Friday, March 27, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 2

In Plague Journal: Week 1  I described how our churches responded to the government's measures to combat the spread of coronavirus, announced on Monday 16 March. Like most other fellowships we suspended all our regular meetings and activities. Older church members and those with underlying health conditions self-isolated. As a result pastoral visiting was also suspended. Pastoral phoning is now the order of the day. 

On Monday of this week I sent out an updated contacts list for members and friends of the church. Just getting that together was a hassle. The contact info I had for some people was out of date, meaning several corrected editions had to be sent out.  I tried to 'buddy-up' out and about members with those who are shut in. It seems to be working. When I ring members and friends they often mention that 'so-and-so' had been in touch with them. Our people are a lot more cheerful than I expected. Earlier this week Sarah (my wife) and I had a Skype chat with two of our members. They were full of the joy of the Lord and we had a little time of singing the Lord's praises together. 

Boris Johnson announced even stricter social distancing measures on Monday 23 March, which have affected us all in many respects. We are only leaving the house when necessary, combining our government approved daily walk with a visit to the shops/pharmacy. Members with serious health conditions are now in complete lockdown, making keeping in touch via phone, etc all the more important. 

Yes, we are trying to maintain contact via email, text, phone call and Skype, but there is no substitute for meeting one another in the flesh. Skype can sometimes be a bit fiddly. The other evening we could see one couple who had dialed in for a group chat/prayer time, but not hear them. I often find myself thinking of the words of the apostle John in 2 John 12 & 3 John 13-14, where he said he would rather talk with his fiends face to face than write to them with pen and ink. Make that ring/Skype them. 

The initial novelty of getting to grips with livestreaming has given way to frustration at the limitations of the medium. I've been using Facebook's 'Go Live' feature on the Providence Baptist Church FB page. Sunday's talks went without a hitch, although my attempt to play guitar following the evening's effort provoked some hilarity. Wednesday's 'Prayer Meeting' talk on Colossians 1:9 was interrupted due to signal failure, even though I was broadcasting from my study, where the Wi-Fi router is located. 

I tried to get to grips with YouTube as an alternative to FB 'Go Live', but my laptop doesn't get on with it. Several friends have recommended Zoom. I've downloaded the app, but can't work out how to get it to do what I want. Which is, like 'Go Live', to create a publicly accessible livestream, which can then then posted for people to view later. I guess it'll have to be 'Go Live' for now, although if the signal fails once more during a livetream,  I may instead pre-record videos and then post them at our regular meeting times. We'll see. 

Sunday morning's talk was based on Psalms 42-43, which seemed apt. In the evening I spoke on the fact that Jesus 'suffered and died alone that his people may never be alone'. Obviously talking to my mobile screen isn't the same as preaching to a congregation, where there is an element of interaction with the people. But needs must, and it's encouraging to note that more viewers seem to be accessing the ministry than would usually gather with us on a Sunday.  

These are odd days in many ways. I expected to have a bit more time on my hands without the regular round of church meetings and activities, but time somehow seems to have sped up. Other pastors I've spoken to have said the same. Just trying to get YouTube to work took a while, all to no avail. Frustrating. That said, I have been able to get some sustained reading done, enjoying Robert Leatham's (excellent so far) Systematic Theology. I'm up to p. 237 of a 1072pp book. Preparation had to be done for Wednesday evening's talk and notes made for Sunday's livestreams. I posted a review of The Shadow of Calvary, by Hugh Martin on the blog.

The NHS is doing a marvellous job in immensely challenging circumstances, as are other essential services. Schools are doing their bit by looking after the children of key workers. Earlier in the week I responded to the call to serve as a 'GoodSAM' volunteer. Intriguing that the initiative is named after a parable of Jesus (Luke 10:25-37). Still waiting to hear what they want me to do. We tried to drop off some food and essential items at Crosspoint  this afternoon, but it was shut. Another chap arrived with a bag full of goodies at the same time as us. Was supposed to be open. Maybe they are having difficulty in getting people to staff the facility? 

I hope the government's restrictions on everyday life will be lifted as soon as can be done. Our civil liberties should only be curtailed temporarily. The over 70s often help run things like food banks, which are now struggling to operate when needed most. Churches are an active presence in their communities, organising toddler groups and so on. It seems a bit excessive that solitary dog owners are having their collars felt (slight pun intended) by the police for diving their cars to remote spots to take their pets for a walk.

Today it was announced that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock are now in self-isolation, having contracted coronavirus. I pray that they will have a speedy recovery and that God will guide them as they continue to lead the government's response to COVID19. Human frailty is common to all, for

"All  flesh is like grass
    and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
    and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains for ever.”

I look forward to the time when the scattered church is able to gather for worship, fellowship and service once more. In the meantime, I plan to have another go at livestreaming some Bible ministry on Sunday at 10.30am & 6.00pm and on Wednesday at 7.30pm on our Providence Baptist Church FB page. With the help of God, we press on. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Shadow of Calvary, by Hugh Martin

 Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, 250pp

At the Banner of Truth Ministers' Conference it is customary for speakers to recommend titles that attendees might like to purchase from the bookshop. I believe it was on the strength of Sinclair B. Ferguson's recommendation that I bought The Shadow of Calvary by Hugh Martin. Ferguson spoke warmly of Martin's penetrating insight into the biblical text and of his rigorous use of 'holy reason' to draw out the precious truths contained therein. I must confess that having  flicked through the book, I placed it to one side in my study and didn't pick it up again for a year or so. 

I had been preaching a series of sermons loosely based on the words of 1 Peter 1:10-12, which speak of the 'sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories'. I had devoted several messages to various aspects of Christ's suffering and then wanted to zero in on the events leading up to Calvary. Namely, our Lord's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest and trial. Yes, I have various commentaries on the Gospel accounts of these events, but they can sometimes be lacking in theological reflection, which is what I was after. 

A bit like when Pharaoh's cup bearer remembered his fault in forgetting to put a word in for Joseph, I also recalled Hugh Martin's neglected book near the bottom of a 'to read' pile in my study. I'm glad I did. Reading Martin is like entering another world. His handling of the biblical narratives of Gethsemane, the arrest and trial of Christ is freshly original without being quirky. Martin had the knack of bringing out the doctrinal meat of a passage that had always been there, but you had not necessarily noticed it before. If Martin's reading of Scripture is theological, don't take that to mean his material is in any way dryly abstruse. Here you will find 'theology on fire' as the author unfolds the logic of gospel truth and warmly applies it to his readers. 

