Monday, 14 December 2009

Who has faith?

This post began life as a talk for a meeting at church yesterday under the title 'Is God a Delusion?'

A new phenomenon has arisen within the last few years that has gained the label ‘the new atheism’. This new flavour of atheism is far more aggressive than its predecessors in its attack on religion, and especially (given its cultural context of the UK and USA) Christianity. The big splash made by the new atheists in this country came with Richard Dawkins’ 2006 book ‘The God Delusion’. It very quickly became a bestseller and has become very influential in many people’s thinking. The other most publicised happening that is related to this (though I’m not sure directly) was the advertising campaign on London buses by the British Humanist Association – ‘There’s probably no God so stop worrying and enjoy your life’ which was enthusiastically supported by Dawkins. They believed it would be ‘a breath of fresh air’ that would get people thinking – and as Dawkins commented, ‘thinking is anathema to religion’.

This directs us to a critical starting point – the new atheists want you to believe that any religious idea is simply so absurd that you needn’t bother listening. Please take that fact on board, because in my experience they’ve been very successful in that regard - I’ve found it very hard to get those who share their ideas to listen to me in debate. Why? Because they already “know” that I’m basing my life on blind faith (incorporating their own special definition of faith) whereas they are basing theirs on the facts. I don’t doubt that you could find religious groups out there for whom that could be true, but that is far from being universally true (Dawkins also wants you to believe that all religion can be treated as though it is the same which is manifestly not the case – as modern anthropologists will tell you). I can’t defend some homogenous definition of ‘religion’ that bears no relation to reality; I can only defend the faith I know and teach, which isn’t even representative of all that calls itself ‘Christian’. The reason I am an evangelical (a much misunderstood word!) is because I believe it best fits reality. I’m not going to claim anything silly, like ‘and I’ll now prove it’ or ‘you’ll give up your atheism by the end of this meeting’! In this very short time I can only hope to raise some vital questions in your minds, and begin to see if the claims of Dawkins and his comrades can stand up to scrutiny.

Deciding just what to tackle in this brief time has been quite a struggle since The God Delusion covers so many areas, and makes so many assertions that we can’t even begin to tackle them all. I just want to raise two issues this afternoon that raise serious questions – first of all I want to question whether Christian faith really is the infantile, irrational thing Dawkins wants us to believe it is. Secondly, to begin to demonstrate this, we should ask how reliable Dawkins’ sources are when it comes to his (brief) critique of the reliability of the Bible?

According to Dawkins, faith ‘means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence.’ I believe he first gave this definition in The Selfish Gene in 1976. By the time the 2nd edition came out in 1989 this view had hardened to the extent that faith qualified ‘as a kind of mental illness’. For Dawkins this is a core belief that colours his whole attitude to religion. Indeed, there is psychological research that demonstrates that people ‘tend to seek out, recall, and interpret evidence in a manner that sustains beliefs’. In other words, religious people will tend to interpret evidence in such a way as supports their religious ideas, but also (and here’s something that’s usually ignored) atheists will tend to interpret evidence in such a way as supports their atheistic ideas. Challenging our worldview is actually quite difficult because it is so deeply engrained in us, but you must not believe that atheists do not have these engrained prejudices in their thinking because it is patently untrue (as we shall see from the evidence that Dawkins seeks out and the interpretation he gives it)! The intellectually responsible thing to do is to recognise your bias, and then try and take account of it when you consider evidence.

So how does Dawkins’ definition of faith fare? Alister McGrath:

‘Dawkins has his own views of what religious people believe, and proceeds to rubbish these ideas with enthusiasm… To put it bluntly, Dawkins’ engagement with theology is superficial and inaccurate, often amounting to little more than cheap point scoring… His tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents is the least attractive aspect of his writings.’

His definition of faith might seem fine… until you discover that you can’t find a Christian theologian to back Dawkins up (the only exception I found was quoting Luther without engaging with his context). He offers no substantial evidence that his definition is representative of any religion, let alone Christianity. By contrast, here’s the definition of W.H. Griffith-Thomas (1861-1924) who was principal of Wycliffe Hall theological college (part of Oxford University):

‘[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. If commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.’

That is representative of what Christians teach about faith! That is why I’m always delighted when Christians look into things, question and wrestle with real issues. It’s no great surprise that, having set up his straw man, Dawkins easily knocks him down. But the idea that religious people could be thinking, logical people who apply rigorous intellects to their religion is anathema to Dawkins – for some reason he refuses to acknowledge the mountain of evidence to the contrary. So you could say that his definition of faith fits his own faith in his definition of faith, if not much else!

Atheism requires as much faith as any kind of theism. If we take a responsible definition of faith I see no reason why that should be a problem. The atheist must have faith that science will provide all the answers (since it hasn’t yet). The Christian must have faith that ultimate answers are given by revelation of God in the Bible. The question is whether or not such faith is reasonable. It would be a great benefit to this debate if the ridiculous rhetoric that ‘atheism is based on reason whilst faith relies blind trust and subjectivity’ was finally binned on the basis of being untrue on both sides!

If that is the case, then are there credible reasons for believing what the Bible has to say? Is my faith in the God shown to us in the pages of the Bible reasonable? Well, Christianity is nearly unique among world religions in that it is verifiable. By that I don’t mean that you can prove that it’s true, but that there are things you can check out that could show it up to be false. If the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection recorded in the Bible are not historical realities then Christianity is untrue and should be abandoned immediately. This whole area merits an entire meeting (at least) devoted to it, but I decided that since it will act as a good illustration of the reasonable nature of Christian faith, that I’d just offer a few brief points on the question of the Bible’s reliability.

Dawkins tells us,

‘Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world… All were then copied and recopied, through many different ‘Chinese Whispers generations’ by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.’

Have ‘scholarly theologians’ all thrown the Bible out as a reliable witness? Certainly there was the ‘higher criticism’ movement of the nineteenth century – who found its figurehead (though not originator) in Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). (If you were taught at school that the Pentateuch was made of 4 different sources – J,E,D and P – that’s what we’re talking about, although now rather out of fashion.) But how reliable is this ‘scholarly’ criticism that Dawkins refers to? As long ago as the 1920s Prof. Robert Wilson investigated these ideas. In fact, having learnt around 26 Semitic languages and dialects he set to work studying the primary evidence, to see if Wellhausen’s dismissal of the Bible’s accuracy stood up to scrutiny. Take for example a raid by a king – Chedorlaomer – and his subsequent defeat by Abraham (Gen. 14). Wellhausen said it was ‘simply impossible’ and critics supposed a Jewish archaeologist between 900-300 BC must have invented the story in honour of Abraham by using the names he’d just discovered! Wilson found in his researches that such critics rarely checked the primary sources. His conclusion on this event?

‘Against the historical character of this narrative we have the assertion of Wellhausen and other critics of our times (only about 4000 years after the supposed expedition!) that the expedition was “simply impossible”, and that it is probably that the account may have been fabricated (or forged) by some person unknown, at some time unknown, for reasons unknown. Not one item of evidence in the way of time, place, logic, psychology, language, or customs, has been produced against the trustworthiness of the document… But a German professor says it is “simply impossible”, English followers echo “simply impossible”, and the Americans echo again “simply impossible”. And this assertion of “simply impossible” is called an “assured result of scientific criticism”!’

