Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas and New Year in Exile

Here's wishing all my readers (the statcounter assures me that there is at least one) a very happy and blessed Christmas and New Year! Thanks for dropping by during the last twelve months and for all your comments and e-mails.
After a break for the Christmas period, I'll be back with Series 3 of the Blogging in the name of the Lord interviews (Series 1 & 2). I'm inviting another seven top blogging theologians and preachers to grace the hot seat. Also, on Monday 7th January, I hope to publish an interview with David Gibson, co-editor with Daniel Strange of the forthcoming book, Engaging with Barth. So, make a new year's resolution to join me in Exile for some blog chat with the customary mix of theology, ministry and banter.
Coming soon....Blogging in the name of the Lord Series 3

Thursday, December 20, 2007

My 2007 Top Ten

2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade

Here's a list of stuff that I've especially enjoyed over the last twelve months:
1. Album: In Rainbows by Radiohead here
2. Biblical Doctrine: The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, An Assessment of the Reformation and the New Perspective on Paul, by Cornelis P. Venema, Banner of Truth Trust, 2006 here
3. Biography: The Man Who Went Into the West, The Life of R. S. Thomas, by Byron Rogers, Aurum, 2006 here
4. Christian Life: Free of Charge, giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace, by Miroslav Volf, Zondervan, 2005 here
5. Church History: 2000 Years of Christ's Power, Part One: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, by N. R. Needham, Grace Publications, 2002 revised edition here
6. Film: Amazing Grace here
7. Historical Theology: John Calvin's Ideas, by Paul Helm, Oxford, 2006 here
8. Popular Theology: The Hand of God, The Comfort of Having a Sovereign God, by Frederick S. Leahy, Banner of Truth Trust, 2006 here
9. Systematic Theology: Always Reforming, Explorations in Systematic Theology, edited by A. T. B. McGowan, IVP, 2006 here
10. TV: Spooks, Series 6, BBC here

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A David Sky Christmas Story

"Oi, oi you!" The Exiled Preacher looked up from the book that had absorbed his attention for the last three and a half hours and wondered at the strange voice. It seemed vaguely familiar, yet at the same time deeply unsettling, like the sound of haunted dreams. The preacher scanned the assorted bookshelves in his study, trying to find out where the sound was coming from. Suddenly a terrifying sight appeared before him. It was David Sky, Exiled's old pet monkey. The monkey had been banished to a dark corner of the room where only books by Karl Barth and Tom Wright are stored. But now, there was David Sky, bold as a brass monkey, sitting before Martyn Lloyd-Jones' sermons on Romans.

"Oi, you" repeated Sky, "haven't I been punished enough? After all it's Christmas time, a season of love and forgiveness. In that book you were reading by Miroslav Volf, it said that it's your Christian duty to offer people unconditional forgiveness whether they repent or not. Well, I haven't repented, so you have to forgive me!" Exiled Preacher sighed a very deep sigh. "But you are not a person, you are a stuffed monkey that came free with a box of tea bags. You have ruined my credibility as a serious blogger with your silly Sky's the Limit antics. Some people think that I'm really behind all that nonsense. I let you go to school with my daughter and you go and bite some kid. You are a wild animal and you don't deserve to be forgiven." David Sky thought long and hard before replying, "Look, so what. I'm fed up being consigned to the naughty corner. I need light and air. Just cut me a deal and and forgive me. It'll give you a warm spiritual glow. The experience could even make a good sermon illustration or at lest a half-decent children's talk. C'mon, you know it makes sense."

Exiled Preacher sighed again. Forgiving the creature would not be easy, but as Volf said.... "OK then, I'll forgive you. But to receive my forgiveness, you'll have to repent." David Sky shrugged his shoulders and said, "Yeah, I repent. Sorry, whatever. From now on I'll be a proper little angel." This got the preacher's mind working. "He wants light and air and he 's promised to be a little angel. I've got just the job for him this Christmas time....."

"Hey get me down!" Shouted David Sky. "I thought that monkeys liked climbing trees." Exiled quipped. Sky replied, "Yes, but I don't like heights - I'm a stuffed monkey." "You are now." Said the preacher gleefully, "Happy Christmas my little friend. Ho! Ho! Ho!"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Foundations Autumn 2007

Foundations: a journal of evangelical theology, 58, Autumn 2007, Affinity
In his editorial note, Kenneth Brownell tells us that this is his last issue as editor. I don't know at this stage who will be taking over the role. But thanks is due to Ken Brownell for his labours in editing Foundations over the years. I always look forward to receiving the journal every spring and autumn and this issue does not disappoint. It's a shame, as the outgoing editor reveals, that he has sometimes struggled to find articles of sufficient quality for this, the foremost theological journal for independent evangelical churches. Brownell contributes a useful Church History Literature Survey to this edition.
Robert Strivens, Principal elect of the London Theological Seminary has an article on The Evangelistic Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He comments that for "the Doctor", preaching was the primary means of evangelism. Many people tend to think that Lloyd-Jones was mainly a Bible teacher, with his famous expositions of Romans and Ephesians. But while at Westminster Chapel, he invariably preached evangelistically on Sunday evenings. These meetings were Lloyd-Jones' equivalent of a weekly evangelistic campaign. Church members brought their non-believing friends along to hear the gospel preached and many were converted. Lloyd-Jones worked hard to engage non-believers in his sermons, but not at the expense of gospel truth. He believed than the non-Christian must be brought to a sense of their sin in the presence of a holy God before he or she will cry out to the Lord for salvation. Strivens recognises the value of personal witness and Christianity Explored courses, but he argues passionately for a return to evangelistic preaching as the New Testament sanctioned method of outreach. This may not mean preaching evangelistically every Sunday evening as "the Doctor" did, but we need to remember that it is through the foolishness of preaching that God is pleased to save those who believe. We may no doubt feel totally inadequate for such a task. But this in itself should drive us to our knees to seek the blessing of the Spirit on the preaching of the gospel so that sinners are brought to salvation in Christ.
Dr Anthony McRoy is a lecturer on Islamic Studies at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, he writes on Faith of Constantine - Pagan Conspirator or Christian Emperor. His main goal is to refute a conspiracy theory perpetrated by Dan Brown in The Da vinci Code and Islamic apologists. It is suggested that Constantine was in point of fact a pagan who affected Christianity in order to corrupt the faith with pagan influences. The Council of Nicea, where the doctrine of the Trinity was defended and clarified is often cited as an example of Constantine's paganising policy. McRoy responds by setting out the evidence that Constantine was regarded as a Christian by other believers, by pagans and that he thought of himself as a follower of Jesus. When Constantine relocated from Rome to Constantinople, the city bore a distinctly Christian flavour in its architecture and public policy. All this is not to say that Constantine's conduct would be entirely acceptable to contemporary evangelical churches. But the evidence from all sides shows that he was far from being a underhanded pagan conspirator. As McRoy points out, whether it was right for the Church to get so close to the State under Constantine is a different matter altogether.
Evangelicals are often guilty of neglecting the riches of church history in the name of holding to the Bible alone. But Dr Nick Needham regards this as a serious failing. In his piece on Learning From Tradition, he argues that we need church historical consciousness to deliver us from narrow provincialism. Engaging with Christian tradition will broaden our perspective on the whole counsel of God. Evangelicals often tend to overlook the history of the early church and the middle ages. That is to our detriment, because the early church was especially preoccupied with the central question of Jesus' identity as God and man. In today's world, we cannot simply tell people to "come to Jesus", unless we explain to them who Jesus is. It is here that the great creeds and confessions of the early church can be of such help to us in our present situation. The Reformers did not reject church tradition altogether. They valued the Ecumenical Councils and the teaching of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux and others. These men did not accept tradition uncritically as was the tendency in the Roman Catholic church. But neither did they adopt the position of the Anabaptists who renounced tradition to read the Bible without the guidance of the church. One such Radical Reformer wrote scathingly of Ambrose and Augustine as "apostles of Antichrist". Sadly, Sebastian Frank developed a Modalist view of the Trinity and a Gnostic understanding of the incarnation. Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. I wonder whether the contemporary evangelical attitude towards tradition is more Anabaptist than Reformed. Today's evangelicals need to learn to value the wisdom of the past. As we do, we will be saved from many errors and have our theology enriched by engaging in the historical expression of the communion of the saints. Nick Needham has done some stirling work in making church history accessible with his ongoing series, 2000 Years of Christ's Power, Part One: The Age of the Early Church Fathers (2002 revised edition), Part Two: The Middle Ages (2000), Part Three Renaissance and Reformation (2004), Grace Publications.
The prodigious Dr Needham also contributes an in-depth review of Robert Letham's Though Western Eyes- Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective, Mentor Books, 2007. Letham has written appreciatively, yet not uncritically of Orthodox theology and spirituality. This book is certainly on my 2008 reading list.
I really enjoyed reading these stimulating articles and reviews. See here for subscription details.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The incarnate Christ and the identity of God