A few examples will have to suffice. At one point in his consideration of Jesus' prayer in the Garden, Martin ponders why our Lord was in such an agony over the prospect of bearing his people's sin. Why did he pray repeatedly to the Father, 'If it be possible take this cup from me, but not my will, but yours be done'? After all, Jesus was not about to become personally sinful and face the judgement of God upon his own sin. Rather he was going to bear the weight of his people's sin imputed to him. Martin's use of gospel logic is astounding at this point. He asks the believer whether having Christ's righteousness imputed to them fills them with great joy, even though it is not their own righteousness, but an alien righteousness that is put to their account? And so similarly, our Lord felt agonising sorrow over the prospect of 'becoming sin for us', with the cup of God's wrath pressed to his lips in our place. 'It is difficult to understand the sorrow and amazement of agony of a holy being in having sin thus by imputation imposed upon him'. (p. 26). 

Again, Marin considers why our Lord had to die having been arrested by legitimate authorities and then duly tried, rather than at the hands of an angry mob? Because, he explains, our Lord had not come to die as a  martyr to a cause, but as a sin-bearing sacrifice. As Romans 13 tells us, the 'governing authorities' are 'instituted by God'. The ruler is 'an avenger who carries our God's wrath on the wrongdoer'. Jesus was to be 'numbered with the transgressors', arrested, tried and condemned in our place. That is why he  did not resist arrest. That is why he remained silent before his accusers and judge. Jesus could not plead his own case and that of his people's before heaven's throne. 

As Martin reasons, 
There must be an explanation that will gloriously vindicate the justice of God in pursuing and prosecuting legally the man of sorrows. There must be an explanation which will not merely vindicate the character of God, in the sense of showing that this process or prosecution which the divine 'determinate counsel' carried on, is no impeachment of divine justice... There must be an explanation which will even swallow up the scandal in glory and make the very offence of the cross a fountain and a revelation of his high moral excellence and triumph - not only not the eclipse, but the victory of righteousness. 
The doctrine which thus at once vindicates the personal innocence of Jesus and the public righteousness of God, and transforms the scandal into glory, and the shame into moral loveliness, is the suretyship and substitution of Jesus in the room of his people, with the imputation to him, thereon, of his people's transgressions. (p. 95-96)
The writer did not content himself with mere exegesis of the details of the text. He perceived and set forth the driving theological message the Evangelists wished to convey. He was also profoundly aware that his readers had an eternal future ahead of them. In Chapter 12 Martin contrasts believing Nathan to whom Jesus says, 'hereafter you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man' (John 1:51), with unbelieving Caiaphas, to whom Jesus says, 'Hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven'. (Matthew 26:63-64). Martin presses the point home, 'You must either stand with Caiaphas in rejecting the Christ or with Nathaniel on receiving him. Each of them has a 'Hereafter'. And the question is, which of these two 'Hereafters' do you prefer? 'Today, while it is called today', you have your choice. 'Behold, now is the accepted time: behold, now is the day of salvation.' (p. 232-233).

We can certainly go to Hugh Martin (1822-85) for an enriched understanding of Scripture, but he is also a fine model of warm-hearted doctrinal preaching. How often do contemporary preachers 'stand as if they pleaded with men' to receive the offer of salvation in Christ?  

I hoped to be able to buy a copy of The Atonement by Hugh Martin at this year's Banner Ministers' Conference, but it was one of the many events that had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Martin's work on the cross of Jesus was the next title we were due to discuss in our local theological study group. Who knows whether June's meeting will be able to go ahead? One thing is sure, time spent in the Shadow of Calvary and contemplating Christ's Atonement is never wasted. We look to the one who 'took our illnesses and bore our diseases', that 'with his stripes' this sin-sick world might be healed (Matthew 8:17, Isaiah 53:5). 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Plague Journal: Week 1

The week began as weeks always used to. On the first day of the week Providence Baptist Church gathered to worship God. Even then, there was a sense of foreboding. After the service we discussed whether our Holiday Bible should go ahead during the Easter break, given the developing coronavirus crisis. We opted to wait and see what additional measures were announced by the government before making a final decision. It seemed our our plans were no more written in concrete, but sand. And the tide was coming in. (James 4:13-15). 

On Sunday mornings I've been preaching through the Book of Jeremiah. The chapters are quite long, so I've tended to focus on the overall theme of a chapter, or pick out a key verse. Reading Jeremiah 6 to the congregation I was struck with how applicable it was to our current panicky situation, with the prophet's talk of an enemy at the gates and 'terror on every side'. The Word Health Organisation has described coronavirus as 'an enemy against humanity'. I preached on Jeremiah 6:14. See here for recordings of the Jeremiah series. The one on Jeremiah 6 should be added soon. 

At the conclusion of the service we gathered around the Lord's Table to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of Jesus. I didn't say anything at the time, but as we partook of the Supper together, I wondered whether this might be the last occasion we would be able to enjoy Communion together for some while. I used the doxology found in Hebrews 13:20-21 to bring the service to a close. 'Now may the God of peace...equip you with everything good to do his will'. We certainly need God's help as we seek to find new ways of maintaining fellowship when we can't meet and serving our community when our regular activities are at a standstill. 

On Sunday afternoon we had a 'Bake Through the Bible' activity meeting, which was well attended by a number of families with younger children. A clear gospel message was given on the Philippian jailer's question, 'What must I do to be saved?' Future BTTB meetings have been cancelled until further notice. 

As no school closures had yet been announced, our Bright Sparks parent and toddler group ran as usual Monday morning. I normally give a number of helpers a lift there, my wife included. But  I was otherwise engaged, giving a talk on Thomas Goodwin's A Child of Light Walking in Darkness to a Ministers' Fraternal in Honiton, Devon. All the chatter over coffee on arrival and at lunch afterwards concerned the possible impact of  coronavirus on our churches. 

Every third Sunday we take in donations for the local foodbank . On my way home from the fraternal I popped into the Chapel to pick up the stuff our people had provided and took it to Crosspoint. As usual, it was a big tub full, plus several large bags of food and  other essential things. Supplies were already running low and the centre is run mostly by over 70's, who have now been told to keep away from public places. Shops are running out of foodbank staples like pasta and tinned foods. I hope vulnerable people aren't left to go hungry as foodbank stocks are depleted. We need to keep giving if we can. I've encouraged our people to use a 'Love Your Neighbour' flyer (see here) as a way of offering practical help to self-isolating neighbours. 

Later in the afternoon the Prime Minister made his announcement on added social distancing measures to combat COVID 19. People were advised to avoid all pubs, cinemas, theaters and other public gatherings. Church meetings weren't mentioned explicitly,  but the strong implication was that they should stop. Health Secretary Matt Hancock later confirmed this in answer to a question in the House. The FIEC has produced this helpful guidance for churches. 

Church members at Providence and Ebeneezer were informed that all our meetings and activities had been suspended. What now? I thought I'd have a go at livestreaming some Bible ministry and found that could be done via the church's Facebook page. Scroll down to see an introductory video posted on Tuesday and something I did in lieu of our usual Wednesday evening Bible Study/Prayer meeting. Comments have varied from 'helpful message', 'encouraging message', to 'tidy up your study'. 

