot in another. “The mad prodigality,” the historian says, when speaking of this unnatural and revolting spectacle, “which prevails in the confusion of a shipwreck or of a siege, may serve to explain the progress of luxury amid the misfortunes and terrors of a sinking nation.”

It needs not to say, that examples of the same thing have not been awanting in more modern times. I shall content myself with singling out and specifying only one. It belongs to the history of a neighbouring kingdom, and may be said, without a particle of exaggeration, to have been written again and again, in characters of fire upon its palace walls. For two centuries France had not only seen the righteous perish, without laying it to heart; but during that long period it had done its very utmost to cause them to perish. By a series of remorseless persecutions, it had dyed its hands deep in their blood. The pure faith of the gospel, in which these righteous men had found life and peace, and from which they had derived all those Christian graces by which their character was adorned, France spared no pains to eradicate from its soil. The adherents of that faith it chased, at one time, by hundreds of thousands into exile; while, at other times, it slew them in numbers as great with the sword, or drowned them in its rivers, or burned them at the stake. And while men, full of that loving and merciful spirit which the gospel inspires, were being thus rapidly thinned out of the land, none considered that they were being taken away from the evil to come. But it not more true of individuals than it is of nations, that what men sow, that shall they also reap. By its ceaseless oppression of God’s cause and people, France had been sowing the wind,—sowing, that is, the seed of social storms and political convulsions. And, in the due time, it reaped the fitting harvest in the whirlwind of its terrific revolution : a revolution in which the whole social fabric was loosened from its foundations; and out of which a state of anarchy arose in which law was dethroned; in which all authority, human and divine, was trampled under foot; in which religion was abolished, the very name and being of God were disowned; in which atheism was adopted and proclaimed as the nation’s creed, death pronounced to be an eternal sleep, and the day of judgment to be a delusion and a dream; and when, as the fruit of these fiend-like enormities, human blood was shed like water, and no man could call his life his own.

Events like these—and all history is full of them—present a truly startling commentary on the words of our text, and may well stir us up to give to them the most earnest and prayerful consideration. They are fitted to remind us of what, perhaps, we had not before sufficiently adverted to,—that a great depth and force of meaning lies in the statement our text contains; and that it is no common danger and no common sin against which God is here putting us on our guard. When we proceed to look at the text more closely, there are two things that cannot fail to suggest themselves as plainly implied in it, and as constituting the chief lessons it is fitted, and no doubt intended, to convey. (1.) That the righteous and the merciful are among the most precious of God’s gifts to a community and to a Church. And, (2.) That to depreciate or despise these gifts is to provoke the Giver of them to take them away, and to visit with some signal token of His divine displeasure the people who are chargeable with this heinous sin.

1. First, then, let us for a little turn our attention to the fact, so plainly taught in the text, that the kind and class of men there spoken of are among the most precious of God’s gifts to a community and to a Church. By the men in question, we are evidently to understand the people of God. “The righteous,” is the most common and characteristic title by which, in Holy Scripture, God’s people are named and known. When God would single our Noah as the last remaining representative of true godliness, it was by this very word his character was summarily described. Thee, said the Lord, addressing him, “Thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation” (Gen. 7:1). Again, when God would hold up His own people, in contrast with those by whom He is dishonoured and disowned, He thus speaks: “The Lord will not suffer the righteous to famish; but he casteth away the substance of the wicked.” And, again, “The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life : but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked.” And, once more, when He would tell who those are who shall enter into His glory in the world to come, it is still the same distinctive term He employs : “The righteous shall go away into life eternal.” (Matt. 25:46).

It is hardly necessary to observe that the other descriptive expression, “merciful men,” is not intended to represent a class additional to, and different from, the righteous. It is meant simply to present another aspect of the character of the righteous. That this is so, is made conclusively manifest by the fact that, in this very text itself, the word merciful is used interchangeably with the word righteous. “Merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come.”

Thus understood, it can need no argument to prove how inestimable a blessing such men are to a community or a Church. Had even ten such men been found in Sodom, their presence would have saved it from destruction. For their sakes the sword of Divine vengeance, though already unsheathed, would have been returned to its scabbard without striking the fatal blow. They are the salt of the earth : they are the light of the world. It is on their account that the whole existing order of things is upheld. For no sooner shall God have gathered His elect, His righteous seed, from the four winds, than the heavens and the earth which are now shall be dissolved.