When God became man in Jesus Christ, he did not become other than himself. The incarnation was an act of self-expression not self-abnegation. The humiliation of the Son was not an artifice for the sake of the economy of redemption. The Son as man discloses the God, who by his very nature stoops to bear the sins of his enemies. We worship no other God than the Father whose Son was born of woman by the Holy Spirit.
"The point is that when we have to do with Jesus Christ we have to do with God. His presence in the world is identical with the existence of the humiliated, obedient, and lowly man, Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, the humiliation, lowliness, and obedience of Christ are essential in our conception of God." (Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity, In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, P&R, 2004, p. 397).

Friday, December 14, 2007

A proposal on Spirit empowered preaching

I've been giving this matter a fair bit of thought of late and here is my basic proposal:
The Spirit's empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His presence makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power.
"I am certain, as I have said several times before, that nothing but a return to this power of the Spirit on our preaching is going to avail us anything. This makes true preaching, and it is the greatest need of all today - never more so." (D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985, p. 325). I for one long to know more of what it means to preach with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Reading list for 2008

Here are some of the books that I'd like to read in the coming year. Several I've already started, some are sitting on my shelves demanding to be read, others are but a distant dream.
A Theology of Lordship: The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God & The Doctrine of God, by John Frame, P&R, 1987 & 2002, here, (got).
The Beauty of Holiness: The Book of Leviticus Simply Explained, by Philip Eveson, Evangelical Press, 2007, here, (started).
Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protetstant Revoluion, a history from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first, by Alister McGrath, SPCK, 2007, here, (got).
Dogmatics in Outline, by Karl Barth, SCM Press, 2001 edition, here.
Engaging with Barth, edited by David Gibson and Daniel Strange, IVP, January 2008, here.
Global Jihad: The Future in the Face of Militant Islam, by Patrick Sookhdeo, Isaac Publishing, 2007, here, (got).
Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, by John Webster, Cambridge University Press, 2003, here.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin, Eerdmans, 1983, here, (ongoing).
John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, by Carl Trueman, Ashgate, 2007, here.
Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution, by Steve Jeffry, Mike Ovey & Andrew Sach, IVP, 2007, here, (started).
Princeton Seminary vol 2 & 2, by David B. Calhoun, Banner of Truth, 1994 & 1996, here, (started).
Reformed Dogmatics volumes 1-3, by Herman Bavinck, Baker Academic, 2003, 2004, 2006, (here).
Spirit Empowered Preaching, by Arturo Azurdia III, Mentor, 2007, here.
Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy, a Reformed Perspective, by Robert Letham, Mentor, 2007 (here).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

John Calvin on pastor power

"Here is the supreme power with which pastors of the Church, by whatever name they are called, should be invested— namely, to dare all boldly for the word of God, compelling all the virtue, glory, wisdom, and rank of the world to yield and obey its majesty; to command all from the highest to the lowest, trusting to its power to build up the house of Christ and overthrow the house of Satan; to feed the sheep and chase away the wolves; to instruct and exhort the docile, to accuse, rebuke, and subdue the rebellious and petulant, to bind and loose; in fine, if need be, to fire and fulminate, but all in the word of God".
(Institutes of the Christian Religion Book 4:8:9 - here).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Some bad Christmas theology

There seems to be some misunderstanding in evangelical circles as to what happened when the Son of God became man at the birth of Jesus Christ. Often these misconceptions can be blamed on poor theology in some of our most cherished Christmas carols.
1) "He laid his glory by"
This line appears in carol after carol. But really? Certainly, Jesus came in appearance as a man. His glory was veiled as he came in the likeness of sinful flesh. But his glory as the Son shone as brightly as ever. What could it conceivably mean that Jesus as the Son of God "laid his glory by"? His glory is the full expression of his godhead. He could not abandon one iota of his glory without ceasing to be God. If he stopped being God at the incarnation, how could be be Immanuel, God with us? Besides, even as the incarnate Word, his glory was not exactly "laid by". Doesn't Scripture say that "the Word became flesh and we beheld his glory" (John 1:14)? If we sing carols that say, "He laid his glory by" let us think in terms of glory veiled, not abandoned.
2) "He left his throne and his kingly crown"
No he didn't. As the Son of God he continued to rule over creation and direct providence. He did not abdicate his role in the Lordship of the Trinity. On the other hand, Scripture tells us that he was born, "the king of the Jews" (Matthew 2:2). Jesus came to take a new, additional crown, rather than abandon one. Because of his enfleshment, holy life and sacrificial death, Jesus has been crowned King of kings and Lord of lords, "And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name" [emphasis added] (Phil 2:8-9). Jesus now exercises the crown rights of the Redeemer as well as Creator. As the world's true Lord and King, he will rescue the creation from the disastrous effects of sin and bring the created order back into subjection to God.
3) "Jesus became a human person"
You won't find that in any carols (thankfully!), but I have sometimes heard it said by well-meaning Christians. But Jesus didn't become a human person. What happened at the incarnation was that the person of the Son took human nature. If we say that the Son (as second person of the Trinity) became a human person, then Jesus is a combination of two persons. In that case, he has two identities and two centres of self-consciousness. But the Jesus revealed in the Gospels is one person; the Son, with a human nature. He may have two levels of consciousness - as the divine Son he knows all things, in his humanity he only knows some things. But in both his divine and human natures, he was conscious of only one personal identity - that of God's well beloved Son.
That's enough bad Christmas theology for now. Here is some good Christmas theology,
Behold the great Creator makes
himself a house of clay,
a robe of virgin flesh he takes
which he will wear for ay.

Hark, hark, the wise eternal Word,
like a weak infant cries!
In form of servant is the Lord,
and God in cradle lies.

This wonder struck the world amazed,
it shook the starry frame;
squadrons of spirits stood and gazed,
then down in troops they came.

Glad shepherds ran to view this sight;
a choir of angels sings,
and eastern sages with delight
adore this King of kings.

