Posts by Mark Johnston

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Asaph, reflecting on some of his deepest struggles in the life of faith, concludes one ohis psalms by saying, ‘But as for me, it is good to be near God’ (Ps 73.28). David says something similar in the most memorable of his penitential psalms with the words, ‘Cast me not away from your presence and...
In our last post we considered Paul’s warning to believers in the Galatian churches, ‘If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another’ (Ga 5.15). And we noted that, sadly, this warning needs to be repeated to every church in every generation. The family of God...
It is often the case that we only begin to appreciate what really matters in life when, for some reason, we have lost it. We say, ‘absence make the heart grow fonder’ when we are forced to be away from someone we love deeply. Or, ‘you don’t know what you have until you have lost it’ when we realise...
Sometimes we can be surprised by the kind of things theologians say that seem to resonate with us. We might expect them to be profound insights into a particular doctrine; but, more often than not, it is because of a different kind of profundity. One example is the story of Karl Barth’s being asked...
We are familiar with treatments, such as that by B.B. Warfield, on the emotional life of Christ and we very quickly realise why it is vital to our understanding of his Person and work. God, in Holy Scripture has seen fit to include this insight into the incarnate life of his Son, not just to...
In almost every doctrine in Scripture there is a simplicity that belies its profundity. They can be summarised and defined in a single sentence of a catechism answer and yet be the theme of substantial books. They can be explained by children and yet preoccupy the minds of the greatest theologians...
Looking for the Lost There is a well-known nursery rhyme that generations of British children grew up with which begins with the words, Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them; Leave them alone and they will come home, wagging their tails behind them. Cute and all as...
It would be tempting to think that yet another article on suffering at this time is nothing more than jumping on the bandwagon of the current situation; but that is not altogether the case. Yes, we are facing a crisis of global proportions that is full of uncertainty; but it is neither the first,...
The book of Job is one of the most enigmatic, yet most significant books of the Bible for a whole range of reasons. Among them is the attention it has been given by the likes of John Calvin (who preached 159 sermons on it in the space of 6 months 1558-59) and Joseph Caryl who preached a staggering...
Arguably one of the greatest errors we can fall into when it comes to understanding grace is that ‘It’s all about me and all about now’. This attitude has reached epidemic proportions in Western churches and may well explain our relative lack of resilience and usefulness compared to other parts of...
The more we have explored the theme of grace as it unfolds in different ways throughout Scripture, the more we have discovered its variegated beauty and its far-reaching implications for our lives as Christians. It is more pervasive than we often imagine and, as we have noted in an earlier post,...
Every Christian can readily acknowledge, ‘I’m not what I used to be; but I am not yet what I will be!’ We are all very much a work in progress. This is reinforced by the verb tenses the Bible uses to refer to different aspects of salvation: we ‘have been saved’ (Eph 2.8), ‘…are being saved’ (1Co 15...
Perhaps the greatest risk surrounding the doctrine of grace in the Bible is that we allow it to become a cliché. We talk about it, sing about it, take great care to define it, but through it all fail to feel its weight. So, as we continue our reflections on the many-sided beauty of God’s grace...
There is much more to grace than meets the eye. Indeed, to borrow and slightly tweak the title of a song made famous by Bing Crosby in 1955, ‘Grace is a many splendored thing’. Although we instinctively link it to the idea of God’s demerited favour towards sinners in salvation, when we begin to...
'What makes a preacher choose any book or passage of the Bible to preach on?' That's the sixty-four thousand dollar question I tend to ask myself on not a few occasions and feel I have to answer to my congregation (usually when I'm beginning a new series). I suppose there is a degree of similarity...
There is a certain view of church that regards it (especially as expressed in the local congregation) as a ‘voluntary association’. The idea has been notably prevalent among Christians in the United States, but has been embraced more widely in other parts of the world. Interestingly this perception...
