Monday, July 17, 2017

Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by J. Mack Stiles

Crossway, 126pp 

Evangelism. It's about programmes, right? Special meetings, Christianity Explored, Life Explored. Centrally organised by the church. Partly, yes. Those things have value. But Mack Stiles' book is not about getting churches to buy the latest off the shelf programme. Results guaranteed. Rather, he wants to encourage what he calls a 'culture of evangelism'.

But first of all Stiles needs to define what he means by evangelism. Which he does:

"Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade."

The author then unpacks what that means, beginning with the gospel, the evangel we are meant to be ising.

You don't need to run a church programme to evangelise, or bring in an expert Evangelist. Evangelism so defined is a discipleship discipline for every believer. Just as much as prayer, Bible reading and faithful Christian living. 

A culture of evangelism means every church member will be looking to 'teach the gospel with the aim to persuade' as part of their daily lives. They will take it upon themselves to reach the unreached, build meaningful relationships non-Christians, offer to study the Bible with people who want to know more about the Christian faith, bring friends along to church where they will hear the gospel preached, and so on. 

Where a culture of  evangelism isn't embedded in the life of a church, people will tend to think that it's the responsibility of the organised church to do evangelism for them. An example is given of well meaning believers stuffing shoe boxes full of essential things a disadvantaged group of people. And then expecting a pastor with links to that community to dish them out. Why didn't they go beyond stuffing shoe boxes and make the effort to engage personally with the needy community? Someone else's job. 

I certainly agree with Stiles on the importance of creating a culture of every member evangelism. But church-organised programmes can sometimes help to prime the pump. We have a 'Door to Door' Evangelist working with the churches I serve. Members accompany him to visit people in our community. As a spin off from that a church member has organised coffee mornings where men get together for a chat at a local cafe. A mixture of Christians and non-Christians. That was his initiative, not the result of a directive from the church leadership. Similarly, there have been a number of opportunities for developing relationships with parents who attend our Parent and Toddler Group and other church-run activities.

It's not a matter of either/or. 

In fact, I picked up my freebie copy of this book at a Grace Baptist Partnership day conference on 'Evangelism and the Local Church', aimed at supporting a week of mission in the South West of England. 

The task of the 'organised church' is to equip the 'organic church' to live as everyday disciples of Jesus. An everyday disciple will also be an everyday evangelist. Organised activities can serve as a powerful catalyst for spontaneous, organic outreach by church members. But centrally organised activities can't be the be all and end all. The 'organic church' can and must go to places the 'organised church' simply cannot reach.

From the book it seems as though J. Mack Stiles is one of those 'speak to anybody about Jesus, anytime' extroverts. Not all of us are in that category. But the writer provides some practical hints and tips on Actually Sharing Our Faith that even the most shy and retiring introvert will find useful. 

If we are to succeed in the urgent task of winning people for Christ in this generation, we are going to need churches with a deeply embedded culture of every member evangelism. 

This title would be a useful aid for stimulating discussion in a Home Group, or a Bible Study series on how the whole church may speak for Jesus. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification by Sinclair B. Ferguson

 Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, 277pp 

Back in the early 1990's I heard Sinclair Ferguson speak on sanctification at the Banner Ministers' Conference. The addresses made a lasting impression upon me. I remember being struck by the awesome fact that God calls believers to be holy as he is holy. Bits and pieces, of Ferguson's messages have lingered in my memory almost 30 years later. The biblical texts he expounded, the theological arguments he advanced and the practical applications he made have had a lasting impact on my Christian life. We have reason to be grateful that the teaching given at Ministers' Conferences and more besides has been gathered together in this book and made available to a wider audience. 

Books on 'holiness' can sometimes seem little more than a list of dos and don'ts. But that is holiness divorced from the gospel, which is no holiness at all. It is only through the Father's saving work in Christ and by the Spirit, that sinners can be cleansed from sin and devoted God. Ferguson places his teaching on sanctification within a framework of thoroughgoing trinitatian theology. For that is what the Bible itself does in the 'Blueprint Passages' the writer expounds such as 1 Peter 1:1-25 and Romans 8. 

Another key theme is that of the believer's union with Christ. As Paul teaches in Romans 6 and Colossians 3, the person who is in Christ has died with him to the old life of sin and has been raised with him to a new life of holiness. We must therefore put to death what is sinful (engage in mortification)  and bring to life what is holy (vivification). It is vital that we grasp the interplay of indicative and imperative, position and performance, dynamic and doing, so that our Christian lives are a conscious expression of who we are in Christ. The New Testament does not teach sanctification by guilt trip, but sanctification by gospel grace. 