Join then all hearts that are not stone,
and all our voices prove,
to celebrate this holy One,
the God of peace and love.
Thomas Pestel (ca. 1586-1660)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Charles Hodge on Word and Spirit

I'm presently working on a paper on Word and Spirit in Preaching. I've been asked to address this subject at a minister's fraternal in the new year. One of my aims will be to show that we need to seek the Spirit's empowering presence in the proclamation of the gospel. I'll be drawing on Vanhoozer's emphasis on the Spirit's role in giving perlocutionary effect to the Word. In my research, I also looked up what Charles Hodge had to say. His treatment of this theme was outstanding.
In his Systematic Theology, Hodge devotes attention to the Word of God as a means of grace. He considers the question, “To what is the Power of the Word to be attributed?” Hodge first discusses the “rationalist” view that the Word is effective because of its own inherent moral power. This is dismissed because,

"The minds of men since the fall are not in a condition to receive the transforming and saving power of the truths of the Bible and therefore it is necessary, in order to render the Word of God an effectual means of salvation, that it should be attended by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit." (ST Vol. III p. 473)

Then Hodge engages with the Lutheran account of the relationship between Word and Spirit. Lutheran theologians taught that the Spirit is indissolubly united to the Word. He gives the Word its divine power and sends it forth among men. The is no variation of the Spirit’s operation in this respect, just as there is no variation of the Spirit’s work in providentially upholding and guiding secondary causes in providence. But the theologian objects,

"This doctrine is inconsistent with the constant representations of the Scriptures, which set forth the Spirit as attending the Word and giving it effect, sometimes more and sometimes less; working with and by the truth as He sees fit. It is inconsistent with the command to pray for the Spirit. Men are not accustomed to pray that God would give fire the power to burn or ice to cool. If the Spirit were always in mystical, indissoluble union with the Word, giving it inherent divine power, there would be no propriety in praying for his influence as the Apostles did, and as the Church in all ages has ever done, and continues to do.

This theory cuts us off from all intercourse with the Spirit and all dependence upon Him as a personal voluntary agent. He never comes; He never goes; He does not act at one time more than at another. He has imbued the Word with divine power, and sent it forth into the world. There his agency ends." (ST Vol. III, p. 482).

Charles Hodge asks,

"What according to the Lutheran theory is meant by being full of the Holy Ghost? or, by the indwelling of the Spirit? or, by the testimony of the Spirit? or, by the demonstration of the Spirit? or, by the unction of the Holy One which teaches all things? or, by the outpouring of the Spirit? In short, the whole Bible, and especially the evangelical history and the epistles of the New Testament, represents the Holy Spirit not as a power imprisoned in the truth, but as a personal, voluntary agent acting with the truth or without it, as He pleases. As such He has ever been regarded by the Church, and has ever exhibited himself in his dealings with the children of God." (ST Vol. III, p. 484).
I wonder if it's the case that many evangelicals, dare I say it particularly evangelical Anglicans, hold to a Lutheran rather than Reformed view of the relationship between Word and Spirit?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A comment on commentaries

Of making many commentaries there is no end
Evangelical publishers seem to be falling over themselves to publish Bible commentaries these days. All kinds of works are available from the scholarly New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Eerdmans) to the mid-range Welwyn Commentaries (Evangelical Press). IVP has at least four series on the go, the Tyndale Old and New Testament Commentaries, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, the Pillar Commentary Series and The Bible Speaks Today. The Banner of Truth Trust has reprinted some classic older works under the imprint, The Geneva Series of Commentaries and also has a popular level Let's Study range. When I was a lad, almost the only commentaries readily available were liberal scholar William Barclay's Daily Study Bible. So, in many ways, it is good that we have a variety of evangelical commentaries on the market. Preachers are often spoilt for choice when it comes to buying two or three commentaries for a series of sermons. (Reading more than two or three for sermon prep just gets confusing, for me anyway). The "ordinary Christian" will find a plethora non-technical studies that will help them get to grips with Scripture. No doubt each commentary has something distinctive to contribute to our understanding of the Bible. But there does seem to be a fair bit of duplication going on. Do we really need so many of the things? On the other hand, a blogger complaining about too much stuff being published - pot...kettle...black?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Opening up Jonah by Paul Mackrell


Opening up Jonah by Paul Mackrell, Day One Publications, 2007, 103 pp.
Jonah is one of those books of the Bible that we all know from childhood. The main thing that we remember is that the grumpy prophet was swallowed by a big fish. But as Paul Mackrell shows, the book is all about God’s big heart for the lost rather than a ginormous sea creature.

The writer has succeeded in opening up the essential message of this portion of the Word of God. His comments unpack the text with brevity and accuracy. He applies the lessons of the prophecy in a thoughtful and apt way. Mackrell does not hesitate to show us how the book points to “one greater than Jonah” – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Each chapter ends with points for further study and some questions for discussion, making this book ideal for group Bible studies. A brief list of additional resources suggests some other helpful materials on Jonah. If you thought that this “Minor Prophet” was just kid’s stuff, then read this refreshing, popular level commentary.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Evangelicalism: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good

1. Gospel centred
2. Bible based
3. Historic orthodoxy
4. Mission minded
5. Practical Christianity

The Bad

1. Fragmented
2. Legalistic
3. Faddish
4. Traditionalist
5. Church lite

The Ugly

1. Censorious
2. Hyper-critical
3. Anti-intellectual
4. Culturally disengaged
5. Divisive

Friday, November 30, 2007

The True Light of Christmas

This evening an expectant crowd of people, old and young will gather at Westbury High Street [Wiltshire]. Yes the great event of the year will have arrived. There will be stalls and rides and maybe even a visit from a certain man dressed all in red with a big white, fluffy beard. Yes, tonight’s the night when the Christmas lights will be switched on in Westbury. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 “Tada!” Suddenly the gloomy darkness that envelops the town of the White Horse will be punctuated by multicoloured Christmas lights depicting snow men and stuff. The excited townsfolk will gasp with astonishment, amazement and exceeding great joy. I’m sure that it will be a wonderful occasion and we certainly plan to be there.
Traditionally, Christmas is associated with the birth of Christ. Now maybe you think that I should be informed about such things, but I don’t really know whether or not Jesus was really born on 25th December. The truth is, nobody knows. However, I think it is appropriate that the Church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus in December, the darkest of months. In the last month of the year, which will soon be upon us, the days are short and the nights long. We look forward to spring time, when the days lengthen and we can enjoy more daylight.

Jesus brings the light of God’s love into our dark world. His name is Emmanuel meaning God with us. We might think that God is remote and unconcerned about the plight of humanity. But Christmas reminds us that God cares for us so much that he stooped to become one of us. In Jesus, God knows what it is to be human. He came to rescue us from the darkness of sin and suffering that shrouds our world.
The coming of Jesus Christ was described like this by Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist,
the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Jesus himself said,

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

Enjoy the Christmas lights that illuminate our streets at this time of the year. But do not forget the True Light of Christmas.
An edited version of Morning Thought from BBC Radio Wiltshire's Breakfast Programme. Sadly, the talk was not broadcast due to a phone line fault.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Grace

John Newton, author of Amazing Grace

Today I'd like to talk about a priceless gift that costs us nothing, but demands everything. We are often told that nothing is for nothing and that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I recently found this out to my cost. Radiohead released their latest album, In Rainbows in a rather unusual way. They allowed people to pay what they like to download the tracks. You could even get the songs for free! “Great” I thought. The trouble is that I liked the album so much that now I’ve began to invest in their back catalogue, which has cost me a few pounds. Ah well!
So, what is this priceless gift that costs us nothing, but demands everything? It is God’s free grace. Some people think that being a Christian is a matter of keeping the rules to earn a place in heaven. But nothing could be further from the truth. We cannot win God’s favour by our works because he demands perfection and that is quite beyond us. At the heart of the Christian gospel is grace – God’s lavish, underserved favour.
You may have seen the William Wilberforce biopic, Amazing Grace starring Iowan Gruffudd. The film features John Newton’s hymn of than name. Newton was a rough and ready slave trader who lived in sin and degradation for many years. But his life was transformed. He became a preacher and a leading opponent of the evils of slavery. What was it that changed his life? His famous hymn explains all,
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind but now I see.
What wonderful free grace! But grace is also priceless because it cost God dearly to be gracious to us. In the cross of Jesus Christ, God took upon himself the weight of human sin and suffering that we may experience forgiveness and hope. There is a song called Grace tucked almost at the end of U2’s All that you can’t leave behind. The track expresses the thought beautifully,
Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name
This priceless gift costs us nothing but demands everything,
Love so amazing, so divine
demands my soul, my life my all.
An edited version of Morning Thought from BBC Radio Wiltshire's Breakfast Programme. Note: I've also posted Monday's talk, which has been backdated to that day.

