Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Fight of Your Life: Facing & Resisting Temptation, by John Stevens

Christian Focus, 2019, 160pp

Evangelists who tell people that if they become a Christian they are in for a trouble free life are just being silly. When you think of following Jesus, the appropriate image isn't one of lolling around in a hammock strung between two palm trees as the sea gently laps against the beach. Think of  manning the ramparts at the battle of Helm's Deep, with Orcs and other nasties bearing down on you. That's more like it. The believer has been enlisted as a soldier of Jesus Christ. Combating sin and resisting temptation is the order of the day. 

Teaching on the Christian life has sometimes swung between extremes of happy go lucky triumphalism and miserable defeatism. The old style Keswick view offered a 'higher life', free of struggles with sin to those who had experienced the 'second blessing'. Reformed writers such as J. C. Ryle and J. I. Packer gave a more sober and realistic account of Christian experience. They tended to view Romans 7:13-25 as the apostle's description of the believer in their attempt to resist the power of sin, 'For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing'. (Romans 7:19). 

John Stevens rightly sees Romans 7:13-25 not as a snippet of autobiography by Paul the believer, but a description of someone convicted of sin under the law. The believer's experience in relation to sin is better captured in Romans 6 & 8. I think it's only fair to say that Ryle, Packer and others had more to say on the Christian life than is seen in their view of Romans 7. The tradition they represent teaches that the believer may and should successfully combat sin and resist temptation by virtue of their union with Christ and the indwelling presence of the Spirit. You'll certainly find many such a call in Ryle's Holiness and in Jim Packer's writings. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones agrees with Stevens's take on Romans 7 (see his expositions of Romans 6, 7 & 8, Banner of Truth Trust).

A lack of historical perspective is a weakness in this work. Classic treatments of the believer's struggle with sin and temptation are neglected. Other writers tend to be cited to decorative effect, rather than Stevens seriously engaging with their ideas. Reference is made to a saying by Billy Graham culled from Gathered Gold, a book of quotations by John Blanchard. The aphorism is helpful enough, I guess, but the temptation to draw on such a work should have been resisted. 

The emphasis here is on giving fresh attention to the relevant biblical materials and points of practical application. The author is sure footed and insightful when it comes to scriptural exposition and theological reflection. He is pastorally sensitive and yet robust in working through what his teaching means in practice. Some believers feel defeated because they feel tempted to commit certain sins and experience desires for that which is sinful. Christians struggling with same sex attraction are given as a case in point. But, as Stevens argues in an introductory chapter, 'Is Temptation Sin?', we need to make a clear distinction between temptation and sin. See James 1:13-15. Indeed, Jesus was 'in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin'. (Hebrews 4:15).

The believer experiences temptation from within, but they are not now in a position of defeat as was the case before they were in Christ. Their hearts are no more wholly biased towards sin, (Jeremiah 17:9). The Christian has been given a new heart and is a new creation, Jeremiah 31:33, 2 Corinthians 5:17. None the less, Stevens overstates the case when he says, "God's people are no longer tempted because they have fallen corrupt hearts" (p. 46). Our hearts are not yet fully renewed, and as the author points out, the believer is still in the flesh, with a sinful nature. But we only sin when we inflame the 'desires of the flesh' and act on them. The Holy Spirit enables the believer to resist these desires, Galatians 5:16. By the Spirit we must 'put to death the deeds of the body' (Romans 8:13).

Sin is subtle, however, and the workings of the flesh aren't always easy to detect. We are not necessarily aware of the ways in which our desires and deeds are disordered by sin. An element in spiritual growth is an increased sensitivity to sin's inward curve, and with it, renewed contrition, confession and repentance. The Christian life, therefore, is one of ongoing mortification (putting sin to death) and vivification (bringing holiness to life).

