Saturday, May 31, 2008

Visit to the Big Pit

On Friday we met up with my sister and her family and went to the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Blaenavon. It must have been more than 20 years ago since my last visit. I had wanted to take the kids to the Big Pit for ages. Their great grandparents were both coal miners, so mining is part of our family history.
When the Blaenavon mine stopped working in the early 80's, it became Wales' National Coal Museum, with old miners acting as tour guides. All the guides and workers at the pit are still ex-miners, although only two used to work at the Big Pit. One of them is John, our guide for what was meant to be a 50 minute tour of the old mine workings. But before going underground, we were equipped with hard hats, miner's lamps and emergency gas masks. All "contraband" had to be surrendered before entering the cage lift in which we would descend 300 feet (90 meters) into the old mine. "Contraband" included all smoking materials and anything fitted with a dry battery. We had to leave our 21st century gadgets behind before entering the historic mine. All cameras, mobile phones, digital watches and car keys had to be surrendered. Below ground lurks the ever present danger of methane gas that could be ignited by the smallest spark. My daughter gripped my hand tightly as we entered the cage and began our journey into the dark depths of the earth.
In all there are 26 miles of tunnels in the mine and we only explored a small part of the workings. But what we saw was enough to give us a glimpse into the tough and dangerous world of the coal miner. John, our guide was a real character. There was no doubt that he was in charge as he led us into the inner workings of the Big Pit. The old miner was a real working class hero, full of information and friendly banter. Woe betide any member of the tour party who had the temerity to ask a stupid question! At one point John told us to switch off our helmet lights. The darkness could almost be felt. You could not see your hand in front of your face. Eyes could never adjust to such utter blackness. Small boys used to work ten hour shifts in that darkness, opening and shutting doors as they heard pit ponies approaching. Here and there I spotted rusting, disused drams, the kind of which were filled with "black gold" and hauled to the mineshaft by the ponies.
We were shown the stables, still replete with the old horse's names, "Thunder", "Hercules" etc. When the mines were nationalised in the 1940's, the hard working ponies were given two weeks to scamper above ground when the pits closed for "Miner's Fortnight". These days, we tend to think of nationalised industries as inefficient monopolies. Many of them were in the 1970's & 80's. But when the mines were nationalised, miner's safety, pay and conditions were vastly improved. John led us through a seemingly endless series of passageways. We saw old conveyor belts, heaped with coal dust, frozen in time since they stopped transporting coal into drams ready for the journey to the surface.
Our "50 minute tour" complete, the party ascended to the ground level. We had been underground foe an hour and a half . One of the surface workers joked that they were going to send out a search party for us. But we had not suffered a collapsed tunnel, or methane gas explosion. It was just that time had passed so quickly without our digital watches, that we didn't realise the minutes were ticking away relentlessly above ground. It was John who made the tour so enjoyable. In him we had an authentic human guide, sparking with ready wit and full of insider knowledge. You don't get that with one of those automated "press button 7 for commentary" audio guides. The banter between John and his mates was a reminder of the time when the pit was alive with workmen, whose lives depended on each other during the hours they spent cutting coal from the seams that still glimmered in the mine.
After the underground tour came an opportunity to explore the museum's above ground features including the dramatic Mining Galleries and the excellent Pit Head Baths Exhibitions. With the decline of the Welsh mining industry in the 1980's it is difficult to imagine the time when coal was king. But Welsh coking coal powered the British Empire and Welsh anthracite burned brightly in the hearths of most British homes. In 1901, 18 million tonnes of Welsh coal, amounting to 46% of UK output was exported overseas. In the 1970's a miner's strike brought the country to its knees. Industry was reduced to working a three day week to conserve coal stocks. Electricity supplies (mostly generated by coal) were were cut, plunging homes into darkness. I still remember our house being lit by candles during the period. But the days of King Coal were numbered. In 1985, Arthur Scargill led the miners on strike in an endeavour to halt the closure of a limited number of unprofitable collieries. The strike was a failure. Most of the Welsh coalmines were closed and with them a way of life perished for ever.
Or did it? Someone in our tour party asked John if rising oil prices would mean a return to coal. Our guide pointed out that a hundred years worth of "black gold" still lay undisturbed in the Welsh coalfield. Who knows if men will once more risk life and limb to keep the home fires burning? Many ex-miners bitterly regretted the closure of the pits, meaning an end to the camaraderie that is born of shared danger. But others were relived that their sons would not have to follow them into the darkness. Will we see a new generation of Welshmen called into the service of old King Coal? That remains to be seen.
The role of the Christian faith in Welsh mining communities was highlighted in the exhibition. An old family Bible and photos of huge chapels were among the items on display. The money in miners pockets helped to fund the building of many Nonconformist Chapels. The 1904-05 Revival was given a mention. It is said that during the revival, the colliers held prayer meetings deep underground. Such was the change in the conduct of the men who worked with pit ponies that the poor animals were left confused. They were used to being sworn at and treated harshly. But the newly converted colliers treated the ponies with a new gentleness and care.
I highly recommend a visit to the Big Pit. Our visit was informative, engaging and deeply moving. The men who worked underground were honoured but not sentimentalised. My grandfather, Vernon Llewelyn Davies, a miner in Risca pit was one of them.
Like all Welsh museums, the Big Pit is FREE!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Christianity's Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath

Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution,
a history from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first,
by Alister McGrath, Harper Collins (USA) and SPCK (UK), 2007.
In this book Alister McGrath attempts to tell the story of Protestantism from its beginnings in the sixteenth century right up to the present day. The author does this with his customary verve, wit and style. Although readers may disagree with McGrath's analysis at some important points, it is difficult not to admire the sheer scope of this ambitious project. Not content with giving us a gripping narrative of Protestant history, the writer also dons the mantle of prophet to suggest the possible future of Protestantism.
So, what is "Christianity's dangerous idea"? It is the Protestant instance that each individual believer has the right to interpret the Bible. This enabled early Reformation thinkers to critically examine the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in the light of Scripture. Take sacramental theology. For Protestants, it was not enough that the institutional Church held that there are seven sacraments. If the Bible acknowledged only two, namely the Lord's Supper and Baptism, then that was it. The other supposed sacraments such as penance and extreme unction were bogus and had to be abandoned. Who gave the Pope the authority to add to the plain teaching of Scripture anyway?

