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.

The Future of Justification by John Piper


This newly published book by John Piper, The Future of Justification, A Response to N. T. Wright, is now available for free from the Desiring God website, here.
These are Piper's words from the introduction,
"My little earthly life is too far spent to care much about the ego gratification of scoring points in debate. I am still a sinner depending on Christ for my righteousness before God. So I am quite capable of fear and pride. But I do hope that, where I have made mistakes, I will be willing to admit it. There are far greater things at stake than my fickle sense of gratification or regret. Among these greater things are the faithful preaching of the gospel, the care of guilt-ridden souls, the spiritual power of sacrificial deeds of love, the root of humble Christian political and social engagement, and the courage of Christian missions to confront all the religions of the world with the supremacy of Christ as the only way to escape the wrath to come. When the gospel itself is distorted or blurred, everything else is eventually affected. May the Lord give us help in these days to see the word of his grace with clarity, and savor it with humble and holy zeal, and spread it without partiality so that millions may believe and be saved, to the praise of the glory of God’s grace".

Friday, November 09, 2007

Blogging and the democratisation 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 W.H. Thomas in Always Reforming, A.T.B. McGowan ed., IVP Apollos, 2006, p. 339).
Maybe the man has a point. But have I just made things worse by blogging on his remarks?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

John Calvin on the resurrection of the body (6)

The Intermediate State
Calvin devoted a lot of time to thinking about the soul and its properties. His first major piece of writing was Psycopannychia - on the immortality of the soul. But when he gave his attention to eschatology in the Institutes, (Book III, Chapter XXV), he kept his interest in the soul within bounds, devoting greater attention to the resurrection of the body. This is not to say that he failed to reflect on what will happen to the soul of the believer between death and the resurrection. (All quotes from III:XXV:6)
1. The Intermediate State
Calvin was concerned to address the idea that on death, the whole man perishes. In that case, the soul as well as the body would only rise again at the resurrection. The Reformer was not exactly keen on this proposal, which he described as, "a wicked curiosity". For Calvin, this was to "convert a spirit formed after the image of God, into an evanescent breath, which animates the body only during this fading life, and to reduce the temple of the Holy Spirit to nothing". In Calvin's construction, the soul is no mere life force. It is, "that part of ourselves in which the divinity is most Refulgent and the marks of immortality conspicuous." Its is the soul that distinguishes human beings from the lower animals.
Calvin quotes a number of Scriptures to show that the soul lives on after the death of the body,
"Thus Peter, in reference to his approaching death, says, “Knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle,” (2 Pet. 1:14). Paul, again, speaking of believers, after saying, “If our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God,” adds, “Whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord,” (2 Cor. 5:1, 6). Did not the soul survive the body, how could it be present with the Lord on being separated from the body?"
He also appeals to the communion of the saints and the promise of Christ to the dying thief,
But an Apostle removes all doubt when he says that we go “to the spirits of just men made perfect,” (Heb. 12:23); by these words meaning, that we are associated with the holy patriarchs, who, even when dead, cultivate the same piety, so that we cannot be the members of Christ unless we unite with them. And did not the soul, when unclothed from the body, retain its essence, and be capable of beatific glory, our Savior would not have said to the thief, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43).
But Calvin does not wish to speculate about the intermediate state,
"Moreover, to pry curiously into their intermediate state is neither lawful nor expedient. Many greatly torment themselves with discussing what place they occupy, and whether or not they already enjoy celestial glory. It is foolish and rash to inquire into hidden things, farther than God permits us to know. Scripture, after telling that Christ is present with them, and receives them into paradise (John 12:32), and that they are comforted, while the souls of the reprobate suffer the torments which they have merited goes no farther. What teacher or doctor will reveal to us what God has concealed?"
It is "futile and inept" to inqure concerning the abode of the departed spirits of the godly as the dimension of the soul is not the same as the body. Calvin is admirably restrained in his account of the final state. He does not attempt to pry into that which is not revealed in Scripture. What we do know is that after death, the soul of the believer will live in the presence of Christ. Where the Reformer may be criticized is in his insistence that the human soul as distinct from the body is God's image bearer. Scripture simply does not recognise such a dichotomy. The image does not belong to one component of man's makeup. We are told that man as a complete psychosomatic unity was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28). The soul and body are separable at death. But it is sin that caused this tragic anomaly. Also, as pointed out in a previous post in this series, in biblical terminology, the word "immortal" is never attributed to the human soul alone. When used of human beings, it always refers to the final, resurrected state (1 Corinthians 15:53&54). But we can agree with Calvin, that what Scripture says about the intermediate state is not given to foster unhealthy speculation. These things have been revealed to sustain believers in the face of death,
"Trusting to these clear proofs, let us doubt not, after the example of our Savior, to commend our spirits to God when we come to die, or after the example of Stephen, to commit ourselves to the protection of Christ, who, with good reason, is called “The Shepherd and Bishop” of our souls (Acts 7:59; 1 Pet. 2:25)."
2. The Final State
Despite his strong, almost Platonic emphasis on the "immortality of the soul", Calvin realised that the final state of the elect will not be disembodied bliss. He points us beyond death to the final resurrection hope that will be ushered in when Christ returns,
"Still, since Scripture uniformly enjoins us to look with expectation to the advent of Christ, and delays the crown of glory till that period, let us be contented with the limits divinely prescribed to us—viz. that the souls of the righteous, after their warfare is ended, obtain blessed rest where in joy they wait for the fruition of promised glory, and that thus the final result is suspended till Christ the Redeemer appear".