Temptations also come from without through the world and the devil. Satan may not personally be behind most of the temptations believers face, but the evil one pulls fallen humanity in sinful directions that are a source of temptation to the Christian. To take one example, the pagan world of the New Testament period was rife with sexual immorality. The contemporary world is often highly sexualised. The Christian is called to faithfulness within marriage, or celibacy for those who are single. The church is under pressure to change its teaching and believers may face sexual temptation, but we must avoid allowing the world to shape us into its mould, Romans 12:2. The same applies to other areas of temptation. While the devil is powerful, we are commanded to resist him, 1 Peter 5:8-9. The Christian soldier must take the 'whole armour of God' that we may stand firm in the evil day of temptation, Ephesians 6:10-18.

And it's not a losing battle. Christ has freed believers from the reign of sin. In him the Christian has died to that which once held us captive. We have been raised to a new life of righteousness that leads to holiness, Romans 6:1-4. The believer is no longer under the law, which demands our obedience and exposes our sin, yet has no power to enable us to do what God commands of us. As Paul teaches, 'you have died to the law through the body of Christ... in order that we may bear fruit for God' (Romans 7:4). The apostle elaborates, 'the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but the Spirit'. (Romans 8:4).

Stevens gives helpful guidance on how to resist temptation. The believer must be watchful, avoid those things that may provoke temptation and trust in the promises of God's word. We need to cultivate a hatred of sin and Satan, and develop a deeper love for the Lord who has saved us by his grace. Resistance of temptation isn't futile because the believer has been united to Christ and is indwelt by the Spirit, 'greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.' (1 John 4:4).

The author is realistic enough to know that for as long as we are in the flesh we will not always resist the pull of temptation. While sin cannot sever the believer's union with Christ, it does affect our communion with him and must therefore be taken seriously. The Christian who has sinned must return to the Lord in repentance and faith, with the assurance that as we confess our sin, he will forgive us and restore us to fellowship with himself. Where patterns of sin are not repented of, but rather persisted in, that may be evidence that a person was never a true believer in the first place.

The fight against temptation and sin will only be over when the Christian is called into the presence of Christ at death, awaiting the resurrection of the body. Believers who are alive when Jesus returns will immediately be transformed into the image of the risen Lord. Then we will be free from both internal and external sources of temptation. Until that day let us, 'fight the good fight', confident that we are, 'more than conquerors through him who loved us' (2 Timothy 4:7, Romans 8:37).

No Christian is exempt from the struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. All believers will find help here as they seek to resist temptation, drawing on the resources that are ours in Christ. Those endeavouring to lay aside certain 'besetting sins' will benefit from the encouragement and challenge Stevens provides in these pages. Pastors will find this book useful, both in terms of their own spiritual walk and as they seek to equip the flock to engage in the fight of their lives.

* Thanks to John Stevens for sending me a free copy of this book. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland

Little Brown, 2019, 594pp

When Paul arrived in Corinth sometime in the early 50s AD, the apostle was aware of the intellectual pretensions of that great city. The rock stars of the day were not musicians, but orators. Public speakers could command a handsome fee for their highfalutin disquisitions on aspects of philosophy.  'Greeks seek wisdom' (1 Corinthians 1:22). Paul's approach was very different. "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). The apostle's message was scandalous to the Jewish inhabitants of the city and utter folly to the cultured Greeks. Everyone knew that there was nothing more shameful and degrading than crucifixion. The idea that a crucified man was the Son of God and Saviour of the world was utter nonsense. Yet some believed, and a church was gathered in Corinth. The churches Paul planted and the letters he wrote to them changed the course of history.  

Dominion is the story of how this message of "Jesus Christ and him crucified" had a transforming effect on Western culture. As a boy Holland was fascinated by ancient Greek and Roman history. In their overweening power and brutality heroes of that age seemed more like terrifying dinosaurs than mere men. Holland went on to author several bestselling books on the period,  Rubicon,  Persian Fire, and Dynasty  But as he wrote these histories the writer found himself strangely repelled by by the enormities of the great men of Greece and Rome. The Spartans despised weakness and would expose sickly babies. Julius Caesar slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved a million more to get a name for himself and was duly acclaimed as a hero of Rome. We think, 'not so nice'. 