In many ways "Christianity's dangerous idea" was empowering and liberating. The Bible was wrested from the ecclesiastical authorities and given back to the ordinary Christian. But having rejected the authority of the Pope, Protestants were faced with a new problem. Who would now decide which interpretations of Scripture were right? Protestantism very quickly mutated into several Protestantisms. Many sided with Luther's original vision, others were won over by the more developed theology of John Calvin. Some argued for an even more radical Reformation. They rejected infant baptism as unbiblical and questioned the value of the historic Creeds of the Church. For them Scripture alone, meant the rejection of the past in favour of contemporary readings of the Bible. The situation was complicated by the fact that the Reformation tended to spread territorially. Local princelings expected their subjects to adopt their chosen brand of Protestantism. The Reformation movement was soon fragmented both theologically and territorially. Protestants could be relied upon to unite against their common enemy, Roman Catholicism. But they also eyed one another with suspicion. At Marburg Colloquy Protestants from the Lutheran and Reformed wings met to settle their differences. But any hopes of pan-Reformation unity were dashed by Luther's intransigence. He demanded that all parties accept his doctrine of Christ's bodily presence in the sacraments or consubstantiation.
The Protestant commitment to the right of all Christians to interpret Scripture was both its best asset and potentially its biggest liability. On the plus side, Protestants have been willing to test their own beliefs by the standard of Scripture. The Reformers tended to view the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28 as limited to the ministry of the apostles. Calvin sent many missionaries into his native France. But the Reformers seemed to show of little interest in cross-cultural mission. That view was challenged by William Carey and others in the 18th century. They taught that the "Great Commission" applied for all time. This fresh understanding of Scripture led to a flowering of interest in world wide mission. On the minus side, the Protestant insistence on the right of every believer to interpret the Bible has proved to be highly divisive. Protestantism has often been guilty of needless schism. Believers have separated from each other over matters of biblical interpretation that do not affect the integrity of the gospel.
However, the Protestant insistence on the right of private interpretation, the "dangerous idea" was not, as McGrath seems to suggest, a recipe for anything goes. There were safeguards. The Reformers insisted that the Bible be read responsibly in accordance with its plain and obvious meaning. Calvin was a master of the art of grammatico-historical exegesis. Mainline Protestants accepted the ancient Creeds of the Church as embodiments of accurate interpretation of Scripture. Reformed theologians taught that witness of the Spirit enables believers to rightly understand God's Word. This was not taken to mean that all believers will agree on everything. Bullinger wisely urged Protestants to be modest and cautious when it came to disputed areas of biblical interpretation.
If the formal principle of Reformation theology was "Scripture alone", the material principle was the gospel. There was wide agreement that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. While not all Scripture is equally clear, gospel of saving grace in Christ is perfectly plain. The same basic doctrine of salvation by grace alone is expressed in all the great confessional documents of the Reformation. While the Reformation movement had its lunatic fringe, the "dangerous idea", when rightly understood did not lead to theological entropy. A shared vision of the biblical gospel saw to that.
McGrath offers an instructive and engaging account of the first three centuries of Protestant history. But I found his analysis of Protestantism from 19th century to present less satisfactory. He suggests that Holiness movements, of the 19th century and the revivalism of Charles Finney were legitimate adaptations of the Protestant faith. In reality, they were aberrations. Iain Murray gives a much more cogent analysis in his, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858, Banner of Truth Trust, 1994. Finneyism entailed a rejection of the historic Calvinistic faith of the Reformation in favour of can-do Pelagianism. This may have suited the enterprising spirit of the age, but it left the evangelical movement theologically emaciated. McGrath rightly notes that Willow Creek-style "seeker sensitive" Churches stand in the Finney tradition, but he thinks that their approach is to be welcomed. This is doubtful. As David F. Wells has shown in his Above All Earthy Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, Eerdmans/IVP, 2005, the "seeker sensitive" movement has allowed the spirit of the age to mold the church to such a degree that the supremacy of Christ is undermined. Protestantism needs Reformed, that is Calvinistic theology to give it backbone and direction.
On another recent development, McGrath writes approvingly of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement and its attempt to bring the old enemies closer together. But this project is misguided. The great issues that divided Protestant from Catholic in the 16th century remain largely unresolved.
The book charts the origins and development of Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism was set alight by the dying embers of the 19th century Holiness and revivalist movements. With its beginnings in the Azusa Street revival, Pentecostalism, insisted that the New Testament gifts such as speaking in tongues were available to contemporary believers. This apparently supernatural mutation of Protestantism laid great stress on the immediate presence of God among his people. The Pentecostal message spread very rapidly and is now a global phenomenon. Statistics show that it is now the largest Protestant group. Such is the growth of Pentecostalism that McGrath speculates that Latin America and the Philippines might soon become predominantly Protestant. For McGrath, Pentecostalism is the bright hope for the future of Protestantism. But he virtually ignores growing, world-wide recovery of Reformed Christianity associated with the influential ministries of men like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jim Packer and Don Carson. Some Pentecostals or Charismatics are beginning to draw upon the riches of Reformed theology to give the movement added depth and theological clarity.
One theme that runs through the book is that Protestantism gave impetus to atheism. With its focus on meeting God through the Word and its absence of images in church buildings, the Reformed faith helped to "disenchant the world". Thomas Hobbes suggested that the Protestant God might as well not exist as he made very little difference to the world. That is one reason why McGrath sees such potential in Pentecostalism with its emphasis on the living, supernatural presence of God. This reminds us that Protestantism needs much more than a recovery of Reformed theology. If Reformed theology does not lead to encounter with the God of the Gospel, then is has become deformed. We need to rediscover the deeply experimental Calvinism of the Puritans and Calvinistic Methodists. At its best, Reformed Protestantism was always a movement of the Spirit as well as the Word.
With McGrath's concerns about Protestantism and atheism in mind, it is ironic that in this book he more or less adopts the approach of secular historiography. He makes no pretence of objectivity or neutrality, writing very much as as a Protestant historian. But God is strangely banished from his interpretative framework. The Reformation is analysed in terms of social forces, leading actors and key ideas. But there is no hint that the providence of God might have been at work in all this. Similarly, the 18th century Great Awakening is described in terms that would hardly disturb the most secular historian. The work of the Spirit in revival does not get a mention. In McGrath's account, God as an actor in history has virtually been omitted from "public space" of historical discourse.
Now to the question with which McGrath closes his book. Does Protestantism have a future? The writer thinks so. He points to the movement's potential for endless renewal and adaptation. There is something in that. But more is needed if Protestantism is to have a future as a movement that is faithful to the gospel. Protestantism needs to be rooted in the Calvinistic theology of the Reformation. We must hold that the triune God of the Gospel is still mighty to save sinners by his sovereign grace. In addition, Protestants must to be able to respond meaningfully to the fresh challenges of the 21st century world. Above all else we need the God of the Reformation to visit us and revive us afresh by his Spirit. The future of Protestantism is in God's hands. "Revive your work, O Lord in the midst of the years!"

