The Courageous Faithfulness behind the Covenant Prayer

7 01 2014

I’d like to spend a few moments today looking at the history of the covenant prayer and the faith from which it emerged. In the early 1600s a form of biblical Christianity arose, the Genevan Bible was being smuggled into England and King James Bible was commissioned. For the first time ever people were able to read God’s Word in their own language.

From this new access to spiritual truth came a people who desired to pattern their lives after that of Jesus, a people who prized courage, faithfulness, learning and discipline. These were the Puritans. These were the people to speak to if you wanted something done.

Their religious passion and courage appeared a threat to some both in the established church and in parliament. From 1629 to 1640 over 80,000 fled the state sponsored persecution to the new colonies in search of freedom.

Still more Puritan leaders remained and began a rise to prominence. Following his father King Charles the first opposed this new religious fervour, he appointed Archbishop Laud who set about to stamp out the Puritan movement, and he also wasted money on several failed conquests (in France and Spain). In all these things he clashed with parliament.

So in 1629 he suspended parliament. And so began 11 years of tyranny. In this period the King raised money by imposing fines upon the noble men, imposing ship levies, and forcing people to accept loans at exorbitant rates of interest. King Charles was becoming increasingly unpopular.

Eventually Charles was forced to recall parliament to levy taxes for a war with the Scots. Only now the Puritans were ready. They wanted an Act that ensured parliament would not be disbanded again without consent, an end to the illegal fines, and religious persecution.

Charles conceded. That is until he marched into the House of Commons to arrest five MPs he accused of treason!

Civil war was brewing and Charles fled London with his nobles as the House of Commons raised an army – known as the Puritan Army or the New Model Army.
Much of the rest of the story you know.

Cromwell defeated the cavaliers, the King’s family fled and the King was charged with treason.

So why do I want to share this with you?

This is the political and religious backdrop to Richard Alleine, who wrote the Covenant Prayer. He served as a Pastor in Somerset and wrote a number of religious and devotional classics such as ‘the vindication of godliness’, ‘heaven opened’, ‘heart-work’ and ‘a companion to prayer’.

His focus in the midst of all this political upheaval was on the devotional life of God’s people. Yet, living in this tumultuous time gives his covenant prayer even greater significance. For these are not empty words but words he had to live out.

In 1610 Richard Alleine was born and he lived through much of Laud’s persecution, his own writings were banned, yet many sought to hear him preach the gospel. In 1662 after the restoration of King Charles the II, parliament issued the Clarendon Codes, forcing Puritans to abandon personal and extemporary praying in favour of the prayer book. Clergy unwilling to comply would lose their homes and livings.

2000 clergy refused saying that the only Divine book was the Bible and whilst the prayer book may be helpful aid to devotion it could not be the only form of public prayer.

Richard Alleine was amongst that number. In 1662 he gave up his home and living, the five mile Act forbid him from preaching within five miles of an established church, and so he moved several miles away. It would have been difficult to start ministry afresh with none of the support he would previously have enjoyed.

Furthermore, he faced harsh restrictions and was called before the magistrate several times for ‘conventicling’ that is speaking at private functions. On one occasion he found himself arrested in the home of a prominent MP who cheerfully paid five pounds for his release. In this period of ministry many non-conformist ministers and their families were reduced to begging for a living and survived on little more than brown rye bread and water.

Forced from his home and living he eventually settled in Frome where he taught and preached until his death. He died on 22nd December 1681 and was buried in Frome and was buried in the parish church there. The local vicar, Mr Richard Jenkins, gave the eulogy. Testifying to the excellence of his character, his fidelity and truthfulness, that led to his stigmatization and persecution.

So when we consider these words. Let us remember where they came from, the courage it took to take an unpopular stand for the sake of the gospel, to bear reproach for the sake of Jesus Christ, and still to act with dignity.

These words, which so impacted John Wesley, emerge from a quiet life of faithful devotion and willingness to trust God in all the circumstances of life:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.


Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)

29 03 2010

It is impossible to envisage the renewal and reformation of the church without Martin Luther. In his day, he stood up against many evil practices in the Catholic Church. Chief amongst these was the practice of selling indulgences; assurances of forgiveness given in exchange for a gift or donation to the church.