Wilson's findings sound a clear warning to us to ask what starting assumptions such 'scholars' have. If they've already decided the Bible is hopelessly inaccurate, don't expect to find any other conclusion than just that! Sir William Ramsay was doing similar work in the NT around the same time. (He was awarded 3 honorary fellowships from Oxford colleges and 9 honorary doctorates for his work.) He focused on Luke-Acts, but began believing Wellhausen’s theories – that it was written 160-180 AD and was largely fictional (as Dawkins wants us to believe). His conclusion after a lifetime of research?

“Further study… showed that the book [Acts] could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgement, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement.”

Prof. F.F. Bruce (only person to be president of both SSOT and SSNT) also added:

“Research in the field which forms the historical and geographical background to Luke’s narrative has not stood still since Ramsay’s heyday, but our respect for Luke’s reliability continues to grow as our knowledge of this field increases.”

Certainly you can always find theologians who will deny the accuracy of the Bible, but the interesting thing is that it has largely been the theologians who have been reticent to accept the Bible’s accuracy (since they have adopted an agenda that adapting theology to modern trends is the way forward), and the historians have been far more positive. Reasons like this show why TIME magazine could conclude, in an article surveying the credibility of the Bible,

“After more than two centuries of facing the heaviest scientific guns that could be brought to bear, the Bible has survived – and is perhaps better for the siege. Even on the critics’ own terms – historical fact – the Scriptures seem more acceptable now than they did when the rationalists began the attack.”

Have I disproved atheism and proved that Christianity is true? By no means. But I hope that even this very brief survey of a few issues highlights that the truth about the Christian faith is not what Richard Dawkins would like you to believe. If you only have the Richard Dawkins Encyclopaedia of Religion as your guide let me plead with you to investigate much further before dismissing the Christian faith because you are being seriously misled. These issues are far too important to allow such misrepresentation to get in the way, because if the Bible is true then it demands a response of wholehearted faith, but if it is false it should be discarded instantly. The apostle Paul went so far as to say that if the Bible is not historically true ‘your faith is futile… we are of all men most pitiable’ (1 Cor. 15:17, 19)! Richard Dawkins believes the case is so obvious that after a mere 5 pages of discussion he can conclude, ‘I shall not consider the Bible further as evidence for any kind of deity.’ He then fires at will to demolish the kind of faith we’ve discovered Christians don’t have. So please ask yourself very carefully, who is really deluded here?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Resting in God

I was reminded of a wonderful old hymn recently, and its been in my mind all day, providing so much peace:

I rest on thee our shield and our defender!
We go not forth alone against the foe;
Strong in thy strength, safe in thy keeping tender,
We rest on thee, and in thy name we go.

Yes, in thy name, O captain of salvation!
In thy dear name, all other names above:
Jesus our righteousness, our sure foundation,
Our Prince of glory and our King of love.

We go in faith, our own great weakness feeling,
And needing more each day thy grace to know:
Yet from our hearts a song of triumph pealing;
We rest on thee, and in thy name we go.

We rest on thee our shield and our defender!
Thine is the battle, thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendour,
Victors we rest with thee through endless days.
Edith G. Cherry (1872-97)

The tune (Finlandia) has such a quiet dignity about it, beautifully matched by the words - confident, but only in God, never in ourselves. This is a song to sing when we feel the enemy attacking, when we become painfully aware that this world is so broken, when we know of struggle, when we hear of situations we just can't understand, and yet when we know (or need to remind ourselves) that the battle is the Lord's and we can quietly rest in his love and sovereignty.

I'm really starting to love older hymns.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Love Abused

How would you respond if your cousin wrote a book advocating polygamy? Unsurprisingly, poet William Cowper (1731-1800) responded in verse, with a poem entitled 'Love Abused':

What is there in the vale of life
Half so delightful as a Wife,
When friendship, love, and peace combine
To stamp the marriage-bond divine?
The stream of pure and genuine love
Derives its current from above;
And earth a second Eden shows,
Where'er the healing water flows:
But ah! if from the dykes and drains
Of sensual nature's feverish veins,
Lust, like a lawless headstrong flood,
Impregnated with ooze and mud,
Descending fast on every side,
Once mingles with the sacred tide,
Farewell the soul-enlivening scene!
The banks that wore a smiling green,
With rank defilement overspread,
Bewail their flowery beauties dead.
The stream, polluted, dark, and dull,
Diffused into a Stygian pool,
Through life's last melancholy years
Is fed with ever-flowing tears:
Complaints supply the zephyr's part,
And sighs that heave a breaking heart.

['Stygian' = 'Of or pertaining to the River Styx or the underworld... black, gloomy, indistinct, infernal, hellish']

Ok, so what? Polygamy isn't really a hot issue for me. But then look around society and quickly you can replace talk of polygamy with the very similar issue of socially-acceptable (even encouraged) serial monogamy. As a newcomer to Cowper's poetry (having recently found his collected poetical works on a secondhand bookstall) what strikes me is how incisive his insight can be at times, and how much he can say with so few words. Serial monogamy is the search for 'the one', 'Mr Right', and personal fulfilment - and it's everywhere in our society. Relationships are such a prominent idol - the holy grail of contentment, but what do we find?

'Farewell the soul-enlivening scene!'

We find we've lost something - somehow that fulfilment remains elusive, our souls are never quite satisfied. Why? Because we've abandoned the God-given scenario of marriage, that when undertaken in a godly and responsible way offers something comparable to a 'second Eden', we find that we just can't fill the hole that's left. You can see the last four lines in action all around you - just open your eyes.

But we don't see it. We've decided a priori that the Creator's instructions are dull, dusty and terribly inhibiting. So we're pursuing 'freedom' without the One who could show us how to find it (and what 'freedom' really is) - the One who is the Truth. With what effect? Here's the closing lines of 'The Progress of Error' (the first 12-page poem I've ever read!!) that so effectively describe what's going on... and point to the only answer.

Hear the just law - the judgement of the skies!
He that hates truth shall be the dupe of lies;
And he that will be cheated to the last,
Delusions strong as Hell shall bind him fast.
But if the wanderer his mistake discern,
Judge his own ways, and sigh for a return,
Bewildered once, must he bewail his loss
For ever and for ever? No - the Cross!
There, and there only (though the deist rave,
And atheist, if Earth bear so base a slave)
There, and there only, is the power to save.
There no delusive hope invites despair.
No mockery meets you, no deception there;
The spells and charms that blinded you before,
All vanish there, and fascinate no more.
I am no preacher; let this hint suffice -
The Cross once seen is death to every vice;
Else He that hung there suffered all his pain,
Bled, groaned, and agonized, and died in vain.

Friday, 23 October 2009

True religion

"Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life."

William Lamb, British Prime Minister 1835-41

It's an understandable lament... viewed from a certain perspective. After all, what could be more delightful and fulfilling than being left to do exactly as I please in my own private life? What we want is a suitably undemanding religion with suitable guarantees for the afterlife. Or do we? Is that kind of religion worth anything? Does that kind of religion do anything other than soothe my conscience and allow my ego to carry on with whatever it fancies doing? We would ordinarily call that kind of arrangement a sham. Does it bring happiness anyway? I wonder if Lamb had really thought this through? Might the pain of his wife's scandalous affair with Lord Byron have been averted with a little meaningful 'religion'?