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A prayer to the Trinity

Here is a wonderful expression of heartfelt Trinitarian piety,

Three in one, one in three, God of my salvation,
Heavenly Father, blessed Son, eternal Spirit,
I adore three as one Being, one Essence,
one God in three distinct Persons,
for bringing sinners to thy knowledge and to thy kingdom.
O Father, thou hast loved me and sent Jesus to redeem me;
O Jesus, thou hast loved me and assumed my nature,
shed thine own blood to wash away my sins,
wrought righteousness to cover my unworthiness;
O Holy Spirit, thou hast loved me and entered my heart,
implanted there eternal life,
revealed to me the glories of Jesus.
Three Persons and one God, I bless and praise thee,
for love so unmerited, so unspeakable, so wondrous,
so mighty to save the lost and raise them to glory.

From The Valley of Vision: A collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions,
edited by Arthur Bennett, Banner of Truth Trust, 2007 reprint, p. 3.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Series 3 "Box Set"

Back in the beginning of 2008 I launched Series 3 of the Blogging in the Name of the Lord interviews. The series isn't quite complete yet, with two interviews still outstanding. But here is a round up of the series so far together with some extras. I hope you'll enjoy this special edition "box set" of theological conversations. The banter between Derek Thomas and Carl Trueman is one of the highlights of the current set of interviews. Watch out for Series 4 in the next month or so.
Tim Challies (forthcoming)
Jason Goroncy (forthcoming)
Extras
These aren't really Blogging in the Name of the Lord interviews as the subjects aren't bloggers, but here are some other recent interviews:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

John Frame on the knowledge of God and ourselves

Here are some stimulating reflections by John Frame on what comes first, knowledge of God or knowledge of the self?
"On the first page of his Institutes, Calvin observes that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self are interrelated. We might expect Calvin (as a good Calvinist!) to add to that of course of course of the two, the knowledge of God "comes first". remarkable, however, Calvin says instead that he doesn't know which comes first. This comment I take to be enormously perceptive. The best way to look at the matter is that neither knowledge of God or knowledge of self is possible without the other, and growth in one area is always accompanied by growth in the other. I cannot know myself rightly until I see myself as God's image: fallen, yet saved by grace. But also I cannot know myself rightly until I seek to know Him as a creature, as a servant. The two kinds of knowledge, then, come simultaneously, and they grow together. The reason for this is not only that each of us is part of the "situation" that is essential to the knowledge of God but also the additional fact that each of us is made in God's image. We know God as He is reflected in ourselves. Furthermore, all the information we receive about God, through nature, Scripture, or whatever source, comes to us through our eyes, ears, minds and brains - through ourselves. Sometimes we dream fondly of a "purely objective" knowledge of God - a knowledge freed from the limitations of our senses, minds, experience, preparation, and so forth. But nothing of this sort is possible, and God does not demand that of us. Rather, He condescends to dwell in and with us, as in a temple. he identifies himself in and through our thoughts, ideas and experiences. And that identification is clear; it is adequate for Christian certainty. A "purely objective" knowledge is precisely what we don't want! Such knowledge would presuppose a denial of our creaturehood and thus a denial of God and all truth." (From The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, John M. Frame, P&R, 1987, p. 65-65).

Some new tunes for Vernon Higham's hymns

A friend of mine, Paul Rossiter has compsed some new tunes for some of Vernon Higham's hymns. You can listen online here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Best Teacher Meme

Michael Jensen has tagged me to contribute to his Best Teacher Meme. Here are five of the best:
1. Mr. Hamlet. He taught Classical Studies at Bassaleg Comprehensive School. I hated school and refused to engage with most subjects. When I asked my Geography teacher to give his consent for me to take the 'O Level' exam he quipped, "You must be joking." But Mr. Hamlet's passion for the classics gripped me. His board ruler became Odysseus' spear and Achilles' sword. This was the only subject for which I really bothered to swat, giving me my best exam result, a grade C 'O Level'.
2. Hywel Jones. He was Principal at the London Theological Seminary when I was there from 1988-1990. His theological expositions of Isaiah and John were breathtaking. They were models of exegetical clarity and theological depth, delivered with a heartfelt passion for the Gospel.
3. Andrew Davies taught Church History for the first year of my LTS course. Sometimes his lectures would catch fire. We would stop taking notes and sit in awe of the presence of God as Andrew spoke on "The Moravian Revival" or "Word and Spirit in Puritanism". I remember him concluding his lecture on the latter with the words, "Sue him for it. Sue God for the witness of the Spirit!" Once Andrew rebuked some students for not taking their studies seriously enough. In his deep Welsh tones he told them, "We are not funny men trying to be serious, but serious men who know how to laugh." That told them.
4. Robert Oliver took over the Church History course after Andrew left. He is quite different to Andrew Davies, a studious Englishman rather than a fiery Welshman. But I really appreciated his lectures. They were impecabbly researched, well presented and full of contemporary relevance. His feedback on essay assignments was always helpful and his advice on sermon construction and preaching was worth listening to. Robert helped to enhance my love of Church history. He chairs our local Wiltshire minister's fraternal. (See here for my review of his The History of English Calvinistic Baptists).
5. Philip Eveson is now the Principal at LTS, but in my day he was Resident Tutor. His lectures on the Old Testament were especially helpful. He has rare exegetical skills and always seems to be up-to-date with the latest trends in biblical scholarship. For me the highlights were his lectures on Job, Ecclesiastes and Amos. He really should write a commentary on Ecclesiastes. Eveson's insight that "vanity" means "fleeting" rather than "meaningless" (NIV) really opens up the message of the book. Quoheleth is much more than a "pre-evangelistic tract". The book gives us the wisdom we need to enjoy life under the sun to the glory of God. It was in his lectures on Galatians that I was first alerted to the new perspective on Paul. Eveson grasped the importance of the NPP way before most other Reformed theologians. He wrote an early critique of the new perspective, The Great Exchange which is now available online. Philip acted as my tutor when I did a theology degree a few years ago. His advice and reading suggestions were invaluble.
Now I'm going to tag five friends: Gary Brady, Alan Davey, Martin Downes, Jonathan Hunt, Andrew Roycroft.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The peace of Jesus