There are many occasions when what seem like throwaway remarks from Jesus say far more than we may realise. One in particular is heard in our Lord’s exchange with the Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon (Mt 15.21-28), where he tells her, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house...
In the Northern Hemisphere, December is the darkest month of the year – a fact that gives added poignancy to the message of the incarnation and its centrality to the gospel. Intentionally or otherwise, when the church chose to adopt 25 th December as the date on which to mark the birth of Christ,...
The concept of love has been cheapened beyond words over the past half century and longer. This is not only true in the secular realm, but sadly also for Christians. In all kinds of ways, the church’s view of love – reflected in song and sermon alike – owes more to the culture of our time than to...
I was once struck by a brief radio address given by a Jewish Rabbi on the morning of Yom Kippur. She spent the whole time allotted to her talking about Isaiah 58 and how it links to the deliverance of Israel in Jewish understanding. Very helpfully she reminded her audience that all ethnic Jews can...
Humans have been fascinated by themselves since the earliest times in the history of our race. From the crude stick figures painted on the walls of caves in prehistoric times through to the sophisticated image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man , or the mathematical musings around the Fibonacci...
I heard a comment recently from one of the young men in our church that gave me pause for thought. He said, ‘I don’t think I have ever heard a sermon about assurance.’ My initial reaction was to frantically cast my mind back over the last 40 years trying to remember if I myself had ever addressed...
Too often the idea of ‘good works’ has been the Cinderella of Reformed discussion. Wanting (quite rightly) to distance ourselves from any kind of meritorious implications attached to them (which lies at the heart of the Roman Catholic view) we have perhaps over-corrected our stance to our own loss...
There seems to be a never-ending market in Christian circles for books on guidance. The reason for this, of course, is that we as Christians (like all other human beings) want to make right decisions and choices in life. We want to avoid mistakes – especially when they often run the risk of major...
In our last three articles that dealt with the sin-related petitions in the Lord’s Prayer we noted in passing how striking it is that such a large proportion of this prayer is focused on our fallenness and failure. This surely says a great deal about why, in light of Calvin’s famous dictum about...
The triplet of sin-related requests embedded in the Lord’s Prayer ends with the shortest, but in many ways the most potent of them all: ‘Deliver us from evil’. As many commentators point out, there is a measure of ambiguity over whether it should be rendered ‘…from evil’ or ‘…from the evil one’...
It is all too easy to be so focused on the individual components of the Lord’s Prayer – the ‘petitions’ of which it is comprised – that we lose sight of its overall topography, or landscape. Even though the details bound up with each request are vitally important, we only appreciate their full...
The Lord’s Prayer is, without question, the best-known prayer of all time. Embedded at the very heart of the prayer life of God’s family, but also shared and treasured by those nations and empires through the ages that have espoused the Christian faith as their official faith – albeit nominally...
The day of Christ’s return will be the day he will ‘judge the living and the dead’. Christians have confessed this in the words of the Apostles’ Creed for centuries; but, as so often is the case, we can rehearse these words without feeling their weight. More than that, it can be all too easy for...
Like nearly all the Christian Festivals (however many or few our particular churches may celebrate) the events marked by Easter can easily loom large on our horizons momentarily, only to be forgotten until the following year. If we allow ourselves to lapse into this pattern we can easily lose sight...
As we further explore what it means to ‘preach Christ from all the Scriptures’, another key strand is to remind ourselves of the first of his threefold offices. He is not only our Priest and King; but he is primarily God’s great Prophet. It is his business to make God known. The expectation that a...
In the two preceding articles on what it means to ‘preach Christ’ we have already noted the connection between God’s promise of salvation and the covenant he made with Abraham in relation to his seed. However, the question arises as to with whom exactly was this covenant made and by whom it is...
It can be easy to become atomistic in the way we handle the Bible. By this I mean that we can unwittingly break its message down into its component parts in a way that fails to appreciate its organic unity. Even though, as the Westminster Confession of Faith indicates, it does indeed have many ‘...