The Holy Spirit's role is to fashion those who are in Christ into the image of their Saviour. The 'fruit' he produces in us is Christlike character. God's ultimate goal is that we should be conformed to the image of his Son by grace and in glory. 

Ferguson gives attention to the role of the law in sanctification, where he defends the traditional Reformed perspective over and against the 'New Covenant Theology' position. He argues his case with fine exegetical insight, theological skill and practical penetration. While the law in itself cannot sanctify any more than it can justify, it is none the less God's law that provides us with a pattern for holy living. Jesus has fulfilled the law, not abolished it. That same law is fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. The gospel turns the duty of obedience into delight. An appendix is devoted to the Fourth Commandment. 

The writer anticipates and responds to the objection that while Paul may be helpful when it comes to the general principles of sanctification, he does not enable us to get to grips with  nitty-gritty practical matters. The chapter In for the Kill nails that one, showing how Paul provides the mindset, motives and method for sanctification. 

While sanctification is a deeply personal thing, Ferguson avoids an individualistic approach by giving due weight to the importance of the church as the community in which we give expression to our devotion to God through love for one another. The 'fruit of the Spirit' in Galatians 5:22-23 are deeply relational and are brought to ripe maturity in the fellowship of God's people and as we serve the Lord in the world. 

Devoted to God has the makings of a contemporary classic on holiness. It deserves to be read carefully, prayerfully and reflectively. Robert Murray M'Cheyne famously prayed, 'Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner is able to be made'. This work will have the reader echoing that prayer. A life changer. 

Friday, June 30, 2017


We went to see this the other Saturday. In my last film review I noted that when we go to the cinema most of the other movie-goers tend to be getting on a bit. Possibly due to our film choices  these days. Well, for this one it was my good wife, me, another (older) couple, and that was it. Like a private screening. Don't know what the other random couple thought they were doing, gatecrashing our exclusive viewing. Cheek of it. 

Churchill, the filmHistorically speaking almost a case of 'never in the field of cinema have so many facts been sacrificed for so little dramatic effect'. The central conceit was that our eponymous hero was dead against D-Day, haunted as he was by the epic failure of the Gallipoli campaign during WWI. Admittedly, it had been a while since I read Churchill by Roy Jenkins, but as the film unfolded, that didn't seem quite right. It wasn't. Churchill may have had some reservations concerning Operation Overlord, but to depict him calling upon the heavens to thwart the allied landings was pushing it a bit. A lot.

Some have called the film a 'hatchet job', but that's not quite fair. Churchill comes good in the end and delivers his rousing D-Day speech to the nation. Just like the ones he used to give during the Blitz. And they thought he was past it. 

Brian Cox gives a towering performance as the war leader. In turns melancholy, meddlesome, ill-tempered and yet ever the Great Man. Miranda Richardson is almost as imperious as his Clemmie. Verdict: a triumph of acting over plot, but still worth a look. At least you'll have plenty of elbow room in the cinema. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

London Seminary 40th Anniversary Thanksgiving Service

On Saturday we attended the London Seminary's 40th Anniversary Thanksgiving Service. I attended the seminary from 1988-1990. Former principal Philip Eveson chaired the meeting and gave a potted history of the college. It was encouraging to hear that around 400 men have been trained for the pastoral-preaching ministry at the seminary. Its reach has extended to five continents. The ethos of London Seminary can be summed up in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:7, "by the word of truth, by the power of God". The college was founded in 1977 by Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He wanted the seminary to help equip men to proclaim the word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. It has remained faithful to that vision. 

Leaving students spoke of how the seminary had helped prepare them for ministry and shared concerning the work to which the Lord was calling them. Outgoing Principal Robert Strivens gave a report on the work of the seminary in the current academic year. Incoming Principal Bill James read the Scriptures and prayed. 

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky preached the word. His message was based on John 15:18-25. Jesus told his disciples that they would encounter hatred from the world as they heralded the gospel. Not exactly an encouraging thought for budding pastors and preachers. But a healthy dose of realism is needed for those setting out to minister God's word in an increasingly hostile secular world. To withstand this opposition, Mohler reminded us to abide in Christ (John 15:1-8), to expect the help of the Holy Spirit (John 15:26-27) and that Jesus had prayed that we will be kept from the evil one (John 17:14-19). The preacher commended the work of the seminary, which is on a much smaller scale than the one he leads, commenting that faithfulness is measured not in numbers, but density. This particularly dense alumni is certainly grateful for that. 