"My peace I give unto you" (John 14:27)
We live in anxious and troubled times. People are worried about global warming, terrorism, and the impact of the current economic climate. Some worry so much that they are overweight that they become anorexic. Others are so worried by life that they “comfort eat” themselves into obesity. Many people are neurotic and distracted. They lack peace. This is understandable because, "There is no peace for the wicked" (Isaiah 57:20 & 21). But Jesus said, "Come unto me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28). He has promised us peace.
Before he left them, Jesus promised his disciples, “My peace I give to you” (John 1:27). It is his peace that he gives to those who believe. He is our peace, (Ephesians 2:14). Christ gives us peace with God by his blood. He has left us the peace that he displayed in his life. Never was a man more active, busy man than Jesus. But we was never stressed. He withdrew to the desert regions to rest after a period of intensive work. But he was followed by a great crowd of 5,000 men plus women and children. Did he tell them to clear off like a harassed celebrity pursued by the paparazzi? No he calmly took charge of the situation, taught them and provided them with a hearty picnic. That was his peace. He lived with the constant threat of arrest. He knew that his enemies were out to get him. But he was never distracted, irrational or paranoid. He had peace. Once he was asleep on a boat in the midst of a storm. He had to be woken up by his terror stricken disciples. How did he react when he saw his fearful followers and then see the waves filling the boat? Did he start jumping around like Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army saying, “Don’t panic, don’t panic!” No, he calmly stood up and said, “Peace, be still!” (Mark 4:39-40). That was his peace. Jesus gives us peace with God. With him there is peace in the midst of life with all its unexpected turmoil. As we bring our anxieties to God in prayer we are promised that, "the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard you hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:7).
"Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace always in every way. The Lord be with you." (2 Thessalonians 3:16).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Geoff Thomas on the ministry and anxiety

On Monday I wended my way to Honiton, Devon for the Westcountry Reformed Minister's Fraternal. I drove to Gillingham, Dorset and met up with my old friend Mike Heather, pastor of Gillingham Baptist Church. It was Mike's turn to drive on from Gillingham so we jumped in his car and spent the hour's drive talking away about church and family stuff.
The speaker for the day was Geoff Thomas, pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church Aberystwyth. Geoff is a larger than life character with decades of experience in the ministry so I was looking forward to what he had to say. His theme was "Anxiety in the Ministry", based on Philippians 4:6. Here's an brief sketch of his message,
I. Four things that we must not worry about
1) Trivia
We are not to worry about food and drink or obsess over dieting. Neither are we to worry about clothing and appearance. The Lord knows that we need food, drink and clothing (Matthew 6:25ff), so there's no need to be anxious about such things. Ministers of the Gospel should not be neurotic about the trivial things in life. We have more important things to think about.
2) Things we can't control
Worrying wastes energy, but changes nothing. The short cannot worry themselves taller (Matthew 6:27). We should not worry about length of life, future financial security etc. Being consumed with worry about things we can't control diverts us from the work of the Ministry.
3) Problems that have not arisen yet
"Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." (Matthew 6:34). What's the point in worrying about possible gloomy scenarios in the church? God will give grace to help in time of need.
4) About things that God has promised to take care of
"Be anxious for nothing" (Philippians 4:6). If God has promised to take care of something, then we must believe him. Not to do so is to excersize little faith and is a sinful failure to trust God's Word.
II. How should we deal with our worries?
1) Make a present of worry
Give your worries to God in prayer (Philippians 4:6).
2) Be thankful
"with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God."
3) Leave your worries with God
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there. No point in presenting our anxieties to God and them taking them back. Once a present has been given away, it no longer belongs to us - it is now God's "worry" not ours.
III. God peace banishes our worries
The promise is, "and the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:7). God is a God of peace. His being is peace all the way down with no nagging neuroses. When we have given our worries to God, his peace will garrison our hearts like sentries on duty who stand guard to fend off the foe. Jesus has promised rest and peace to all who come to him.
In that little outline I can't hope to convey the spirit of Geoff's lively and intensely pastoral message. You just had to be there! In the discussion that followed the talk, we reflected on the difference between legitimate concern and anxiety. And at how we can minister to people whose lives are dominated by sometimes irrational worry and anxiety. One thing that impressed me in the discussion was Geoff's restless determination to keep growing as a minister. He has been the Pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church for over 40 years, but he wants to continue to develop as a pastor and preacher. Geoff said that he is still eager to learn from the best practice of preachers he admires, like Stuart Olyott. He also tries to keep abreast of the issues that ministers have to face in the contemporary world. I suppose that's the way to exercise a long-term, fruitful ministry. To keep going we have to keep growing. I hope Geoff Thomas is still going strong come September 2010 because I booked him for Penknap Providence Church's 200th anniversary service!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

An interview with Arturo G. Azurdia III

GD: Hello Art Azurdia, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

AA: Well, I’m 48 years old and have been married for 26 years. Lori and I are the proud parents of two children (Katherine Suzanne—17, Jonathan Edward—15), both of whom bring great delight to our lives!

For 24 years I was engaged in pastoral ministry: 5 years as an associate (working with university students), and 19 years as a preaching pastor. I am now the Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Church Ministry at a terrific institution in Portland, Oregon (USA)—Western Seminary—a theological school that possesses a decidedly strong commitment to reformation and revival.

My interests include film (my favorite is To Kill A Mockingbird), literature (Wendell Berry and Chaim Potok, in particular), baseball, and the music of Arturo Sandoval.

GD: Who has taught you most of what it means to preach the Word of God?

AA: It’s difficult for me to reduce it to one man, because several have had strategic influence on me at various stages of my development.

Shortly after I was converted it was the preaching of John MacArthur that had such a formative influence on my life. He evidenced (and still does!) such a thoroughgoing confidence in the Scripture, and the necessary corollary which suggests that one of the principal aims of preaching is to be relentlessly faithful to text itself.

It was a man named Jim Andrews who first awakened me to the importance of a sermon’s structure and delivery.

In the last ten or twelve years, however, the single most influential preaching mentor in my life has been Dr. Edmund P. Clowney. He taught me that the entirety of the Bible is Christian Scripture, and that preaching isn’t altogether Christian until it displays the influence of the Gospel.

Of course, my all-time favorite book on preaching is Preaching and Preachers by Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I long to incarnate everything he says a preacher ought to be and do. Of course, each week I feel like I fall miserably short. But every time I read this text I find myself saying to God: “Please make me a preacher like this.”

GD: I'd certainly have to agree with you on the value Lloyd-Jones' book on preaching. Now, what should be the main aim in training men for the pastoral ministry?

AA: Given the present evangelical scene in the USA—my greatest task is to persuade men that the Gospel must never be assumed but relentlessly applied to all of life. We desperately need men of courage who will passionately and winsomely declare the glories of Jesus Christ every week.

At the same time, we need men of genuine piety whose pastoral leadership will express itself, unapologetically, through the instrumentality of prayer rather than through the typical pastoral approach that panders after the latest schemes, fads, and gimmicks.