Every preacher knows – at least in some sense – that we are called to ‘preach Christ’ as we expound the Scriptures. We heard it in our homiletics classes in Seminary and we’ve been challenged about it in the numerous seminars, conferences and workshops on preaching we attend in the course of our...
There once was a time – within living memory for many of us – when you could go to a place of worship and have a reasonable sense of what to expect during a service and not be taken aback by something that seemed out of place. Those days are rapidly disappearing and it is increasingly the norm that...
For those of us who are pastors, one of our regular responsibilities is to use scripture to minister to the specific needs of our people. This should never merely be spiritual equivalent of offering placebos to those who are struggling – a kind of psycho-spiritual pick-me-up to make them feel...
It is mildly amusing that a phrase so innocuous as ‘the wall’ should literally reverberate around the world, provoking reaction from every quarter. But don’t panic, it is not my intention to pass comment on the particular structure in the news at this time! What struck me in following this saga has...
The closing chapters of the Old Testament are set against the looming ‘Dark Ages’ of Ancient Israel. God had spoken through his prophets and his people had persistently ignored his word and strayed from his ways – even after the exile. The final words of Malachi could not be more ominous. The Old...
The very first Nancy Guthrie book my wife and I were given was Holding on to Hope . Before we had even turned a page, the title grabbed us because it resonated deeply with the needs we had been living with, at that stage of our life, for almost 16 years. Our daughter was born with severe disability...
Although the Lord’s Prayer is without question the best-known prayer the world has ever known, because it is the Lord’s Prayer we shouldn’t be surprised that it will continue to fill us with surprises until we see him face to face. This is true, in part, experientially. Prayer is the heart-cry of...
The ‘wars’ that have raged around ‘worship’ are anything but new. Even though they may only been expressed explicitly in these terms in the recent history of the church, they are as old as the church. Indeed they are as old as our race itself. The very moment the serpent questioned the principle...
The Ten Commandments, given by God at Sinai, have played a vital role in both the Jewish and Christian faiths ever since. Indeed, given that they reflect God’s character and enshrine is perfect will for the ordering of the human race in its entirety, these ten ‘words’ have impacted the nations...
For more Christians (and Christian ministers) than we might imagine, one the biggest struggles in their life of faith is that of prayer. Every Christian knows that prayer matters, but many of us know how hard it can be for multiple reasons. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Bible has...
The language of ‘covenant’ has a much wider history in the church than merely those churches and congregations that self-identify as ‘covenantal’. Some include it merely as a reflection of the contractual dimension they see in how Christians relate to God in his church. It is more than a casual...
Ours is an age of rapidly rising social disintegration. Loneliness and isolation are major issues – not just for the elderly, but for every other age group as well. It would be naïve not to see some connection between these issues and the steady erosion of the classic concept ‘family’ in Western...
Christians have a remarkable ability to skew what the Bible’s teaches about the church. As with so many things in life, we tend to perceive and define it with ourselves as the key reference point. But when this happens it distorts both our understanding and our enjoyment of whatever is in view. The...
Preaching is often described (and derided) as ‘monological discourse’. At one level this is true; but scratch beneath the surface and we quickly realise that nothing could be less true. There is something about Christian preaching that is altogether unique. Although we encounter ‘preaching’ in...
Just recently I had the opportunity to worship in the church in which I grew up. It is Episcopalian and for the first time in a very long time I found myself following the order of the Book of Common Prayer . It was one of the more recent editions of the Prayer Book; but, nevertheless, the shape...
It is fascinating to see how St Paul looks back over his Christian life in face of his fast approaching departure from this world. Writing to Timothy, he describes it as a race to be run, a faith to be kept and also as a fight to be fought (2 Ti 4.7). Each metaphor sheds its own light on how we...
It was John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, who added discipline to the word and sacraments as the third mark of a faithful church. Perhaps it was because the Celts are an unruly lot by nature and he felt the latter two needed the firmer hand of the former to bring the Scottish churches into line!...