Posts by Mark Johnston

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We may not always realise it, but the Bible has a theology of conflict. Indeed, when we stop and think about it, we are literally no further than 57 verses into Genesis before we find ourselves in the conflict zone that changed the course of history. And the conflict that emerges there in the...
Constancy is something every human being craves. Knowing that, in the midst of all the upheaval and change that marks the course of life, there are anchor-points that provide stability along the way. But where can we find such certainty? It is an issue we become more acutely aware of as one year...
Note: The Alliance is once again offering a year-long reading challenge for Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. Click here for more information . John Calvin, the great French Reformer who devoted most of his ministry to the church in Geneva, ranks amongst the most influential...
John Calvin, the great French Reformer who devoted most of his ministry to the church in Geneva, ranks amongst the most influential theologians of all time. His legacy to the church – and, indeed to the world – goes far beyond what many realise. But out of the many aspects of his legacy there is...
Advent season has begun. Pastors all around the world are desperately looking for texts and angles on the theme that will enable them to bring fresh light on the light of the ancient story that I known so well, yet which can so easily lose its lustre. The essence of the message is majestic and...
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...
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...
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...
It is a very human trait, one from which even theologians are not immune: the tendency to make ourselves the default reference point for everything. We do it without realising it, because it is built into our subconscious. But it happens nonetheless. One particular locus of theology where this...
It is one of those ‘stop-you-in-your-tracks’ type statements that crops up in the Bible from time to time. ‘Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (He 12.2). It is, of course, speaking of Christ and his sufferings...
The theme of joy in Scripture finds its focus in the joy of knowing God as our God and Saviour. As we seek his glory (as opposed to our own) we experience a joy that is utterly different from all the joys of earth combined. Nevertheless, amazingly, this joy can be found and experienced on earth...
Christmas is fast approaching and images of Mary are everywhere – from cards to Nativity scenes – but she is strangely absent from many, if not most Protestant pulpits. Yes, she may be accorded a passing reference in the Christmas narrative, but she can come across very much as a bit-part, or an ‘...
Last words are important and often intriguing and none more so than the last words of Jesus. They are best remembered as expressed by Matthew at the end of his Gospel where Jesus tells the Eleven, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all...
The season of the Reformation ‘ Solas ’ has just ended and we have been reminded of the ‘aloneness’ of Scripture, grace, faith, Christ and the glory of God. But, hopefully, we will have also been reminded too that none of these are ‘alone’ in an absolute sense. The Reformers never divorced...
Last words are important and often intriguing and none more so than the last words of Jesus. They are best remembered as expressed by Matthew at the end of his Gospel where Jesus tells the Eleven, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all...
For those familiar with Thomas Chalmers, his name immediately conjures up a plethora of thoughts regarding his stature as a Christian leader and also his gifts and achievements in the work of the church. He was a man of exceptional ability, but he was also profoundly concerned for the needs of...
This summer has been no different than those which proceded it. At this time of year, you are possibly continuing to see references to the usual litany of 'Summer Reading recommendations for Pastors.' As end-of-summer vacations loom, men in the ministry feel the need to catch up on those weighty...