I must convince men that as pastors they must be theologians, first and foremost . . . and, also, that they must seek to intimately know and wisely love the people who have been entrusted to them by the Great Shepherd.

GD: What should be the relationship between preaching and systematic theology?

AA: Well, this is a bit of a difficult question for me. On the one hand, I very much enjoy the discipline of systematic theology, and my preaching is significantly informed by it. In fact, at Western Seminary I team-teach the concluding systematic theology course.

On the other hand, one of my great concerns with preaching in reformed circles (the circle in which I would place myself!) is that preachers will often use a text as a launching pad to espouse their systematic theology convictions; an agenda that, in many cases, is exceedingly remote from the original intention of the inspired author. And here’s the real problem: though these theological conclusions may be thoroughly orthodox, the power and logic of a text in its original and literary context often gets lost. In my view, this kind of preaching is not expository preaching. I want preaching that communicates the Spirit-intended purpose of a preaching portion.

In our day of widespread biblical illiteracy—and I’m talking about people in churches—it is the recovery of the relationship between preaching and biblical theology that is most needed.

GD: Kevin Vanhoozer is perhaps trying emphasise the same point in his The Drama of Doctrine, where he attempts to "make the pastoral lamb lie down with the theological lion". Who had the greatest influence on your theological development?

AA: Again, it is very difficult for me to reduce this to one particular individual—I have so many theological heroes/mentors. Let me give you a list: John Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, B. B. Warfield, Edmund P. Clowney, D. A. Carson, Sinclair Ferguson, Anthony Hoekema, Donald Bloesch. Of course, it must be acknowledged that these various men (and many others) have affected me in different ways, for different reasons, and to different ends.

GD: What do you mean by Spirit Empowered Preaching? [The title of Art's book, published by Mentor, 2007 - see my review].
AA: I mean a kind of preaching that possesses a vitality from another world—a clarity, authority, immediacy, and efficacy that is authored by the Spirit of God.

GD: How may we seek God's empowering presence in preaching?

AA: Firstly, we need to connect our preaching purpose to that of the Holy Spirit’s purpose. His aim is to glorify Jesus Christ through the means of the Scriptures—the Christocentric Scriptures. Therefore, I must be resolutely wedded to His intention in the sacred text: explaining the text in its context, applying the text as was originally designed, and displaying its inner-canonical connections which will lead me to Jesus Christ.

Secondly, we need to pray for that which only the Spirit can supply: potency to transform the human heart.

Thirdly, we need to be willing to suffer. Why? Because the apostolic pattern seems to indicate that God’s power is perfected in weakness. Are we willing to be weak so there are no competitors for glory when God does what only He can do?

Beyond this, of course, we must remember that Spirit is sovereign. “The wind blows where it wishes.” Anything that smacks of a formula is sure to quench the Spirit rather than arouse His empowerment. This is the occupational hazard of the Christian ministry.

GD: Amen to all that! Right, if time travel were possible, which post-biblical historic preacher would you like to hear and why?

AA: This is an easy question for me to answer: I would want to sit under the preaching of George Whitefield. The reasons for this are simple: 1) He was relentlessly committed to the proclamation of the Gospel; 2) He was a warm, kind-hearted Calvinist; 3) He possessed a robust love for human beings—often expressed in great acts of social benevolence; 4) He was ecumenical in the best sense; and, 5) His preaching was uniquely empowered by the Spirit of God.

The only other historical person who might come close to this is C. H. Spurgeon—who, of course, also loved Whitefield.

GD: Good choice, (and second choice)! Are you looking forward to speaking at the Evangelical Movement of Wales' Aberystwyth Conference in August [9-16th]?
AA: Yes, with great enthusiasm. It is a distinctly high honor. This will be my third trip to Wales, and I find myself possessing such an affinity for the Welsh people. Moreover, I hope that I am a present-day Welsh Calvinist Methodist!!!

GD: I look forward to hearing you preach at the conference. I'm sure you'll given a very warm Welsh welcome. But it might be wise to bring an umbrealla to fend off the famous Aber rain. I note that you are due to speak on 'The New Creation: Revelation 21-22'. Would you agree that many evangelicals have an unduly Platonic and "spiritual" understanding of future glory?

AA: Well, please pray for me. My plan was to preach Rev 21-22, but I am having some second thoughts. I want to make sure I preach what will prove most timely and effective for the days we’re together.

Of course, Rev 21-22 is such a significant text for several reasons. For one, it is where the biblical story culminates. Here everything comes together. For another, it concretizes the eternal state. Now, of course, the language is apocalyptic. But the new heavens and new earth are not about an ethereal existence in a formless state. In my mind, the nature of eternity is best anticipated by the resurrected body of Jesus Christ. It is real, substantive, and expresses the fullest and finest expression of what God designed humanity (and, by extension, all of creation) to be. I don’t know of a more helpful book on this subject than Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible And The Future.

GD: May you know the Spirit's empowering presence as you declare God's Word. Now, care to tell us your top three songs or pieces of music?

AA: Do you mean Gospel music? [Not necessarily, but that's fine - GD]. If so, I must say that am so deeply thankful for the work of Keith and Kristen Getty. Their music (along with Stuart Townend’s music) is so satisfying to me: theologically robust and aesthetically beautiful. In terms of more traditional music, three of my favorites are: 1) And Can It Be?; 2) O, The Deep, Deep Love Of Jesus; and, 3) Before The Throne Of God Above (with the contemporary tune).

GD: I don't think I've heard of the Gettys, but I too like Townend's hymns. We sing a nice mixture of old and new at Aber. What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because?

AA: Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ From All The Scriptures by Dennis E. Johnson (P & R Publishing). It’s a must read because it is a warm-hearted apologetic for apostolic hermeneutics—reading the Bible backward as well as forward. It shatters the notion that to preach Christocentrically from all the Scriptures (especially the Old Testament) one must resort to allegory. I read a great deal in this area, and this is an exceedingly helpful work by an exceedingly fine Christian man and scholar. In my mind, it is a must read for every preaching pastor.

GD: Sounds like a good book. What would you say is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

AA: I think I’ve already mentioned this earlier. And, of course, it must be kept in mind that my response reflects the limitations of my own cultural (i.e. American) context. In my mind, the most significant problem facing evangelicalism today is that evangelicals are assuming the Gospel—and, because of this, I fear we are a generation away from discarding it altogether. The reasons for this are many: the legacy of the seeker-sensitive movement with its emphasis on pragmatism, the rise of postmodernism, theological preaching that lacks the evangelical priority, et al.