CCTV Society

I don’t consider myself to be that old, (although my children might disagree), but I can remember being able to go out in public without my every move being followed. No, I’m not getting paranoid and I haven’t been watching too many episodes of Spooks. The fact is that it is difficult for any of us to walk around the local shopping centre without our actions being captured by a CCTV camera. Apparently, some 4 million of the things are constantly scanning the streets of Britain. We have more than any other country in Europe.

George Orwell’s novel, 1984, painted a picture of a totalitarian state that kept its citizens under constant surveillance. Everywhere you looked you would be reminded that “Big brother is watching you”. Now, you might think that the people of this country would be alarmed at the rise of our very own Big Brother state. Isn’t it a bit intrusive to be watched as you buy your morning paper each day? But the strange thing is that lots of people find it comforting to be subject to the gaze of a CCTV lens. It means that someone is looking out for us. Criminal activity is reduced in streets where cameras have been installed. Some systems can even speak to people, “Oi you – pick up that litter!”

Perhaps we find living in a CCTV society reassuring because we have lost the sense that God is constantly watching over us. This is a challenging thought. Just as CCTV cameras expose the wrongdoing of criminals, the all seeing God will hold us to account for our actions. But he has acted to remove our wrongdoing from his sight. That is why Jesus came to die in our place. Those who believe in Jesus Christ are adopted into God’s family. The Christian calls the great Creator “Father”. It is wonderful to know that God our Father is looking out for us at all times of the day and night. An impersonal CCTV camera is a poor God-substitute. One of my favourite Psalms is number 139, where David, revels in the knowledge that his life is lived under the loving gaze of God,

O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain it.
The biblical vision is not so much “Big Brother is watching you” as “God, my heavenly Father is watching over me.”
An edited version of Morning Thought from BBC Radio Wiltshire's Breakfast Programme.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

True Tolerance

Tolerance is a virtue that we rightly prize. In an intolerant society, all dissent and disagreement would be suppressed and free speech undermined. But I think that there has been a subtle shift in the meaning of tolerance in the last 20 years or so. It used to be the case that tolerance was all about enabling people who disagreed about truth to live in harmony. Mr Jones thought that he was right and Mr Smith was wrong and Mr Smith believed that he was right and Mr Jones was wrong. They had an honest disagreement. But they would not fall out over this. With a little bit of tolerance, they could still remain friends. Nowadays there is a tendency to say that when it comes to religion and morality, there is no such thing as truth - it is just a matter of what is "right for me". In that case the views of both Mr Smith and Mr Jones are equally valid. Tolerance has now become acceptance of the thought that it is virtually impossible to know what is right and wrong. We do not like exclusive claims to truth and while we may rightly tolerate people of all faiths and none, we will not tolerate anyone who says that theirs is the true faith. Not too long ago, Prince Charles said that he wanted to be called Defender of Faith rather than Defender of the Faith when he becomes king. Sounds very tolerant, doesn’t it? But all faiths have competing truth claims. They cannot all be right.

The modern (or postmodern) idea is that all religions point to the same mysterious spiritual reality. The choice of one faith over another is not about truth, but personal preference. Anyone who suggests otherwise is sadly dismissed as a dangerous fundamentalist and a menace to society. Such people are not to be tolerated. But surely there is a contradiction here, isn’t there? Are we saying that the only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth? Hmm.

Tolerance means coping with real differences over what constitutes truth, rather than pretending that all views are equally well-founded. As a Christian I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him the world’s true Lord and Saviour. This is an exclusive stance. Only Jesus can bring us to God and give us eternal life. But Christianity is compatible with tolerance because we do not believe in imposing our faith upon others. All we have at our disposal is the compelling power of gospel truth. You may disagree with my beliefs and I with yours. But that should not stop us living harmoniously together in society. Now that is true tolerance.
An edited version of Morning Thought from BBC Radio Wiltshire's Breakfast Programme.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Morning Thought

It takes a very special being to be up at this time of the day [6.50am], listening to Morning Thought. They say that the early bird catches the worm. But do birds pause each morning for a bit ofdeep and meaningful thinking? They may be able fly through the air. But do their minds soar to consider what life’s all about? Hardly, give them a nice, juicy worm and they are happy.

Some animals are much faster and stronger than us. Cheetahs can run up to 70 mph. An elephant can lift half a tonne. But we human beings have something that makes us unique - we think. Only people can reason things out and express their thoughts in words. That is why you are such a special being as you listen to Morning Thought – you are a human being! Like animals, we need to eat and drink to survive. But surely, there’s more to life than that. From ancient times, the human mind has probed the great mysteries of the universe. As the eminent scientist Paul Davies wrote,

"We human beings have been made privy to the deepest workings of the universe. Other animals observe the same natural phenomena as we do, but alone among the creatures on this planet, Homo sapiens can also explain them".
(The Goldilocks Enigma, Penguin Books, 2007, p. 5).

But there is a limit to what we can explain by reason alone. Why are we here? Why do we have the ability to even think about such a question? The Christian answer is that God made human beings to have a relationship with himself. That is why he has given us the unique capacity to think and speak as we do. It has been said that man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. As a Christian, knowing God gives my life meaning and purpose.

It is possible for flawed human beings like us to have a meaningful relationship with our Maker? Yes it is. God loves us. He has acted to remove the barrier that stops us having fellowship with him. Jesus Christ came to bring us back to God by dying for our sin and rising again from the dead. God offers us forgiveness and a new start in life. But he doesn’t bully us unto accepting this offer. He says, “Let’s talk about it”,

Come now, and let us reason together,”
Says the LORD,

“ Though your sins are like scarlet,
They shall be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They shall be as wool.
(Isaiah 1:18)
Now, that’s something to think about!

An edited version of Morning Thought from BBC Radio Wiltshire's Breakfast Programme.

Bioethics: Stem Cells

Stem cell technology has the potential to change the face of medicine. Using stem cells, it may be possible to repair damaged or diseased organs. The benefits could be huge. But Christians have long opposed "therapeutic cloning", in which stem cells are harvested from artificially created human embryos. The embryos are discarded once their stem cells have been extracted. This process is ethically problematic because human life is being treated as a disposable commodity - a means to an end. The Bible insists that human beings are to be treated with dignity as God's image bearers from womb to tomb. This does not mean that Christians are opposed to stem cell research per se. It has long been recognised that stem cells can be obtained from milk teeth, the umbilical cord and human skin. Just recently cells culled from adult skin were manipulated to create beating heart tissue (see here). Professor Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly the cloned sheep has said that he will now abandon embryonic stem cell research. He has not come to this decision primarily for ethical reasons, but because he recognises the success of experiments on adult stem cells (see here).
It has often been said the Christians with their bioethical concerns over embryonic stem cells are standing in the way of progress. Advocates of on embryonic stem cell research have sometimes resorted to emotional blackmail, suggesting that those who oppose such work are preventing scientists from finding possible cures for Parkinson's disease, heart disease and so on. But the evidence now seems to suggest that advances may be made in stem cell research that do not entail treating human life as a medical resource. It is amazing that the Creator has so constituted the human body that we each carry our own personal repair kits in the form of stem cells. Truly we are fearfully and wonderfully made. See here for the website of John Ling, a top UK bioethicist.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Knights of the Lord's Table