After many years of Biblical study, as a Catholic scholar and monk, Luther came to see that the forgiveness was freely available through faith alone in Christ alone. Constrained by his conscience he challenged the practice of selling indulgences for this, in 1521, he was excommunicated.

On the 18th April 1521, Martin Luther appeared at the Council (Diet) of Worms where Johann Eck presented Luther with copies of his writings and asked him two direct questions; first was he the author these works and then secondly whether he still stood by their contents. Luther acknowledged his writings but requested time to consider the second question. He prayed, consulted friends and colleagues, and the next day he gave his response:

‘Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.’

Over the following five days, several private conferences were held to determine Luther’s fate. Finally, the Catholic Church decided to outlaw Luther, ban his literature and require his immediate arrest. All of Europe was in uproar. Luther went into hiding, under the protection of Fredrick III the Elector of Saxony, and over the next year he translated the New Testament into German and penned several doctrinal works.

Central to Martin Luther’s understanding of the Gospel is justification, God’s gracious act of declaring sinners righteous! In response to the humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, Luther maintained that a Christian’s righteousness doesn’t simply come from following Christ but is actually the righteousness of Christ.  For righteousness comes by faith in God, ‘we have been justified by faith and we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1).

As a true evangelical Martin Luther believed the Bible to be the only source of divinely revealed knowledge. Indeed, he wrote, ‘let the man who would hear God speak read Holy Scripture’ and he translated that Bible into the language of the common people. In saying and doing this he established the first principle of the reformation, sola Scriptura this is the doctrine that everything necessary for salvation is contained in Holy Scripture and that Scripture is the only infallible standard for our faith.

The Foolishness of the Cross

29 03 2007

It’s April fools day and I thought I’d speak to you this morning about foolishness. We’ve all played the fool from time to time haven’t we? Playing practical jokes on our friends, misleading them, or surprising them in humorous ways. Well, I certainly have.

But there is a stupider side to foolishness isn’t there? An embarrassing side, which I’m sure we have all had our fair share of.

I can remember waiting in the cold for several hours for a young lady I’d agreed to meet unfortunately she’d left before me and wasn’t coming but instead of waiting half an hour and going my own way I waited four hours before finally catching the train home. In hindsight, I guess that was a pretty foolish thing to do. 

But, I know I’m not the only one to act in a foolish way, in Hans Christen Anderson’s fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes: A great emperor is fooled into wearing nothing as he is told that only “the worthy and intelligent” are able to see the fine robes he is wearing. Being too embarrassed to admit that he cannot see the clothes himself the emperor parades through the streets until a young boy whispers ‘the emperor’s got no clothes on’.

I’m sure you’ve heard that famous story or perhaps you can think of an equivalent story.

In the Bible foolishness is treated in a number of ways: In the Old Testament the fool is a person who denies the existence of God or who acts without moral restraint. Fools are described as being ignorant of the truth, deceitful liars, slanderers, and lazy. In the New Testament fools are those who fail to heed the warnings, they ignore Jesus words. Hence, the story of the wise and the foolish builders; the foolish builder is compared to the person who ignores Jesus’ teaching.

However, in our verses today Paul writes about the foolishness of preaching the cross and picks out three groups (the Jews, the Greeks, and the Christian community) he argues that the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of great people and that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of great people.

1.      Paul argues that the cross is nothing but weakness to the Jews, for they demanded signs but they saw the messiah hung upon a cross. Our first reading this morning told of Jesus triumphant procession into Jerusalem; expectations must have been high the Jews must have felt that Jesus had come to overthrow their Gentile rulers but their expectations were dashed upon the rocks of reality.

It is interesting to note all the excitement surrounding Jeffrey Archer’s The Gospel According to Judas. In this story, Judas is portrayed as being a faithful follower of Jesus. Speculating about Judas’ motives for betraying Jesus it suggests that Judas is acting upon Jesus command. However, the orthodox interpretation raises a more interesting possibility. Judas betrayed Jesus not simply for thirty pieces of silver but to engineer a showdown between Jesus and the civil authorities.

In Jesus day, people were awaiting the coming of a king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and Judas Iscariot was no different. In fact, Judas was probably a zealot, committed to overthrowing the Roman Empire. Judas’ surname Iscariot may be a form ‘Sicarii’ meaning ‘dagger-man’. However, when Judas realised that his plan had failed and Jesus had been nailed to the cross he was overcome with remorse and the gospels tell us that Judas took his own life.