For as long as we can't meet I plan to livestream via FB at 10.30am & 6.00pm on a Sunday and at 7.30pm on a Wednesday. The videos will then be posted for people to view later. So far the two talks have attracted 363 and 216 views a piece, which is certainly reaching more people than would gather in our meetings. I'm toying with doing 3 talks for children in place of our Holiday Bible Club (was due to take place 7-9 April). I'll have to set up our digital projector in our living room and somehow film the PPT talks with my phone. We'll see. For church members who have it, Skype might also be a way of facilitating talking and praying together. 

Meanwhile, I've been updating the church contact list to help people stay in touch by phone. I'm in the process of buddying up members who can get out and about with those who can't to make sure everyone who is self-isolating gets a regular phone call to make sure they're OK. Sarah (my wife) and I will also try and ring people on a regular basis. John Benton of the Pastors' Academy has posted a very useful blog on Pastoring people you can't see in response to the coronavirus outbreak.  

Like most places, the supermarkets around here are quickly running out of essentials like toilet paper and handwash. We couldn't get any fresh meat in our local Lidl yesterday. But the High Street butcher had plenty, so we managed to get a free range chicken for our Sunday roast. Everything seems up in the air at the moment, but this is the United Kingdom and some things must go on as normal. Sunday roasts is one of them. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

'The Mystery of Providence', by John Flavel

Banner of Truth Trust, 1976 reprint, 221pp 

The other Friday was a bit crazy. On the way to dropping one family member off at the railway station and then taking another to the Doctors, my car had a puncture. I managed to get to the station on time, but had to change the tyre before driving to the surgery. The car jack was bolted down so tightly that I struggled to get it free. It was raining and cold, but the spare tyre was duly fitted. Thankfully the Doctors honoured the appointment, although by now we were running late. 

Later that morning I went to get a new tyre fitted. As I returned home, I found my key wouldn't open the front door. Apparently, the end had snapped off in the lock. Someone was home and was able to let me in, but now the lock wouldn't work on the outside, which was no good. A locksmith was called and the lock was replaced within hours. Great. But I needed cash to pay the tradesman and none of the cashpoints in town were working. Thankfully, my wife returned from work just at the right moment and we had to plunder her unspent Christmas money. 

Oh, and we also found out our boiler needed replacing on that day . 

Meanwhile I was trying to prepare a sermon for our Sunday evening service. 

As a good Calvinist I couldn't put all that down to 'bad luck'. It was part and parcel of what the Puritan John Flavel called 'The Mystery of Providence'. At one point in his work he counsels believers on how to bear up under 'dark and doubtful providences'. My experiences a few weeks ago were hardly Book of Job territory, but the feeling that whatever I did was going to go wrong left me wondering what weird stuff Providence might have in store for me next.

Well, since starting this post a few weeks ago and then putting it on the back burner, the coronavirus pandemic has blown a massive hole in everyday life. Including bringing regular church meetings and activities to a juddering halt. And I thought my 'freaky Friday' was bad. 

How can an old 17th century book help us come to terms with the ups and downs of life?

What is probably Flavel's most famous work is an an extended meditation on Psalm 57:2 His basic thesis is that 'The Church is [Christ's] special care and charge. He rules the world for its good, as a head consulting the welfare of the body' (p. 27). He divides his treatment into three main parts.
  • The evidence of Providence 
  • Meditation on the Providence of God 
  • Application of the Doctrine of Providence 
Flavel urges believers to consider the Lord's dealings with them. Our birth, conversion, employment, family life, and sanctification are all subject to the Lord's overruling providence. Meditating on providence will foster an attitude of gratitude in believers.

The Puritan preacher writes with great pastoral sensitivity, but not of the 'there, there, never mind' variety. He is tremendously robust in dealing with afflicted saints. Flavel will not leave us wallowing in self-pity when everything seems to be going wrong.
His sovereignty is gloriously displayed in His eternal decrees and temporal providences. He might have put you into what rank of creatures he pleased. He might have made you the most despicable creatures, worms, or toads: or, if men, the most vile, abject and miserable among men; and when you had run through all the miseries of this life, have damned you to eternity, made you miserable for ever, and all this without any wrong to you. And shall this not quieten us under the common afflictions of this life? (p. 130).
Yes, COVID-19 may have upset our holiday plans, disrupted our work and made us anxious for our health, but it could be worse, and deservedly so. You could be a despicable toad, or a damned soul in hell.

We don't know for how long coronavirus will mean restrictions on everyday life, or when we will be able to gather for worship once more with God's people. We can become impatient for the Lord to bring this horrid virus outbreak to an end. But Flavel won't let us off the hook. We who delayed repenting from sin and believing in Christ cannot complain if the Lord requires us to wait upon him a while before he answers our prayers.

Directives are given on how believers may know that 'afflictive providences' are being used for our spiritual good.
It is a good sign that our troubles are sanctified to us when they turn our hearts against sin, not against God. (p. 201) 
Never does a Christian take a truer measure both of his corruptions and graces, than when under the rod. (p. 203)
Flavel urges the practice of recording the Lord's providential dealings with us, for our own benefit and for the encouragement of others. Let me say that today we had a new boiler fitted. Seems to be working well. More efficient than the old one. Doesn't leak. Although the government's measures to deal with coronavirus means all our church meetings and activities have been suspended, Providence is opening up new ways of ministry and fellowship via phone and social media. We can still serve our local community. Our people are reaching out to elderly neighbours with offers of practical help and support. The Lord is good and his steadfast love endures for ever.

When reading The Mystery of Providence, I was often reminded of the hymn 'Great Providence of Heaven' by David Charles (1762-1834) translated from the Welsh by Edmund Tudor Owen. It's almost a sung version of Flavel's work. A hymn for our times. Listen here.

Here's a concluding thought from John Flavel for us to meditate on in these uncertain and anxious days:
How Providence will dispose of my life, liberty and labours for time to come, I know not; but I cheerfully commit all to Him who has hitherto performed all things for me (Psalm 57:2). 

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Film roundup

We've been to see several films over the last few weeks.

1917

A powerful WWI film with the appearance of being shot in one take. The cinematography gives the film an immersive feel as you follow two Tommies on a mission to call off an attack on retreating German forces. Intelligence had shown the retreat was a ruse to tempt the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment to launch an attack in which they would have been vastly outnumbered. The Battalion risked being totally wiped out.

Added urgency is give to Lance Corporals Tom Blake and Will Schofield's mission, as Blacke's brother is an officer in the Devonshires. Will they get there in time? The are no flashbacks or fast forwards. The story is told straight, which adds to its power and immediacy. Famous faces pop up in scene stealing officer roles. Look out for Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch.  

Unlike 'Saving Private Ryan', there are no big set piece battle scenes. The brutality of war is shown in muddy trenches, booby trapped bunkers and the bombed out, corpse-strewn landscape of no man's land. There are touches of human kindness. Schofield finds a young woman caring for a baby in a French village overrun by German soldiers, buildings ablaze all around them. The baby needs milk. Providentially, Schofield had filled his water canister with milk discovered at a dairy farm earlier in the day.