But not only,—as thus serving to throw a shield of protection over the cities and nations to which they belong,—is the presence of these men an inestimable blessing; it is still further a blessing, whose value is unspeakably great, in respect of the numberless beneficent influences which they exert—influences which purity and sweeten and elevate the whole condition of the society in which they mingle, and stamp it, often, with a nobler character and destiny for ages to come. Take, for example, such a man as Abraham, who commanded his children, and his household after him, to keep the way of the Lord, and to do justice and judgment; who, wherever he came, builded an altar to the only living and true God,—and by his consistent piety, and undeviating integrity and enlightened wisdom, restrained vice and wickedness on every side; and by his holy life and conversation diffused an atmosphere of goodness all around him, so that he became, by way of eminence, the father of the faithful, and friend of God. Or take such a man as Samuel, whose early devotedness to God, whose zeal for the divine glory, whose high integrity and commanding energy, rescued his country from disgrace and ruin, and raised it, for a long season, to dignity and honour. Or take such a man as the Son of Jesse, whose deep communings with God have fed the spiritual life of tens of thousands of God’s children in every succeeding age. Or, once more, take such a man as Paul, overflowing with love to the Lord that brought him, consumed with burning zeal for the conversion of perishing sinners, and counting not even his life dear unto himself, that he might finish his course and the ministry he had received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God, and to extend and establish that blessed kingdom, which is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. Take, I repeat, such examples as these, and say if it be possible sufficiently to estimate the amount of blessing which the presence of such men—even of a handful of such men—may, under God, be the means of bringing down upon this world.

At the same time, let me here take occasion to say that, in singling out such illustrious names as those now adduced, it is not at all intended to imply that, in this firmament of gracious and benignant influences, only stars of the first magnitude can be of any avail. Not so. Of the righteous there are tens of thousands who, in the deep obscurity of private and humble life, are, like their blessed Master, going about daily doing good. There are righteous mothers and grandmothers, like Lois and Eunice, who. by their godly lessons and holy example to their children, are training up future Timothys to minister to the Church and people of God. There are merciful disciples, like Tabitha, whose kindly services and sympathies are making the heart of many a poor widow, or fatherless child, to rejoice. There are righteous maidens, like her who served in the house of Naaman the Syrian, who know how to speak a word in season for Israel’s God. There are merciful widows who, out of their deep poverty, are casting in their little all into the Lord’s treasury, and helping forward His cause and kingdom by their believing prayers. And as there is not one of these whose presence in society or in the Church of God is not a precious boon, so, assuredly, there is not one of their number who shall lose his or her reward.

In a word, if we would desire to know how great a blessing the righteous are to this fallen world, we have but to think of the good which, collectively, they have wrought. The righteous are, in other words, the living members of Christ’s Church; and to them, instrumentally, it is due that pure Christianity has maintained its footing, and is still extending its humanizing, enlightening, sanctifying, and saving power among the inhabitants of this guilty and perishing world. But if, on the one hand, this fact abundantly proves how immense is the blessing the righteous are dispensing to their fellow-men, it goes, on the other, not less clearly to prove that the righteous are the gift of God. They are not the natural growth of fallen humanity. These trees of righteousness,—these plants of renown,—are plants of the Lord’s planting. They are the products of His own heavenly grace and truth. They are righteous, because God has made them so; because He has clothed them in the justifying righteousness of His blessed Son; and because He has wrought in them a personal righteousness by the regenerating and sanctifying grace of His Holy Spirit. They are merciful, because, in being born again, and in being made one with Christ, they have become, by adoption, sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty; and, as such, have learned to be merciful as their Father who is in heaven is merciful. And, accordingly, instead of taking praise to themselves for any services they may have been privileged to render to the cause of humanity and godliness, they are ever ready to say : “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us; but unto thy name give we glory for thy mercy and for thy truth’s sake.”

To continue reading, click here: In Memoriam: R. S. Candlish, D.D., died October 19, 1873. Sermons preached in Free St. George’s, Edinburgh, on Sabbath, November 2, 1873, by the Rev. Dr. Buchanan, Glasgow; and Rev. Dr. Rainy, Edinburgh. Edinburgh: T. Nelson and Sons, 1873.

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Yesterday also marked the birth date, in 1915, of PCA teaching elder and foreign missionary Francis Rue Steele, who died in 2004. Here today, for our Sunday Sermon, is his article, The Privilege of Suffering.


THE PRIVILEGE of SUFFERING.

by Dr. Francis R. Steele

steel_Francis_RueWhy do Christians suffer? Is there a purpose in it and if so what is that purpose? Should all suffering be treated as a calamity and considered as punishment? How should the Christian behave in the face of suffering; gloomy or patient—or what? Note first of all that there are two kinds of suffering: deserved and undeserved. We are not here concerned with suffering which is the just desserts of our own foolish or sinful behavior. “For what glory is it if when ye be buffeted for your faults ye take it patiently” (I Peter 2:20). “But let none of you suffer as … an evildoer” (I Peter 4:15). But what about undeserved suffering, why is it permitted and how should we behave?

