Thursday, August 27, 2009

Open Air Preaching on BBC Radio 4

My bro-in-law, Andy Banton (married to my wife's sister, Ruth), General Secretary of the Open Air Mission was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 programme, 'Sunday', broadcast on 23/08/09 as part of a report on open air preaching. The estimable Mike Judge of the Christian Institute also chips in. Listen here (3 days left on iPlayer - forward to 28.40).

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Personality or character?

We live in a celebrity obsessed age, whether it's with A-list film stars such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or low-rent UK celebs like Jordan and Pete. Paparazzi photographers make a mint from snapping the rich and famous and peddling their wares in the tabloid press. And people just lap it up. They can't get enough of celebrity title-tattle. Our heroes are no longer great statesmen, inventors or explorers, but the likes of David and Victoria Beckham. People even want to smell like their favourite celebs and splash out on celebrity-endorsed aftershave and perfume.

These days you don't have to do anything special to be a celebrity. Some like the late, lamented Jade Goody are famous simply for being famous. What matters is "personality" rather than character. If someone has a charismatic personality, or even better an outrageous personality, then they are worthy candidates for fame and celebrity. But isn't character much more important then "personality"? Martin Luther King had a dream that one day a man would not be judged by the colour of his skin, but the content of his character. Character has to do with virtue - honesty, integrity, kindness and compassion. No amount of "personality" can compensate for a lack of moral substance. What would you rather a slick, charismatic politician who could work the media and play the crowds, or one who could be trusted to tell you the truth?

The Christian faith puts character before personality and decency before celebrity. God is in the business of changing people. By the power of the Spirit he works in believers to make them more like Jesus. The apostle Paul wrote, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." (Galatians 5:22-23). Having a Sprit-transformed character may not bring you fame and fortune, but only those who have been born again will see the kingdom of God.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?

