Moderator's Address from Rev William Macleod

Date: Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Author: Rev William Macleod

Rev. William Macleod

It is now almost 20 years since the Division which took place in the Free Church of Scotland on the 20th of January, 2000. It is a time for assessment, to look back but also to look ahead. My own ministry is drawing to a close after 43 years in the active pastoral ministry. This summer I will have been 50 years a member of the Free Church. What huge changes have taken place in society but especially in the church since my boyhood in Stornoway Free Church!

First, I would like to look at some of the positives with regard to our own denomination. There are such. Then I would like to look at the negatives with regard to our own church, other churches, and society in general. Thirdly, I would like to consider what are the particular problems we face. Fourthly, I wish to present what, in my humble opinion, is the answer. Finally, I wish to presentsome of the encouragements that the Lord gives us in his Word.

The Positives

1. In the year 2000 it was confidently predicted by our opponents that we would not survive ten years. They said we were such awkward, hardline and unreasonable men that we would soon fall out among ourselves. Actually, on the whole, we have got on very well. We have been able to disagree at times and yet to respect one another. Important matters of controversy have arisen from time to time but we have been able to work our way through these. At the present time there is remarkable harmony amongst us. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps.133:1).

2. In January 2000 it was mostly the older, more mature folk who sided with us. We did not have many young families and children. Today we are older and a bit smaller but we are still there, 20 years later. Some have left us for other churches, a few have fallen by the wayside, many have departed to glory, but others have joined us.

3. We were left with little property yet we now have churches and manses for most of our congregations. Our property now will be worth millions of pounds. Our ministers have had their salaries paid to them every month. None has lost out by associating with us.

4. Training for the ministry is very important for the survival of any church. With our limited resources we wondered what was possible. Our first ministerial candidate was trained in the Reformed Presbyterian College in Belfast. However we now have our own Seminary and over the years have trained some 20 men for the ministry, most serving in our own church, but some serving elsewhere. Two able men have finished this session and there is one other man in training. We have only three vacant charges which could possibly be regarded as suitable to sustain a full-time ministry.

5. The Free Church mission work in Peru, India and South Africa remained with the majority Church. Doors of service in overseas work seemed closed. However the Lord brought to us new opportunities. A good work was begun in Zambia, a college was built and continues to train men for the ministry. Educational and charitable work there has been supported by us. A reformed and presbyterian mission was begun in Sri Lanka. Two congregations have been established with an indigenous pastor. Three small congregations in Spain and one in Southern France are supported by us and have their own Spanish pastor. Considerable opportunities have arisen in China and through Hudson Taylor Ministries many of our ministers have been involved in training house-church leaders. Other doors have opened to us in Kenya and Brazil. We continue to support Jewish missions in the form of Christian Witness to Israel.

6. We have a Home Mission Worker who has served diligently all over Scotland. Millions of tracts, leaflets and evangelistic magazines have been distributed. Thousands of folk up and down the country have been spoken to about their souls and challenged regarding their need to make their peace with God.

7. We have some 25 congregations in Scotland. A congregation in Northern Ireland and five congregations in North America have joined us. We have 43 ministers, 20 of whom serve as pastors in Scottish congregations, one in Northern Ireland and six abroad. The rest are retired men many of whom preach most Sabbaths.

8. We have a monthly magazine, the Free Church Witness and a youth magazine, the Explorer, and print some 1000 copies of each. Useful and edifying books have been written by several of ourministers.

9. Hundreds of thousands of the sermons preached by our ministers are downloaded from the internet all over the world.

10. Our Church has sought faithfully to bear witness to the truth and the law of God in an increasingly secular and immoral society.

So there is much for which to be thankful. In the dark days of 1999 we wondered was our ministry finished. Our brethren in essence expelled us from the church. On 20 January 2000, 22 ministers, those who had chosen to answer the libel in person, were suspended from the exercise of ministry. We were forced to disassociate from the majority in order to continue our God-given ministries. But the Lord has blessed and prospered us. There have been difficult times and dark days but the Lord has brought us through them all. When we have been desperate we have cried to the Lord and he has saved us. We have the Great Commission: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-20). We have sought by grace to fulfil it and we have his continuing promise,“ Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”.

Negatives

We have to be honest and face the realities. All is not as it should be. There are real problems in our own church, in other churches and in our society. Let us consider some of these.

1. We have not grown. Some folk have joined us but more have left us. We are smaller. Now it is a fact that all the churches of our land have declined apart from the few that have grown by attracting members away from neighbouring churches. Some churches are popular because of a specially gifted minister or a huge programme of social activities. But the question remains, Why is God not blessing us numerically?

2. We have seen few conversions. Our adherent base has diminished greatly. This is true of all the churches. It used to be common practice for people to go to church whether they were Christians or not. Today the unconverted have little fear of God and spend the Sabbath watching television, on social media, on the internet, in sport and pleasure, or working.