It dawned on the writer that he had viewed ancient Greece and Rome through Christian spectacles, or at lest through lenses that had been ground into shape by two millennia of Christian history. The Christian faith inverted the values of antiquity. Suffering not slaughtering was heroic, weakness was strength, shame was glory. For at the heart of the Christian faith was 'Jesus Christ and him crucified', the belief that the Son of God took the form of a slave and died for the sins of the world. The cross, which had been a brutal token of Roman power was transformed into a symbol of redemptive love. For Christians this Jesus, risen and ascended, not Caesar was was world's true Lord. Those who suffered with him would also share his glory. This world-upending message brought down the lofty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.

Dominion is not a work of theology. Neither is it a conventional church history. Rather, Holland has sought to identify ways in which the Christian faith reconfigured what he calls 'the Western Mind'. Fittingly enough, his account is structured to reflect the Bible's own numeric symbolism, where the numbers three and seven are of special importance. The work is divided into three main parts, Antiquity, Christendom and Modernitas, each part having seven chapters, which, in turn have three sections a piece. The chapters begin with a vignette that sets up the theme about to be explored. While Holland is an admirer of the Christian faith, he doesn't shy away from depicting occasions when believers failed to live up to their best principles. Rightly so. Reading his previous books I'd always enjoyed the author's sweeping, cinematic style and eye for telling (usually gory) detail. I sometimes wondered what it might be like if he turned his hand to Christian history; the origins of the faith and its impact on the world. Well, here goes. 

The gospel

In setting out the key elements of the Christian faith Holland doesn't begin with the Gospel accounts, but the writings of the apostle Paul. His letters, were, after all the earliest New Testament documents. For the apostle the crucifixion of Jesus was not an embarrassment to be hushed up, but the fact that he placed literally at the crux of his teaching, 'the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me' (Galatians 2:20). This was deeply personal, but also of universal significance. As a Jew who was steeped in Old Testament Scriptures, Paul believed that all human beings were made in the image of God. As a Christian he taught that Jesus had died for people of all nations. Through Jesus the God of Israel would become the God of all peoples and all peoples would become one in Christ, (Galatians 3:28).

The teaching of Paul's New Testament letters sent seismic shocks rippling around the world and down the centuries to this present day. Paul explained that the old covenant in which the Ten Commandments were engraved on tablets of stone had gone. Jesus had ushered in a new covenant in which the law was written on the hearts of believers by the Spirit, 2 Corinthians 3:3. Even non-Christians had the 'works of the law' written on their hearts, giving them a sense of right and wrong, Romans 2:14. Paul helped develop the idea of the conscience as an inbuilt moral arbiter, Romans 2:15. Unlike in Islam Christian's didn't demand a direct divine command for every rule and regulation in society. Man-made rules based on 'the light of nature' would suffice. This helped to pave the way for Church lawyers to develop the concept of natural law and human rights in the Medieval period. Which, in turn helped to pave the way for Western secular states, subject to the rule of human law.

Freedom for the captives 

If all human beings are made in the image of God, each with unique dignity and value and 'in Christ there is neither slave nor free' (Galatians 3:28), that makes the institution of slavery highly problematic. Yet slavery was regarded as a normal part of life in ancient times. It was rife in Greece and Rome. The Church Father Gregory of Nyssa preached against slavery in the strongest terms.  But it wasn't until the 18th century that Christians more widely began to grasp that slavery was an intolerable evil that had to be stamped out.  Did not Christ die the death of a common slave to redeem us from slavery to sin? Quakers and Evangelicals threw themselves into the campaign for the abolition of slavery, championed by William Wilberforce. 

Protestant England persuaded Catholic France to follow suit, arguing not so much from biblical principles as did the Evangelicals, but by appealing to the Roman Catholic idea of 'human rights'. This universalising tendency was extended further as British imperialists sought to pressurise Islamic countries to abolish slavery, this time appealing (with little basis) to Muslim texts. And so the idea of culture-transcending universal human rights, beloved of liberals and neo-conservatives alike was born.

Husbands love your wives 

A Roman nobleman felt himself entitled to have sex with any socially inferior woman (man or child) he pleased. Repeated rape and sexual assault was the lot of female slaves. Christians taught that women as well as men were created in the image of God and that women should therefore be treated with dignity and respect. Men and women were of equal spiritual standing in Christ, for in him there was 'neither male or female' (Galatians 3:28). Men were not to impose themselves on women, but restrain their sexual urges. Sex should only be enjoyed within the confines of marriage. Marriage between a man and woman was intended to be a picture of Christ's love for his bride, the church, Ephesians 5:22-33.