In my report of Joel Beeke's morning addresses at the recent Aberystwyth Conference, I mentioned that the preacher used Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11:34-40) as an example of "contagious submission" to the Lord. As I said in the report, I profited greatly from Beeke's messages. I have nothing but respect and admiration for Joel Beeke as a godly man and able minister of the gospel. But I disagree with his view that Jephthah did not really sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering. This is not a matter of huge importance and I don't want to carp on about it, but a comment was left asking me why I differ from Beeke on this point, so here goes.
Let me say right now that this is one of the most troubling passages in the turbulent book of Judges and so we must proceed with some caution. On the face of it, the textual evidence seems to be stacked against Beeke's view. Compare Judges 11:30-31 with Judges 11:39. We are told that Jephthah fulfilled his vow. He offered to the Lord as a burnt offering the first thing to meet him when he returned from battle - his daughter. But the preacher offered seven reasons why in his opinion Jephthah did not really consign his only daughter to the flames. I will take them one by one and offer a response in blue type.
1. Jephthah was not a rash man. He negotiated with the elders of Gilead before becoming their leader (Judges 11:1-11).
But normally level headed people sometimes act impulsively. Just because Jephthah was a tough negotiator does not mean that he was incapable of making a rash vow on the brink of a make-or-break battle. Indeed, wasn't the vow itself a misguided attempt to bargain with the Lord?
2. He was familiar with Scripture and so would have known that sacrificing ones children was contrary to the law of the Lord.
The judge was certainly in command of biblical history as Judges 11:12-28 shows. No doubt he was aware of the prohibitions on human sacrifice in the Pentateuch. But this is the period of the Judges, when "everyone did what was right on his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). Presumably Samson, the very next judge, would have been aware of the laws against intermarrying with pagan women, but that didn't stop him, Judges 14:1-3.
3. The Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah.
True, Judges 11:29, but once more, the Spirit of the Lord also came upon Samson before he married a Philistine wife (Judges 13:25) and after (Judges 14:6, 19). It seems that the Spirit of God clothed the judges with power to kill lions, lead armies and fight battles, but his coming upon a person did not necessarily have a powerful sanctifying effect.
4. Judges 11:31 could be read to mean that Jephthah left two options open. He vowed that whatever came out of his house to meet him (this seems to indicate purposeful human action), would either "surely be the LORD’s, or [Beeke's translation] I will offer it up as a burnt offering" (Judges 11:31). In other words a human being would be dedicated to the LORD in some way, while an animal would be sacrificed on the altar.
Beeke posits that we read the Hebrew prefix waw as "or" rather than "and" in this verse. That seems like an unlikely reading as in the majority of cases waw when used in this way usually means "and". For what it's worth, none of the more serious English Bible translations (AV, NKJV, NIV, ESV) render the text as Beeke suggests.
Besides, what does "shall surely be the LORD's" mean in this case? Beeke argues that it it means a man or woman would be devoted to the LORD's service in an perpetually unmarried state. Hence Jephthah's daughter bewailed her virginity (Judges 11:38) because as one devoted to the LORD she could never marry. However, there is no evidence from elsewhere in the Old Testament of men or women forswearing marriage to devote themselves to the Lord. Even the high priest was free to marry! Having to live as a virgin with no possibility of marriage or children would have been a heavy blow for an Israelite woman. In this instance it would have meant the end of Jephthah's family line. But as Matthew Henry points out, "had she only been confined to a single life, she need not have desired two months to bewail it in: she had her whole life to to that. Nor needed she to have taken such a sad leave of her companions". The dutiful daughter bewailed her virginity because she was going to die a virgin, not because she was going to have to live as a virgin.
Also Beeke argued that even if we should not read "and" as "or" in this text, the language of "burnt offering" is sometimes used in a figurative sense in the Bible. That may well be so, but there is no indication of this being the case in Judges 11.
5. Jephthah had time to change his mind about literally sacrificing his daughter to the LORD. She was given two months grace (Judges 11:37).
Yes, but still we are told that after the period ended, he "carried out his vow", Judges 11:39.
6. Even if Jephthah did make a rash vow, Leviticus 5:4-6 offered him a get out clause.
That is the case, but we are not told that the judge availed himself of this provision and substituted an animal for his daughter. "She returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed" (Judges 11:39 emphasis added).
7. Jephthah is never reprimanded for his actions in Scripture. He is even mentioned as a hero of the faith in Hebrews 11:32.
Fair enough. But the author of Judges is not prone to editorialise on the faults of the characters covered in his book. Writing in the Deuteronomic tradition, he expects his readers to know right from wrong without him having to point it out in a moralistic fashion. He usually prefers to let the facts speak for themselves. Judges 21:25 is enough to tell us that much that happened in the period of the Judges was profoundly disordered. Even the best of men in that time were deeply flawed and prone to sin.
Womanising Samson also gets a mention in Hebrews 11, not to mention Abraham who could be a little economical with the truth, Jacob the manipulative twister, and David who committed adultery. Inclusion in Hebrews 11 does not give a man or woman a clean bill of spiritual and moral health. The chapter was written to illustrate the faith by which we are justified (Hebrews 10:38-39). As Luther famously pointed out, we are "simultaneously justified and yet sinners". Beeke made a good stab at exonerating Jephthah of the dreadful crime of human sacrifice, but I'm afraid that the text, at least as I understand it does not let him off the hook.
See Dale Ralph Davis' commentary on Judges, (Christian Focus), p. 144 for a defence of the view that Jephthah tragically kept his vow to offer his only daughter as a burnt offering to the LORD. Ironically perhaps, DRD is the main speaker for Aber 2010.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