3. Relatively speaking we do more outreach than we have ever done, yet little blessing seems to rest on the work.

4. Society is becoming increasingly secular. Attempts have been made to remove all traces of our Christian heritage from us as a nation.

5. LGBT enthusiasts have taken over the media. They have been aggressively “evangelistic”, intimidating all opposition and persecuting some of the Lord's people. Some Christians have lost their jobs because they believe in marriage as taught in the Bible and that sex is only for marriage. We hear lots about homophobia but nothing about christianophobia.

6. Islam is becoming more and more influential. Amongst the many kind, upright, loving, Muslim people now in our land there is a substantial minority who have no wish to integrate, who have very different values from our traditional ones, and some who support terrorism. Any criticism of that minority, or even discussion of these issues, is dismissed as Islamophobia.

7. The Church of Scotland, by far the largest Protestant church in our land, has been totally taken over by liberalism. There are still many born-again Christians and some faithful evangelical ministers to be found amongst them. However, there are also practising homosexuals among itsministers. Biblical standards of morality are generally despised. The gospel of God's redeeming grace is either denied or ignored in many sermons. This confusion about what a Christian really is, makes the work of evangelism even more difficult than in the past.

8. The largest evangelical church in Scotland is the one from which we separated. Having lost its conservative wing, it is changing rapidly. It has become much more pragmatic. It will do almost anything to get people across its threshold. In 2010 it changed its form of worship, though all its ministers and elders had vowed at their ordination to “assert, maintain and defend the purity ofworship presently practised in this church”. Where will it end up?

9. Charismatic churches grow rapidly and then seem to disintegrate even more rapidly.

10. Even the Roman Catholic Church which has the largest attendances on a Sunday is struggling to hold onto its people. Sexual scandals have done massive damage to it. Sadly all churches and ministers are blackened.

So today the church in Scotland is in the weakest position it has been since the Reformation. The majority of the people in Scotland are practical atheists. While they might not deny the existence of God they live as if there is no God. There is no fear of God in our land. I, myself, think back to my childhood 60 years ago when large churches were full to the front. Often at communion times and special services, extra seats had to be placed in the aisles. As a student I preached sometimes to over 1000. Today, I seldom preach to 50. We have the wonderful glad tidings of great joy but no one wants to hear. There are more evangelical ministers than ever, especially in the Highlands and Islands, but fewer and fewer hear the gospel. Also the power is gone from the preaching. Unlike in the past, it is rare to see someone today convicted and weeping under the gospel. Sermons are listened to with sleepy indifference. Surely God has forsaken us and our land?

What is the Problem?

Why has God forsaken us? What is the problem? What is God saying to us? “Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:1). The trouble is in the church, not in the world. It is the sins of God's people that has caused him to withdraw his felt presence. What are these sins?

1. Self-righteousness

Self-righteousness grieves God. It is to be found among ourselves. Sometimes you hear even old Christians asking, “Why is God not blessing us? We made a stand for truth and righteousness. If what we did was right, surely we should be growing and successful”. How foolish! We think we deserve blessing! Everything we do and ever have done is tainted with sin. “It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed” (Lam.3:22). “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” (Ps.130:3). “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). We deserve nothing but God's wrath and judgment. The very best church and the very best Christian is like a filthy rag to God. Our only hope is the righteousness of Christ and “the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:24). We have done nothing to merit God's favour and there is nothing that we can do. We, in the Free Church (Continuing), must come to the Lord as poor, unworthy, beggars pleading for his mercy.

2. Pride

Pride is a huge problem in the churches and in our own church too. It is closely linked to self-righteousness. There are few things more obnoxious to God. Some years ago I heard one of our ministers say that we have the best preachers in our church. We think of ourselves as superior to others because of our orthodox theology, our reformed worship and faithful church discipline. We think we are the most consistent Christians. These things are good but we must beware of pride. Is there perhaps a readiness to look down on other churches? Sometimes we share information about other churches, pointing out their faults, and we do it smugly. We look down on them from our high and holy position. We made a faithful stand for the truth and holiness and church discipline. Our worship in form is superior to many other churches, but we forget that God sees the heart. We may be right in form but our hearts can be far from God. Pride is often very subtle. We can be critical of the pride, arrogance and boasting of others and be rotten with pride ourselves, though covering it from man.

3. First Love

The church of Ephesus was criticised for having lost its first love. It was a sound church, orthodox, busy, faithful in discipline but Christ threatens to remove his candlestick out of its place. It would no longer be a church of Christ. This letter must really have shocked the Ephesians. On the surface all looked well. They were a well-attended sound church but something was seriously wrong. Is it not true that we too have lost our first love?

4. Lukewarmness

If anything the church in Laodicea received even more serious criticism than the church in Ephesus. The Laodiceans thought, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). They were lukewarm. They had become complacent. They were satisfied with their achievements and thought all was well. Are we not like that? We are neither hot nor cold. Where is the passion for God? A dull, sleepy, worldly spirit has taken us over. We are taken up with our jobs, our families, our homes and making money. We are satiated with worldly enjoyments and have become, “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4).