I can't really express how unappealing such empty 'religion' is to me. It's living a lie; a convenient way of fooling myself. Surely it speaks of an empty life - a need to atone for wrongdoing somehow, but a refusal to allow for any transformation. If wrongdoing really is wrong, then what could be better than to deal with it effectively? What could be more liberating? "No!" the world cries, "that's enslaving yourself to someone else's standards! That's not liberty!" The spiritual blindness shown in Lamb's opinion is just tragic, and all the more tragic because he speaks for multitudes. They cannot see the spiritual reality: 'Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?' (Romans 6:16). Rowland Hill, who died just 2 years before Lamb became PM, has something far more attractive to say (even if he looks so miserable in his portrait!):

"I would give nothing for that man's religion whose very dog and cat were not the better for it!"

This kind of attractive, comprehensive faith is the subject of a prayer I read this morning in The Valley of Vision - entitled by the compilers, 'True Religion'. The comprehensive sweep of its concerns over all aspects of life was what struck me.

Lord God Almighty,

I ask not to be enrolled amongst the earthly great and rich,
but to be numbered with the spiritually blessed.

Make it my present, supreme, persevering concern to obtain those blessings which are
spiritual in nature, eternal in their continuance, satisfying in their possession.

Preserve me from a false estimate of the whole or a part of my character;

May I pay regard to
my principles as well as my conduct,
my motives as well as my actions.

Help me
never to mistake the excitement of my passions for the renewing of the Holy Spirit,
never to judge my religion by occasional impressions and impulses, but by my constant and prevailing disposition.

May my heart be right with thee,

and my life as becometh the gospel.

May I maintain a supreme regard to another and better world,
and feel and confess myself a stranger and a pilgrim here.

Afford me all the direction, defence, support, and consolation my journey hence requires,

and grant me a mind stayed upon thee.

Give me large abundance of the supply of the Spirit of Jesus,

that I may be prepared for every duty,
love thee in all my mercies,
submit to thee in every trial,
trust thee when walking in darkness,
have peace in thee amidst life's changes.

Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief and uncertainties.

How much of this religion would William Lamb have recognised? Isn't it something so much better?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Is substitionary atonement immoral?

Reading a comment by Mahmut on Simon Hutton’s blog here set me thinking about the morality of the biblical doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Simon has already posted a really helpful response here showing the necessity of understanding the biblical framework if you’re to meaningfully challenge the doctrine of substitutionary atonement – which is great, as that’s where I’d had in mind to start, but now there’s no need to say what’s already been said! So I’ll restrict myself to reflecting on just one point – doesn’t this doctrine lead to a ‘legal fiction’?

The Bible doesn’t simply teach that Jesus decided to step into our place and take the punishment on our behalf. Substitutionary atonement is only one part in a much bigger doctrine of salvation. Would that be moral? Would that satisfy God’s eternal justice? I think not. That tends to lead to ideas of God as an impersonal dispenser of justice – it doesn’t matter who 'gets it', just so long as someone does.

The Bible teaches something far greater than that – and, it must be said, something very different to our contemporary Western individualism. The Bible teaches that Christ acts as our representative head, just as Adam did. Perhaps a better illustration than the stories of one innocent person voluntarily standing in for the guilty would be the situation of the CEO of a corporation. He knows that his job will be on the line if there is corruption within the company – even if he wasn’t involved. He must be prepared to take responsibility for those under him. I am well aware that this illustration is very far from perfect – I offer it simply as a slight improvement on others that are more often heard to try, getting away from these ideas of radical individualism and suggesting ideas of more ‘corporate’ responsibility.

But the Christian’s relationship with Christ is not that of employee to CEO. The Bible describes it as being a far closer, more intimate and vital relationship – the relationship between the head and the body (Ephesians 5:23) or like a vine and its branches (John 15:1-7). The NT letters are peppered with phrases such as ‘in him’ or ‘in Christ’ to describe the Christian’s position.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, points to another NT image of the Church’s (=all Christians) relationship to Christ – that of bride to bridegroom in the covenant of marriage:

The third incomparable grace of faith is this: that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband, by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage--nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages--is accomplished between them (for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage), then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, that the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as His.

If we compare these possessions, we shall see how inestimable is the gain. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death, and condemnation. Let faith step in, and then sin, death, and hell will belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation to the soul. For, if He is a Husband, He must needs take to Himself that which is His wife's, and at the same time, impart to His wife that which is His. For, in giving her His own body and Himself, how can He but give her all that is His? And, in taking to Himself the body of His wife, how can He but take to Himself all that is hers. In this is displayed the delightful sight, not only of communion, but of a prosperous warfare, of victory, salvation, and redemption. For, since Christ is God and man, and is such a Person as neither has sinned, nor dies, nor is condemned, nay, cannot sin, die, or be condemned, and since His righteousness, life, and salvation are invincible, eternal, and almighty,--when I say, such a Person, by the wedding-ring of faith, takes a share in the sins, death, and hell of His wife, nay, makes them His own, and deals with them no otherwise than as if they were His, and as if He Himself had sinned; and when He suffers, dies, and descends to hell, that He may overcome all things, and since sin, death, and hell cannot swallow Him up, they must needs be swallowed up by Him in stupendous conflict. For His righteousness rises above the sins of all men; His life is more powerful than all death; His salvation is more unconquerable than all hell.

Who then can value highly enough these royal nuptials? Who can comprehend the riches of the glory of this grace? Christ, that rich and pious Husband, takes as a wife a needy and impious harlot, redeeming her from all her evils and supplying her with all His good things. It is impossible now that her sins should destroy her, since they have been laid upon Christ and swallowed up in Him, and since she has in her Husband Christ a righteousness which she may claim as her own, and which she can set up with confidence against all her sins, against death and hell, saying, "If I have sinned, my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned; all mine is His, and all His is mine," as it is written, "My beloved is mine, and I am His" (Cant. ii. 16). This is what Paul says: "Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ," victory over sin and death, as he says, "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law" (1 Cor. xv. 56, 57).

Martin Luther, The Freedom of the Christian, written 1520.

Now, that may not sound terribly convincing to the modern mind either, but that’s because our radical modern individualism has seriously undermined our understanding of marriage. In the last year there has been a huge increase in the number of pre-nuptial agreements (I forget the figures – it was reported recently on the radio) as the modern individualist, quite logically, is in it for what they can get rather than for what they can give to their spouse, so it becomes a priority to protect yourself against the eventuality of it going wrong.

No, I’m not digressing. Rather this thought highlights a bigger issue – given the Bible’s teaching on salvation into which substitutionary atonement fits, the question of whether or not substitutionary atonement is immoral depends upon another question: should modern radical individualism be unquestioningly accepted as the basis of our ethical understanding, or could it be possible that this modern Western ideology may not hold the total supremacy it tends to assume for itself? If you hold on to your Western individualism, you won’t be able to make sense of biblical teaching. But if you allow the Bible to challenge your worldview, and if you begin to see the beauty and coherence of what it offers (I know which sort of marriage I want mine to be!) it all begins to fall into place.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Whose Delusion?