The competent apologist is one who witnesses to the intellectual and existential integrity of the gospel, the extraordinary message that the triune God has enabled sinners, through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to share in the divine life. It is not irrational to accept testimony, especially the compelling testimony of a life well lived. Those who speak the truth in love will find themselves not only proclaiming the passion narrative but in a sense performing it; for all who bear witness to the truth of God's wisdom - a wisdom at odds with the wisdom of this world - must be prepared to endure opposition. Knights of the Lord's Table seek to live well and, if necessary to die well in a demonstration of the wisdom of the cross. They are less conquerors than sufferers for the truth.
In the final analysis, the best apologetic is the whole people of God speaking and acting as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, arguing, living, and dying as wise witnesses to the way, the truth and the life.
Kevin Vanhoozer, Theology and apologetics, in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, IVP, 2006, p. 43.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Patrick Sookhdeo on The Challenge of Islam

Christians car-bombed in Iraq

Yesterday evening, we hosted a Barnabas Fund meeting. The speaker was Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, the Fund's director. His theme was The Challenge of Islam. Dr. Sookhdeo is a Christian convert from Islam and an expert on Islamic teaching. Here is a report of what he had to say.
1. The challenge of Islam to society
Patrick drew attention to a recent EU policy speech by David Milliband, the UK Foreign Secretary. Milliband predicted that by 2030 Europe will be struggling with forces beyond its own borders and facing the danger of religious extremism [read Islamic extremism] creating divisions on its own doorstep. Milliband's solution to the challenge of Islam is to allow Turkey to join the EU. But of this were to happen, Europe would by 47% Islamic by 2020. With the growth of Islam in the EU, non Muslims would be reduced to second class dhimmi status in their own countries. Islam is not simply a religion with spiritual goals. It aims at socio-political domination. In Islamic teaching, God rules the world by his law. There are the laws of nature and the Shari'a - or religious laws that govern the whole of life. Already UK governments have acted to allow Shari'a laws the affect pension and mortgage provision, education and prison foods. If further accommodations are made, life could become difficult for non-Muslims in Muslim dominated areas of the UK.
2. The challenge of Islam to the church
Churches that imbibed Liberal theology are slowly fading away. For example, it is predicted that membership of the United Reformed Church will fall by 62% by 2030. Britain has become a post-Christian, secular society where pluralism and consumerism reigns. Liberal theology, emptied out of biblical truth has nothing to offer. Islam, with its absolutist claims is filling the vacuum that was left by the decline of "Christian Britain". Muslims know what they believe, but many church leaders offer an uncertain vision. If the church is to have a future in the UK, we must return to biblical truth and hold to the historic Christian teachings on the Person of Christ and the Trinity. Also we need to recover a properly biblical eschatology that is focused on the return of the Jesus Christ as Saviour and judge. In Islamic eschatology Jesus will return and convert the world to Islam. We must boldly preach that when Jesus comes, he will vindicate the suffering Christian church and hold opponets of the gospel to account. On that day, all people, Muslims included will have to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Only the robustly biblical theology of the Reformation will give the churches the doctrinal clarity and spiritual fortitude to rise to the challenge of Islam. Dr. Sookhdeo reminded us that while we may oppose the Islamic faith, we must treat Muslims with love and respect. But it is simply not right to say with some misguided churchmen, that triune God of the gospel is the same as Allah. Our task is to share the good news of Jesus with Muslim people.
3. The challenge to the church in the of Islamic world
Christians in the Middle East find themselves caught between Islam and the West. They are accused by their Muslim neighbours of siding with the West against Islam. Many Christians in Iraq have had to flee the country. There are now 400,000 Christian refugees in Syria. Believers are sent death threats by text and letter. They are warned that they must either conform to Islam and live under Shari'a law or die. Three Christian women were beheaded for refusing to wear the hijab. Under Saddam Hussein, believers were part of the Iraqi middle class, with many Christian Doctors. But now the Christian community suffers deprivation and poverty. Many who can afford to leave the country have done so. Christians are offered little protection by the authorities. A fourteen year old boy was crucified in Basra, where UK forces are at work.
The Barnabas Fund seeks to channel aid to suffering Christians, especially in Islamic countries. See here for details of the Save Iraqi Christians campaign. The Fund also helps to equip the churches to face the challenge of Islam. See here for a major new book, Global Jihad: The Future in the Face of Militant Islam by Patrick Sookhdeo. Please pray for the work of the Barnabas Fund. Visit their website to find out more about their mission. Should we not stand with the 1 in 10 Christians around the world who suffer for Jesus' sake?
"Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith." (Galatians 6:10)
"But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 John 3:17)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Phil Arthur on the Puritan Family

At Monday's Minister's Fraternal in Honiton, Devon, we had Phil Arthur speak to us on Puritan family life. He gave us a vivid picture of the Puritan view of marriage and child rearing through the eyes of a fictional couple, Richard and Abigail Adams. The Adam's family lived in Bedworthshire, England. We catch a glimpse the newly-weds in the early 1640's prior to the turbulent years of the Civil War.
1. Husbands and wives
In medieval Christendom, marriage was regarded as a second best option for those who wished to take their faith seriously. But the Puritans recaptured the Bible's healthy and positive teaching on married life. For them, marriage could be a stimulus rather than a stumblingblock in the quest for godliness. In the Catholic view, marriage was a necessary evil for the procreation of the human race. But the Puritans stressed that God has ordained marriage for the loving companionship of husband and wife, procreation and the prevention of sexual immorality, in that order. Puritan preachers devoted a lot of attention to the marriage relationship, focusing especially on Ephesians 5:22-6:4. Richard Adam's uncle bought him a copy of William Gouge's great tome, Domestical Duties as a wedding present. Gouge gave directions for conducting family worship and offered lots of practical advice on coping the stresses and strains of married life. Contrary to their caricature, the Puritans were not at all repressed and embarrassed by sexual intimacy in marriage. They positively reveled in marital love and Gouge urged couples not to deny one another the pleasures of the marriage bed. One of their favourite texts was Proverbs 5:18-19. Puritan preachers were against sexual immorality, not sex in itself. Indeed, a Puritan wife in New England reported her husband to their pastor for neglecting his "duties" in this regard. When the man still refused to sleep with his wife, the matter was brought before the whole church, who excommunicated him! Abigail Adams was glad that Protestant teaching elevated her from being little better than a baby factory. In the Puritan vision she was her husband's beloved and honoured companion. While the Puritans stressed male headship in the home, they taught that the husband should exercise his responsibilities with tenderness and grace.
2. Parents and children
Richard and Abigail were blessed with their first child, whom they named Richard in honour of his father. The lad was fortunate as the Puritans has a penchant for quirkily biblical names like Praise-God, Barabbas and Pharaoh. Puritan teaching regarded abortion as murder. Children were to be cherished as gifts from God and nurtured in godliness. Teachers like Gouge had no illusions about the innate goodness of children. They are born in sin and need discipline and correction. The Puritans knew the wisdom of the biblical injunction, "spare the rod and spoil the child". Children were to be educated and fitted for a useful calling, whether academic or practical according to aptitude. The great aim of Christian parenting was to bring children to trust in the Redeemer. Puritan families would meet daily for times of Bible reading, prayer and instruction. The father was a prophet who taught his family the Word of God, a priest who prayed for them and a king who ruled his own household well. The mother was to guide the home and care for her children. In a very modern touch, Gouge argued that mother's breast is best and discouraged the use of wet nurses.
3. Masters and servants
Wealthier Puritan households kept domestic servants. These were to be treated fairly and with respect by their masters. The domestics were to offer loyal service to their masters. All was to be done in accordance with the biblical teaching in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 6.
The paper concluded with Abigail being awoken to breast feed little Richard one cold December night. Her husband arose from his bed to place a blanket around his wife and their baby. "I love thee, my lass!" said Richard, "And I love thee too!" responded the tired, yet happy and contented young mum.
4. Discussion
Perhaps we have taken the traditional nuclear family for granted. We would to well to recapture the Puritan vision of marriage as an ennobling and liberating institution. Their Scriptural understanding of marriage is much to be preferred to today's casual attitude to adult relationships. We need to get rid of feminist inspired suspicion of marriage and work out a truly biblical pattern of godly family life. Of course, we should not try to ape the Puritans who developed their teaching in the context of a highly stratified and deferential society. We would not expect a wife to curtsy to her husband or a husband to bow in reverence to his wife. We don't have to worry about the servants overhearing our intimate conversations. But contemporary believers have much to learn from the Puritan's wise and practical teaching on marriage. In chatting to Phil after the meeting, I suggested that he develop the fictional Adams family into an historical novel. I hope he will.
Phil Arthur originally gave his paper on Puritan Family Life at the 1997 Westminster Conference. Drop me an e-mail for more details.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Holiness by John Webster