An excellent buffet tea was served after the meeting. It was good to catch up with some old friends connected with the seminary. Hard to think that it's almost 30 years since I began my studies there. I was in my early 20s - around the same age then as my son is now. Spooky. 

If you are interested in training for the pastoral-preaching ministry that is biblical, theological, practical, contemporary and affordable, why not consider the London Seminary?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Democracy, the worst form of Government

For years to come pundits and political historians will discuss why the predicted Conservative landslide failed to materialise. Was it the unpopular Tory manifesto? The Brexit factor? The youth vote? Who knows? One thing’s for sure, you can never be sure what the Great British Electorate is going to decide. Not these days anyway. Now we have a weakened government that faces the huge challenge of negotiating our exit from the EU on the best possible terms.

Democracy, eh? Winston Churchill once rather gloomily mused, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Benign dictatorships usually end up malignant, corrupt and oppressive. The same goes for rule by a small group that cannot be held to account by the people they govern. Tony Benn suggested that five questions should be but to those in power: 1. What power have you got? 2. Where did you get it from? 3. In whose interests do you exercise it? 4. To whom are you accountable? 5. How can we get rid of you? Every system of government needs checks and balances to stop rulers abusing their powers. That is why in our system the government is held to account by parliament and is subject to the rule of law.

These checks and balances are necessary because as has been said, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. We might wonder why that is the case. Churchill gives us a clue in the words quoted earlier. We live in a ‘world of sin and woe’. Human beings have a destructive tendency to mess things up spectacularly. We daren’t give too much power to any individual because we are all sinners. That’s why ‘democracy is the worst form of government apart from all those other forms’.

Democracy can’t solve the problem of sin, it can merely help stop it getting out of hand. But of one it is written, ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’. 

* For White Horse News, News & Views & Holy Trinity Parish Magazine 

Thursday, June 08, 2017


Given a choice between the unelectable and the uninspiring the latter got my vote. Not so much 'things can only get better' as, 'could be worse'. Much worse. 'Red Tory' has it. 

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

A choice between the unelectable and the uninspiring

Image result for election 2017 uk
I don't know. In my political convictions I'm stuck somewhere between Red Tory and Blue Labour. Progressive when it comes to the state using its powers to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get on in life. But a social conservative when it comes to traditional marriage and the family, the importance of work, the need for society for have strong moral values, and so on. Big on the importance of free speech. Robust discussion of political, moral and religious matters are a Good Thing. I have little patience with factional identity politics. 

Not convinced at all by Corbyn's leftist tax & spend programme. Soft on defense. Cosying up to the IRA, Hamas, etc. Diane Abbot [get well soon]. Lib Dems need to suck up Brexit and move on. Leave we must. Remainers (like me) are just going to have to hope that we get the best possible deal on exiting the EU. Tim Farron has had a disastrous campaign. Ukip? Nope. 

But the Tories. What an uninspiring lot. 'Strong and stable' became 'weak and wobbly' when manifesto commitments subjected to scrutiny. The dementia tax debacle. There's a good argument to be made in favour of the policy. It's an improvement on the current situation where people have to sell their homes when still alive to fund their care, with only £23k protected. You could even say that it's progressive to get people with valuable properties to fund at least some of their own care costs. We brought nothing into this world and we can carry nothing out. Leaving 100k for middle class, middle aged kids to inherit isn't so bad. Personally, I'd prefer some kind of social insurance against care costs to spread the burden, but there we are. Pressure was applied and the PM buckled.

Security should have been May's strong point, having been Home Secretary for so long. She sounded impressive in the wake of the Manchester Arena and London Bridge attacks. But it's no good saying 'enough is enough' when you have been in personal charge of the nation's security. Especially as it seems clear that the terrorists involved in both atrocities were known to the authorities, but left at large to kill and maim at will. What's been going on under Theresa May's watch? Would we be any safer under Corbyn & co? Diane Abbot as Home Sec. Please.

