Friday, 31 December 2010

Reflections on the Dawn Treader

Yesterday we went to see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I went with without any great expectations - I had stumbled across this post that voices fears that this Dawn Treader will sink the Narnia franchise by its departures from the original story (although also believing it to be a good film in its own right). I'm very pleased to say that my low expectations were quickly all dispersed - I thought it was a great film. The casting is brilliant, in particular Will Poulter's Eustace is just perfect (at least to my imagination!); the special effects are great; and the Dawn Treader herself is a beautiful ship.

The big changes made were clearly intended to give a stronger storyline, and as such, aren't unreasonable in a film adaptation of such an episodic book. What is more, the green mist theme emphasises the temptation theme which is (in my humble opinion!) the theme running through the book. Seeing the film sent me back to the book, where I realised that the ending points to this theme as well - a fish breakfast on the beach with Aslan (who is at first unrecognised); Aslan's announcement that Lucy and Edmund will not return to Narnia, but that it is not Lucy's place to ask about Eustace's future... echoes of Peter's restoration after temptation in John 21 anyone?

To be sure, Lewis' theological vision gets a little confused in translation... but to be honest, what do you expect when Hollywood tackles a novel written from a thoroughly Christian worldview? It was encouraging to see how much was retained - especially Aslan's immortal line that, "you will know me by another name in your world". When I go to see a film I expect them to misunderstand anything that is a Christian worldview, precisely because they operate from within a very different outlook. So I'm a glass half-full person in this regard, but it is certainly good to be aware of and flag up just how different C.S. Lewis' world was because the differences don't seem all that big from a superficial viewpoint.

Hollywood's 'search for the hero inside yourself' mentality was certainly (unwittingly?) inserted by the scriptwriters. Lewis would surely be aghast that the way to overcome temptation is to grit your teeth and be prepared, or that he would approve of Eustace's sudden transformation from zero to hero within a few minutes (after all, as Reepicheep explains to the poor dragon Eustace, "Extraordinary things only happen to extraordinary people"). It was sad to see Lewis' stepson (a "devout Christian" according to the Telegraph) identify the "moral core" of the book/film thus:

‘These are things like personal responsibility in life, commitment, duty, honour, courage, all of those things which we actually sort of threw away in the 20th century as if they were outmoded,’ he says. ‘I think one of the best ways of getting them back is to teach them to children, and one of the best ways of doing that is to produce the Narnian Chronicles as films.’

I have a lot of sympathy with that, but these moral virtues are certainly not the core of the Narnian Chronicles - they are side-effects. Eustace is not saved by his moral transformation, he is saved by Aslan (which is why he spends a lot less time as a dragon in the book) and therefore he is a totally different person. So don't listen to the song during the end credits (although apart from the lyrics it's a fantastic feel-good song)! The message of the Dawn Treader is not that "We can be the kings and queens of anything if we believe" or that "exactly who we are is just enough"! C.S. Lewis' great aim was not to inspire us to moral reformation or to become heroes. What was his great aim? He shows us when Aslan tells Edmund and Lucy they cannot return to Narnia:

"It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"
"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.
"Are - are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.
"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

Now that is a vision to inspire! If we spend time in Narnia and come away without seeing Christ there, we will have missed the point. Becoming a king or a queen is merely a superficial thing; knowing Christ is the most thrilling life possible. So enjoy the film, but don't listen to the siren-calls of Hollywood's offer of salvation - C.S. Lewis offers us the real thing. It may not seem like a big difference as you watch the film, but in real life it makes all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The arts and the church

The Gospel Coalition has published an article lauding the work of a church in Chicago that puts great emphasis on supporting Christians in the arts, to the extent that when on a 'tight church-planter's budget' the leader decided to stick his neck out and use that budget to pay for an artist-in-residence. But for all the enthusiasm of the article I remain thoroughly unconvinced. Here's 3 reasons why:

1. Lack of biblical support - this is the gaping hole in the article and the ensuing discussion (in fact one contributor goes so far as to say that I'm asking completely the wrong question by raising this question!). But there is no hint that the early church went in for this sort of thing - in fact, we don't even know if they used instruments to accompany their singing! We are told, very simply, that the gathered Church is to read the Scriptures, preach, pray, sing and administer the sacraments. Why are we so desperate to make things so much more complicated? One contributor, who replied to my comment on the article kindly explained that, 'we lack the proper container for the two [truth and goodness]. Truth without beauty becomes harsh and dogmatic. Goodness without beauty becomes pious and self-righteous. Beauty provides the form by which these things can be held together...' That sounds coherent, but where on earth do you find that in Scripture? The NT writers seemed to expect us to be able to hold truth and goodness together without art. The church is commissioned to make disciples, not works of art. Making disciples requires the proclamation of God's word, not painting or great music. This leads me on to my second gripe...

2. Confusion of the role of the Church and the role of the Christian - I am all in favour of Christians being fully involved in all of life to the glory of God. I love the arts. Only the other day I was virtually salivating over Makoto Fujimura's project to produce an illuminated edition of the Gospels - it looks so beautiful that I would just love to have my own copy! (Better start saving - buying art isn't cheap.) I am well aware that much of the music of J.S. Bach that I love so much was subsidised by the Church, but that doesn't make it right. I don't think the church is called to do these things, but individual Christians should be fully and joyfully involved in all these areas of life. I think we would see that more easily if we substituted the artist momentarily for the politician - should the church subsidise politicians? After all, they do vital work, and Christian politicians are badly needed. I think we'd all cry out, "Don't do it! The church shouldn't get involved in politics - that is for individual Christians!" Just because Christians should do it doesn't mean the church should. God has told us to live as Christians in every aspect of our lives, and he has told the church to proclaim his gospel. Let's keep it that simple.

3. An unjustifiable privileging of the artist - talking of politicians shows this attitude up. Why only artists-in-residence? I know that artists have a strong sense of their vocation, but why stop at artists - other people work with equal passion. What about a historian-in-residence? Or a steam-train-enthusiast-in-residence? Or a scientist-in-residence? Well, these things just aren't as trendy, and besides that, artists have a long history of viewing themselves as outsiders and victims, and are therefore prone to complain about the fact that they are outsiders in society. The problem is they've started bringing their complaints into the church now. I know that the arts have often been undervalued amongst evangelicals, but that legitimate concern doesn't mean that you can whine about not being able to have your work in the corporate gatherings of the church (and paid for it by the church). The rest of us all have significant parts of our lives that are not exhibited in the gatherings of the church - so why should the artist be a special case? That isn't exclusion; it's being in the same boat as everyone else - and that's no bad thing in the church. Carl Trueman puts it with his characteristicly enjoyable prose here.

The good news is that the calling of the church is pretty simple, and it doesn't require a rich mega-church setup, boasting artists and all, to be able to fulfil it.

Monday, 8 November 2010

How to avoid the real issues

Five Anglican bishops are to join the Roman Catholic Church we are told. To be sure, the Anglican Church is in a mess, but what are we to make of this move? It is surprising? No. Does it make sense? No. Does it avoid the real issues? Absolutely.

Surely if you are able to accept the doctrines of Rome, you have either changed your mind or you were never a real Anglican - the 39 Articles are quite clear (see Articles 11, 14, 22 and 28 for obvious examples). It seems that the really important things to us today are the peripherals - 'Can I maintain my traditions?' was the question asked. As long as the Anglican Church will let me do that, fine - but if not I'll just switch allegiance. Who cares about the doctrine of Scripture, the work of Christ, the role of Mary and the saints, or the doctrine of the Sacraments? Does it really matter whether or not I can honestly uphold the confession of my church in its plain meaning? What matters is whether I can maintain the traditions I love! If so, I'll settle - wherever that happens to be. Am I upholding Scripture? Absolutely - look at this sprinkling of Bible verses to prove my point!