The soldiers' longing for the love and comfort of home is a big theme. This becomes an expression spiritual longing when Schofield encounters a Tommy singing the gospel song, 'The Wayfaring Stranger' as his comrades prepare to go over the top.

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Travelling through this world below
There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

The supreme value of human life gives the film its compelling urgency. Blake and Schofield risk all to call off the doomed attack.

Little Women

As the wife accompanied me to a war film, I took her to see this. Enjoyed it more than I expected. Well acted, poignant and funny. With some real moments of grace. Like when, at their mother's prompting the sisters give away their lavish Christmas breakfast to a neighboring poor family. When Amy played by Florence Pugh spitefully burns her sister, Jo's (Saoirse Una Ronan) novel manuscript. Laura Dern's Marmee insists, 'forgive your sister'. Jo responds, 'She doesn't deserve it' and refuses. Precisely. But Jo finds it in her heart to forgive Amy anyway and helps care for her when she falls ill after falling into an icy pond. That's grace. Marriage is celebrated in all its romance and enduring value, in sickness and health, for richer and poorer. Tracy Letts is wonderfully grumpy as the shrewd Mr. Dashwood, Jo's publisher. The book on which the film is based is often regarded as an early feminist text, a protest against the restrictions placed on women in a man's world. Jo's writing enables her to earn her own money rather than depending on a man to provide for her. The making of Jo's book sequence at the end of the film is a delightful homage to the lost art of old fashioned printing and book binding. The story is told in narrative flashbacks and fast forwards, which was sometimes rather confusing. At least to me. Left me longing for the simplicity of 1917. But 'Little Women' as a one take first person shooter may not have worked quite so well.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Love a bit of dramatised Dickens. This looked great from the trailers. The preview highlighted bits were indeed amusing enough. Sequences in between, maybe not so good. Beautifully filmed, though. Monty Pithonesque scene changes. At one point a big hand reaches into the film to relocate the action. I could cope with Dev Patel as an Asian in the title role. A brilliantly engaging portrayal. But other elements of 'colour blind casting' were a tad baffling. Steerforth, played by the lillywhite Aneurin Barnard had Nigerian born Nikki Amuka-Bird as his mum. And she looked old enough to be his big sis. Hugh Lawrie and Tilda Swinton were excellent as eccentric brother and sister double act, Mr. Dick and Betsey Trotwood. Ben Wishaw was suitably creepy and sneaky as Uriah Heep. Peter Capaldi was far too skinny for Mr. Micawber and didn't say, "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." Seemed more like a freeloading sponger than an incurable optimist living beyond his slender means. I didn't enjoy this as much as I'd hoped. I'll have to give it another go when it comes on the telly. Will probably help if I stay awake.   

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood 

This film moved me more than I'd expected. 

I grew up watching American imports on TV; Sesame Street, Banana Splits and the Muppet Show. Not as good as Trumpton, or Tiswas, admittedly, but enjoyable enough. Never heard of Fred Rogers, though, and his show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who became a children's TV presenter. His shows helped children deal with their emotional responses to the world with all its ups and downs. Rogers is played by Tom Hanks.

Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a cynical writer for Esquire magazine with a name for reputation destroying profiles of famous figures. Seems he's always out peer beneath the facade to find the worst in people. His editor orders him to write a brief article on Rogers to accompany images of the TV personality taken for the magazine. Vogel protests he doesn't do puff pieces, but the editor insists. 

The film takes the form of Lloyd Vogel featuring as a character on Mister Rogers' show, where the lesson for the day is forgiveness and love. 

Fearing a hatchet job on Rogers, Lloyd's wife Andrea implores her husband not to destroy her childhood. Like many, she grew up watching him on TV. But the writer finds that the closer he gets to Rogers the more he sees that his sincerity and goodness are not TV affectations, but an expression of the man's true personality.  

On meeting Rogers, Vogel discovers he is more interested in finding out about him than the other way around. Rogers probing of Vogel's childhood makes the journo reflect on his broken relationship with his father. Jerry Vogel walked out on his dying wife, leaving Lloyd and his sister to look after their mother. Rogers helps Lloyd to deal with his anger against his dad though forgiveness and reconciliation. 

The TV personality never really stopped being a pastor. Rogers responded personally to letters sent to him by his viewers and took time to meet with sick children and their families. Each night he would read Scripture and pray for a long list of people who needed God's help, Vogel and family included.  

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is superbly acted. In an publicity interview Tom Hanks commented that Rogers, 'lived his gospel'. What a commendation. Hanks touchingly communicates Roger's pastoral goodness. Rhys does a great job in portraying Vogel's character arc, from hardbitten hack to something more human and loving. 

This gentle and reflective film packs a emotional punch, as it forces viewers to reflect on their own childhood hurts and shows the power of forgiveness as a means of resolving old grievances.  

The 400 word 'puff piece' commissioned by Lloyd Vogel's editor became something grander in scale and subject matter. Can You Say...Hero? took pride of place as cover article of the November 1998 edition of Esquire magazine. The Vogel character is based on real life journalist Tom Junod. The article that inspired this film in which Junod meditates on how Mister Rogers helped him understand the meaning of grace can be read here

That's a wrap. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Fight of Your Life: Facing & Resisting Temptation, by John Stevens

Christian Focus, 2019, 160pp

Evangelists who tell people that if they become a Christian they are in for a trouble free life are just being silly. When you think of following Jesus, the appropriate image isn't one of lolling around in a hammock strung between two palm trees as the sea gently laps against the beach. Think of  manning the ramparts at the battle of Helm's Deep, with Orcs and other nasties bearing down on you. That's more like it. The believer has been enlisted as a soldier of Jesus Christ. Combating sin and resisting temptation is the order of the day. 

Teaching on the Christian life has sometimes swung between extremes of happy go lucky triumphalism and miserable defeatism. The old style Keswick view offered a 'higher life', free of struggles with sin to those who had experienced the 'second blessing'. Reformed writers such as J. C. Ryle and J. I. Packer gave a more sober and realistic account of Christian experience. They tended to view Romans 7:13-25 as the apostle's description of the believer in their attempt to resist the power of sin, 'For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing'. (Romans 7:19). 

John Stevens rightly sees Romans 7:13-25 not as a snippet of autobiography by Paul the believer, but a description of someone convicted of sin under the law. The believer's experience in relation to sin is better captured in Romans 6 & 8. I think it's only fair to say that Ryle, Packer and others had more to say on the Christian life than is seen in their view of Romans 7. The tradition they represent teaches that the believer may and should successfully combat sin and resist temptation by virtue of their union with Christ and the indwelling presence of the Spirit. You'll certainly find many such a call in Ryle's Holiness and in Jim Packer's writings. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones agrees with Stevens's take on Romans 7 (see his expositions of Romans 6, 7 & 8, Banner of Truth Trust).