Here is Richard Dawkin's thesis in 'The God Delusion':

'...any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion; and, as later chapters will show, a pernicious delusion.' (pg. 31)

There are any number of things that could be said about the massive assumptions - the leaps of faith - that Dawkins must make for his position to be tenable etc etc. But let's not - not now anyway. Instead, let's allow C.S. Lewis to comment on the situation. Here is the plight of Uncle Andrew witnessing the creation of Narnia, and Aslan endowing some of the animals with the power of speech:

'We must now go back a bit and explain what the whole scene had looked like from Uncle Andrew's point of view. It had not made at all the same impression on him as on the Cabby and the children. For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.

Ever since the animals had first appeared, Uncle Andrew had been shrinking further and further back into the thicket. He watched them very hard of course; but he wasn't really interested in seeing what they were doing, only in seeing whether they were going to make a rush at him. Like the Witch, he was dreadfully practical. He simply didn't notice that Aslan was choosing one pair out of every kind of beasts. All he saw, or thought he saw, was a lot of dangerous wild animals walking vaguely about. And he kept on wondering why the other animals didn't run away from the big Lion.

When the great moment came and the Beasts spoke, he missed the whole point; for a rather interesting reason. When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a lion ("only a lion," as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make believe that it wasn't singing and never had been singing - only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world. "Of course it can't really have been singing," he thought, "I must have imagined it. I've been letting my nerves out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?" And the longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to making yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan's song. Soon he couldn't have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. And when at last the Lion spoke and said, "Narnia awake," he didn't hear any words: he only heard a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, bayings, and howlings.'

The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis

Finally, here is Paul's analysis of the above phenomena in Romans 1:19-23:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Searching for happiness - making us miserable?

A slightly edited version of a lunchbar talk I gave yesterday at Writtle College, Chelmsford.

The question was this: why do we have more rights, more stuff, more confidence... and less happiness than ever before? Let's start with the results of a quick survey carried out by the CU last week at freshers' fayre.

The question was simply this: what do you think will bring you the greatest fulfilment in life? The biggest group - 32% of the students surveyed - thought that fulfilment will be found in friends or family. This was closely followed by 31% who thought that success (whether in education, career, wealth, sport etc) would be their most fulfilling experience. Only 6.5% thought that love would bring fulfilment, matching the 6.5% who look forward to doing whatever they want. At a place like Writtle, perhaps it’s not so surprising that working with animals got a look-in at 4%, matching the number of people who were uncertain. Only 5% are expecting to find fulfilment in things such as helping others with their needs or living for God.

So what’s the point of all this? I was interested to find out where your hopes lie. American psychologists have found that there has been a trend stretching back to the 1960s showing an increasing obsession with ourselves. We (if we follow the same pattern as America) are taught that we are very special people – that we have rights, that we deserve to succeed all the time, that loving yourself is the most important thing you can do. Are those trends here in the UK too? And if they are (though granted I guess it’ll be less extreme than America), is there a problem with that?

What was very interesting to me about the results that came back from our survey is that at least 66% - two thirds – of responses were focused on the self. (I say ‘at least’ because other categories such as ‘love’ are ambiguous.) I don’t find that very surprising, and I’m guessing that you don’t either – where else would our search for fulfilment be centred?

Our whole culture is geared up to support this kind of way of life: companies try and sell us their products by telling us they will provide exactly what we want, when we want it, how we want it (e.g. online shopping), and credit companies offer the opportunity to ‘but now, pay later’ (UK consumer credit in June 2009 was £14 278 000 000!). Tragically we often treat our relationships the same way – in them for the pleasure they give us, not to love someone else. All these things are a part of our quest for self-fulfilment, and they are increasingly being taken to new heights in our society.

But here’s another question that is rarely asked: where is this focus on ourselves taking us? It seems to be such an unquestionable fact that first and foremost you’ve got to love yourself that no one stops to ask what consequences of this we can see. At the same time that this message of self-love has been spreading through society, levels of depression have soared (America 1987-97 – 1.8 to 6.3 million). Levels of anxiety have risen so much that ‘normal’ kids in the 1980s (America) reported higher levels of anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s! Loneliness is also on the increase. All this in the least traumatic era of recent history. Why? Because those who score the highest in tests for ‘narcissistic’ (self-loving) personalities are also those who tend to alienate others – they’re great personalities… until you get in the way of their self-fulfilment. (Don’t get me wrong – saying self-love is a huge problem does not mean I’m saying we should hate ourselves.)

So what can we do to tackle this tide of catastrophic super-self-love? I want to show you a couple of truths from the Bible to show the way forward – the first to explain why we’re in this mess; the second to point the way out of it.

First then, how have we landed up here? If you think I’m going to start lamenting the state of society today and looking back to the good old days, think again. Did you know that society has, at heart, always been just as bad as it is now. In fact, the Bible tells us that humanity has a major problem. We’re designed to look outwards – to be focused on others and on God, but we’re in a situation where we focus on ourselves and looking after number 1.

Now, I think if you take a long, hard, honest look into your own heart you’ll find the same symptoms there – a longing to put yourself first, in short, selfishness. Why else do you argue with friends, family or flatmates? It’s a battle of who gets to put themselves first, isn’t it? And yes, we’ve all been unreasonable more than once! Why do you look down on others? Why are there times you won’t admit you’re wrong? Why do we do all these kind of things, even though it causes arguments, fallouts, pain, unkind words? It even causes us more stress and pain ourselves!

So, you see it’s nothing new – its human nature, although not as God created it. We all know being like this is awful deep down (think of a time you’ve really hurt someone close to you) – but we don’t change. It seems our new problem is that society is approving of our selfishness more and more, bringing it out into the open.

So we’re in a mess, and all of us are in it together – it’s just that some of us are better at controlling and concealing it than others. But there is another way. The Bible teaches that although self-focus leads to self-destruction, self-denial leads to fulfilment (notice I didn’t say self-fulfilment!). It’s those times when I forget about myself and give myself in love to others that I find real fulfilment – when I wasn’t even looking for it (hence the lack of ‘self’ above)! Is that surprising? Not according to the Bible, because that is how God says things work. The ultimate example and explanation of this self-giving is seen in Jesus, God’s Son.

So what do we learn from Jesus Christ? Here is someone prepared to make this demand on his followers: ‘For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it’ (Mk.8:35). And here is someone who practised what he preached, even prepared to knowingly go to death under torture on a wooden cross. Paul, one of the biblical authors paints an incredible picture of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, enjoying the perfection of heaven, yet giving it all up, becoming ‘nothing’ and living the lowliest of lives and suffering the worst of deaths. All of this, the Bible adamantly insists, was for us.

Great! Here’s the answer to our problem! We just need to stop putting ourselves first and instead look outside ourselves, looking to give rather than to get; giving ourselves to God and to others and their needs. The problem is, we can’t seem to do it. Sure, we can have a go and make things better, but we find we just can’t abandon our first priority – me. There are many people who serve other people, and even turn religious, in order to feed their self-focus. I find it amazing how many people I meet like that. As soon as they find out that I’m a minister they launch into a detailed list of all the things they do for charity or other people! Many people act the same way toward God – he’ll be pleased with this list of things I’ve done and let me into heaven. That’s not the kind of serving others God is talking about – that is a way of comforting myself that I’m a good person.