Following on from this, the Puritans of the 17th century insisted that men treat women with the utmost propriety. They took delight in the loving intimacy of marriage, but frowned on sex outside of that context. Christians held family life in high honour and regarded having and bringing up children  to be a noble calling. Weakly infants were to be cherished and cared for, not exposed and left to die. The Medieval noblewoman Elizabeth of Hungary devoted herself to rescuing abandoned babies. Apart from the value attached to women by the Christian faith it is unlikely that the struggle for women's rights would ever have got off the ground.

Reform 

The abolition of slavery and the better treatment of women are but two examples of Christians attempting to reorder the world in line with their faith. Throughout Christian history the church has been swept by reformatio movements, the aim of which was to purify the church of corruption and turn the world upside down. Pope Gregory VII was concerned that the church had come too much under the sway of earthly rulers. He asserted the spiritual power of the church over and against the secular realm. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV made the mistake of offending Gregory, who promptly excommunicated him, thus absolving the Emperor's subjects of their loyalty. Henry had to head across the Alps to Canossa, groveling for the pope's forgiveness.

Separation between the religious and the secular can be traced back to Augustine. When the Roman Empire fell, people worried that the kingdom of God would fall with it. This prompted Augustine to write The City of God, in which he distinguished between the shifting world of the secularia, of which earthly empires were a part, and religio, devotion to God of which the church was an expression. The separation of church and state in modern democratic societies is a development of this deeply Christian way of viewing the world.

The Reformation was one of the most convulsive reformatio episodes. In this instance, rather than the papacy reforming abuses in the church, the pope himself was charged with presiding over a corrupt and ungodly system. Famously Martin Luther refused to back down at the Diet of Worms, his conscience was bound by the word of God and he would accept no other authority. The church had to be reformed according to the teaching of Scripture. Romish superstitions; indulgences, relics and masses had to go. Paul's gospel of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone was brought to light and proclaimed afresh to the people. The religious life of devotion to God was not now the preserve of priests, monks and nuns. All the Lord's people were priests and were called to serve God faithfully in their daily callings. This had the unintended effect of privitising faith as a purely spiritual matter, leaving little room for religious expression in the secular realm. It also enabled English Protestant empire builders to make a distinction between the Hindu 'religion' of India and disagreeable cultural practices, like widow burning.

Enlightenment 

Drawing upon the Reformation teaching on the witness of the Spirit to the truth of the Bible, Evangelicals in the 18th century would speak of the enlightenment of the Spirit that gave them fresh insight into Scripture. This enlightenment had a transforming effect on their personal lives and led to attempts at reforming society, the abolition of slavery being one example. A line can be traced from Medieval reform movements, to the Reformation, to the Evangelical Revival. But these were attempts to reshape the church and the world in line with the Christian faith. 

In the 18th century others proclaimed a new age of Enlightenment, not because they understood the Bible in a new way, but because they rejected it in favour of science and reason. The object of their reforming zeal was an overmighty church that had to be cut down to size so that people could be set free from oppression and religious superstition. As Holland points out, the irony was that Enlightenment rationalists had bought into the Christian idea of pulling the lofty from their thrones and exalting the lowly. They took that a little too literally in Revolutionary France. Similarly, today's woke lefties with their hierarchy of oppressed victims are, consciously or not, drawing upon a faith that has Jesus 'crucified in weakness' at its heart.

Post-Christianity 

Dominion is a meditation on the transformative effects of Christianity on Western culture. But it also exposes the dangers inherent in 'cultural Christianity', where the moral imperatives of the faith are uncoupled from the theological indicatives of the gospel of Christ. You end up with a selective appropriation of Christian morality that is devoid of spiritual power. The result both for the church and wider society is often disastrous. Holland gives the example of Elizabeth of Hungary in the Middle Ages, who submitted to horrific abuse at the hands of churchman 'Master Conrad' in an attempt to save her soul. Luther would have told her to trust in Christ. Witness also the 'Great Terror' of the French Revolution. Unwittingly #MeToo feminists are busily demanding a return to the old Puritan emphasis on respect for women and male self-restraint. The Puritans, however, would have deprecated woke identity politics with its virtue signalling and self-righteous denunciation of opponents. The old Puritans were too conscious of their own sins and too aware of their need of God's grace for that.