A lack of historical perspective is a weakness in this work. Classic treatments of the believer's struggle with sin and temptation are neglected. Other writers tend to be cited to decorative effect, rather than Stevens seriously engaging with their ideas. Reference is made to a saying by Billy Graham culled from Gathered God, a book of quotations by John Blanchard. The aphorism is helpful enough, I guess, but the temptation to draw on such a work should have been resisted. 

The emphasis here is on giving fresh attention to the relevant biblical materials and points of practical application. The author is sure footed and insightful when it comes to scriptural exposition and theological reflection. He is pastorally sensitive and yet robust in working through what his teaching means in practice. Some believers feel defeated because they feel tempted to commit certain sins and experience desires for that which is sinful. Christians struggling with same sex attraction are given as a case in point. But, as Stevens argues in an introductory chapter, 'Is Temptation Sin?', we need to make a clear distinction between temptation and sin. See James 1:13-15. Indeed, Jesus was 'in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin'. (Hebrews 4:15).

The believer experiences temptation from within, but they are not now in a position of defeat as was the case before they were in Christ. Their hearts are no more wholly biased towards sin, (Jeremiah 17:9). The Christian has been given a new heart and is a new creation, Jeremiah 31:33, 2 Corinthians 5:17. None the less, Stevens overstates the case when he says, "God's people are no longer tempted because they have fallen corrupt hearts" (p. 46). Our hearts are not yet fully renewed, and as the author points out, the believer is still in the flesh, with a sinful nature. But we only sin when we inflame the 'desires of the flesh' and act on them. The Holy Spirit enables the believer to resist these desires, Galatians 5:16. By the Spirit we must 'put to death the deeds of the body' (Romans 8:13).

Sin is subtle, however, and the workings of the flesh aren't always easy to detect. We are not necessarily aware of the ways in which our desires and deeds are disordered by sin. An element in spiritual growth is an increased sensitivity to sin's inward curve, and with it, renewed contrition, confession and repentance. The Christian life, therefore, is one of ongoing mortification (putting sin to death) and vivification (bringing holiness to life).

Temptations also come from without through the world and the devil. Satan may not personally be behind most of the temptations believers face, but the evil one pulls fallen humanity in sinful directions that are a source of temptation to the Christian. To take one example, the pagan world of the New Testament period was rife with sexual immorality. The contemporary world is often highly sexualised. The Christian is called to faithfulness within marriage, or celibacy for those who are single. The church is under pressure to change its teaching and believers may face sexual temptation, but we must avoid allowing the world to shape us into its mould, Romans 12:2. The same applies to other areas of temptation. While the devil is powerful, we are commanded to resist him, 1 Peter 5:8-9. The Christian soldier must take the 'whole armour of God' that we may stand firm in the evil day of temptation, Ephesians 6:10-18.

And it's not a losing battle. Christ has freed believers from the reign of sin. In him the Christian has died to that which once held us captive. We have been raised to a new life of righteousness that leads to holiness, Romans 6:1-4. The believer is no longer under the law, which demands our obedience and exposes our sin, yet has no power to enable us to do what God commands of us. As Paul teaches, 'you have died to the law through the body of Christ... in order that we may bear fruit for God' (Romans 7:4). The apostle elaborates, 'the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but the Spirit'. (Romans 8:4).

Stevens gives helpful guidance on how to resist temptation. The believer must be watchful, avoid those things that may provoke temptation and trust in the promises of God's word. We need to cultivate a hatred of sin and Satan, and develop a deeper love for the Lord who has saved us by his grace. Resistance of temptation isn't futile because the believer has been united to Christ and is indwelt by the Spirit, 'greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.' (1 John 4:4).

The author is realistic enough to know that for as long as we are in the flesh we will not always resist the pull of temptation. While sin cannot sever the believer's union with Christ, it does affect our communion with him and must therefore be taken seriously. The Christian who has sinned must return to the Lord in repentance and faith, with the assurance that as we confess our sin, he will forgive us and restore us to fellowship with himself. Where patterns of sin are not repented of, but rather persisted in, that may be evidence that a person was never a true believer in the first place.

The fight against temptation and sin will only be over when the Christian is called into the presence of Christ at death, awaiting the resurrection of the body. Believers who are alive when Jesus returns will immediately be transformed into the image of the risen Lord. Then we will be free from both internal and external sources of temptation. Until that day let us, 'fight the good fight', confident that we are, 'more than conquerors through him who loved us' (2 Timothy 4:7, Romans 8:37).

No Christian is exempt from the struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. All believers will find help here as they seek to resist temptation, drawing on the resources that are ours in Christ. Those endeavouring to lay aside certain 'besetting sins' will benefit from the encouragement and challenge Stevens provides in these pages. Pastors will find this book useful, both in terms of their own spiritual walk and as they seek to equip the flock to engage in the fight of their lives.

* Thanks to John Stevens for sending me a free copy of this book. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland

Little Brown, 2019, 594pp

When Paul arrived in Corinth sometime in the early 50s AD, the apostle was aware of the intellectual pretensions of that great city. The rock stars of the day were not musicians, but orators. Public speakers could command a handsome fee for their highfalutin disquisitions on aspects of philosophy.  'Greeks seek wisdom' (1 Corinthians 1:22). Paul's approach was very different. "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). The apostle's message was scandalous to the Jewish inhabitants of the city and utter folly to the cultured Greeks. Everyone knew that there was nothing more shameful and degrading than crucifixion. The idea that a crucified man was the Son of God and Saviour of the world was utter nonsense. Yet some believed, and a church was gathered in Corinth. The churches Paul planted and the letters he wrote to them changed the course of history.  

Dominion is the story of how this message of "Jesus Christ and him crucified" had a transforming effect on Western culture. As a boy Holland was fascinated by ancient Greek and Roman history. In their overweening power and brutality heroes of that age seemed more like terrifying dinosaurs than mere men. Holland went on to author several bestselling books on the period,  Rubicon,  Persian Fire, and Dynasty  But as he wrote these histories the writer found himself strangely repelled by by the enormities of the great men of Greece and Rome. The Spartans despised weakness and would expose sickly babies. Julius Caesar slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved a million more to get a name for himself and was duly acclaimed as a hero of Rome. We think, 'not so nice'. 

It dawned on the writer that he had viewed ancient Greece and Rome through Christian spectacles, or at lest through lenses that had been ground into shape by two millennia of Christian history. The Christian faith inverted the values of antiquity. Suffering not slaughtering was heroic, weakness was strength, shame was glory. For at the heart of the Christian faith was 'Jesus Christ and him crucified', the belief that the Son of God took the form of a slave and died for the sins of the world. The cross, which had been a brutal token of Roman power was transformed into a symbol of redemptive love. For Christians this Jesus, risen and ascended, not Caesar was was world's true Lord. Those who suffered with him would also share his glory. This world-upending message brought down the lofty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.