In that light, perhaps you’re beginning to realise just how hard – how impossible – it is for us to leave our self-focus behind. The Bible says we can’t do it unless God does it for us. He offers to change our hearts – that’s what we really need: change from the inside-out, not just trying to improve our behaviour or appearance. That is what the Christian message offers – not a message of, ‘Come on! Try harder!’ but a message of, ‘You can’t, but God can’. If you think God will be impressed with your efforts you’ve got the wrong end of the stick – you’re loving yourself more than others. But God offers to give you this new heart as an undeserved gift that you may experience life as God intended it as he begins to change you. Then, when you forget about yourself and give yourself away, will you find the fulfilment you were looking for before in yourself – finding it at the very time you’d stopped looking for it!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The necessity of getting down to the heart

For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart that it may be an invincible defense to withstand and drive off all the stratagems of temptation.
Calvin - Institutes III.ii.36

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The confidence of faith

I've gone back to reading Calvin on faith in his Institutes - it's just wonderful stuff (Bk. III Ch. 2). Consider this question: what should faith look like as it approaches God? How about this for an answer:

'...the apostle derives confidence from faith, and from confidence, in turn, boldness. For he states: "Through Christ we have boldness and access with confidence which is through faith in him" (Eph. 3:12). By these words he obviously shows that there is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God's sight." (III.ii.15)

Now that's confidence! But it's true; he's hit the biblical nail right on the head. Through Christ we can do just that - stand in the presence of the God burning white-hot in his holiness with absolute tranquility.

But doesn't that sound somewhat idealistic - maybe even unrealistic? What about when we doubt and struggle with the temptation to unbelief? Does that mean I've lost my faith? Not at all, for faith is always imperfect in this life, and we must contend with the permanent battle between the flesh and the spirit (e.g. Rom. 7:13-25). But in those circumstances, the true believer will always be victorious. The example of David, and the struggles we see recorded in his Psalms is so encouraging here (III.ii.17). What is to be our response when the temptation to unbelief seems to be overwhelming us? We repel it with the shield of faith (Eph. 6:16) which takes the word of God and repels such unbelief with the truths of what God has really said. For example, a Christian may feel they are experiencing God's wrath for their sin as they pass through difficult circumstances. Does this 'work' in such a situation?

'A proof of this is that while the saints seem to be very greatly pressed by God's vengeance, yet they lay their complaints before him; and when it seems that they will not at all be heard, they nontheless call upon him. What point would there be in crying out to him if they hoped for no solace from him? Indeed, it would never enter their minds to call upon him if they did not believe that he had prepared help for them.' (III.ii.21)

Faith, then, will always ultimately be victorious in the Christian life. It cannot be otherwise, for faith is at the heart of his identity as a new creation - without it there is simply no Christian. That must mean that it is unbelief that is now the foreigner in the Christian's life. Therefore Calvin can conclude with absolute confidence:

'Unbelief does not hold sway within believers' hearts, but assails them from without. It does not mortally wound them with its weapons, but merely harasses them, or at most so injures them that the wound is curable. Faith, then, as Paul teaches, serves as our shield (Eph. 6:16). When held up against weapons it so receives their force that it either completely turns them aside or at least weakens their thrust, so that they cannot penetrate to our vitals... And he [John, in 1 John 5:4] affirms that our faith will be victor not only in one battle, or a few, or against any particular assault; but that, though it be assailed a thousand times, it will prevail over the entire world.' (III.ii.21)

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Muddling through with N.T. Wright

Ok, so I've managed to find a bit of time recently to plod on a little further with Tom Wright's book on Justification. I'm now ready to launch into the exegesis section, but I found reading the last chapter of the first section - 'Justification: definitions and puzzles' rather unsettling. My problem is this: it's just so muddled.

My biggest issue is this: Wright happily wanders from describing and critiquing what is essentially the Catholic view of justification, stemming from Augustine, that sees the term justification as referring to pretty much the whole of salvation, and then switches back and forth to John Piper and his like - representing the reformation position - as though there were no difference between them! Yet it was the Augustinian position that Luther (the source of so many of our ills according to Wright) reacted so strongly against! I cannot believe that Wright is so incompetent a scholar as to not realise the massive difference between the two positions - his reputation would forbid it. Surely he must see that there is a world of difference between the instant imputation of Christ's righteousness of the Reformation doctrine and the slow life-long infusion of righteousness (roughtly equating to sanctification) of Augustine - yet he seems to imply the two are identical by simply switching the discussion from one to the other without notification (pg. 71). I hope that this is merely a very badly written chapter, but to the uninformed reader it would certainly very unfairly prejudice them against the Reformation doctrine of justification simply because it isn't clearly set out, other than those bits of it that Wright likes. The Catholic position, however, receives ample description and critique, but along the way Wright pauses to engage with... John Piper et al - who don't hold this position at all!

Here's my other big complaint: in a chapter concerning the definition of justification, I would hope to discover how Wright considers his doctrine to differ from the Reformation doctrine, but all I've worked out is that it's different from Catholicism, and seems to approve of an awful lot of the Reformation teaching. It would seem to me that the only thing like a definition of justification offered (pg. 69f) is in real agreement with the 'Old Perspective'. I've yet to discover what the big deal is from Wright's own pen. On points where I want clarification he is vague and on points that I understand (e.g. covenant theology, Christology etc) he is full of detail!

What I find most concerning is that he seems content to be vague on areas such as the role of the cross (other than that Jesus dealt with sin there somehow), what grounds God has for justifiying us etc. These things may not be the doctrine of justification per se, but a reasonable doctrine of justification cannot stand without them. Dare I suggest (well, yes I do - it's my blog and I can say what I like!) that it just sounds so Anglican - the aim is to remain vague where reasonably possible so as to accommodate as many positions as possible (apologies to the many evangelical Anglicans I know to be glorious exceptions to this rule). Maybe that explains the surprising range of people that give commendations inside the front cover - Michael Bird being a lecturer at a seminary that advertises itself as Reformed, and Brian McLaren being no advocate of orthodoxy. Will that be the end result? A biblical-sounding doctrine that actually crosses very few t's and dots as few i's as possible so that when the rubber hits the road you can mould it to suit nearly whatever brand of teaching you like? I know this approach is very popular in contemporary Christianity, but it does nothing for the cause of biblical truth or biblical unity. It is only the truth that will set us free. Vagueness leads only into the fog.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Justification by busyness?

Re-reading Tim Chester's book "The Busy Christians Guide to Busyness", a few sentences really hit home:

"Pastors [or UCCF Staff Workers it turns out] preach justification by faith and then tell you at the door how busy they are, in an act of hypocritical self-justification. ... the temptation to talk up our busyness is strong. We want to show we're earning our money. We want people to respect our hard work."

Temptation to talk up our busyness - yep, that's me. I'm often trying to prove my worth by explaining that I've got a lot on, that I'm worth all the money people are giving me to do my job, that I should be respected because of all the things I fit in. I want to feel I've proved and justified my life through being 'oh, very busy' (or when I'm not really that busy, listing lots of things I'm doing to make me sound like I am). But when its stated plainly for what it is, I can see how foolish and sinful this is - trying to earn worth, acceptance, respect, when Christ has died and all is completed. My identity is now in Jesus and not in looking, or being, busy (or anything else). Oh Lord, help us to stop justifying our existance by what we do!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Is Wright right?

I've started reading Tom Wright's latest book on Justification alongside John Piper's critique of Wright 'The Future of Justification'. (Wright's book is his response to Piper's response to his teaching on the 'new perspective on Paul'!)