Tut, tut - but I suppose we evangelicals always knew that those Anglo-Catholics were never strong on the Bible, eh? Yet the next day I was dismayed to find evanglicals playing the same game as I came across the material from the Lausanne 'conversation' on gender roles. Sadly 'conversation' seems to be a rather loose term - it was more an announcement of egalitarian principles with no complementarian contributors that I found (and I think I've watched all the main contributions). There was no conversation, no grappling with the crucial texts - from what I saw it would be more appropriate to call it the 'Lausanne announcement' on gender roles. Egalitarianism was the presupposition, and then supported by creating a kind of cloud of possibly-relevant biblical and theological points mixed with a large helping of false dichotomy (it's either women involved in every ministry of the church or none). This method enables the speaker to say a lot that sounds biblical whilst avoiding the issues at the heart of the question. (For example, 1 Timothy 2 got a sentence or two from just one speaker who mumbled that particular point so badly I had to listen to him 3 times to work out what he said!)

Now I'm all in favour of a very positive view of the roles of women in the church, but certainly not in this theologically dubious way - a method which could easily be turned to make the Bible accept any cultural assumption we want it to. It's exactly what Steve Chalke (in)famously did in 'The Lost Message of Jesus' in order to deny the doctrine of original sin - just talk about Genesis 1&2 as if Genesis 3 didn't exist! Now, this certainly isn't an original observation from me, but it's worth repeating - if Lausanne wants to take this approach to Scripture and sensitive cultural issues, how long will it be before they are taking the same approach to condone homosexual practice?

The end result - Scripture is submitted to the authority of our culture. I can talk about the issues in hand with an open Bible, but all the while avoiding the real issues it raises. Is that what it means to be an evangelical? I think not.

Monday, 18 October 2010

I want it all...

An interesting article on the BBC website here on baby boomers and assisted suicide.

It's an interesting link between the issues, but it seems to me that the biggest take-home message is not an argument in favour of euthanasia, but rather the shallowness of a generation that lives to be able to say, 'I did it my way'. There are no substantial arguments offered dealing with the biggest issues involved. The main substance of the argument seems to be that killing old people (who want to be killed, of course) will free up resources, give us cash and increase our comfort. But maybe for such a generation, economics is one of the biggest issue in determining whether someone should live or die...

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sustainable revival?

The New York revival of 1858 was based upon a lunchtime prayer meeting, at first attended by just 6 people. Within weeks hundreds upon hundreds were flocking to such prayer meetings each day. Samuel Prime quotes from the religious press of the day:

'The church, or more truly, individual churches, have often made what might be called exhaustive efforts for the conversion of sinners. They have taxed to the utmost for a few weeks both soul and body of every earnest man they could enlist. Such efforts must be relaxed. Flesh and blood cannot sustain them. But the present revival has had no such history. The church is still fresh, and may labor on indefinitely just as she has been laboring, and that without sinning against any law of mental or physical health. This revival has not overtaxed us; it has only toned us up. It has brought religion into alliance with our ordinary engagements; it has given to our social character a completeness and balance which it never had before. So far as it has gone it is an advance toward soundness and strength, and to fall back from it is not to rest after labor, but to be palsied.'
The Power of Prayer, Samuel Prime, pg. 21

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Why I am a Baptist

I've been reading/ dipping into several books recently looking at the subject of baptism. I was mainly looking for what people have to say about the significance of baptism, but everyone seems far more preoccupied with defending their stance on baptism, whether paedo- (infant) or credo- (believers') baptism. Earlier today, whilst reading an essay by John Stott I found myself almost agreeing with the paedobaptists, not because they'd convinced me, but just because I'd read the same things in so many authors (since baptists aren't exactly prominent among Reformed theologians) - it was a prime example of convincing someone simply by saying it often enough!

So here is a brief account of why I am a baptist. It's certainly not going to add anything new to the debate, but is simply a reminder to myself of why I hold baptistic convictions.