Dominion is not a work of theology. Neither is it a conventional church history. Rather, Holland has sought to identify ways in which the Christian faith reconfigured what he calls 'the Western Mind'. Fittingly enough, his account is structured to reflect the Bible's own numeric symbolism, where the numbers three and seven are of special importance. The work is divided into three main parts, Antiquity, Christendom and Modernitas, each part having seven chapters, which, in turn have three sections a piece. The chapters begin with a vignette that sets up the theme about to be explored. While Holland is an admirer of the Christian faith, he doesn't shy away from depicting occasions when believers failed to live up to their best principles. Rightly so. Reading his previous books I'd always enjoyed the author's sweeping, cinematic style and eye for telling (usually gory) detail. I sometimes wondered what it might be like if he turned his hand to Christian history; the origins of the faith and its impact on the world. Well, here goes. 

The gospel

In setting out the key elements of the Christian faith Holland doesn't begin with the Gospel accounts, but the writings of the apostle Paul. His letters, were, after all the earliest New Testament documents. For the apostle the crucifixion of Jesus was not an embarrassment to be hushed up, but the fact that he placed literally at the crux of his teaching, 'the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me' (Galatians 2:20). This was deeply personal, but also of universal significance. As a Jew who was steeped in Old Testament Scriptures, Paul believed that all human beings were made in the image of God. As a Christian he taught that Jesus had died for people of all nations. Through Jesus the God of Israel would become the God of all peoples and all peoples would become one in Christ, (Galatians 3:28).

The teaching of Paul's New Testament letters sent seismic shocks rippling around the world and down the centuries to this present day. Paul explained that the old covenant in which the Ten Commandments were engraved on tablets of stone had gone. Jesus had ushered in a new covenant in which the law was written on the hearts of believers by the Spirit, 2 Corinthians 3:3. Even non-Christians had the 'works of the law' written on their hearts, giving them a sense of right and wrong, Romans 2:14. Paul helped develop the idea of the conscience as an inbuilt moral arbiter, Romans 2:15. Unlike in Islam Christian's didn't demand a direct divine command for every rule and regulation in society. Man-made rules based on 'the light of nature' would suffice. This helped to pave the way for Church lawyers to develop the concept of natural law and human rights in the Medieval period. Which, in turn helped to pave the way for Western secular states, subject to the rule of human law.

Freedom for the captives 

If all human beings are made in the image of God, each with unique dignity and value and 'in Christ there is neither slave nor free' (Galatians 3:28), that makes the institution of slavery highly problematic. Yet slavery was regarded as a normal part of life in ancient times. It was rife in Greece and Rome. The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa preached against slavery in the strongest terms.  But it wasn't until the 18th century that Christians more widely began to grasp that slavery was an intolerable evil that had to be stamped out.  Did not Christ die the death of a common slave to redeem us from slavery to sin? Quakers and Evangelicals threw themselves into the campaign for the abolition of slavery, championed by William Wilberforce. 

Protestant England persuaded Catholic France to follow suit, arguing not so much from biblical principles as did the Evangelicals, but by appealing to the Roman Catholic idea of 'human rights'. This universalising tendency was extended further as British imperialists sought to pressurise Islamic countries to abolish slavery, this time appealing (with little basis) to Muslim texts. And so the idea of culture-transcending universal human rights, beloved of liberals and neo-conservatives alike was born.

Husbands love your wives 

A Roman nobleman felt himself entitled to have sex with any socially inferior woman (man or child) he pleased. Repeated rape and sexual assault was the lot of female slaves. Christians taught that women as well as men were created in the image of God and that women should therefore be treated with dignity and respect. Men and women were of equal spiritual standing in Christ, for in him there was 'neither male or female' (Galatians 3:28). Men were not to impose themselves on women, but restrain their sexual urges. Sex should only be enjoyed within the confines of marriage. Marriage between a man and woman was intended to be a picture of Christ's love for his bride, the church, Ephesians 5:22-33.

Following on from this, the Puritans of the 17th century insisted that men treat women with the utmost propriety. They took delight in the loving intimacy of marriage, but frowned on sex outside of that context. Christians held family life in high honour and regarded having and bringing up children  to be a noble calling. Weakly infants were to be cherished and cared for, not exposed and left to die. The Medieval noblewoman Elizabeth of Hungary devoted herself to rescuing abandoned babies. Apart from the value attached to women by the Christian faith it is unlikely that the struggle for women's rights would ever have got off the ground.

Reform 

The abolition of slavery and the better treatment of women are but two examples of Christians attempting to reorder the world in line with their faith. Throughout Christian history the church has been swept by reformatio movements, the aim of which was to purify the church of corruption and turn the world upside down. Pope Gregory VII was concerned that the church had come too much under the sway of earthly rulers. He asserted the spiritual power of the church over and against the secular realm. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV made the mistake of offending Gregory, who promptly excommunicated him, thus absolving the Emperor's subjects of their loyalty. Henry had to head across the Alps to Canossa, groveling for the pope's forgiveness.

Separation between the religious and the secular can be traced back to Augustine. When the Roman Empire fell, people worried that the kingdom of God would fall with it. This prompted Augustine to write The City of God, in which he distinguished between the shifting world of the secularia, of which earthly empires were a part, and religio, devotion to God of which the church was an expression. The separation of church and state in modern democratic societies is a development of this deeply Christian way of viewing the world.

The Reformation was one of the most convulsive reformatio episodes. In this instance, rather than the papacy reforming abuses in the church, the pope himself was charged with presiding over a corrupt and ungodly system. Famously Martin Luther refused to back down at the Diet of Worms, his conscience was bound by the word of God and he would accept no other authority. The church had to be reformed according to the teaching of Scripture. Romish superstitions; indulgences, relics and masses had to go. Paul's gospel of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone was brought to light and proclaimed afresh to the people. The religious life of devotion to God was not now the preserve of priests, monks and nuns. All the Lord's people were priests and were called to serve God faithfully in their daily callings. This had the unintended effect of privitising faith as a purely spiritual matter, leaving little room for religious expression in the secular realm. It also enabled English Protestant empire builders to make a distinction between the Hindu 'religion' of India and disagreeable cultural practices, like widow burning.

Enlightenment 

Drawing upon the Reformation teaching on the witness of the Spirit to the truth of the Bible, Evangelicals in the 18th century would speak of the enlightenment of the Spirit that gave them fresh insight into Scripture. This enlightenment had a transforming effect on their personal lives and led to attempts at reforming society, the abolition of slavery being one example. A line can be traced from Medieval reform movements, to the Reformation, to the Evangelical Revival. But these were attempts to reshape the church and the world in line with the Christian faith. 