A few initial thoughts on Wright's position:
- Wright is at great pains to emphasise the overarching story of the people of Israel as terribly important. Agreed. But just because Wright emphasises this doesn't mean that everyone who holds to what is now the 'old perspective' is only interested in 'me and my salvation'. That may be true of some, but certainly not all - I'd heard of biblical theology from Reformed sources long before I'd heard of the new perspective!

- Wright alleges that, since the above is true (that we traditional Reformed types are only interested in individual salvation), for all our loud claims to the contrary we're actually being man-centred. Wright's position, however, is God-centred - focusing on God's grand plan rather than little old me. This raises two questions: (i) why should the grand story of the Bible be incompatible with the traditional teaching on justification? No one is suggesting that justification is the be-all-and-end-all of the Christian life or the biblical worldview! (ii) for all his claims, is Wright going to smuggle man-centredness in through the back door later through changing the categories in which we think of justification? Will the new perspective turn out to be leaning down the slippery slope that logically leads to salvation by works?

- One thing certainly seems lacking thus far in his discussion. (Let's be fair - he may come to it later.) But I distinctly remember him bemoaning in the early pages of the book the lack of consideration of the 'in Christ' language of the NT by the traditional camp. That may be a fair complaint. But, as Mike Reeves brilliantly shows in talks you can buy here, that very 'in Christ' language offers the solution to Wright's big problem with the idea of the imputation of Christ's righteousness...

Monday, 6 July 2009

Getting sin right

'Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him... Most people think of sin primarily as 'breaking divine rules', but... the very first of the Ten Commandments is to 'have no other gods before me'. So, according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things. It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose and happiness than your relationship to God.'

Tim Keller, 'The Reason for God'

What a powerful - and painful - definition of sin! It sweeps away all objections of the 'I'm not that bad' type, and makes Paul's conclusion in Romans 3:10-20 simply inescapable. But of course, the good news is that it makes the remedy of the gospel all the more glorious at the same time!

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Old Testament authority

How is the OT relevant to us today? In what way can we say that it is authoritative for us as Christians? There is so much that is different - so many commands that we do not keep. Does it have anything to say to us?

Chris Wright helpfully points out the nature of OT authority in his Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. For starters, we have to realise that 'authority' is a bigger term than 'command'. Clearly, we do not keep many of the commands of the OT, but that need not mean that it isn't authoritative for us. Once we've got that clear, there are at least four avenues by which the authority of the OT upon us becomes clear.

The reality of the God of the OT - 'the reality of the identity of YHWH implies the authority of an ethics of worship and response. Inasmuch as we encounter the reality of this God in the pages of the OT we encounter that authority also... [T]he reality of YHWH's character implies the authority for an ethic if imitation and reflection of that character in human behaviour. We ought to behave in certain ways because that is what YHWH is like, and that reality is sufficient authority.'

The reality of the story of the OT - 'the reality of this story, rendered to uson the pages of the OT, carries authority for an ethic of gratitude in view of God's actions for Israel in the past, and an ethic of missional intentionality in view of God's purposes for humanity in the future.'

The reality of the word of the OT - 'the reality of this word, delivered to us in the scriptures of Israel, carries authority for an ethic of covenantal obedience for us as for Israel, for we know the One who said these things (Heb. 10:30).'

The reality of the people of the OT - 'the reality of this people, rendered to us in the OT Scriptures, generates an ethic of paradigm and analogy, in which we assume the moral consistency of God and ask, "If this is what God required of them, what, in our different context, does God require of us?"'

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Shakespeare or slogans?!

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out , brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Shakespeare)

Last week some of the UCCF staff were encouraged to think through the importance of form as well as content in the Bible and in our communication of it. Sometimes good communication isn't about making things as absolutely simple as they possibly can be, finding that timeless truth and saying it in the least possible syllables. Rather, the way something comes across can be as important as the content itself. Take the above quote for example, it's harder to understand than the bumper sticker which says "life sucks; then you die", but, even though the two things are saying more or less the exact same thing, doesn't Shakespeare communicate so much more? The slogan leaves me cold and cynical, but is soon forgotten. Macbeth leaves me desperately sad at the hoplessness of people, at the meaninglessness of this world and at life which is but "a walking shadow" (made worse by the fact someone can express this so beautifully).

Although I didn't need much convincing that form matters as well as content, I'm feeling more determined to think hard about how I communicate something, especially when teaching the Bible. I don't want to strip passages down to merely a slogan and miss the message of the form.

(oh, just to make sure everything is properly referenced - this all came from Jason Clarke, who I think was quoting Carl Trueman, who was quoting Shakespeare and presumably a car he saw at some point...)

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

What grounds of assurance?

After a busy couple of weeks, I've returned to The Bruised Reed to finish it off. Having discussed the justice that shall be sent forth to victory (see Matt. 12:20) under the title 'Grace shall reign', Sibbes concludes in true Puritan fashion with evidences I can look for in my own life that this is true of me.

My question is this: are these the best evidences to looks for? They're generally very inward-looking and subjective rather than outward-looking and Christ-focused. Now, I don't doubt that Sibbes believes that the work of Christ is the ground of our assurance and that in a different context that would have come out - I don't expect him to say everything every time! And it must also be said that he does qualify his evidences by laying out three stages of experiencing them, starting when we resist but fail - but what about those times when the emphasis seems to be on the failing rather than the resisting?

Must I be able to 'justify all Christ's ways' all the time? What about if I doubt? What about the many times when 'reasons of religion' are not the strongest reasons at work in me? What about when Christ's will comes into conflict with others within me and loses very, very quickly? And so on.

I don't think Sibbes is wrong per se, particularly in view of his qualification, but is this balanced advice? Don't we need at least a pointer to the fixed, never-failing realities of the gospel to keep the anchor held firm? I'm not entirely sure what I make of what he says here - I've got more questions than answers.

But I'll end with my favourite 'evidence' - which seems spot on to me. If you can't even find a glimmer of this, then you're in for real difficulties:

'If we had liberty to choose under whose government we would live, out of a delight in the inner man to Christ's government, making choice of him only to rule us before any other. This argues that we are like-minded to Christ, a free and a willing people, and not compelled to Christ's service otherwise than by the sweet constraint of love. When we are so far satisfied with the government of Christ's Spirit that we are willing to resign up ourselves to him in all things, then his kingdom is come in us, and our wills are brought to his will. It is the bent of our wills that makes us good or ill.'

Monday, 25 May 2009

Why all peoples?

"...the fame and greatness and worth of an object of beauty increases in proportion to the diversity of those who recognise its beauty. If a work of art is regarded as great among a small and likeminded group of people but not by anyone else, the art is probably not truly great. Its qualities are such that it does not appeal to the deep universals in out hearts but only to provincial biases. But if a work of art continues to win more and more admirers not only across cultures but also across decaeds and centuries, then its greatness is irresistibly manifested." ("Let the Nations be Glad!" John Piper)

Why are there so many different cultures and people groups in the world? And why is God's plan to save people from every single one? Reading "Let the Nations be Glad!" I was really struck by God's plan of redemption, which is not limited simply to large numbers of individuals, but specifically people from every single tribe and tongue and nation. God's plan is that around his throne will be people from every culture, people representing every age in history, people from every walk of life. Why? This is going to glorify him more than if only some, or even only most, people groups were there.