1. Scripture is silent on the subject of infant baptism. For something as important as an ordinance of Christ's Church, an argument from silence is not a strong starting point for paedobaptism. Most paedobaptist writers (to my knowledge) accept that there is no clear account of infant baptism in the NT. The hermeneutic depended upon by paedobaptists is what the Westminster Confession calls 'good and necessary consequence' from other teachings of Scripture. 'Good and necessary consequence' is certainly a legitimate aspect of biblical interpretation, but to rely entirely upon it to build a doctrine is dubious at best because it depends upon each link in the chain of logical inferences to be correct. If the first link is faulty then you end up with an entire doctrine that is unscriptural. I feel sufficiently strongly on this point that I could easily stop here. This is my biggest problem with paedobaptism: it's just too clever for its own good.

2. From a starting point of paedobaptist convictions there arise a whole series of hoops that become difficult to jump through. I'm thinking in particular of the close association between baptism and salvation in the NT. So you find that ideas such as baptism transfering an infant from the adamic covenant of works to the covenant of grace, but in a non-saving way, but in such a way as makes them more likely to be saved (or more able). Just where is the scriptural backing for that?! I don't recall Paul having a category something like 'under grace but not saved'! Probably the most extreme of these positions is Doug Wilson who seems to argue that if a baptized infant is not saved it is due to a fault in the parents! Salvation by (parents') works?

3. Much is made of the link between circumcision and baptism. Clearly there is similarity - both act as the outward initiation into the covenant - but it is assumed that they are equivalent, and so that as circumcision was the sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant (Rom. 4:11), so baptism is the sign and seal of the New Covenant. But baptism is never called the seal of the New Covenant - that is the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). It is the Holy Spirit who acts as guarantee of full salvation to come. So the Holy Spirit (bringing true heart circumcision = regeneration) is the antitype of the type of circumcision, and therefore I understand Colossians 2:11-12 to teach that baptism is the outward sign of that regeneration. As the close identity between circumcision and baptism is weakened, so is the case for infant baptism.

4. The assumption that children of believers are automatically in the New Covenant assumes continuity between the covenants on this point, but it seems to me that the NT suggests discontinuity at this particular point. The call is for all to repent and believe - that is how we enter the covenant. Yes, this promise holds to 'you, and your children' (Acts 2:38), but also to those who are 'afar off'! Much store is put on Acts 2:38 to support paedobaptism, and I think the reason is that I can't think of another text that does anything like including children of believers in the New Covenant by virtue of their parent's faith.

5. I have a historical question to which I guess the answer, but I don't know. What was the theology of baptism when infant baptism arose? (For the sake of my paedobaptist brethren maybe I should edit that question to be, what was the theology of baptism at the time where we find the first indisputable evidence of infant baptism!) From the relevant statements of the Church Fathers that I have read it seems that something like baptismal regeneration was the norm. Not a great start for a doctrine. When did the reformed doctrine of paedobaptism arise? I don't know, but I suspect it was sought for (with the best of motives) rather than arising naturally out of Scripture. It is very difficult to break out of the boxes in which we are brought up (yes... I was brought up a baptist!). Although the Reformers did so in many glorious ways, I can't help wondering whether they failed in the doctrine of baptism. I'm also sure that they weren't at all encouraged to consider it seriously given the radical nature of some of the Anabaptists (apparently that was what put Zwingli off becoming a baptist)!

So there's a few of my musings on the subject. It seems to me that infant baptism has caused much damage in the history of the Church - not least in our own land where everyone who was 'done' by the vicar as a baby considers themselves Christian, although I must certainly concede that this is very different to the Reformed position. It has also created a great deal of confusion with some claiming that baptized children should not be evangelised but should be presumed regenerate. Often the language used is confusing - I came across Luther using the language of baptismal regeneration in his Tabletalk this evening. Just how are we saved?! I believe that credobaptism avoids these confusions and reflects the simplicity of the NT. I also believe that many baptists are very over-simplistic in their theology of baptism... but that's for another post!

Sunday, 4 July 2010

What is fellowship anyway?

All Christians enjoy having fellowship together, they would claim. I'm not so sure that most of us are very clear on what this fellowship malarky is all about though. In general it would seem fair to say that 'fellowship' has become a Christianized term for 'socialising' and not much more. Is that really all it is?