In the 18th century others proclaimed a new age of Enlightenment, not because they understood the Bible in a new way, but because they rejected it in favour of science and reason. The object of their reforming zeal was an overmighty church that had to be cut down to size so that people could be set free from oppression and religious superstition. As Holland points out, the irony was that Enlightenment rationalists had bought into the Christian idea of pulling the lofty from their thrones and exalting the lowly. They took that a little too literally in Revolutionary France. Similarly, today's woke lefties with their hierarchy of oppressed victims are, consciously or not, drawing upon a faith that has Jesus 'crucified in weakness' at its heart.

Post-Christianity 

Dominion is a meditation on the transformative effects of Christianity on Western culture. But it also exposes the dangers inherent in 'cultural Christianity', where the moral imperatives of the faith are uncoupled from the theological indicatives of the gospel of Christ. You end up with a selective appropriation of Christian morality that is devoid of spiritual power. The result both for the church and wider society is often disastrous. Holland gives the example of Elizabeth of Hungary in the Middle Ages, who submitted to horrific abuse at the hands of churchman 'Master Conrad' in an attempt to save her soul. Luther would have told her to trust in Christ. Witness also the 'Great Terror' of the French Revolution. Unwittingly #MeToo feminists are busily demanding a return to the old Puritan emphasis on respect for women and male self-restraint. The Puritans, however, would have deprecated woke identity politics with its virtue signalling and self-righteous denunciation of opponents. The old Puritans were too conscious of their own sins and too aware of their need of God's grace for that.

More troubling even than 'cultural Christianity' is 'post-Christianity'. Frenchman Marquis de Sade and German Frederich Nietzsche both despised the Christian faith with its bias towards the weak and downtrodden. They favoured the stance of the ancient Greeks and Romans, 'let the weak be crushed and the strong dominate'. Nietzsche pronounced, 'God is dead'. In his place was the 'will to power' that brooked no opposition from Christian scruples. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution put the accent on the 'survival of the fittest' in the natural world. Eugenicists applied the same insight to the human race. Nazi Germany put these 'post-Christian' ideas into practice. The disabled and people regarded as morally degenerate were marked out for elimination to preserve the purity of the Aryan race. Millions of Jews were consigned to the gas chambers. Against this backdrop J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings as a warning against man's urge to seek power at all costs, 'One ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them'.

The audacity of the cross 

Holland's cinematic sweep of Christian history is full of interest as he zooms in on key characters in the unfolding drama and zooms out again to reveal big themes that recur throughout the book. The cast includes Paul, Augustine, Gregory VII, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, John Calvin and John Lennon. Paul McCartney may have dismissed Christianity as 'goody-goody' stuff, but in singing, 'All You Need Is Love', The Beatles betrayed the their Christian influences. No other faith tells us "God is love", "God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us", and "love is the fulfilling of the law" (1 John 4:8, Romans 5:8, 13:10).

The historian concludes his brilliantly written account on a personal note. He confesses to having a rather fluctuating Christian faith, with perhaps one breakthrough moment. When making a film on Islamic State, Holland was close to an area where the Islamists had crucified their enemies, much as did the Romans. The cross in that context was an instrument of terror, the threat of which cowed people into submission. It was totally devoid of any Christian connotations as a symbol of self-giving love and forgiveness. That seemed to speak to Holland in a deep way, but I sense he's not quite there yet in terms of personal faith in Christ.

As the writer himself says, "To be a Christian is to believe that God became man, and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient instrument of torture, remains what it always has been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it - the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe - that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth'. (p. 524). Which takes us back to the apostle Paul and his determination to make the cross the heart of his message, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." 

Dominion 

Jesus called his followers to be the 'salt of the earth' and the 'light of the world'. By their words and actions believers are meant to make a difference. But Christianity is not ultimately a project of cultural transformation. Its scriptures herald a new Dominion, the kingdom of God. This dominion is different to the kingdoms of this world. It advances not by military or political power, but by the preaching of the cross in the power of God's Spirit. The American edition of Holland's work has on its cover Salvador Dali's painting, Christ the King. It depicts Jesus ruling the world from his cross. His is a kingdom in which the King was crucified in weakness, but now lives by the power of God. Cultural Christianity admires the faith for its benefits, often picking and choosing the bits it likes, while rejecting the rest. But the kingdom of God is not to be selectively admired from outside, but entered as a person is transformed on the inside. As Jesus told the Pharisee Nicodemus as recorded in the Gospel of John, "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3).

Friday, January 10, 2020

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland [mini review]


As a child the historian Tom Holland was fascinated by the ancient Romans and Greeks. Holland, who hails from Wiltshire, went on to author several bestselling books on Roman and Greek history, Rubicon, Persian Fire and Dynasty. But the more he got into the ancient world, the more morally repellent he found the ‘heroes’ of that age. It was said that Julius Caesar slaughtered a million Gauls and forced another million into slavery. Rather condemning Caesar as a genocidal war criminal, the citizens of Rome hailed him as a mighty leader whose exploits redounded to the glory of the Empire.

Holland became increasingly aware that his perspective on life was vastly different to that of the old Romans and Greeks. He realised that his idea of what’s right and wrong had been formed by a culture that had been deeply influenced by the Christian faith. In his most recent book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, Holland shows how our commonly accepted moral values were shaped by Christian teachings. We take it as self-evident that all people should be treated with dignity and respect. But that belief didn’t come from nowhere.

The Bible insists that all human beings are made in the image of God and are deserving of love and care from womb to tomb. The value of human life is underlined by the belief that in Jesus our Creator became one of us. He came to suffer and die on the cross that we might be forgiven and be put right with God. “It is the audacity of it”, writes Holland, “the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe”.

We went to hear the author give a talk on Dominion towards the end of last year and I’ve just finished reading the book. It’s a brilliantly written account of the impact of the Christian faith on Western culture and values, covering everything from the Bible to The Beatles, Monasteries to #MeToo. Holland is not a personal believer in Jesus Christ. He calls himself a ‘cultural Christian’. But he recognises that the ‘molten heart’ of the Christian revolution is the cross of Jesus. The message of the cross turned the world upside down, exalting the lowly and humbling the mighty.

For the Romans, crucifixion was a symbol of brute power, ‘this is what you get if you mess with us’.  Since Jesus the cross has an altogether different message, ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ The love of God that streams from the cross changed the course of history and is still transforming lives today.

*Write-up for local publications: White Horse News, Trinity Magazine and News & Views. A full review can now be found here

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Reformed Catholicity of Second London Baptist Confession: 'Of Christ the Mediator'

The authors of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689 (LBC) were keen to identify themselves with mainstream Puritan theological orthodoxy. That is why their confession of faith was not a freshly minted expression of their beliefs, but a revision of the Independent's Savoy Declaration of Faith, 1658 (SDF), which was in turn an amended version of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith, 1644 (WCF). See this Tabular Comparison of the three confessions. In this post I want to reflect on Chapter 8 of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 'Of Christ the Mediator', with a nod to the parallel statements in Westminster and Savoy. 