How should we respond to this? Christocentric preaching and teaching! Christocentric ministries! We need to pray for a generation of pastors who will be: 1) courageous enough to disregard popular ministry methodologies that undermine the Gospel; and, 2) consumed enough with God’s glory to cease measuring success by the numerical size of a congregation.
GD: If evangelicalism isn't Gospel-centred then it isn't evangelicalism at all. Well Art, thanks very much for this conversation. See you in Aber!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Herman Bavinck's complete Reformed Dogmatics have arrived

My long awaited order of the complete four volume set of Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics was delivered yesterday. Baker have done an excellent job in producing four very handsome volumes that would adorn the shelves of any study. I've dipped in here and there and the translation reads really well. But it's the substance of Bavinck's theology that makes this set so valuable. Here he is on the doctrine of the Trinity,
"The doctrine of the Trinity is of incalculable importance for the Christian religion. The entire Christian belief system, all of special revelation, stands or falls with the confession of God's Trinity. It is the core of the Christian faith, the root of all its dogmas, the basic content of the new covenant. It was this religious Christian interest, accordingly, that sparked the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. At stake in this development - let it be said emphatically - was not a metaphysical theory or a philosophical speculation but the essence of the Christian religion itself. This is so strongly felt that all who value being called a Christian recognize and believe in a king of Trinity. The profoundest question implicit in every Christian creed and system f theology is how God can be both one and yet three. Christian truth in all its parts comes into its own to a lesser or greater degree depending on how that question is answered. In the doctrine of the Trinity we feel the heartbeat of God's entire revelation for the redemption of humanity." (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation, Baker, 2006, p. 333).
I think I'm going to enjoy reading this thoroughly God-centred dogmatics.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dai Corleone vs David Sky

The Don Dia Corleone's beloved daughter Blodwyn was married at last. She was 42, and what with her being no oil painting, few expected that she would ever get hitched. But she fell for some unsuspecting fella, and daddy sent the boys round to make him an offer he couldn't refuse. Next thing he knew, poor Owen Llewellyn had asked to Blodwyn to be his wife. She gleefully accepted his somewhat ambivalent proposal. Owen's parents never did understand why they were taken hostage one Thursday afternoon only to be released to find that their boy was going to be the husband of Blodwyn Corleone. "But I thought he liked Sally Williams from no. 74.", said his bemused mother. It was the Welsh society wedding of the year. After the ceremony, the festivities began. The Cwl Cymru glitterati descended on the Don's place en masse. Everyone was there; Gavin and Charlotte, Tom Jones, the Stereophonics, Rhodri Morgan and that goat that marches with the military band before rugby matches at the Millennium Stadium.
While the happy couple (well Blodwyn was happy anyway) danced away to the strains of Delilah and the party was in full swing, the Don retreated to his office. Worried looking men were ushered into Mr. Corleone's presence to pay their respects to the big man. Then David Sky arrived. No one knows how he got there. He certainly wasn't invited. But the old monkey was fed up with being the Exiled Preacher's pet. He wanted glamour and violence and how better to get that than join the Taffia mob?
Sky sauntered into the holding room where the Don's men kept a watchful eye on those who were about to be given an audience with the Godfather. He felt a bit out of place wearing a "PG Tips" T-shirt, while the other gents were dressed in dark double breasted suits. But what he lacked in sartorial elegance, he more than made up for with attitude and swagger. He blagged his way into the Don's inner sanctum. It was make or break time. This is what they had to say:
DC: Hey you, whaddya doin here?
DS: I'd like to join the Taffia.
DC: Oh yeah?
DS: Yes, that's right.
DC: Well, we'll see about that.
DS: Oh good!
DC: What?
DS: That's great, I didn't think it would be quite so easy to join the mob.
DC: Are you kiddin?
DS: Me, a kitten? No, I'm a monkey actually?
DC: I said kiddin - jokin, not kiddin as in cat, stupid!
DS: Sorry! You speak kind of mumbly.
DC: You talkin' to me?
DS: I can't see anyone else in the room.
DC: What?
DS: Never mind. The thing is that I'd like to join the Taffia. I think I could be really useful to you.
DC: How exactly?
DS: Well I'm a bit of a rough, tough bad lad.
DC: Now ya talkin. Whaddya done?
DS: For starters, I survived being crushed by The Drama of Docrine. Then I went to school with my old boss' daughter and bit a kid. Once I got stuck up a Christmas tree. If you want anyone "taught a lesson", I'm your monkey.
DC: You survived being crushed by The Drama of Doctrine? Really?
DS: Yes, sure.
DC: That's heavy stuff. I'm gonna have to think about this.
DS: Please let me join. I'm fed up with that boring old Exiled Preacher and his dusty books. I want glamour and danger. I'll get a double breasted suit and a violin case with a Tommy Gun inside and everything.
DC: You began life in a box of tea bags right?
DS: Er, yes. But what's that got to do with it?
DC: I think I may be able to use a guy like you. You're hired.
DS: That's cool. Now, who do you want me to send sleeping with the fishes?
DC: If you started off as a tea monkey, then you should be able to make a good cuppa. Mine's white with no sugar. Four times a day, 8am, 11am, 1pm and 3.30pm. If you don't make it right then you'll be sleeping with the fishes! Geddit?
So, David Sky left the comfort and security of the Exiled Preacher's study for the excitement and danger of Dai Corleone's lair and ended up as a terrified tea boy. The sky's the limit eh? Couldn't happen to a nicer monkey.

Friday, May 09, 2008

An Evangelical Manifesto

A number of prominent American evangelicals have drawn up an Evangelical Manifesto. Although the document very much reflects the situation in the USA, it has much to say to the global evangelical community. The Manifesto seeks to define what it means to be evangelical in biblical and theological terms. The dangers of gospel-denying Liberalism are exposed and the shortcomings of Fundamentalism are assessed critically yet fairly. The authors make persuasive case that evangelicals should be constructively engaged in public life. But they wisely caution against identifying the Christian faith with political parties, be they "right wing" or "left wing". Evangelicals in the West will benefit from what the document has to say about bringing the values of the gospel to bear upon a postmodern and pluralist society. What I liked about the Manifesto was its gospel-centeredness, honesty and humility. Evangelical failings are acknowledged and those who call themselves evangelical are called to wholehearted Christian discipleship. Charter signatories include Kevin Vanhoozer, Miroslav Volf. Here is a summary of the introductory section:
First, we reaffirm our identity. Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth. (The Greek word for good news was euangelion, which translated into English as evangel.) This Evangelical principle is the heart of who we are as followers of Jesus. It is not unique to us. We assert it not to attack or to exclude, but to remind and to reaffirm, and so to rally and to reform.
Evangelicals are one of the great traditions in the Christian Church. We stand alongside Christians of other traditions in both the creedal core of faith and over many issues of public concern. Yet we also hold to Evangelical beliefs that are distinct—distinctions we affirm as matters of biblical truth, recovered by the Protestant Reformation and vital for a sure knowledge of God. We Evangelicals are defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally.