The Greek word used in the NT is koinonia which is related to the word koinos, which means 'common'. So this suggests that fellowship is about having certain central things in common that have the effect of binding us together. To keep the verbal link that highlights this facet of fellowship, perhaps we should consider replacing 'fellowship' with the word 'community'. The idea of community is much stronger than mere socialising. When we socialise we meet up, have a good time together and then go home. Community, however, speaks of a network of lives that are interwoven in all kinds of ways. So fellowship is about living life together rather than going it alone.

Looking at the uses of koinonia in the NT (when it is used of our fellowship with one another rather than with God) three facets stand out:

1. Fellowship is based on truth. 1 John 1:3 - '...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us...' John is writing to explain all that Jesus said and did in order that his readers may be able to have fellowship with him. So John clearly believes that is necessary to have common belief in the truth for fellowship to be possible. We are not one in Christ because we want to be, but because the truth has changed us and made us one. Anything else will be superficial and wishful thinking. Truth brings unity, not vice versa - whatever the Archbishop of Canterbury believes! Ultimately this is not about mental assent to a system of doctrine - truth is a person. We know the One who claimed, 'I am the truth' (John 14:6). The sense of fellowship that we experience, even with believers we've only just met flows from our shared knowledge of the Truth - Jesus Christ.

2. Fellowship is about supporting one another in common gospel aims. Philippians 1:3-5 - 'I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now.' The Christians at Philippi had supported the apostle Paul in his ministry, and even while he was in prison because of the gospel. They were able to provide for certain of his needs that made his minsitry possible, becoming his partners in ministry to enable to spread of the gospel. It seems that this primarily meant financial support (4:15-16), but other means of support would fit well under this heading in other situations: prayer, co-workers, counsel, working together as different local churches etc. Do we support one another as churches like this? Do we support one another individually in gospel aims, as we seek to be salt and light in our daily lives?

3. Fellowship is about providing for the needs of others. 2 Corinthians 8:3-4 - Speaking of the Christians in Macedonia Paul writes, 'For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part (koinonia) in the relief of the saints'. These poor Christians considered themselves to be of one community with the famine-stricken Christians in Jerusalem to such an extent that they considered it a joy and privilege to sacrificially contribute to the relief of their needs. What could motivate such sacrificial giving to people they'd never met, nor were they ever likely to meet? We are told that in this situation 'they gave themselves first to the Lord' (v5) - it was because of the God that they had, taking us back to the first point. Do we take such an interest in the lives of others who belong to our God that we would both find out when they were in need and be willing to sacrificially do something about it? Or does conversation over the cup of tea after church never get that deep?

So there's a bare outline of what real fellowship looks like. How important is it? It's not like it's vital like evangelism or expository preaching, is it? Hebrews 13:16 - 'Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have (koinonia), for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.'

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Last things first

If I tell you that this is a book about the doctrine of the last things you may have one of two responses. You may already be salivating at the thought of getting embroiled in a good debate about the identity of the antichrist, the details of the millennium and the timing of the rapture – you will be disappointed to discover that these issues are relegated to a brief appendix, but you should read on. Or you may be thinking all that end-times stuff is a bit irrelevant and so this book isn’t for you. But you should read on.

This is a readable, sensible, warm-hearted and highly relevant introduction to what the Bible teaches about the future. The great strength of this book is that it straight-forwardly expounds what Scripture has to say about the future and then applies it to us in the here-and-now in such a way that it is virtually impossible to put it down and ask, “So what?”

Beynon introduces us to that great OT concept, the Day of the Lord, before moving on to the Day of Judgement. He shows us the wonders of the new creation and the horrors of hell. He explains difficult doctrines with simplicity, such as the idea of rewards in heaven, or how talk of judgement according to works fits with salvation by grace, and even a tricky passage like Mark 13 – all the while sticking close to what the Bible actually says. The later chapters focus on passages of Scripture that teach us how we live as we wait for these great realities. If you’ve never thought much about what the Bible has to say about the future, this is the place to start. But it isn’t just for beginners – I don’t think anyone could read this book without being challenged and stirred.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Worthy of Worship?