The Westminster Confession was an expression of Reformed Catholicity. The Independents and Baptists followed suit. Careful readers of the three documents will discern traces of earlier creedal formulae. Westminster's doctrine of the Trinity (Chapter 2, compare SDF & LBC) is that of the Nicene Creed; one God in three persons, with each person of the same divine essence. Its doctrine of Christ is that of the Definition of Chalcedon; the incarnate Son is one person with two natures, divine and human (Chapter 8, compare SDF & LBC). The soterological emphasis of the Presbyterian confession and its successors was positively Augustinian, with an emphasis on predestination, the total depravity of humanity in sin and salvation by grace alone. 

So far, so Catholic. But Reformed, not Roman Catholic. All three confessions make it clear that Jesus Christ is the 'only Mediator between God and man' 8:2. This rules out Roman Catholic claims of other mediators such as the pope, the saints, the priesthood, or Mary. The 1689 adds two more paragraphs to further underline the point, drawing on John Calvin's delineation of Christ in his offices of prophet, priest and king, 8:8-9: "This office of mediator between God and man is proper only to Christ, who is the prophet, priest, and king of the church of God; and may not be either in whole, or any part thereof, transferred from him to any other. (1 Timothy 2:5), 8:8" See also 8:9, which explains why sinners are in need of Christ in his threefold mediatorial offices. 

The Savoy and 1689 set Christ's person and work in the context of the Covenant of Redemption between the Father and the Son in eternity, 8:1 (compare). This doctrine was in an early stage of its development at the time of the Westminster Assembly, hence its omission from WCF. One feature of the LBC is the addition of biblical wording to its chapter on Christ the Mediator, which gives the confession more of a salvation-historical perspective. Especially paragraph 8:2 (compare). 

The confessions make it clear that it was "The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God" who took upon himself man's nature, "being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary" (8:2). The incarnation did not involve the Son becoming any less divine. Rather, "two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man." This language closely reflects that of the Definition of Chalcedon. 

Section 8:7 of the three confessions is a statement on the 'communion of attributes' in the incarnate Son. This does not mean a transfer of properties from one nature to the other in the person of Jesus. His divine nature did not shrink to be enclosed in time and space when Christ took human nature. His human nature did not expand to transcend time and space when Christ was glorified. Any such constructions would fall foul of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. In Reformed theology the 'communion of attributes' is a hermenutical tool that helps readers of Scripture understand how the Bible can speak of the 'Lord of glory' being crucified (1 Corinthians 2:8), or how the risen Jesus is said to 'fill all in all' (Ephesians 1:32). The divine nature of Christ was not crucified. Nether did the human body of Jesus become omnipresent at his ascension. The confessions explain, "Christ, in the work of mediation, acteth according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture, attributed to the person denominated by the other nature." (8:7). This insight equips us to read Scripture's witness to Christ's person and work with appropriate theological awareness. 

Together with Westminster and Savoy the 1689 tells us why God became man in Jesus, "This office the Lord Jesus did most willingly undertake, which that he might discharge he was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfill it, and underwent the punishment due to us, which we should have borne and suffered, being made sin and a curse for us" (8:4, see also 8:5). Christ's death atoned for the sins of the people of God both prior to and since his redeeming work was accomplished (8:6). Having died for the people the Father had given him, "on the third day he arose from the dead with the same body in which he suffered, with which he also ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father making intercession, and shall return to judge men and angels at the end of the world." (8:4). 

One distinctive feature of the 1689 is the emphasis it lays on the believer's triple union with Christ the Mediator. Together with Westminster and Savoy the 1689 confesses that Jesus was united to his people before the foundation of the world. The Father "did from all eternity give a people to be his [the Son's] seed and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified." (8:1). The Lord was further united with his people "when he took upon himself man's nature" (8:2). It was because he shared their nature that the Son was able redeem his people by the sacrifice of himself, satisfying the justice of God on their behalf (8:5). Then the 1689 makes explicit reference to the believer's union with Christ in relation to the application of redemption, "To all those for whom Christ hath obtained eternal redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same, making intercession for them; uniting them to himself by his Spirit" [emphasis added]. Westminster and Savoy speak of Christ "effectually persuading them by his Spirit to believe and obey" at this point (compare 8:8). 

Giving careful attention to the Second London Baptist Confession's chapter 'On Christ the Mediator' will enable us to proclaim the wonder of God incarnate with biblical accuracy in the light of the creedal heritage of the Catholic Church. The Reformed aspect of Reformed Catholicty gives added clarity to the work the incarnate Son carried out on behalf of his people. He who was one with God as second person of the Trinity became one with us as man to redeem us by his own blood. Christ unites his people to himself by his Spirit that we may enjoy the rich benefits of his saving work.

'O come, let us adore him. Christ the Lord'. 

Monday, December 09, 2019

Christmas songs


Whether we like them or not, Christmas songs are pretty much inescapable at this time of year. The top three seasonal songs in the UK are 1. Fairytale Of New York, 2. All I Want For Christmas Is You and 3. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. According to Google, anyway. You might have other ideas for your festive favourites. I think it’s fair to say that the songs listed are of the secular variety. They have little to do with birth of Jesus Christ. If that’s what you’re after,  Classic FM’s annual poll to discover the nation’s favourite carol reveals all: 1. O Holy Night, 2. Silent Night and 3. In The Bleak Midwinter. Again, your preferences may differ. In my opinion Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was robbed in not making it into the top three.

The very first Christmas song wasn’t by Bing Crosby, or even Cliff Richards. It had a more heavenly origin. According to the account of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke, the angel of the Lord had been sent to tell some shepherds that the long-awaited Saviour of the World had been born. This was his message: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” Suddenly, a heavenly host of angels appeared in the night sky. We hear them sing,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”

Shepherds in the ancient world were the last ones on whom God’s favour rested. At least that’s what people thought. Shepherds had a reputation for dishonesty and their work kept them away from worship in the temple at Jerusalem. Yet the angles sing of God’s undeserved favour towards sinners, his grace. That’s what the message of Christmas is all about; God’s grace towards human beings revealed in the birth of Jesus Christ. We can have peace with God because Jesus was born into our world, lived a perfect human life and died for our sins upon the Cross.  That is good news for you and me.

In a recent book, The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray issues a warning to a society that is breaking loose from its Christian moorings. Without Christianity there is no Christ, and without Christ there is no forgiveness. “We have created a world in which forgiveness has become almost impossible”, writes Murray. Witness the angry arguments on social media and personal rifts in real life. Convinced of our own righteousness we are quick to pounce, but slow to pardon.

That is why we need to listen afresh to the very first Christmas song, a song that speaks of grace, forgiveness and peace through Jesus Christ. All to the glory of God.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled."

See our website for info on Carol Services at Providence Baptist Church, Dilton Marsh, Westbury and Ebenezer Baptist Church, West Lavington.

* Written for local publications, Trinity Magazine, News & Views and White Horse News.