In popular evangelical eschatology, it is often the case that the intermediate state is given greater attention than the final resurrection state. Just look at a standard hymn book and you will probably find many more hymns on going to heaven after death than on resurrection glory. But the intermediate state is just that; intermediate. It is not final or ultimate. Calvin's eschatology, as it unfolds in the Institutes helps us to redress the balance. He rightly focused almost all his attention on the resurrection of the body. In doing so, Calvin captured the overwhelming emphasis of Scripture. Yes, Christians will go to heaven when they die, but after death, we shall be raised immortal and made like our glorious, risen Lord Jesus.

The Westminster Larger Catechism gives a helpful summary of the biblical teaching,

Question 86: What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death?

Answer: The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls. Whereas the souls of the wicked are at their death cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, and their bodies kept in their graves, as in their prisons, till the resurrection and judgment of the great day.

In the next post in this series, we will look at what Calvin has to say on the resurrection of the wicked.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The beauty of the Lord

Stourhead
As I write, I can see something of the beauty of creation through my study window. The sky is clear blue, with traces of thin, white cloud. Some of the trees that envelop our housing estate are still lush with bright green leaves, while others are slowly turning into their autumn shades of red and brown. Soft sunshine bathes the tops of the garden hedges with a warm glow. It's a beautiful sight. And that's just the view from my window, as I peer over a row of books and my computer screen to gaze at the outside world. If instead of sitting here, working at this article, I was walking around Stourhead Gardens, then the sight would be even more impressive. Right now, I can imagine the lake lit up by the autumn sun and the trees in all their multicoloured glory. What a beautiful world we live in!

But there is nothing necessary about the beauty of the world. Things sometimes function very efficiently without being especially beautiful. The street light I can see out of my window isn't great to look at compared with a lovely old oak tree, but it illuminates our street pretty effectively at night. The beauty that we encounter every day is a sign of the Creator's loving generosity. He does not want us simply to exist in the most efficient way possible, he made us to live. He created us with the capacity to enjoy the world that he made for his glory and our pleasure. "But" you might say, "there is also much ugliness in the world." Yes, that is true. Rainforests are devastated, rivers and seas polluted. Some people have to live in soulless, graffiti strewn "concrete jungles" rather than pretty Wiltshire villages. Not to mention the moral ugliness that often confronts us - the ugliness of greed, hatred and selfishness. This reminds me of the old expression, "as ugly as sin". Sin, rebellion against the God of beauty has brought ugliness into our world.

How can we recapture true beauty? Not by conforming to the idealised images of human perfection that we find in the fashion magazines. We can't all be supermodels. Even if we could, through the marvels of plastic surgery, that would not make us truly beautiful people. As the saying goes, that kind of beauty is only "skin deep". True beauty comes from knowing the God of beauty. If you want an example of a beautiful life, don't look at the latest Hollywood heartthrob. Consider Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I don't mean look at a picture of him, because we don't know what he looked like. But think about the life he lived. Jesus shows us the beauty of love, grace and truth. In an act of unimaginable beauty, he laid down his life for his friends, dying on the Cross for us. Jesus embraced the ugliness of our sin so that by trusting in him, we might be forgiven and made whole. God raised his Son from the dead. His body that was flogged, crucified and disfigured was glorified. In Jesus, true beauty is restored. Those who believe in him will be made like him. "May the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us" (Psalm 90:17).
First printed in News & Views parish magazine.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Engaging with Barth

BOOK PROMOTION

Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques
David Gibson & Daniel Strange (eds.)
(Nottingham: Apollos, January 2008)
ISBN: 978-1-84474-245-5

Engaging with Barth Website

From the publisher:

Karl Barth’s theological legacy provides both opportunity and challenge for historic, confessional evangelicalism. While there are now numerous excellent studies highlighting the value of Barth’s theology, often receiving it with ringing endorsement, there are fewer more cautionary or critical responses.