As followers of Jesus Christ, Evangelicals stress a particular set of beliefs that we believe are true to the life and teachings of Jesus himself. Taken together, they make us who we are. We place our emphasis on ...
1. Jesus, fully divine and fully human, as the only full and complete revelation of God and therefore the only Savior.
2. The death of Jesus on the cross, in which he took the penalty for our sins and reconciled us to God.
3. Salvation as God’s gift grasped through faith. We contribute nothing to our salvation.
4. New life in the Holy Spirit, who brings us spiritual rebirth and power to live as Jesus did, reaching out to the poor, sick, and oppressed.
5. The Bible as God’s Word written, fully trustworthy as our final guide to faith and practice.
6. The future personal return of Jesus to establish the reign of God.
7. The importance of sharing these beliefs so that others may experience God’s salvation and may walk in Jesus’ way.
Sadly, we repeatedly fail to live up to our high calling, and all too often illustrate our own doctrine of sin. The full list of our failures is no secret to God or to many who watch us. If we would share the good news of Jesus with others, we must first be shaped by that good news ourselves
See here for the Evangelical Manifesto website, which includes the 20 page document in full (PDF). I think you'll find it a thought-provoking read.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Spurgeon on presuppositional apologetics

John Frame offers this definition of the presuppositional approach to apologetics:

"It takes account of what Scripture says about our obligation to presuppose God's revelation in all our thinking about the unbeliever's suppression of the truth, and it understands that according to Scripture the goal of apologetics must be to convince people that God's revelation is not only true, but the very criterion of truth, the most fundamental certainty, the basis for all intelligible thought and meaningful living." (New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, IVP, 2006, p. 578).
When reading Surgeon's Lectures to my students the other day, I came across this remarkable piece of pre-Van Til presuppositionalism:
"...the sceptic cries, 'What I want is facts.' These are our facts: let us not forget to use them. A sceptic challenges me with the remark, 'I cannot pin my faith to a book or a history; I want to see present facts.' My reply is, 'You cannot see them, because your eyes are blinded; but the facts are there none the less. Those of us who have eyes see marvellous things, though you do not.' If he ridicules my assertion, I am not at all astonished. I expect him to do so, and should have been very much surprised if he had not done so; but I demand respect to my own position as a witness to facts, and I turn upon the objector with the inquiry - 'What right have you to deny my evidence? If I were a blind man and were told by you that you possessed a faculty called sight, I should be unreasonable if I railed at you as a conceited enthusiast. All you have a right to say is - that you no nothing about it, but you are not authorised to call us liars or dupes. You may join with the revellers of old and declare that the spiritual man is mad, but that does not disprove his statements.' Brethren, to me the phenomena which are produced by the Spirit of God demonstrate the truth of the Christian religion as clearly as the destruction of Pharaoh at the Red Sea, or the fall of the manna in the wilderness, or water leaping from the smitten rock, could have proved to Israel the presence of God in the midst of her tribes." (Lectures to my students, C. H. Spurgeon, Banner of Truth Trust , 2008 reprint, p. 224-225).

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Bible study notes: Who "restrains" the man of sin?

6And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. 8And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. 9The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders (2 Thessalonians 2:6-8, ESV).
In vs. 6 a principle or power restrains the man of sin, “what is restraining”. In vs. 7, the principle is described in personal terms “he who restrains”. This restraining factor or person has been variously interpreted. In his commentary, (The Bible Speaks Today, The Message of Thessalonians, IVP, 2004), John Stott runs through the options.

a) What restrains is the church and He who restrains is the Holy Spirit. But in vs. 7 he who restrains will be taken away or will withdraw himself. The Spirit has been promised to the church for ever (John 14:6).

b) What restrains is the preaching of the gospel and who restrains is Paul. But Paul nowhere puts himself at the centre of great eschatological events. Elsewhere in his teaching he does not suggest that his ministry was holding back the revelation of the man of sin and the onslaught of Satan. Indeed, Paul recognised that he could sometimes be restrained and hindered by the devil, 1 Thess 2:18. Besides Paul has long been removed from the scene of history and his being “taken away” vs. 7, did not usher in the revelation of the man of sin.

c) The restraining factor was the Roman state. This is Stott’s preferred option. Leon Morris (Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, IVP, 1989) and Geerhardus Vos (The Pauline Eschatology, P&R, 1986 - chapter V. The Man of Sin) also lean in this direction. In Romans 13, Paul teaches that the function of the state is to restrain evil. But in the book of Revelation, the Roman state with its emperor worship and persecution of the saints is said to prefigure the man of sin - Rev. 17:7ff. Besides, the Roman Empire has fallen, yet once more in terms of vs. 7, the man of sin has still not been revealed.

So then, what or who exactly is “restraining" the man of sin? The problem with all the proposals listed above is that they assume that in this instance, the Greek word katechon means “restrain”. This suggests that some power or person is holding back the revelation of the man of sin. But the word has a broader range of meaning. Gene L. Green (The Pillar New Testament Commentary, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Apollos/Eerdmans, 2002) points out that the katechon could be translated, “that which seizes” or “one who possesses”. In some non-biblical sources the word is sometimes used of those who were seized or possessed by demonic powers. According to Green’s proposal, “that which seizes” does not entail restraining the man of sin. Rather “that which seizes” ensures that he will be revealed “in his own time” vs. 6. This demonic power was already at work, hence the false teaching that had infiltrated the Thessalonian church, vs. 7. (cf. 1 Tim 4:1) When the time is right, “he who seizes” will take possession of the man of sin and then withdraw from the scene to allow the lawless one to do his work. We find a similar transfer of malignant power between the beasts of Revelation 13, see especially vs. 12 & 15, cf. 17:12 & 13.

To sum up, we should not understand that Paul is talking about a power or person that is restraining the man of sin. Rather we should envisage a power or person that will seize the man of sin and take possession of him before taking himself out of the way to allow the lawless one to take centre stage.