Why does God demand our worship? Isn't that supremely egotistical of him?

The challenge sounds reasonable enough at first - after all, we simply can't conceive of anyone making such demands and being anything other than a supremely self-centred egomaniac. Surely only the worst kinds of tyrannical dictators make such demands. But here lies the first problem with the question - it assumes that God is made in the image of man. We cannot legitimately extrapolate from sinful man to the God revealed in the Bible.

For an accurate answer to the question we need to start with God himself, as revealed in the Bible. Let me use the Westminster Confession of Faith as a handy way of summarising some of the biblical teaching about God. You can read it online here where you can check out the proof texts for yourself. The first two sections of chapter 2 read thus:

I. There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will, for His own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

II. God has all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of Himself; and is alone in and unto Himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which He has made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting His own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and has most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever Himself pleases. In His sight all things are open and manifest, His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to Him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all His counsels, in all His works, and in all His commands. To Him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience He is pleased to require of them.

Now that's quite a statement! Reading right through those paragraphs of the Confession I emerge at the other end feeling quite simply overwhelmed by the sheer majesty and unparalleled brilliance of God's character. In reading statements such as, God is 'most holy, most free' etc etc, don't forget the context set by the opening lines - that God is 'infinite in being and perfection'.

All this has an undeniable 'wow' factor. But how do we experience all of this? Is it like looking at a mighty mountain range and having your breath taken away? No - God is personal, and has from all eternity expressed these characteristics within the perfectly loving community of the Trinity. Ponder long and hard on that! An eternal, perfectly loving community. Can you grasp what that must be like, to have nothing in a relationship that is not saturated with 100% love??? We, in his creation also experience so many of God's perfect, infinite characteristics.

All in all, it is undeniable that God has what it takes to be worthy of worship - a greater, more magnificent, more beautiful being is not possible. But does he mar all that by demanding that we all pay him all our attention like a spoilt child? You may have already spotted the answer. If God is the most beautiful being possible, what else could he love most of all but himself? To love anything else would make God an idolater! Here is the great failure when we imagine God to be in our image - put any human in that position and it is undeniable egotism - because no person is that wonderful. But God is just being honest - would you prefer that he lied about what he was really like?

We must also factor in the Trinity - when we see God glorifying God in Scripture, what I find so wonderful is how each person of the Godhead doesn't seem primarily concerned with themselves, but is totally taken up with the others. (What else could you expect from a perfect community of love?) We see this pattern at work in John 17:1-5 - the Son has glorified the Father, and now the Father will also glorify the Son.

One last thought on the supposed egotism of God in calling for our worship: if God is the most beautiful being that could possibly exist, where else is the greatest joy found except in delighting in God? So is it a hardship or the supreme privilege to join with God in delighting in God? Yes, it most certainly is our duty, but there are many duties that are given to us for our own good - like going to school when we were young. What greater duty could there be than this? If you arrived in adulthood and discovered that your parents knew full well it would have been by far the best thing to send you to school, but they never bothered I think you would be justified in feeling incredibly let down. They knew their actions would lead to your leading a massively disadvantaged life, but they didn't bother to do what was good for you (even though you may have complained at the time!). So for us and God - if God really is the God of the Bible wouldn't he be failing to love us as much as he claims if he didn't insist that the greatest thing we could and should do is to delight in the most beautiful thing conceivable - that which we were created to know and enjoy? So perhaps he isn't so egotistical after all.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Transforming sight

