Monday, June 22, 2015

The Great Charter of Liberty

15th June witnessed the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, that ‘Great Charter’ of our civil liberties. Local school children took part in the celebrations in Salisbury, where a copy of the revered document is housed.  
                                                                 
‘Freedom’ is one of the watchwords of our time. We rightly celebrate freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the freedom to get on with our lives subject to the rule of law. Magna Carta continues to enshrine our right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

To be truly free is to be able to live as we should as human beings. Fish are at their most free when swimming in the sea and birds when they are flying through the air. That’s what they were made to do. Christians believe that human beings were created by God and for God. It is when we live as he intended that we find true freedom.

The human story is a struggle to find freedom from those things that enslave us and keep us down; the greed, hatred and cruelty that fuel man’s inhumanity to man. People may think that they are free when they live just how they please and give very little thought to others. But in fact they have become enslaved to selfishness.

Jesus came as the great liberator. His mission was to free us from the power of sin by his death and resurrection. In the words of what might be called the Bible’s ‘Magna Carta’ Jesus said, ‘if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.’ (John 8:36).

*For Holy Trinity Parish Magazine, Dilton Marsh and News & Views, West Lavington 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Things aren’t always what they seem


Image result for things not what they seem 
The General Election result reminds us that appearances can be misleading. In the run up to the election political pundits obsessed over what deals the Labour or Conservative parties would have to make with whatever combination of smaller parties in the event of a hung parliament. It was an acronym lover’s dream. Would we be governed by Con-Dem-Ukip-DUP, or Lab-Dem-SNP-PC-Grn, or what?

As we know, it was none of the above. The exit poll on election night and the subsequent result showed that almost all of the opinion polls were wrong and David Cameron is now back in Downing Street at the head of a Conservative majority government. Whether that's for good or ill I’ll leave you to judge, but it only goes to show that things don’t always turn out as expected.

When Jesus exercised his ministry on earth many Jewish people were looking forward to the coming Messiah. They hoped that he would smash the enemies of God’s people, overthrow Roman rule over the land of Israel, and put the world to rights. Jesus didn’t quite fit the bill. He had power alright; the power to heal and forgive. But he didn’t do a lot of enemy bashing. In fact, he taught his followers to love their enemies. When his opponents had him crucified he prayed, “Father forgive them, they know not what they are doing.”

Couldn’t have been the Messiah, then. But it was through his death on the cross that Jesus accomplished the salvation of the world. He died in weakness for our sins so that through faith in him we might be put right with God. Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God and appointed the world’s true Lord and King. False expectations can skew our understanding of reality. Things aren’t always what they seem. The once-crucified Jesus is Lord. 

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

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Independent Church: Biblically Shaped and Gospel Driven, Compiled by John Stevens


Independent Church: Biblically Shaped and Gospel Driven, 
Compiled by John Stevens, FIEC/10Publishing, 2014, 349pp.

Some would suggest that the Independent view of the church is the product of ‘don’t know any better’ default, or sheer pragmatism that sits loose with biblical principles. The key conviction of the authors of this book is that Independency is rooted in Scripture and centred on the gospel as the dynamic of church life and mission. Contributors define what is meant by Independency biblically and theologically and chart the history of Independent Churches in the UK and beyond.

While it is argued that the Independent model is shaped by the clear teaching of Scripture, the writers are not dogmatic when it comes to some of the finer points of church government and organisation. Objections to Independency, such as a tendency towards isolationism are acknowledged and measures suggested to help churches avoid becoming isolated and inward looking.

A useful chapter is devoted to Independency and the State. Independents believe in the separation of church and state, but that does not entail the view that believers should withdraw from society. Rather that Christians should seek to contribute to the common good, while affording freedom and toleration to those who do not share our faith.

Independency is not a recipe for theological anarchy and confessional confusion. Bill James advocates Independents adopting a full scale confession of faith such as the Savoy Declaration or the Second London Baptist Confession to help safeguard the distinctive doctrinal stance of the local church. A more basic statement like the FIEC Basis of Belief enables Independent Evangelical Churches to enjoy fellowship together while not always in agreement on every point of doctrine.