But why is this more glorifying? One of the reasons Piper highlights, explained in the quote above, is that the more consensus on something being beautiful, the more beautiful that something really is. This world is full of of people from hugely different and wonderfully diverse backgrounds, different ethnicities and cultures, all having varying tastes, preferences and concepts of beauty. But where people from everywhere can agree that something is great then we know something is truly great. And this will be the case for Jesus, he'll be shown to be of infinite worth when those from every single cultural group in this world, not just find him attractive, but rate him absolute first in their hearts! His beauty and worth and "greatness is irresistibly manifested" as he "wins more and more admirers not only across cultures but also across decades and centuries"!

A personal faith in a personal God

I've often taught that biblical faith consists of 3 'steps': first, I must know something about the truth; second, I must believe that it is true; third, I must act upon what I believe - entrust myself to it. This is all fine and good (which isn't surprising, since I think I got it from Grudem!) but reading Calvin on faith this morning has made me spot a potential danger with using this scheme alone.

It seems to me that there is a danger of making faith sound like it's simply assent to biblical doctrines. Of course, if I thoroughly work through the third step with the teachings of Scripture I will avoid this pitfall, but perhaps more emphasis ought to be given that this is something personal - faith in God through Christ. After all, 'this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent' (John 17:3); it is not eternal life to live wholeheartedly according to a system of doctrine per se.

In particular, Calvin insists on the necessity of knowing God as a merciful God, rather than simply knowing something about his will (I take it that by 'knowing God's will' Calvin is talking about something not a million miles from what I've said above).

'It is plain... [that] merely to know something of God's will is not to be accounted faith. But what if we were to substitute his benevolence or his mercy in place of his will, the tidings of which are often sad and the proclamation frightening? Thus, surely, we shall more closely approach the nature of faith; for it is after we have learned that our salvation rests with God that we are attracted to seek him. This fact is confirmed for us when he declares that our salvation is his care and concern. Accordingly, we need the promise of grace, which can testify to us that the Father is merciful; since we can approach him in no other way, and upon grace alone the heart of man can rest.' (Institutes, III.ii.7)

In trying to avoid the dangers of a vague, woolly mystical approach the equal and opposite danger must also be avoided of reducing faith to simply believing the right things. Real faith is knowing the true and living God, revealed in all his grace in Christ! Anything else will bring spiritual famine and poverty, however good my doctrine is.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Jesus the gentle healer... for now

Having been reading Richard Sibbes' 'The Bruised Reed' and posting on it occasionally below, I was quite excited when it dawned on me that I was just coming up to Matthew's quotation of Isaiah 42:1-4 in my sermon series on Matthew.

What has struck me in preparing for this sermon is the reminder that, wonderful though this image of Christ is - the one who in his compassion won't even break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick - it is still only a temporary facet of Christ's nature. It was the little word 'until' in Matthew 12:20 that brought this home to me.

Why is this worth noticing? Because it reminds us that when he 'brings justice to victory' there will be no more need for this ministry of Christ. At that time all the vast multitude of things that in the here-and-now bruise us and would quench our light will be gone forever. When true justice reigns supreme then sin must necessarily be banished, and therefore the effects of sin will also be gone forever.

So in these verses there's more than just the wonderful comfort of Christ the gentle healer. There's also the promise that he won't fulfil this role forever, because he will also eventually usher in his glorious new creation 'in which righteousness dwells' (2 Peter 3:13) and so bring to an end the pain and suffering that for now he ministers to in our lives.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The connection between head and body

I think that I, and probably the church at large as well, have neglected the doctrine of union with Christ. But having heard Sinclair Ferguson on the subject at the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference recently, I've been going back to it again in my thoughts and seeing some of its wonders.

Here's just one that I've just come across in Richard Sibbes. His chapter in The Bruised Reed entitled 'Quench not the Spirit' contain ideas that seem initially shocking. For example, he speaks about unfaithfulness in those who would take advantage of the 'bruised' (by offering forgiveness in return for paying money to the church etc etc) who bring 'upon the people of God that heavy judgement of a spiritual famine, starving Christ in his members'. What?! Surely Christ can't be starved?! He is God - he is above all such mortal experiences! He is impassible!

But the biblical picture is richer than that - Christ weeps over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37-39); he agonises in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36-46); he rejoices that spiritual truth is hidden from the 'wise' and revealed to little children (Luke 10:21) as well as being 'the same yesterday, today and forever' (Heb. 13:8). Applying this to the picture of the church as the body of Christ is where I had stopped short. After all, if all this is true, then the implication of 1 Corinthians 12:26-27 is that Christ suffers with his people in their sufferings:

'If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.'

After all, where do the nerves that communicate pain lead to? None other than the head himself. This gives such tremendous comfort in suffering, but also warns us (as Sibbes was warning) to consider carefully our attitude to one another in the body of Christ, for the way we treat one another is the way we treat Jesus - a truth powerfully demonstrated in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46).

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Isn't Jesus great?

Having just worked through the closing chapters of Roger Olson's Story of Christian Theology I can't help feeling sorry for those who are so taken up with non-biblical theological agendas. That in turn leads me to feel sorry for our pluralistic culture. Have they any idea what they're missing??!!

Like classical liberalism, I could accommodate my faith to the prevailing winds of modern thought and philosophy, and end up with a god who can't perform miracles, and who is rather vague and undefined but is somehow related to humanity who don't need his salvation anyhow. The only thing such theology will inspire as far as I can see is faith in myself and humanity - a false hope if ever there was one.

Like neo-orthodoxy, I could deny that the Bible as such is the Word of God, but that it can become the Word of God when God uses it to speak to me. One thing is for sure though, it isn't propositional truth God is interested in! I'm far from an expert in these things, but although neo-orthodox theologians seem to say many things that are helpful, I don't see how we can know anything with any certainty - total subjectivism and relativism is on the doorstep. So I can only be sure of my faith if I trust my feelings and experiences as the final authority in verifying truth.

Like process theology, I could deny that God is omnipotent and sovereign, but rather that he is a being who is in a relationship with his creation and tries to persuade humanity to live according to his ideas (which would bring peace and harmony), but can't help it when we go our own way and have a holocaust. 'So what good is he against the pervasiveness of evil in the world?' I ask myself. There's no guarantee that life will ever be different from what it is now.

Like liberation theologies, I could accept that the prime purpose of theology is not to ensure we believe the truth, but that we get the right things done - i.e. overthrow injustice in whatever form it rears its head, be that economic, racial, sexist, or whatever. But that is where these theologies seem to stop - they're about getting what I want, and getting it now. That's as far as the seem to understand the Kingdom of God. Is there nothing more other than trying to mop up the mess in our broken world?

Then I turned to Hebrews 1:1-2:4 to prepare for Sunday evening's sermon. What a breath of fresh air! All these theologies put me and us in or very near the centre of things, either directly or indirectly - I am the authority; my happiness is the goal. In contrast, however, the writer to the Hebrews says to us, 'You give me a religious idea or system, and I'll show you how Jesus is far better than it!'