You are the treasure that I seek by Greg Dutcher

You are the treasure that I seek: But there's a lot of cool stuff out there, Lord,
by Greg Dutcher, Discovery House, 2009, 140pp.
1 John concludes on what seems like a rather strange note, 1 John 5:21. Idolatry - why would that be a problem for Christians? But as Dutcher demonstrates, just because we don't bow down and worship gods of wood and gold doesn't mean that we are free from idols. An idol can be anything that takes the place of God as our supreme delight and desire. A pastor can make an idol of the approval of his flock. The lust for material success can be just as much an idol as the most base graven image. What you will find here is an expose of the subtlety of idolatry. If you are anything like me, you might find that you are more of an idolater than you might have expected.
A book on the evils of idolatry might seem a bit heavy going, but Dutcher writes with a light touch and with some wry humour. His handling of the subject is steeped in Scripture and is full of thought-provoking illustrations. Dutcher knows that there is no silver bullet that will kill off our tendency towards idolatry once and for all. Believers are going to have to struggle with this problem for the rest of their lives. But he does not offer a dose of sanctification by guilt-trip, showing us the God-dishonoring folly of idolatry, and leaving us to wallow in vain regret. Neither is this a self-book that takes a therapeutic approach to idolatry. You will find no psychobabble here. Rather Dutcher points us to the cross of Jesus. When we commit idolatry we exchange the truth of God for a lie. On the cross Jesus exchanged our sin for his righteousness. He atoned for our guilt and decisively broke the power of sin. The sacrificial death of Christ only hope for idolatrous sinners. In the light of the cross we sing,
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to thy blood.
The book is full of good advice on how to diagnose the presence of idols in our lives and how to avoid idolatry in the first place. The best method of attack is to retreat from those things that have a tendency to take the place of God in our lives. Too busy watching TV to have a decent evening Quiet Time? Switch off the box. Can't go without a lunchtime sticky bun? Don't go to the bakers. Flee idolatry! But above all, Dutcher urges his readers to cherish Christ for who he is. In a Piperesque final chapter he encourages us to be so captivated by the beauty, majesty and sheer loveliness of Jesus that idols loose their fatal attraction. Appendicies offer a series of case studies and provide a useful first-aid kit for recovering idolaters.
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate'er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne.
And worship only thee.
Any book that helps us to sing Cowper's words with fresh urgency can't be bad.
* Thanks to the author and publisher for kindly sending me a review copy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Aber 2009 - Evening Meetings

We had a variety of speakers for the evening meetings, which ran from Monday to Friday. The preachers were tasked with heralding the gospel of salvation. (See here for my report of the Morning Addresses).
Jonathan Thomas of proGnosis & Very Random Thoughts was the first to preach. He gave a clear and compelling sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The parable is the most familiar of all Jesus' stories, but Thomas' handled the passage in a lively, fresh and insightful way. His headings were: 1. The greatest story ever told. 2. The greatest message ever given. 3. The greatest offer ever made. I especially liked the fact that Thomas did not neglect what the parable said about the Pharasaical older brother. The gospel is for self-righteous Pharisees as well as wanton prodigals. The gracious Father runs to embrace both types of sinner in Christ.
The veteran preacher, Richard Bewes of All Souls, Langham Place spoke twice. Every inch the grand old man of Evangelical Anglicanism, at first glance he cut a rather strange figure at the bastion of Welsh Nonconformity that is the Aber Conference. But his two messages were sound and stirring. On Tuesday evening he preached on the redeeming blood of Christ (Hebrews 9:22). The sermon lacked a certain structure, but his message was absolutely clear - without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin. A ringing declaration of penal substitutionary atonement. On Wednesday he held before us the question “Who is this?” from Matthew 21:10. More structure this time: 1. The world has not solved the enigma of this King. 2. The world has not found the equal to this King. 3. The world has not seen the last of this King. Bewes' insistence on describing conversion in terms of people "making a decision for Christ" grated a little on my Calvinistic sensibilities. But these were thrilling evangelistic messages that drew a circle in the sand around the lost and faced them with the claims of Christ.
Peter Baker preached from Mark 1:32-2:12, urging us to adopt Jesus’ own priorities, a commitment to prayer, compassion for people and the centrality of forgiveness.
Andrew Davies brought the conference to a fitting conclusion, with a sermon on the message of the three voices in Romans 10. The voice of Moses (Romans 10:5) says, "Do this and live." We cannot because sin is a cancer in the soul rather than a splinter in the finger. The voice of faith (Romans 10:6-10) says, "Believe that God raised Jesus from the dead and confess him as Lord and you will be saved." The voice of Scripture (Romans 10:11) says, "Whoever believes on him will not be put to shame."
I didn't make any of the afternoon seminars this year. But I can tell you that Joel Beeke marked the 500th birthday of Calvin with a look at the Reformer's evangelistic efforts, Ian Parry drew attention to Lloyd-Jones on evangelism and and Gwyn Davies spoke on the 1859 Revival in Wales. Our kids enjoyed the Jaber meetings for 11-14 year-olds. They had fun and games, learned about Calvin and had talks on stuff like secular humanism. When I quizzed them on the meaning of secular humanism they replied, "Don't you even know, dad?" It was good to meet up with old friends and to have fellowship with Christians I hadn't met before. See Gary Brady's jottings for more reportage.
The main speaker for Aber 2010 will be Dale Ralph Davis, with the following booked for the evening meetings: Gareth Williams, my friend Martin Downes of Against Heresies, Bill James and Stuart Olyott (9-13 August).
CDs and DVDs of all the 2009 sermons and seminars are available from the Evangelical Movement of Wales.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Aber 2009 - Morning Addresses