This volume engages critically and courteously with Barth on a range of vital topics where, for the contributors, his interpretation of Scripture, reading of church history, and confession of Christian doctrine are unsatisfactory. This engagement is offered as a positive contribution to the wider programme of constructive theological reflection that seeks to articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ in and for the contemporary world, in the conviction that the ‘pattern of sound teaching’ (2 Timothy 1:13) really matters.

Evangelical reception of Barth's theology takes a step forward in this well-informed collection. These are articulate, confident appraisals which take Barth seriously enough to press him hard on what the authors consider his divergences from the classical Reformed tradition. Whether correct in their judgements or not, these essays warrant careful thought from those concerned for theology's orientation to the gospel.
John Webster
University of Aberdeen

Karl Barth was the most dominant theologian of the twentieth century, at once brilliant and baffling, majestic and frustrating. His influence, though, has scarcely waned. That is why this book is important. What we have here are some of the best essays I have read on Barth. They combine sure-footed knowledge of his ideas with critical insight into what those ideas mean. They are appreciative but also tough-minded and this combination is rare today. I commend this book highly.
David F. Wells
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

The house that Karl Barth built continues to loom large in the neighbourhood of evangelical theology. The authors of Engaging with Barth are not content to admire it from the outside but survey it from within, carefully moving from room to room, noting both positive and negative features. They do a particularly good job examining the structural integrity (read “orthodoxy”) of Barth’s house, detecting here and there both worrying cracks and uneven surfaces. At the end of the day, they neither raze nor condemn the dwelling, but offer a fair and sober assessment that is invaluable for potential buyers - even for those thinking of staying only overnight.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Looks like getting hold of this book will be my first New Year's resolution.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Ten things on theodramatic preaching