What does the Bible have to say on this point? It says, quite clearly and unmistakably that God permits suffering to come into the lives of His children as a special privilege and that it is an experience to be sought from Him for His glory. How different this attitude is from that of the world toward suffering and, for that matter, of most Christians as well.
The Lord Jesus laid the foundation of this truth in His teaching and it was later developed further by the Apostles. Let us see what they have to say and ask God to clarify our thinking on this much misunderstood point.

UNAVOIDABLE SITUATION:
The whole matter is summarized thus by the Lord: “These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The first statement is conditional “ye might have.” The second is unconditional “ye shall have.” If we fail to understand the principles under which God is operating in this present world we may well feel distraught and upset by our experiences. However if we understand we may enjoy the tranquility of soul which resting in the promises and providence of God affords. Our enjoyment of His peace is conditioned by our accepting His will. But in either case we shall experience tribulation; this is inescapable. This is the unavoidable situation confronting Christians because, in the very nature of things, there must be conflict between light and darkness, good and evil, the Christian and the world just as there is between God and Satan. There is no possibility of “peaceful co-existence” between righteousness and unrighteousness.

It is more difficult for those of us who live in North America to appreciate this fact than for those Christians who live among hostile Muslim people in North Africa. The atmosphere of religious respectability and material abundance here at home blinds us to the real world outside. We are easily deceived into equating our social and material comfort with the privileges and benefits we believe are rightfully ours by virtue of our being Christian. If so, however, we are ignorant of two facts. (1) For the first few centuries of its life the whole Christian church was despised and persecuted by the world and (2) the majority of our Christian Brothers and Sisters living outside our artificial environment are still living under extreme hardship and severe persecution even today.

But even more important than that, we have explicit teaching from the Lord concerning the elements of a life of true discipleship. “Remember the word that I said unto you, The disciple is not greater than his Lord. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20) Or put another way even more forcibly, “It is enough for the disciple to be as his Lord.” (Matthew 10:25) Enough! Who could wish for anything more? Isn’t that the goal and aspiration of my life? But, is it; really? Or have I a mistaken concept of my desire when I sing so heartily “I would be like Jesus.” Do I not really have in mind undescribable joys and pleasures flowing from a life of such sweetness and goodness as I have never known before? If so, then I had better turn my eyes away from these dazzling dreams and listen to His voice again, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you . . . if they have persecuted me they will persecute you also.” Can it be that I actually desire to be more than He was in this world; more popular, more comfortable? God forbid that He should ever have to say of me, “The world cannot hate you; but me it hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil.” (John 7:7). God forbid that the world should ever see so much of itself in me or that I should be so attractive and congenial to it that it would look with favor on me while at the same time despising the Lord I profess to follow.

A word of caution is necessary at this point. The world hates Jesus because His life of holiness convicts it of sin. That’s what He meant when He said, “They hated me without, a cause.” (John 15:25) There is no need for us to seek or produce occasion for suffering. No suffering brought on by stupid, sinful or selfish behavior glorifies God. “Let none of you suffer . . . as an evildoer.” (I Peter 4:15). We should rather “seek after godliness and true holiness” and then “think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings.” (I Peter 4:12-13).

UNEXPECTED SOURCE:
It’s no great surprise to us that grossly sinful or viciously anti-religious people treat us rudely or harmfully because of our witness for Christ. Though, be assured, few of us in America ever know anything like the persecution our Christian Brothers overseas suffer constantly. Nevertheless, whether we welcome such treatment or not, we can understand why it comes when it comes. Such people don’t know any better therefore we realize we ought to be patient with them no matter what the cost. Whether we do or not, of course, is quite another matter.

But what if unjust, undeserved treatment comes from within the family of believers? How easily and quickly we become hurt and resentful. Yet wasn’t this precisely our Lord’s experience. Isn’t this peculiarly characteristic of His deepest suffering. He was misunderstood by his closest disciples—even his own family. He was betrayed by one of the twelve. He was deserted by all men at Calvary. He was blasphemously denied by one of the specially privileged three. And “as he was in the world so are we.”

The Psalmist speaks of this when he cries out, “It was not an enemy that reproached me, then I could have borne it. Neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me, then I would have hid myself from it, but it was ‘thou, a man, my own equal, my guide and acquaintance;” (Psalm 55:12-13) not a declared enemy but a supposed friend. It hurts deeply to remember that once “we took sweet counsel together, and went up into the house of God in company” (verse 14) then to discover that although “the words of his mouth were smoother than butter, yet war was in his heart.” (verse 21)

Such was the heartbroken reply of one missionary to another when the disloyalty of a colleague was revealed, “If an Arab had spat in my face on the street, that I could have understood and accepted it but . . .” Yes, that’s the difference “it was thou.” No matter how willing or able we may think we are to suffer reproach from unbelievers—though rarely tested at this point—it is an altogether different matter when it proceeds from a brother in Christ. Still, it is at exactly this point that we have the pre-eminent example of the Lord “because Christ also (thus) suffered for us, leaving us an example that ye should follow in His steps.” (I Peter 2:21).
We fail the test at this point since we have failed to heed His advice and warning; “in me ye (may) have peace, in the world ye shall have tribulation.” The simple truth is that true, lasting peace can only be found in Christ; He is the only unfailing Friend. Nothing and no one in the world is completely reliable or trustworthy. It is unwise to lean too hard upon even the most saintly Christian. God grant that we seek our peace only in Him and be satisfied. He will never disappoint us.