Every year over 1,000 people, a good number of them less than 25 years of age, descend upon Aberystwyth in the second week in August. What is it that attracts them to the west Wales seaside town? I’ll give you three guesses. Is it, a) Guaranteed sunshine, a fine sandy beach and the glimmering azure sea? b) The camera obsrura perched atop Constitution Hill? c) The Evangelical Movement of Wales ‘English Conference’?

If you opted for the last choice, then congratulations! You are absolutely correct. The Aber Conference with its “no frills” approach to worship and emphasis on the centrality of preaching is the big draw. Having laid aside my duties as Chief Steward last year, I was free to simply enjoy the conference. The main speaker at this year was Joel Beeke of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His chosen theme, spread over Tuesday to Friday mornings was ‘Contagious Christianity’. Beeke was careful to say that he did not believe that Christianity can be caught like the common cold. But we can influence others by our lives and witness to Jesus. To be contagious Christians, we need to be saved in the first place. Also, we must make use of the spiritual disciplines such as private prayer and Bible reading and avail ourselves of the means of grace in the life of the church. We should develop an evangelistic heart that desires to reach the lost for Christ. While the use of means is important, in the end only Spirit-given grace can make us contagious Christians.
Each message was based on a particular bible character whose life exemplified an aspect of spiritual contagiousness. Tuesday: Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34-40) showed contagious sacrificial submission when she gladly submitted to her father’s vow. The preacher argued that Jephthah did not actually sacrifice his only daughter as a burnt offering. Rather he insisted that she remained an unmarried virgin. Beeke gave a long list of reasons for his view, but I wasn't convinced. However we understand the fulfilment of Jephthah's vow, his daughter's self-sacrifice was certainly admirable. Like her we must learn to submit to the Lord when faced with suffering and trial. By way of application Beeke pointed out that she acknowledged the Lord, justified the Lord, approved the Lord, clung to the Lord and honoured the Lord. Her attitude was contagious. Every year the daughters of Israel commemorated her sacrificial submission.
Wednesday: When Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52 & Luke 18:43) he followed the Lord and glorified him. As a result many who saw what had happened also glorified Jesus.
Thursday: Jacob’s wrestling with God (Genesis 32:22-32) shows us that persevering prayer leads to contagious blessing. Jacob was a broken man after his encounter with God, but having prevailed with God, he was also able to prevail with men.
Friday: Lastly we looked at Daniel (Daniel 1) and the contagiousness of consistent integrity. Daniel's determination not to compromise in his youth led to a long life of faithful service.
You did not have to agree with every aspect of Beeke’s exegesis to profit from these thoughtfully structured, finely illustrated and tellingly applied messages. Experimental Puritan-Reformed preaching at its heart-warming and challenging best. Oh to be more of a contagious Christian!
CDs and DVDs of these sermons are available from the Evangelical Movement of Wales.