Here is one who is God's final word on the subject. He is the 'exact imprint' of God's nature! How can we know the truth? Look at Jesus - he is the truth (John 14:6). The picture of Christ that the author of Hebrews gives us is beautiful, majestic, inspiring and powerful. But there are implications - if this is true, 'how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?' (2:3). No wonder sinful people like us are so keen to come up with less demanding alternatives. How grateful I am to God, who overthrew my sinful rebellion in order that I may gaze with wonder at the Lord Jesus Christ, and experience the truth that sets me free (John 8:32, 36)!

PS - I can't vouch for the accuracy of the links to 'Theopedia' above - I've only just discovered it myself. But at least it should give an idea of what these movements are about.

Friday, 1 May 2009

A godly attitude to government

"Sometimes it falls out that those under the government of others are most injurious by waywardness and harsh censures, herein disparaging and discouraging the endeavours of superiors for the public good. In so great weakness of man's nature, and especially in this crazy age of the world, we ought to take in good part any moderate happiness we enjoy by government, and not be altogether as a nail in the wound, exasperating things by misconstruction. Here love should have a mantle to cast upon lesser errors of those above us. Oftentimes the poor man is the oppressor by unjust clamours. We should labour to give the best interpretation to the actions of governors that the nature of the actions will possibly bear."

Richard Sibbes wrote those words in 1630 in The Bruised Reed, but it was their contemporary ring that struck me, as well as surprise at finding such a subject in a book dealing with the gentleness of Christ toward us, his weak and faltering people, and the implications of this truth for us. Would we have thought of such an application of this truth?
It's so easy to get swept along with the popular delight in criticising every move our politicians make or don't make (whilst of course not lifting a finger ourselves to address any of the issues they're tackling). It's especially easy when we see laws being debated and passed which we know are totally opposed to biblical teaching. My guess is that nearly every single one of us requires a revolution in our thinking to be able to emulate Sibbes' teaching here. We long for godly rule, but are we reducing the chances of that because politicians have so much time taken up defending themselves and their policies from the cynical and suspicious criticisms of people like us? If we gave their actions 'the best interpretation... that the nature of the actions will possibly bear' how much more time would our leaders have to get on and deal with the things that really matter?
I'm not suggesting we become hopelessly naive, but rather that in a deeply cynical culture the followers of the gentle Lord Jesus who would not break a bruised reed should stand out with the same powerful gentleness our Saviour showed - even in the political arena.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Prayer, Abraham and me

Reading Genesis 18:16-33 it struck me how different Abraham's approach to prayer is to most of our praying. We know that we can 'boldly approach the throne of grace with confidence' (Hebrews 4:16) because we are in Christ - because of the wonderful promises of the new covenant in his blood. Abraham had also been the recipient of incredible covenant promises from God - in fact God had made those promises to him in person! He had reason to come with a certain degree of boldness to God in prayer!

But Abraham couples that boldness with a deep sense of his own unworthiness (vv27, 30, 31, 32). He openly recognises that he has no claim on God, and so makes his approaches with the deepest humility - even though he is pleading on the basis of what he knows to be sure - the character of God as absolutely just (v25). How often do you hear prayers (or pray prayers) that hold these two aspects in tension like that? Even though all those promises we have in Christ are gloriously true, we still need to remember what we are by nature - otherwise grace ceases to be amazing grace that thrills our hearts and becomes some kind of anaemic admission that, "Yes, I know I'm not all I should be..."

Do my prayers reflect a deep sense of my own sinfulness and awe at God's outrageous grace, or do I act as though I had a right to be heard simply because I'm 'standing on the promises'?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009


When we got back from holiday on Saturday, Sheri's brother John was just settling down to watch Twilight with his girlfriend. We joined them, not really knowing what to expect. At first it looked like it would be a ridiculous chick-flick - the sort you laugh at rather than with! But I have to confess it became quite gripping as the film went on.

Edward and Bella are falling ever more deeply in love, but then we find that he is a vampire (albeit 'vegetarian'!), and as they continue to fall in love he must resist the primal pull of her scent which could send him into an uncontrollable frenzy. That's what makes it so attractive - in a world where we're much more used to love being portrayed as passionate affairs here is something so much more beautiful: a love that is deeply sacrificial and is shown by immense self-control.
Lo and behold, the next day one of Sheri's friends on Facebook posts her status as just having read the book 'and now has unrealistic expectations of men!' We live in a world where this kind of love is seen as unrealistic - you just can't expect a man to act like that! Or can you? We follow a man whose love to all leaves Edward's love for Bella in the shade. I, as a Christian man - particularly as a Christian man preparing for marriage - am called to imitate that love. 'Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her' (Ephesians 5:25). Sounds pretty unrealistic, doesn't it? How can someone as self-centred as me ever hope to do that? Only when I realise that this verse follows on from Paul's exhortation to be 'filled with the Spirit' (5:18). With the Holy Spirit at work within me all things become possible - even to love as Christ loved!
Wouldn't it be great if, rather than believing that such an attractive love belongs only in fiction, our world was confronted with the fact that this love is real and is powerfully at work in followers of Jesus Christ? As human beings made in the image of God we long for this love, but only in Christ is it truly experienced in all its fulness.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Is the past useful?

I find history fairly interesting, at least insofar as I'm curious about most things, though I confess I don't know a huge amount about it. But maybe I should make an effort to find out more. I bought A History of Histories by John Burrow last week, mainly because I liked the cover and it has black-edged pages... but having begun to read I'm finding it pretty fascinating.

Did you know anything about Thucydides? Thucydides was a 5th century BC Greek historian, but more importantly he was 'the first author to proclaim that history should be useful... But Thucydides is too much a realist - even a pessimist - for there to be any glib suggestion that, armed with historical examples, we will be able simply to avoid the errors of the past. Human nature, the narrative tells us, is too powerful and too perverse for this, and rational calculation is only one element in any situation.'

This is illustrated by the response of people to a plague in Athens during 430 BC. One (unexpected?) outcome was an unprecendented scale of lawlessness. Why? 'No one expected to live long enough to be subject to human justice.' What does this say to contemporary views of the innate goodness of humanity? By contrast, how accurately does it illustrate the biblical view of fallen humanity? Other examples are still found regularly - do you remember when I ship ran aground off the coast and shed its cargo? Numerous 'respectable' ordinary people were found on the beach looting whatever they could lay their hands on (which included some pretty snazzy motorbikes as I remember) without the slightest regard to who might legitimately own them... As Burrow says, 'The subject [of Thucydides' history] is indeed human nature, and at times the distance of almost two and a half thousand years can be made to seem to contract almost vertiginously [which means something like 'very quickly, without a moment's notice'!].' Maybe I should read more history - with my eyes biblically informed who knows what lessons I might learn...

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Why blog?

I'm a very orthodox kind of guy - I can sign up to a thoroughly evangelical, reformed confession of faith without a moment's hesitation. I believe and preach penal substitutionary atonement, justification by grace alone through faith alone, God's absolute sovereignty and humanity's total depravity, eternal punishment, the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, and so I could go on.

My problem is this - all too often I allow my belief to remain in my mind, and so not filter down into my heart to affect my life. Why? The reasons are numerous, but one is that I just don't stop to process so much of the information I'm presented with. There's no reflection, no stopping to consider the implications and the impact on me and my life. Consequently it's very easy to be a reservoir of information - a broad but shallow reservoir. Reflection isn't something I do naturally, and besides, life is busy!

So here I am, in an attempt to correct this - to write about what I read, hear or think about. Let's see how it goes...