Attention is devoted to many other important matters such as Independency and preaching, elders, support for pastors, training for ministry, the role of women and mission. Space does not permit detailed comment on each contribution. Suffice to say that while the reader may not agree with everything in this book, the material presented will help provoke thought on the renewal of Independent church life and mission in the 21st century Britain. Free from stifling denominational structures and taking a stand against doctrinal compromise, Independent Evangelical Churches are well placed with God's help to partner together to bring the good news of Jesus to lost sinners today.

A quibble or two. I'm not sure that it is necessary (or biblical) to have women serve as deacons to ensure that female believers have a visible, full and active role in church life. And as the reading of Scripture in the context of the gathered church is an aspect of the Ministry of the Word (1 Timothy 4:13), how does having women 'do the reading' square with 1 Timothy 2:12? Like tradition, trendiness isn't always right. Andy Patterson's chapter on mission was helpful in a number of ways, but majored on church planting to the extent that mission on the part of already existing churches was not given enough emphasis. If you are a smallish church in a smallish town, planting another church isn't perhaps the best way forwards. One of the major challenges of facing the FIEC is to explore ways of revitalising smaller churches in town and village situations where the populations are overwhelmingly white British, non-professional and without a ready supply of students. Often it isn't that these smaller churches are too inward looking to bother with evangelism, or that they are too moribund and inflexible to try anything new. But workers are few,  the work is hard-going, and conversions are scarce. What's to be done to develop strategies that will help churches in settings like this flourish and grow?

This work is the product of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and sets out to advance its vision of the church. It can therefore sometimes come over a little 'in-housey'. Establishing pastor support and accountability is best done through the FIEC Pastors' Network, for example, rather than local fraternals. That said, the usefulness of this book should not be limited to FIEC churches. Believers from all gospel churches of whatever stripe when it comes to church polity will find resources here that will help them to be more biblically faithful, vibrantly gospel-centred and mission orientated. It will also help friends from non-Independent backgrounds to see that we are not Independent by default, but by firmly held and well-founded conviction.

* An edited copy of this review will be published in Evangelical Times

Monday, June 08, 2015

Cloud watching at Prior Park


Saturday is my day off and Sarah and I usually try to get out and about if we can. Last Saturday we headed for Prior Park, a National Trust property in Combe Down, Bath. It really is a remarkable spot, a verdant green valley that cuts a swathe through a densely populated urban environment.

At the base of the valley lies a Palladian Bridge spanning an ornamental lake. The Neoclassical bridge is one of only four of its kind in the world, apparently. The scene is overlooked by Ralph Allen's imposing mansion, perched on the top of the hill, "To see all Bath, and for all Bath to see". 

We took a picnic with us and settled down to eat it on a grassy slope near the bridge. The sky overhead was light blue, daubed by fluffy cotton wool clouds. I don't usually have much of an opportunity laze around watching clouds drift across the sky. It was one of those, 'What is this life if full of care/We have no time to stand  and stare' moments.

Only then I did have time to stand and stare. Well, recline and stare if truth be told. It was an delightful spectacle. No sermons to prep, pastoral visits to make, brain aching books to read, articles to write, governor stuff to see to, or household chores to do. Simply time to step off the busying /dizzying merry-go-round of the world and gaze at heavens playfully declaring the glory of God. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson

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The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson,
Puritan Paperbacks, Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, 122pp.

I was asked to speak on the subject of 'Repentance' for Bethel Evangelical Free Church's 'Away Day' at the end of May. I remembered that some time ago (probably years) I'd started to read this little book by the Puritan, Thomas Watson. However, I only got through a chapter or two before laying it aside. Don't know why. Having agreed to speak on 'Repentance' I thought it might be an idea to take up the book once more and give it a proper read. 

Glad I did too. While some Puritans can be rather ponderous and labyrinthine in style (yes, I do mean you, John Owen), Watson is a delightful read. Short, pithy sentences, vivid illustrations, quotable quotes, meaty doctrine, telling applications. It's all there. 

In this work Watson carefully explains the nature of true repentance and calls for repentance without delay. It's weighty, heart-searching stuff, but done with a winsome lightness of touch, Objections are dealt with and means for inducing repentance are urged upon the reader. 