1. Kevin Vanhoozer has proposed that theology is best viewed in terms of theodrama, "The gospel is "theo-dramatic" - a series of divine entrances and exits, especially as these pertain to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The gospel - both the Christ event and the canon that communicates it - thus appears as the climactic moment in the Trinitarian economy of divine self-communicative action. Theology responds and corresponds to God's prior word and deed; accordingly theology itself is part of the theodramatic action." (The Drama of Doctrine, p. 31). This post is a thought experiment that attempts to view preaching in theodramatic terms.
2. Theodramatic preaching is evangelistic. It will seek to incorporate sinners into the drama of redemption by heralding the good news of Jesus and demanding repentance, faith and obedience in response to the gospel.
3. Theodramatic preaching will enable the people of God to play their roles in the drama of redemption. It will equip church is to stage the theodrama by acting out gospel in a way that is faithful to the authoritative biblical script and appropriate to the contemporary setting.
4. The task of preaching is not simply to derive "timeless principles" from the raw data Scripture as a Scientist would extract theoretical propositions from nature. This approach "dedramatises" biblical principles and propositions by removing them from the dramatic action of Scripture. Theodramatic preaching sees the Bible not as a text book, but the God-given script that the church is called to inhabit and enact. Biblical doctrines certainly embody transcultural truth, that is relevant for all time. But doctrine should not be reduced to a set of abstracted "timeless principles". Doctrine is performative. Its purpose is to direct the people of God to embody gospel life in particular historical and cultural locations.
5. A theodramatic approach to preaching recognises that the Bible gives us God's authoritative "speech acts". Speech act theory teaches us that words are not just words. We do things by speaking. With the exchange of words we enter into a marriage relationship. With words we may insult people or encourage them. Words do things, they are "speech acts". In terms of speech act theory, God's words in Scripture are the biblical locutions. These locutions - or units of speech have an illocutionary purpose. God does things by his words - he enters into a covenant relationship with his people, makes promises, utters warnings or issues commands. By the Spirit these illucutions are given a perlocutionary power. They actually effect something. Promises are believed, warnings heeded and commands obeyed. Theodramatic preaching will seek to discover and proclaim God's communicative action in Scripture. God's Word is not just "words". Once proclaimed, the Word of the Lord will not return to him void, but accomplish what he pleases (Isaiah 55:11).
6. The redemptive-historical school of preaching seeks to locate particular texts within the grand sweep of the drama of Scriptural revelation. This approach has value because texts not understood in isolation from biblical metanarratives. But redemptive-historical preaching sometimes has difficulty with the exemplary and practical nature of biblical revelation. The effect of this is that preaching may become little more than an exercise in biblical theology. This may inform believer's minds. But does it help them to perform their roles in the drama of redemption? A theodramatic approach to preaching will bridge the gap between redemptive-historical metanarratives and the Bible's exemplary and practical teaching. It is in the light of what God has done in Christ as revealed in Scripture - the theodrama - that believers are to model their lives on the biblical examples and obey the Lord's commands. This certainly reflects the structure of many of the New Testament epistles, where a doctrinal opening section is often followed by practical exhortation (see Ephesians & Colossians). Theodramatic preaching will give weight to both the indicatives and the imperatives of Scripture.
7. Theodramatic preaching will reflect the polyphonic variety of Scripture because it takes biblical genres seriously. We should recognise that biblical revelation includes the form as well as the content of of Scripture. God has not given us a textbook of abstract, timeless propositions. In the Bible we have narrative, poetry, prophecy, proverbs and epistles. These all disclose God's eternal truth in distinct ways. There is harmony and coherence in the biblical symphony of revelation. But the harmony consists of the contribution that the differing genres make to the whole. Messages based on biblical narratives will preach those narratives not simply extract timeless propositions from the narrative and preach on them. The shape of the narrative will affect the shape of the sermon. The principles in the text will flow naturally from Scripture through preacher to congregation. I once heard a preacher comment on another man's sermon, "I listened to 'so and so' preaching on David and Goliath - he mentioned it once." No doubt the preacher derived some neat, timeless principles from the text, but did he capture the richness of God's communicative action in 1 Samuel 17?
8. Theodramatic preaching will attempt to triangulate Scripture, the church and the world. The Bible is our authoritative script, but we must not see the Scripture in isolation from the church. Scripture is not given to be exegeted in academic isolation, but to be performed by the people of God. Throughout history the Spirit has enabled the church to understand and enact Scripture. The preacher will not interpret the Bible idiosyncratically, much less heretically. He will bring Scripture into conversation with the riches of the church's creedal inheritance. The wise preacher will also engage with biblical commentators old and new in an attempt to explore the meaning of the text. But once the meaning of Scripture has been prayerfully discovered, this must be brought to bear upon the local church at it exists in the world (its current social and historical setting). The aim of preaching is not to force to today's church to replicate the historical and cultural world of the first, or seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries. The ministry of the Word will apply the ancient text of Scripture to the church as she exists now. We must perform the drama of redemption in our 21st century world. The preacher will help the people of God to respond to the challenges of the contemporary world in a way that is faithful to Scripture and meaningful in present day society. This will involve triangulating the Scriptures, the church and the world. Paul did this when he brought biblical principles to bear on the cultural situation in ancient Corinth (1 Corinthians 8-10). He demonstrated that to faithfully perform the gospel in their setting, the Corinthian believers had to abstain from idolatrous feasts. We will need to do something similar as we grapple with the collapse of Christian morality in the West, postmodernism, consumerism and so on.
9. The act of preaching will itself be theodramatic. The task of preaching is not simply to give doctrinal instruction to the church, but to enable the people of God to understand and feel the truth of Scripture in order to practice it. Preaching will not be a lecture. It will be a living engagement between the preacher and the congregation. The preacher is to think and feel his way into the text so that his preaching becomes a living performance of the message. This does not mean that the preacher "play acts" his sermon. He must reflectively apply the sermon to himself before he preaches it to others. The preacher will be dramatically involved in the proclamation of the gospel. He will think it, feel it, live it. How can a man preach effectively on the love of God at Calvary if he has no theological understanding of the cross as an atoning sacrifice? How can he preach the sufferings of Christ without being emotionally involved? As Bunyan once put it, "I preached what I smartingly did feel." How can a man preach a message of forgiving love unless his life is shaped by the gospel? Preaching should be an enactment of the theodrama - a revelatory event where God's Word is proclaimed to his people in the transforming power of the Spirit.
10. Theodramatic preaching will consciously depend upon the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to speak God's Word - to enunciate his locutions and illocutions. If preaching is to do anything, the Holy Spirit must be at work both in the preacher and the congregation. This is why the New Testament does not see preaching simply in terms of an accurate declaration of the truth, but a Holy Spirit empowered event (1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 1 Thessalonians 1:5, 1 Peter 1:12). Kevin Vanhoozer comments, "What God ultimately communicates in his crucified Word is the reality of salvation itself: a share in the divine life. And yet, this intended effect - fellowship with God through union with Christ - is not an automatic consequence of God's utterance. Not all communicative acts are received for what they are. So, the Word accomplished something on the cross (makes atonement for sin; declares pardon); this is the illocutionary aspect. Yet it does not really communicate salvation until and unless it is received and appropriated by the hearer [the perlocutionary aspect]. The Spirit's role is to minister Christ, to make what God is saying and doing in the cross effective. " (The Drama of Doctrine, WJK, 2005, p. 66).
I believe that reconfiguring preaching in terms of theodramatics may ensure that the proclamation of the Word is an activity that helps to produce churches that exist to perform the gospel.
"The world is filled with therapists and managers. What the church needs now is people who can (1) articulate from the Bible the truth about God, the world, and ourselves in terms that are faithful to the Bible and intelligible in the contemporary context (2) exhort their congregations to say and do things that corresponds to the truth of Jesus Christ as attested in the Bible". (Kevin Vanhoozer in an interview on this blog here).