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.