What is the Answer?

There is a great danger that we simply accept the situation and feel there is nothing we can do. As those who believe in divine sovereignty we can become fatalistic. We cannot convert one soul. We cannot sanctify ourselves. All we can do is wait and maybe God in His mercy will come and blessus. Is it not all of grace? But whether we read the prophets of the Old Testament or the epistles of the New Testament the message is the same. God never says do nothing. He lays the responsibility totally on us. He always says repent and return and I will bless you.

1. Humble Yourselves

God through Moses made the promise that when he brought his judgment on Israel, if they would return to the Lord that he would turn again their captivity and have mercy upon them and do them good (Deut. 30:1-5). Through Hosea Israel are exhorted, “Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. After two days will he revive us” (Hos. 6:1-2). Peter writes: “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Pet. 5:5-6). We have been brought very low. We want to be exalted. So here is the answer.

2. Prayer

Hosea encourages God's people to come again in prayer: “O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips” (Hos. 14:1-2). God loves to hear his people's prayers. There is a wonderful promise: “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him. I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon” (Hos. 14:4-5). Jesus taught his disciples topray a prayer which will certainly be answered, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Paul wrote “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Christ advised the church in Laodicea to ask for, “gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see” (Rev. 3:18).

3. Faith

When the situation seemed desperate for Israel God said go ahead in faith. There were mountains on either side. The Egyptian army was charging down on them from behind and the sea was in front of them, but God spoke to Moses: “Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward”. By faith they crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptians trying to do the same without faith were drowned. God said through Isaiah: “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Is. 45:22). This is the look of faith. Jesus said to his disciples, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you” (Matt. 17:20). Mighty miracles are achieved in response to faith. The shield of faith is able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one (Eph. 6:16). We are told of those, “Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions” (Heb. 11:33). By faith the impossible becomes possible.

Encouragements

1. God Reigns

The Psalmist states. “The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice”. Here is a great reason for joy and the only reason. God is in control and is working out all things for the good of his church and his own glory. His kingdom shall come, his name shall be hallowed, and his will shall be done on earth as in heaven. “Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh; behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him” (Is. 62:11). Jesus has been exalted to the highest throne and God “hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22). He rules the nations for the benefit of his church.

2. We should have an optimistic eschatology

The little stone of Daniel 2, which represents the kingdom of God, smashes all the earthly empires and becomes a mountain which fills the whole earth. Jesus' parables describe a great future for the church. The little mustard seed becomes a tree “so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:32). The leaven spreads through the whole lump of dough till all is leavened (Matt. 13:33). We think of the Jews cast off because of unbelief, but Paul argues, “For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?” (Rom. 11:15). As touching election the Jews are beloved for the fathers' sakes. “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom. 11:29). Through the mercy of the Gentiles they will obtain mercy. They will bring great blessing to the church presumably by becoming mighty missionaries. This will become a life from the dead experience to God's people.

3. Fascinating Promises

The Book of Revelation was written at the end of the first century to encourage a church suffering intense persecution. In Revelation 20 an angel is pictured laying hold of Satan, and binding him fora thousand years. We are told that he “cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season” (Rev. 20:3). This is fascinating. He is not just bound and on a long chain and so able to do some limited harm. He is shut up and sealed. That means he cannot get out. For a long period of time he cannot do what he has so successfully done in the past, deceiving the nations. Some see this as what Christ did at Calvary. But the problem is that Satan continued after Calvary deceiving the nations. What is the great Antichrist of Rome but a massive deception of the devil? How can John say the devil is locked up when Peter writes that “your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8)? In Peter's day Satan was definitely not locked up. Paul too, sees the devil as a continuing problem: “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11). A further difficulty with this interpretation is that John states that Satan shall be loosed out of his prison at the end of the thousand years (Rev. 20:7). If the binding was Christ's finished work of crushing Satan's head, then a day will come when this work shall be undone. God forbid! Away with such a thought! John is shown that a day is coming when our great enemy the devil will be greatly restricted in his work and Christ reign over the nations will become clearer for all to see. This period would tie in with the Old Testament prophecies of future prosperity for Messiah's kingdom, e.g. his “dominion being from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth” and “the whole earth being filled with his glory” (Ps. 72:8,19). “All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; and shall glorify thy name” (Ps. 86:9). Or in the words of Isaiah: “Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought. For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted” (Is. 60:11-12). This will be the last great revival involving the conversion of the Jews to Christ, “the life from the dead” of which we spoke earlier. It will be followed by a short period when Satan will be loosed again and create havoc. We are encouraged to look forward to a great period of gospel prosperity.

Conclusion

We are called upon to humble ourselves, to confess our sins, to repent, to fast and to pray, to return unto the Lord our God and he will return unto us. God does not say “Seek ye me in vain” (Is. 45:19). He loves us and delights in the prayers of his children. “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). “ If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Luke 11:13). Let the hope we have inspire us to labour expectantly for the Lord.