UNNATURAL REACTION:
No matter what the source, however, most Christians react to suffering in more or less the same way; either bitter resentment or lugubrious silence. Moreover, some Christians seem to take morbid pleasure from their having to “bear a cross,” as they put it. They are at great pains to point out how noble they are to bear so patiently with such misfortune. What a disgraceful parody upon real Christian grace! Such behavior betrays the evil motive of selfish pride behind it. Bearing “a cross” (Mark 8:34) means giving complete obedience to the Lord. It has no reference whatsoever to sickness, accidents, calamity or any other hardship as such.
The gem of truth lies in the very heart of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Following a familiar pattern in Semitic didactic literature we find here two groups of four statements the fourth of each being the major thought of the group. Notice the development (Matthew 5:3-12). The first climax is, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness.” then follows the second group with its climax, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake.” But the crowning climax brings the lesson home personally, “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against
you falsely for my sake.” And finally, “Rejoice and be exceeding glad.” That is the unnatural reaction. “I can imagine suffering wrongfully,” you might say, “yet scarcely consider myself fortunate for it. But as for actively rejoicing in it . . .” Still that’s exactly what Jesus said; and what He meant. No matter what the source when we truly suffer for righteousness sake we should respond with positive joy. “Praise God, I am privileged to suffer shame, of any degree, for His sake!”

But let us turn from the proposition to the practice of this grace as recorded in Acts chapter 5.
Here we read of Peter and John who having been twice falsely arrested and imprisoned for preaching the Gospel were then unjustly and cruelly beaten. Notice their reaction upon their release, “And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.” (verse 41). Surely this lies far beyond the ability of most of us. But why does it? Is it not because we fail to recognize such undeserved suffering as a privilege rather than a calamity? Surely this was the source of their joy. They rejoiced that “they were counted worthy.” What an absolutely opposite light this throws on the whole question. Can it be that I have been so blind in my complacency that I interpreted as a special blessing from God the almost total absence of such suffering from my life? Why did it never occur to me to wonder if the reason God spared me from suffering was that He knew I was not worthy. I have been kept from these privileged experiences because God knows I would disgrace Him in them. Did this ever occur to you? Did you ever pray, “O God cleanse me from the fault, the sin, that prevents me from witnessing with rejoicing heart at the privilege of suffering anything for thy glory. Make me worthy to suffer shame for His Name.”

May God give us grace to understand that such suffering for Him is a real privilege to be sought after for His glory. May we realize that it is a gift of great price to be desired eagerly, not a disastrous calamity to be avoided if possible at all cost and if not then to be borne grudgingly. That’s what Paul meant when he said, “Unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” (Phil. 1:29) All of us will readily acknowledge that “to believe” is a gift, a free gift of grace (the basic meaning of the verb in this verse). But few are prepared to accept suffering also as a gracious gift of the same character. May God forgive us for our foolishness and teach us the true value of this high privilege.

UNFAILING POWER:
Granted, then, that suffering for Christ’s sake is a priceless privilege, as I know myself I realize that I am not able of myself either honestly to seek or victoriously to bear suffering of this kind. Are there any resources of spiritual power available for me? I can give intellectual assent to the proposition that that which God wills for my life He is able to perform in my life but how? The answer to this question involves a remarkable spiritual principle. I cannot know the power before or without the suffering. God is not prodigal in His giving. The God of all comfort (strength) has promised to undertake for me under certain conditions. “As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.” (II Cor. 1:5). Would you know to the full the abundant consolation of Jesus Christ? Would you know the preciousness of His presence, the strong comfort of His love? There is only one way. “As the sufferings . . . so the consolation.” The deeper the need the greater the love. The more severe the testing the more powerful the Presence. For it is in “the valley of the shadow of Death” that in the fullest sense “Thou art with me.” We see, therefore, not only that suffering “for righteousness sake” is a high privilege, but also that it is the only way to know the fullness of the comfort of God’s great love.

“But let none of you suffer . . . as an evildoer . . . but rejoice inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” (I Peter 4:15 & 13).

Francis Rue Steel [1915-2004].

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