Holiness, John Webster, 2003, SCM Press

In this remarkable book, John Webster attempts to develop a dogmatic theology of holiness. Webster is an academic theologian with a special interest in Karl Barth. But he does not view theology as a merely "academic" exercise. Theology is a work of human reason that has been sanctified by God and that is subject to the revelatory presence of the Holy Trinity as set forth in Holy Scripture. Webster insists that the theologian needs to undertake this venture with prayerful dependence of the Holy Spirit in the context of the communion of the saints. The grand objective of theology is the sanctification of God's holy Name. Webster disagrees with some modern theologians who seek discern the meaning of holiness by a study of religious phenomenon of "the sacred". We can only understand the holy God, who is Father, Son and Spirit as he brings us into saving fellowship with himself by an act of free mercy. The writer offers a compelling vision of the task of theology,
"Theology is an office in the Church. When Church and theology are shaped into holiness by the gospel, then the work of theology is one to which the theologian is called and appointed and for which the theologian is equipped, in order to undertake a particular task. Theology is not free thought or speech, if by 'free' we mean unattached to any given set of objects or any given sphere of inquiry. Theology is not free speech but holy speech. It is set apart for and bound to its object - that is the gospel - and to the fellowship of the saints in which the gospel is heard as divine judgement and consolation - that is, the Church." (p. 2)
We are to view God's holiness in relational terms. The triune God is holy in himself. His attributes including holiness are a true revelation of the being of God. But his holiness is revealed to us in the acts of creation and redemption. The Father elected human beings for fellowship with himself. The Son has rescued humanity from sin by his atoning work. The Spirit perfects the work of redemption by sanctifying sinners and bringing them into fellowship with God. Webster is clear that God does not set aside his majestic holiness in the event of our salvation. It is as the Holy One that the Lord acts to overcome our unholiness to reconcile us with himself. But what of God's holiness in relation to those who remain in their sin? To such, the holy God is a "consuming fire". The theologian does not comment on this aspect of the subject, choosing to emphasise God's holiness in salvation rather than in judgement. But if an account of holiness is to follow the contours of Holy Scripture, then something should be said about God's holy and eternal wrath against unrepentant sinners.
The doctrine of God's holiness should not be separated from the doctrine of the church because the holy God has acted to sanctify a people for himself. However, Webster is careful to guard against social trinitarianism, which tends to blur the distinction between God's intertrinitarian life and the life of the church. He rightly prefers to discuss God's relationship with his people in terms of the doctrine of election. The church exists because the Father has chosen and gathered a holy people to himself. This is a work of free grace accomplished by the Son and enacted by the Spirit. The church does not possess an innate holiness. Hers is an alien holiness bestowed upon her and maintained by God's sanctifying grace,
"The church is holy; but it is holy, not by virtue of some ontological participation in the divine holiness, but by virtue of its calling by God, its reception of the divine benefits, and the obedience of faith." (p. 57).
The church exists to confess God's own holiness. She does this as she hears and responds to the promise and commands of the gospel. The church's holiness becomes visible when she confesses her sin and asks God for mercy. The holiness of the church is missional. She bears witness to the world in word and deed, "the dynamic of holiness includes not only gathering and withdrawal but also sending." (p. 74). The holiness of the church is expressed as she prays, 'Hallowed be thy name!' "Praise is the great act of rebellion against sin, the great repudiation of our wicked refusal to acknowledge God to be the Lord." (p. 76). This consideration of the holiness of the church - the people of God - is a welcome corrective to privatised versions of holiness and spirituality.
But where does all this leave the holiness of the individual Christian? The theologian devotes the last of his four chapters to this subject. Here is his basic proposition,
"The sanctification of the Christian is the work of the Holy Trinity in which the reconciled sinner is renewed for the active life of holy fellowship with God. Grounded in the electing, reconciling and perfecting work of Father, Son and Spirit, the active life of holy fellowship is the work of faith, which is at every moment characterised by mortification and vivification, and which is actual as freedom, obedience and love." (p. 78-79, italics original)
As Webster expounds this proposition phrase by phrase, he develops a theology of the Christian life of holiness. The holy life is not a matter of autonomous self-actualisation. That would be a denial of our creaturely dependence upon God. The writer draws on Calvin's teaching on 'double grace' at this point. God not only reconciles us to himself and acquits us from guilt, he also transforms us for holy action. The goal of our election is that we should be holy, (Ephesians 1:4). Holiness is evangelical sanctification - a holiness that has been declared by the gospel and is received in faith. But holiness is not only declared in the gospel, it is also commanded by the gospel. The believer has been united to Christ in his death and resurrection. The pattern of the Christian life is that of mortification and vivification. Through the Spirit, sin is put to death and holiness brought to life. The life of holiness is an expression of true Christian freedom. We are free not for self-realisation, but to obey the law of God and walk in his ways.
The theologian draws on the teaching of Barth here and there. His influence can perhaps be discerned in Webster's teaching on election as "the separation of humankind as a holy people" (p. 48). Does this mean all humankind? He does not spell out what he means in detail. But there are many good things here. The writer has given us a well argued and attractive account of Christian holiness. Webster's theology is deeply trinitarian and is full of textual exegesis and biblical reflection. He helpfully draws upon the theological insights of John Calvin, John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. This study enriches our understanding of the holy God of the gospel. Here is a work of 'holy reason' that is of great practical value both to the church and individual believer.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Jesus wept

"He groaned in in spirit and was troubled...Jesus wept." (John 11:33 & 35)
It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy, the devil. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin's words, "as a champion who prepares for conflict." The raising of Lazarus thus becomes not an isolated marvel, but - as indeed it is presented throughout the whole narrative (compare especially, verses 24-26) - a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus' conquest of death and hell. What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites on our behalf. He has saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression, and under the impulse of these feeling has wrought out our redemption.
B. B. Warfield, The Emotional Life of our Lord, p. 177, in The Person and Work of Christ, P&R
Who is he that stands and weeps
at the grave where Lazarus sleeps?
'Tis the Lord! O wondrous story!
'tis the Lord, the King of glory!
at his feet we humbly fall;
crown him, crown him Lord of all!
Benjamin Russell Hanby (1833-67

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Worldliness

Worldliness isn't what it used to be, at least not when it comes to popular evangelical piety. Once upon a time, worldliness could be defined very simply by a list of prohibitions: No cinema, no smoking, no alcohol and no popular music. So, shun films, fags, booze and pop, and you will be blissfully free of worldliness. Simple isn't it? Well, not quite. We must define worldliness biblically and theologically before we reflect on how we may avoid it. When the Bible speaks about "the world" or worldliness, it does not do so in terms of a series of taboos. In biblical terminology, "the world" means life in this present evil age. It is humanity existing in a state of rebellion against God, subject to the slavery of sin and the power of the devil. In this sense, "the world" is the product of the fall and is the object of God's just wrath (See 2 Corinthains 4:3 & 4, Ephesians 2:1-3, 1 John 5:19). This world will be destroyed when Christ comes to rid the creation of evil and make all things new.