The very beholding of Christ is a transforming sight. The Spirit that makes us new creatures, and stirs us up to behold this servant [see Matt. 12:18], it is a transforming beholding. If we look upon him with the eye of faith, it will make us like Christ; for the gospel is a mirror, and such a mirror, that when we look into it, and see ourselves interested in it, we are changed from glory to glory, 2 Cor. iii.18. A man cannot look upon the love of God and of Christ in the gospel, but it will change him to be like God and Christ. For how can we see Christ, and God in Christ, but we shall see how God hates sin, and this will transform us to hate it as God doth, who hated it so that it could not be expiated but with the blood of Christ, God-man. So, seeing the holiness of God in it, it will transform us to be holy. When we see the love of God in the gospel, and the love of Christ giving himself for us, this will transform us to love God. When we see the humility and obedience of Christ, when we look on Christ as God's chosen servant in all this, and as our surety and head, it transforms us to the like humility and obedience. Those that find not their dispositions in some comfortable measure wrought to this blessed transformation, they have not yet those eyes that the Holy Ghost requireth here. 'Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom my soul delighteth.'
Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), A Description of Christ

That's all very well - but does it really work? Listen to Sibbes' younger contemporary, Thomas Fuller, as he gives an assessment both of Sibbes' character and - most interestingly - the reason for it.

He was most eminent for that grace which is most worth, yet costs the least to keep it, viz., Christian humility. Of all points of divinity, he most frequently pressed that of Christ's incarnation; and if the angels desired to pry into that mystery, no wonder if this angelical man had a longing to look therein. A learned divine imputed this good doctor's humility to his much meditating on that point of Christ's humiliation when he took our flesh upon him... [This shows us] that men's souls improve most in those graces whereon they have most constant meditation, whereof this worthy doctor was an eminent instance.

This works both positively and negatively. For a contemporary slant on this issue Greg Beale's recent book 'We become what we worship' looks excellent. I haven't read it yet - but I recently heard Beale speaking on the subject, and I came home and promptly ordered the book!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Speaking with authority

Yesterday I began preaching through the 5 'solas' of the Reformation, beginning with Sola Scriptura, and it'll be no great surprise to learn that I took 2 Timothy 3:1-4:5 as the passage to expound. It was really exciting to grasp afresh the authority of God's word - this message of 'breathed out by God' therefore I will do everything I can to study carefully and comprehend it because the truth changes things. What I believe will change the way I act. (Therefore, for example, if I believe I'm just an advanced animal I'll act as though I'm just an advanced animal.)

It seems very obvious to me that we have a major crisis of authority in modern, Western culture - we don't want anyone to tell me what I ought to do in any absolute moral sense. But what struck me in the middle of preaching(!) was that not only does our culture hate the idea of such authority, but it also reverses things completely. In the absence of any abiding authority we seek to give ourselves direction and purpose instead by deciding on what goals we would like to reach and then work out what is 'right' and 'wrong' according to what will help or hinder the achievement of those goals! The example that springs to mind is the government's modern obsession with targets. You decide on your target, then tailor absolutely everything to help achieve it. How different this is to listening to unchanging truth and allowing it to change my life!

That's all very well, but how do you know you've got the target right without any transcendant authority? Yesterday evening I heard of a hospital that is aiming for foundation status. How are they going to achieve that? Well, according to my informant it's all about patients' opinions of the hospital, and therefore the hospital will never do anything that might give patients a negative opinion of the hosptial. But where does medical expertise get a look in? It sounds like another case of an expert authority being required to play second fiddle to subjective opinions in order to achieve the goal they've set their hearts on.

How desperate it is that we who possess knowledge of THE ultimate authority speak it plainly and without apology into such a culture! We cannot go on as we are, because our current goal-focused, authorityless ways are terribly unstable, and cannot give us what we seek. It leaves us perpetually in the situation of 2 Timothy 3:7 - those who are "always learning and never able to come to knowledge of the truth." We have the rock to replace the shifting sand on which our society is building. How shall they hear? Christians need to hear the challenge of Taylor Mali's poem that Rosemary has linked to here. Mali may not be thinking in these biblical categories, but the force of what he says is an urgent note to be sounded for gospel proclamation. The ultimate truth of God's word changes things in the most beautiful way because it is given to us that we may be 'complete' (2 Tim. 3:17), and to be complete as a human being is to reflect the image of the beautiful God. Goal-setting without the truth is just guessing and hoping for the best.