On education, what we need is fairer funding for all schools that keeps pace with increasing pupil numbers. No additional Grammars. Under the Tories the education system is a messy hybrid. We have a mixture of LA die hards, Orphan Annie stand-alone academies [it's a hard knock life for them] and MATs in which schools are deprived of their autonomy while crazy money is awarded to CEOs. A mess.

I could moan on some more, but that'll do.

This election presents us with a choice between the unelectable and the uninspiring. 

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Voting Intentions

Image result for general election 2017
No, I'm not going to try and suggest who you should vote for on 8 June. 'That's a relief' you might respond, 'I wouldn't have taken any notice anyway.'  Fair enough. It isn't really the job of church leaders to meddle in party politics.

Elections, eh? Some people cast their votes tribally because theirs has always been a Tory/Labour/Lib Dem family. Couldn't think of voting any other way. Others take a more considered approach. They read the manifestos, watch the TV coverage and consider what the newspaper columnists have to say before making up their minds on who they would like to see running the country. Then there's the, 'don't vote, it only encourages them' brigade. Personally I just can't be bothered with that kind of apathy. 

After all, governments have the power to make a  difference in a whole range of areas that impact on our everyday lives. Defense and security, law and order, the economy, education, health, etc. And through the ballot box we the people get to have a say on who wields that power. 

That said, we shouldn't pin all our hopes for a better world on politicians. They are only human after all. Their grand plans and promises are often  overtaken by unforeseen events. Plans may need to be adjusted and sincerely made promises may prove impossible to keep. The Bible wisely warns us, “Do not put your trust in princes” (Psalm 146:3).

Only God is worthy of our total trust. He was willing to send his own Son, Jesus to die on the cross and be raised from the dead that we might be forgiven and enjoy new life. We can be sure that God’s plans will never fail and his promises will always hold good. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord... to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11). That gets my vote. 

* For June's Holy Trinity and News & Views  parish mags. 

Thursday, May 04, 2017


We wanted to see this in the cinema, but it wasn't mainstream enough for our local Odeon, so we had to wait until it was on the telly. A powerful film on the civil rights movement in 1960's America. At that time blacks in the Deep South were denied their constitutional right to vote by an obstructive voter registration system. The town of Selma was a case in point. British actor David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader masterminded peaceful protests in Selma with the aim of pressurising President L. B. Johnson into legislating to remove barriers to black people registering to vote. 

Fellow-Brit Tom Wilkinson plays the President. The clashes between MLK and LBJ are well done. The President explains that as a politician he has to be concerned about many things, while as an activist King is only focused on one thing. Johnson sympathises with the cause, but needs time. King wants urgent action. 

All the main parts are well acted, offering convincing portrayals of the characters involved. You'll wait in vain for Oyelowo's rendition of the 'I have a dream...' speech, as the King family denied the film makers the rights to make use of MLK's speeches. The sermons and speeches shown in the film have been cobbled together, but they seem to hit the right tone. 

Things turn nasty in Selma when black people attempt to stage a protest march from the town to Montgomery, the Alabama Sate capital. The road was blocked by police at the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The police charge the protesters, mercilessly beating unarmed men and women. A black man is shot in the clear up operation. King rallies people of all colours to the cause, especially inviting Christian Ministers to join a second march to Montgomery. 

King leads the marchers to within sight of the police line that once more blocked the road at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Rather than risking another confrontation, the preacher drops to his knees in prayer and then turns around, leading the protesters back into town. 

The act of preaching is rarely explored in Holywood movies, so it was interesting to hear the dialogue between two Ministers involved in the protest as they discussed King's actions. One of them complains that Dr. King had betrayed them. He called and they came, yet at the crucial moment he turned back. The other suggests that MLK's actions may have been instinctual, "like in preaching when you are just flying. You are not on your notes, not on memory, you're tapped into what's higher, what's true. God is guiding you....Maybe that's what happened to Dr. King on the bridge. He prayed, God answered, and he had the courage to do what God had said."  

On third attempt a protest march to Montgomery finally took place, winning much needed publicity for the cause. Publicity turned into political pressure and Johnson comes round in the end. His 'We will overcome' speech is a highlight of the film. The Voting Rights Acts was passed August 1965, paving the way for black votes without obstruction.

Like all films based on historical episodes this one doesn't let the facts get in the way of a good story. It's not a documentary after all, but the main message comes through clearly without it being too preachy (for a film about a preacher). All human beings are created equal. On that basis racism, whether  casual or institutional is a moral outrage and should be opposed by all people of good will.