How do Christians stand in relation to the world? Well, by his death and resurrection, Christ has condemned this world and its ruler - the devil (John 12:31 & 31). He has overcome the world (John 16:33). In Christ, the kingdom of God's saving righteousness has been inaugurated. The days of this present evil age are numbered. Believers may live in the world, but they are not of the world. Because they no longer belong to the world, the world hates them (John 17:15 & 16, 15:18 & 19). The world may be hostile to the child of God, but by faith the believer is able to overcome the world (1 John 5:4 & 5). Does this mean that the world holds no allure for the Christian? Not quite. The child of God is still a sinner. There is something in our natures that finds the world enticing and attractive. Hence the warning,
"Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever". (1 John 2:15-17)
Are we to say that to avoid worldliness, the believer must withdraw from engagement with the cultural and social life in the world? No, for the arts and culture are an expression of the creative gifts that God has given to humanity in his common grace. While some aspects of art and culture may be so debased by sin that Christians should avoid them, there are many good things that we may enjoy. Going to the cinema, listening to classical or contemporary music and so on are not intrinsically worldly. But we can be worldly in our religion if we are not careful. If we look down on other believers as "worldly" because, for example, they drink alcohol, is that not a symptom of "the pride of life"? If we lust after a reputation for theological greatness, is that not worldly? Worldliness can be very subtle and we do ourselves no favours when we reduce such a complex thing to a simple set of rules.
So, what is the antidote to worldliness? It is the love of the Father. He so loved this world of worldly sinners that he sent his Son to save us from the world (John 3:16). The gospel, not a set of taboos will enable us to resist worldliness. Paul begins and concludes Galatians on this note,
"Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that he might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen." (1:3-5).
"But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (6:14)
We have been delivered from this present evil age by the death of Christ. In him, the world is crucified to us and us to the world. Our concern is not for the lust of the flesh, or the pride of life. We are dead to all that. Now we will boast not in our own achievements or religious superiority, but in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who believe that Jesus, the crucified one is the Son of God will overcome the world. They will love God and keep his commandments.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Raising Children God's Way by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Raising Children God’s Way, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Banner of Truth Trust, 2007, 85pp.
One of the major social concerns in our day is that of unruly, disrespectful children. Some youngsters are pampered and spoilt. They think that they can get away with anything and resent discipline. Others have been neglected by parents who put their career ambitions before family life. The politicians and child care experts do not seem to have any real solutions to the problem of bad behaviour in children. Here, in five sermons on Ephesians 6:1-4, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones sets forth God’s way of raising children. These sermons were originally preached in the 1960’s, but they are strikingly fresh and contemporary.
Being a parent is a huge, God-given joy and privilege. But parenting skills do not come in a free information pack when babies are born. That would be nice, but it doesn't happen. Christian parents need biblical instruction on how to raise their children in the best possible way. The Scriptural teaching has to be understood and applied. Lloyd-Jones brings out the Bible’s wise and balanced approach to child rearing. Parents are to discipline their children, but not in a harsh, “Victorian” manner. The Christian home is to be a place of love, where the Bible is applied to the whole of life. Children need to be nurtured and encouraged as well as corrected.

These sermons are deeply practical and applicatory. Christian parents will find lots of helpful teaching from Lloyd-Jones on principles to follow and pitfalls to avoid. At a time when many are tuning in to TV programmes like “Supernanny” for parenting advice, we need to recapture the Christian view of raising children. These expositions from “The Doctor” will help us to do just that. All Christian parents from new mums and dads to those coping with the stresses and strains of bringing up teenagers will benefit from Raising Children God’s Way. The publishers are to be congratulated for making this material available in such a handy format.
(Originally published in Life in the Spirit in Marriage, Home & Work: An Exposition of Ephesians 5:18 to 6:9, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, 1974, Banner of Truth Trust).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Blogging and the future of theology

"It is to be feared that the democratisation of the theological process (every blogger now demands the right to have centre stage and equal validity) destabilises serious theological engagement. The church's affirmation of its 'tradition' becomes engagement with last week's posting." (Derek Thomas here).
In response to Derek Thomas' recent remarks, here are some thoughts on theology blogging,
1. The bloghood of all believers
It is true that you don't have to be a theology professor or even a pastor to start as blog. Anyone can have a go. Blogging is democratic rather than elitist. Does this mean that all blogs are equally valid or useful? Hardly. Some bloggers don't seem to realise that it is best not to post on things that they know nothing or very little about. But blogging can be a means of facilitating the communion of the saints as believers from all over the world share their thoughts for discussion and reflection.
2. Centre stage?
Only a mighty Aussie theoblogger like Ben Myers or evangelical uberblogger Adrain Warnock can hope dominate the theoblogmatic stage. I think that the rest of us (apart from a few megalomaniacs) are simply content to engage in the drama of blogging in a modest, but (hopefully) meaningful way.
3. Serious engagement?
Theology blogging may sometimes be little better than an opinionated slanging match. Ignorance is pooled and tempers get frayed, but nothing good happens. That is a bad thing. But this need not be the case. There is some seriously serious theological engagement going on out there in the blog-land. I would venture to argue that many people have been theologically enriched by blogging. Views have been tested, new aspects of truth glimpsed and books read that otherwise would have been missed. The act of writing up posts on a regular basis helps to sharpen thought about theological matters. At its best, blogging can enhance and invigorate rather than destabilise the theological process. If you don't think that the blogosphere is the place for serious theological engagement, see here and here.
4. Engaging with tradition
Of course, blogging is a fast-moving medium where the focus of attention shifts from day to day. But there are a number of blogs that are devoted to engaging with tradition in a lively and helpful way, notably here and here.
5. Theoblogging is here to stay (until something else comes along)
The medium is now pretty well established with an almost discernible "community" of serious theology bloggers. Google being the blog-friendly search engine that it is, regularly sends theological enquiries to blogs. Even some of my older posts attract daily Google referrals. This phenomenon isn't going to go away, so we had better learn to live with it. By creating a means of sharing information and facilitating theological discussion, blogging may even have a positive contribition to make to the future of theology as a global enterprise.
6. Derek Thomas is a blogger
Yes, tell it not in Gath, but Professor Derek W. H. Thomas himself has been known to blog over at Reformation 21!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Always Reforming by A.T.B. McGowan (ed)