The "man of sin" or the "lawless one" will be kind of parody of Christ. In John's terms, he is the antichrist. Note the way Paul describes his advent. He will be revealed – vs. 8 cf. Jesus revelation at the second advent, 1:7. He is described as "coming" vs. 9 (Greek, parousia), a term associated with the second coming of Christ, vs. 8 cf. 2:1. As the antichrist figure, he will set himself up against God and demand worship from all humanity, vs. 4. When the man of sin is revealed, the people of God will know him for what he is. Then the meaning of this rather difficult passage will no doubt become clear, at lest to those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life. As Vos wisely points out, “2 Thess. belongs among the many prophecies, whose best and final exegete will be eschatological fulfilment, and in regard to which it behoves the saints to exercise a peculiar eschatological patience.” (The Pauline Eschatology p. 133).

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Worship and the presence of God

I'm reading Philip H. Eveson's commentary, The Beauty of Holiness, Leviticus simply explained, Evangelical Press, Welwyn Commentary Series, 2007. The work is full of scholarly insight and thoughtful exposition. And unlike some modern commentaries on the Old Testament, Eveson does not shy away from showing how Leviticus is fulfilled in Christ. He also shows how the book applies to believers under the new covenant. Here he reflects on the presence of God in worship, commenting on 'Then the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people' (Lev 9:23). After setting the verse in it's Old Testament context he writes,
"The high point in worship is to experience something of the presence of God among his people. The Day of Pentecost was a unique coming of the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and the promise of our Lord. But it also initiated the ear of the Spirit, when similar experiences of God's powerful presence can be expected and prayed for. These experiences, when they occur on a large scale, we call 'revivals' or 'awakenings'.
To give a cry of joyful praise and to bow in awesome wonder at the presence of God reminds us of the words of Psalm 2:11: 'Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.' In the assemblies of God's new covenant people we should not suppose that because Jesus has promised to be with those who gather in his name, we should simply believe it to be so and not expect to experience that presence. Again, when Christians meet together, it is not only to build one another up in the faith - it is to worship God together and experience as a body the felt presence of God as his Word is proclaimed. In this way we anticipate the future glory when God's presence will be for ever experienced among his people. Unbelievers and the 'uninformed' should also be affected, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 when he states, '...and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.'"

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Servant King?

This is our God, the Servant King
He calls us now to follow Him,
to bring our lives as a daily offering,
of worship to the servant
King.
Some people object to Graham Kendrick's hymn The Servant King because they say that Jesus is no longer a servant. He is now the exalted Lord of all. Such thinking betrays some questionable theology. It is as if the servant form that Jesus took at the incarnation was not a true expression of who Jesus really is as the form of God. But humble servanthood is part of the divine identity. 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 wash feet and bear the sins of his enemies. As Robert Letham reflects,

"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." (The Holy Trinity, In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, P&R, 2004, p. 397).

If this is the case, then Jesus remains the humble servant even in his present exalted state. It is part of his very identity. We worship no other Jesus than the Servant King. Besides, we have explicit biblical warrant for Jesus' continued servanthood, "Now I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers." (Romans 15:8). According to Leon Morris, the verb 'become' is "in the perfect tense, indicating a permanent state: Christ continues in his capacity 'as servant of circumcision'." (The Epistle to the Romans Eerdmans/IVP, 1988 p. 503). William Hendriksen confirms this. "Christ became and continues to be 'a servant.' Cf. Isa. 42:1." (New Testament Commentary, Banner of Truth Trust, 1982, p. 475). This is our God, the Servant King. Are you following him?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Ascension Day and the Lordship of Christ

"and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:11).

The proclamation that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is the great task of the church

Paul wrote, "We preach Christ Jesus the Lord" (2 Corinthians 4:5). I think that we often give the impression that we approach the world with the gospel from a position of weakness. We feel that we have to justify our message before we will be granted a hearing. Men must be brought to see that what we say is eminently plausible. We appeal to arguments from design and feel obliged to refute Darwinism before we can ever think of deploying the gospel. Friends, this ought not to be. When we announce the gospel, we do so from a position of strength because we proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord! All authority in heaven and earth is his and he has told us to GO! He has the name above every name and to announce his name is to invoke his authority,

Jesus the name high over all,
in hell, or earth or sky;
angels and men before it fall,
and devils fear and fly.

We don’t have to justify the claims of the gospel to the non-Christian. It is the unbeliever that needs to be justified before God, not God before the unbeliever. We are ambassadors of the Lord Christ. Note the method of apostolic evangelism. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this jesus, whom you crucified both Lord and Christ." (Acts 2:36). This declaration had a powerful impact, "Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:37). It is the unbeliever that is in the position of weakness. They are still in their sin and guilt, heading for a lost eternity. We preach Christ Jesus the LORD! He is the only hope for lost sinners, "there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12).
The church’s proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord shatters the distinction between the sacred and the secular. The Christian faith is no “privatised spirituality” that has no role in public life. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. He is Lord of the arts, Lord of Science, Lord of Politics, Lord of ethics and morals. As Abraham Kuyper put it,

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: "Mine!" -

Let me give you one practical example of bringing the Lordship of Christ to bear upon the public sphere. It is because I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord that I have written to our MP (see here) regarding the Human Fertilisaton and Embryology Bill. Now the secularists will say that Christian principles should not intrude upon the laws of our land. But we cannot accept that there are areas of life over which Christ is not Lord. German Christians faced similar pressure to acquiesce to the onward march of National Socialism in the 1930’s. But the Confessing Churches rightly resisted the Nazification of church and society. Their Barmen Declaration states,

8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
8.14 As Jesus Christ is God's assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God's mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.
8.15 We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords--areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

Now, the church is not simply to announce that Jesus Christ is Lord. She is to live as a community under the Lordship of Christ. He is head over all things for the Church. The church is not a democracy. She is a "Christocracy". Our task is to fulfil the task that he has given us in the way that he prescribes.
An edited extract from an Ascension Day sermon on Philippians 2:5-11 which I preached earlier this evening at Yarnbrook Chapel, Wilishire.

Ascension Day

Apart from Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, I don't usually follow the liturgical calendar. But I'm due to preach this evening at an Ascension Day service. I wonder if we pay enough attention to our Lord's ascension. The event was full of meaning and significance. By his ascension Jesus returned to the Father who send him into the world. Being exalted to the right hand of the Father, he was made both Lord and Christ. Jesus was anointed with the oil of gladness and crowned King of kings and Lord of lords. Christ did not abandon his human nature at the ascension. As Rabbi Duncan put it, "The dust of earth is now on the throne of the Majesty on High." Jesus' sovereign rule is conditioned by his humanity. We have a High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God. He is able to sympathise with us in our weaknesses having been tempted on all points as we are, yet without sin. As Jesus ascended bodily and visibly into the glory cloud, so he will return, coming on the clouds of heaven. Then every eye will see him, even they who pierced him. Even so, come Lord Jesus!