The Bethel 'Away Day' not only reacquainted me with Thomas Watson, it also reacquainted Sarah and I with Cloverley Hall Christian Conference Centre. We used to attend young people's holidays there before we were married. Happy memories. Like relaxing by the pool, reading The Fight of Faith, vol 2 of Iain Murray's biog of Lloyd-Jones. One sunny afternoon the stripey canvas deck chair on which I was sitting gave way and I ended up stuck in the wooden frame in a rather undignified tangle, much to everyone's amusement. Must have been the weight of Murray's book, rather than my mid 20's self that did that. Was all skin and bones back then. Anyway, I digress...  

My talk wasn't based on Watson's work as such, but it proved a helpful stimulus and provided some juicy quotes. It was a reminder that Puritan preaching at its best addressed the mind with reasoned arguments, captured the imagination with attention-grabbing word pictures, challenged the conscience with the light of God's truth and called for a radical change of life through repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ. Come to think of it, those aren't simply characteristics of Puritan preaching at its best, but of preaching pure and simple. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants by Greg Nichols

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Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants,
Greg Nichols, Solid Ground Christian Books, 2014 edition, 365pp

Did you read that right, a book on covenant theology by a Baptist? Isn't that a bit self-defeating, like Turkeys voting for Christmas? Listening to some Paedobaptists you'd think that they had cornered the market when it comes to covenant theology and that the Baptist position is based on a few odd proof texts pulled at random from the New Testament. Nichols shows that this isn't the case at all. That said, his book isn't a polemical axe-grinder, where the author sets out to biff Paedobaptists by hoisting them on their own covenant petard. This work attempts to make a constructive contribution to our understanding of covenant theology. Its advocacy of the Baptist view is irenic in tone and all the more persuasive for its peaceableness.

Nichols begins by discussing covenant theology in the creedal and theological heritage of the church. This historical perspective highlights some mistakes to be avoided when grappling with the covenants revealed in Holy Scripture and also unearths important insights from which we can learn as we take a fresh look at the biblical material. The main body of the work is expositional. The writer gives an overview of the Biblical Testimony, charts the overarching Covenant of Grace and then discusses the biblical covenants in historical order; Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic (Old), Davidic, New and Messianic. This 'biblical theology' approach has the advantage of enabling Nichols to trace lines of continuity and discontinuity between the various covenants.

Each chapter is replete with an in-depth study of the biblical materials, an analysis of the leading features of each covenant and some reflection on matters of practical application. The use of diagrammatic charts helps to clarify things, ensuring the reader doesn't get lost in the wealth of expositional detail. Nichols handles the biblical teaching in a fresh and insightful way. Even the most seasoned student of covenant theology will learn a thing or two on studying this work.

When it comes to the Baptistic bit, the book's main point is that in the New Covenant there is no distinction between outward covenant membership by natural descent and actual participation in saving grace. Being a child of Abraham and having the covenant sign of circumcision in one's flesh did not mean that one's heart was circumcised. In the New Covenant it is expected that members of the covenant community have repented from their sins, believed the gospel and been baptised. While this does not mean that every member of every local church is a true believer, there is a much more organic relationship between outward membership and inward grace under the New Covenant than ever was the case in any of the Old Testament covenants.

Appendices are devoted to the Eternal Counsel of Redemption and the Adamic Covenant. The author's treatment of the former is alert to the trinitarian dimensions of the doctrine. He safeguards the oneness of God's being and will, while at the same time giving due attention to the different roles ascribed in Scripture to each person of the Trinity. The Father decisively gives a people to his Son and sends him to save them, while the Son deferentially receives the elect and is sent into the world to rescue them. The Holy Spirit is bestowed by the Father upon the Son for the work of redemption and poured out upon the church by the Father and the Son. While all three persons are equal, that does not mean they are interchangeable. When it comes to the Adamic Covenant, Nichols departs from the standard 'covenant of works' view, according to which Adam had to earn the blessings of the covenant for himself and his posterity by keeping the commandment laid upon him by God. The writer sees this as legalistic and reductionist and offers a much more rich and nuanced account of the Adamic Covenant that posits Adam as God's son rather than simply his subject.

This immensely insightful and stimulating work will repay careful and prayerful study. Nichols writes not simply with the skill and acumen of a practiced theologian, but also as a child of God whose soul has been gripped by the wonder of God's covenant grace towards undeserving sinners.

Highly recommended.