But, “what does all this stuff about Judas have to do with the weakness of the cross?” you may be asking. Well, if the Jews and Judas expected Jesus to triumph over the Roman Empire the cross must have seemed like an abomination!

Today, there are those for whom the way of cross and self-sacrifice seems awful. For example, there are conservative bible-believing Christians who have been utterly behind the war in Iraq. I suspect that some of these Christians much like the Jews of Jesus’ day would feel more comfortable with a conquering hero than the crucified Lord. And although they would hardly admit it the suffering of the cross is a rebuke to their imperialistic Christianity.

Likewise, there are those who consider Christianity to be a religion of weakness and who reject the gospel on the grounds that Christ’s patience, unconditional love, free grace, and humility are weaknesses in a world that praises the ambitious, socially successful, powerful and admired icons of pop culture.

In all of this, with Paul, I affirm, “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength”.

So we know why the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews, but what about the Greeks? Why does Paul suggest that suggest that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks?

2.      It is easy to see that faced with the philosophy of Socrates and Plato; the teaching of illiterate fishermen must have seemed little more than foolishness. Indeed Aristotle, whose statue stands today in the great City of Thessalonica, was the tutor of Alexander the Great. Compared with him, the wisdom of an itinerant teacher from Israel, a vassal state within the Roman Empire, must have seemed ridiculous.

But there is a further problem, whilst Jesus held little esteem when compared to the Greek philosophers, the Old Testament prophecies and scriptures held even less interest for the Greeks. In fact, the entire Jewish faith with its forms of reasoning, ideas, symbols, and witticisms was like a foreign language to the Greeks. Hence, when Paul is speaking in Athens people dismiss him as preaching foreign gods.

It should come as no surprise that it is possible to draw a comparison between the situation that has arisen today and the context the apostle was writing into. We like the Greeks have our contemporary philosophers; people like Richard Dawkins, who chant the mantra “faith is the absence of reason”.  And despite our best efforts to argue: 

a.       with the explorer William Adams that “faith is the continuation of reason”

b.      or with the theologian St Augustine that “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe” All our attempts fall on deaf ears because to Richard Dawkins these ideas are completely alien to his pattern of thinking.

And so like Paul we also end up affirming that, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”.

3.      Finally, we come to the message of the apostle to the Christian community in Corinth.

“Brothers and Sisters think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many of you were influential; not many of you were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

In this Paul is reminding us that the God who has chosen to display His infinite wisdom in the form of foolishness and weakness has chosen us and called us in our foolishness and weakness to shame the wise and the strong. Pastor John Piper puts it like this: “the infinitely wise way of salvation in the death of Christ is rooted in an infinitely wise way of choosing sinners before the cross, and an infinitely wise way of calling sinners after the cross.” And why has God done it in this way? So, that “the one who boasts may boast only in the Lord”. In other words, everything that is involved in our salvation: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ; our calling, response, and sanctification has been brought about so that we might not boast in ourselves but praise our Father in Heaven!

Well, I began this morning by talking about the emperors new clothes and the reception he was given as he was paraded through the streets, today we celebrate another emperor who was paraded through the streets, beaten, abused, taunted, tortured, murdered and the challenge is do you see the wisdom of the cross?

my sermon for Palm Sunday – some changes have been made- this is the more radical version)

Amazing Grace – a must see!

24 03 2007

I encourage everyone to make sure they attend Amazing Grace it is a fantastic film. It portrays the relationships between William Wilberforce, John Newton (author of the hymn Amazing Grace), and William Pitt (the Prime Minister). It shows the extraordinary pressure Wilberforce felt when deciding between entering the ministry and serving Christ through politics.  

Pitt felt that the Wilberforce’s evangelical faith would damage his political prospects, but it was Newton who convinced Wilberforce that he must serve God in politics (making William Wilberforce a man to be reckoned with). Wilberforce was not a political pragmatist, blowing with the winds of expediency, but a man of great faith and principle, driven by God to bring about the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom.

I was taken by one fantastic quote by John Newton (played by Albert Finney):

‘I know two great things:

one that I am a great sinner

and two that Christ is a great Saviour’

And that is wisdom indeed!