Always Reforming, Explorations in Systematic Theology,
Edited by A.T.B. McGowan, IVP Apollos, 2006
Reformed theology should be reforming theology, but this has not always been the case. The Reformed tradition has sometimes been guilty of defensive traditionalism. This results in a failure to respond to new challenges to the faith. Tired old nostrums are repeated, but there is little evidence of fresh, biblical thinking. This book attempts to reassert the principle of semper reformanda - always reforming. Ten leading Reformed Theologians were given the task of reflecting on key areas of systematic theology. Some devote attention to matters of methodology, others discuss important biblical doctrines. Andrew McGowan's introduction sets the scene for the book with a passionate argument for semper reformanda.
The whole discipline of systematic theology has been called into question of late. So, it is good that several chapters are devoted to methodological issues. On this front, Stephen Williams has piece on Observations on the Future of System. He draws on Charles Simeon's proposals in an attempt to argue for a broad-based approach to theology that may help to break down the old Arminian/Calvinist divide. Kevin Vanhoozer's On the Very Idea of a Theological System offers a much more radical and innovative approach to doing systematics. After surveying several different options, he argues that theodramatic triangulation is the way forward. As in his The Drama of Doctrine, the writer proposes that doctrine should enable the people of God to perform their roles in the drama of redemption. To do this, theology must triangulate the authoritative Scriptures, the church and the world. All this is very good, but I am still not clear what a Vanhoozer authored systematics would look like. Would he work his way through the classic loci of systematics from the Doctrine of God to Eschatology theodramatically or what? I don't know (neither does he - yet. See this interview). Richard Gamble's chapter is on The Relationship Between Biblical and Systematic Theology. He seems to think that systematic theology should transmute into biblical theology, leaving little room for the systematics as traditionally conceived. But this would be a serious loss to theological reflection. Systematic theology views Scriptural revelation as a finished product, which may be studied logically and comprehensively. Biblical theology concentrates on the unfolding process of biblical revelation. We need both perspectives if we are to develop a rigorous and coherent understanding of the "whole counsel of God". John Murray's proposals on the interrelationship of the two disciplines are much more helpful (here).
The essays on key doctrines showcase Reformed systematics at its best. Doctrines are explored with biblical insight and a fine grasp of the current state of scholarship. The writers make suggestions for future reflection and study. Gerald Bray helpfully charts the way ahead for the doctrine of the Trinity. Robert Reymond devotes attention to Person of Christ. He argues convincingly for Christ's eternal sonship. The theologian sets forth a Calvinistic understanding of the Son as autotheos. Andrew McGowan brings biblical light to bear on the the controversy surrounding penal substitution in his chapter on the atonement. Henri Blocher's essay on the relationship between the old and new covenants is full of fresh insights. The book is worth buying for this contribution alone. As a Baptist I found his proposals on the continuity and discontinuity of the covenants especially enlightening. Richard Gaffin draws upon the teaching of Calvin and John Murray in his chapter union with Christ. He argues that union with Christ rather than the ordo salutis should take centre stage in Reformed soteriology. Very true. Cornelis Venema gives attention to justification by faith in relation to ecumenism and the new perspective. Those not familiar with his The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, will find a useful summary of his arguments here. Finally, Derek Thomas concludes with a chapter on the doctrine of the church. We should give more attention to ecclesiology and seek to work out a biblical doctrine of the church and her worship. Notwithstanding his Presbyterianism and some cheeky remarks on theology blogging, this was a helpful reminder that if God is our Father, the church is our mother. She exists to nurture us in the faith and hold us in Christ. Reformed systematic theology would do well to take account of the proposals mapped out in these essays. One lacunae was the failure to include some dogmatic reflection on the resurrection of Christ.
As one who has sometimes expressed concerns about the failure of Reformed theology to engage with contemporary issues (here), I found this book most refreshing and helpful. It was good to see several writers make use of John Murray's far reaching proposals for systematics. One enjoyable feature of the book is the interaction between some of the authors. Gamble has a little dig at John Frame, who responds in his Preface. Also in the preface, Frame seems to accuse fellow triangulator Kevin Vanhoozer of having an overcomplicated hermeneutic. I recommend this lively book at all who are interested in the future of Reformed systematic theology. What we need now is a full-length systematic theology that is both Reformed and reforming. Semper reformanda!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Let us worship God

Part of a minster's task is to lead the public worship of God on the Lord's Day and preach the Word in that context. Here are some thoughts on leading worship. I include a suggested order of service with some comments along the way.
1. Call to Worship
Do not begin a service by saying "Good morning everybody!" In the call to worship you are summoning the church to worship and glorify their God. You are a minister of the gospel, not a primary school teacher greeting class 1B. Some preachers quote a few well chosen Scripture verses at this point, which can be helpful. I simply say, "Let us worship God, let's all pray..."
2. Opening Prayer
In this brief prayer offer worship to God and ask for his blessing upon the meeting. Do not ask him to be present. The Lord is always present among his people, as the church by definition is the "dwelling place of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22). The church only meets because God has taken the initiative to gather his people together to worship him. Pray for his presence to be made known and evident. But be careful what you are asking for. The free God of majestic love and awesome holiness may reveal himself in unexpected ways. Include a petition for forgiveness and cleansing from sin as you address the holy Father in the name of the Son.
3. First Hymn
Singing is an important aspect of publish worship, but it should not dominate the whole service. We would do well to remember that the New Testament epistles only mention singing twice (Ephesians 5:18-20 & Colossians 3:16). What is sung first should be a hymn or psalm that sets forth the grandeur and glory of God rather than a subjective type of hymn. This will remind the congregation that the meeting is all about him. I always try to sing at least one Psalm per service on a Sunday as I think that it is important to use the Bible's own book of praise. Many believers think that the doctrine Trinity is a rather abstract theological proposition. But God's self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit should be fundamental to distinctly Christian worship. Singing explicitly trinitarian hymns will help to embed the doctrine of the Trinity in the minds and hearts of the worshippers. But more than that, should we not offer praise to our glorious Triune God?
4. Announcements and Offering
These can include a few words of welcome as well as the church activities for the week. I think that is best to take an offering during the service rather than have a retiring offering. The former makes the offering very much part of the worship rather than something done on the way out of the building. A short "offertory prayer" commending the gifts to God should follow the offering.
5. Scripture Reading
Make this a reasonably lengthy passage, not just the few verses or paragraph that will be the subject of preaching. If you are preaching a "one off" sermon, then read the whole chapter in which your verses are set (unless the chapter is very long!). If you are preaching a series of sermons on a chapter, read an associated passage of Scripture that will tie in with your message. When Paul said to Timothy "give yourself to reading" (1 Timothy 4:13) - he meant to reading the Bible in public worship, not the act of private study. Announce the chapter and verses that you will be reading, and say, "Let us hear the Word of God", before reading the passage meaningfully. You should say "Let us" not "Shall we", because you are leading the people to do what God has commanded, not making a suggestion.
6. Second Hymn
This hymn may be more subjective or experimental, expressing the worshipper's experience of God in response to the reading of his Word. God has spoken to us, we respond by singing to him of what we have heard and felt. This makes worship a living dialogue between God and his people. Choosing hymns or psalms that fit in with the reading and message will help to give the service coherence and meaning. As well as some older hymns, I usually try to pick at least a contemporary number or two. The hymns of Watts, Wesley and others remind us that the church of today is not a creature of the moment, but part of the historic people of God. Singing centuries old hymns is a historical expression of the communion of the saints. Selecting contemporary hymns helps to save the church from being locked in a cultural backwater and acknowledges that the Spirit is still at work among the people of God today.
7. Main Prayer
This should not be too short, or two long. Around 5-10 minutes of praise, petition and confession will be sufficient. Never pray using "I". You are leading the people in prayer, so always say, "we". Meditating on the Psalms, 1 Kings 8 and Paul's prayers will help to bring Scriptural content and variety into your public prayers.
8. Third Hymn
This will be sung in the anticipation of the preaching of the Word. Choose a hymn or psalm that will lead into the message. Some preachers give a little introduction to each hymn. I don't do this. Most hymns are self-explanatory, so why bother? Just give the number and read the first line or two. "Let us sing hymn number 12, In heavenly love abiding". Cut the waffle and sing!
9. The Preaching of the Word
I'm not going to say much about the act of preaching here. (See the "Preaching" label below for more thoughts on this). Suffice to say that it is good to announce your text clearly right at the start of the message. Doing this shows that you are preaching the Word. If you don't do so, the people will wonder what you are going on about until you mention the passage that you are preaching from. The preaching of the Word of God to the people of God in the presence of God should be the high point of worship. Don't allow other aspects of the service to drag on so that there is little time left for preaching. "Preach the word!" (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
10. Fourth Hymn
This should enable the worshippers to respond appropriately to the ministry of the Word of God in song.
11. Benediction
Briefly close in prayer, Calvin's prayers at the end of his sermons are a good model. Finally, pronounce the benediction. This is not a pious wish, but an affirmation of faith. The triune God will be with his people as they depart. Look carefully at the benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14. It is addressed to "you" not "us". It is a declaration, not a prayer. And it does not end, "for evermore Amen", just "Amen". The "forevermore" bit is a Cranmerism. Cut it out.