More troubling even than 'cultural Christianity' is 'post-Christianity'. Frenchman Marquis de Sade and German Frederich Nietzsche both despised the Christian faith with its bias towards the weak and downtrodden. They favoured the stance of the ancient Greeks and Romans, 'let the weak be crushed and the strong dominate'. Nietzsche pronounced, 'God is dead'. In his place was the 'will to power' that brooked no opposition from Christian scruples. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution put the accent on the 'survival of the fittest' in the natural world. Eugenicists applied the same insight to the human race. Nazi Germany put these 'post-Christian' ideas into practice. The disabled and people regarded as morally degenerate were marked out for elimination to preserve the purity of the Aryan race. Millions of Jews were consigned to the gas chambers. Against this backdrop J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings as a warning against man's urge to seek power at all costs, 'One ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them'.

The audacity of the cross 

Holland's cinematic sweep of Christian history is full of interest as he zooms in on key characters in the unfolding drama and zooms out again to reveal big themes that recur throughout the book. The cast includes Paul, Augustine, Gregory VII, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, John Calvin and John Lennon. Paul McCartney may have dismissed Christianity as 'goody-goody' stuff, but in singing, 'All You Need Is Love', The Beatles betrayed the their Christian influences. No other faith tells us "God is love", "God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us", and "love is the fulfilling of the law" (1 John 4:8, Romans 5:8, 13:10).

The historian concludes his brilliantly written account on a personal note. He confesses to having a rather fluctuating Christian faith, with perhaps one breakthrough moment. When making a film on Islamic State, Holland was close to an area where the Islamists had crucified their enemies, much as did the Romans. The cross in that context was an instrument of terror, the threat of which cowed people into submission. It was totally devoid of any Christian connotations as a symbol of self-giving love and forgiveness. That seemed to speak to Holland in a deep way, but I sense he's not quite there yet in terms of personal faith in Christ.

As the writer himself says, "To be a Christian is to believe that God became man, and suffered a death as terrible as any mortal has ever suffered. This is why the cross, that ancient instrument of torture, remains what it always has been: the fitting symbol of the Christian revolution. It is the audacity of it - the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe - that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilisation to which it gave birth'. (p. 524). Which takes us back to the apostle Paul and his determination to make the cross the heart of his message, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." 

Dominion 

Jesus called his followers to be the 'salt of the earth' and the 'light of the world'. By their words and actions believers are meant to make a difference. But Christianity is not ultimately a project of cultural transformation. Its scriptures herald a new Dominion, the kingdom of God. This dominion is different to the kingdoms of this world. It advances not by military or political power, but by the preaching of the cross in the power of God's Spirit. The American edition of Holland's work has on its cover Salvador Dali's painting, Christ the King. It depicts Jesus ruling the world from his cross. His is a kingdom in which the King was crucified in weakness, but now lives by the power of God. Cultural Christianity admires the faith for its benefits, often picking and choosing the bits it likes, while rejecting the rest. But the kingdom of God is not to be selectively admired from outside, but entered as a person is transformed on the inside. As Jesus told the Pharisee Nicodemus as recorded in the Gospel of John, "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3).

Friday, January 10, 2020

Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland [mini review]


As a child the historian Tom Holland was fascinated by the ancient Romans and Greeks. Holland, who hails from Wiltshire, went on to author several bestselling books on Roman and Greek history, Rubicon, Persian Fire and Dynasty. But the more he got into the ancient world, the more morally repellent he found the ‘heroes’ of that age. It was said that Julius Caesar slaughtered a million Gauls and forced another million into slavery. Rather condemning Caesar as a genocidal war criminal, the citizens of Rome hailed him as a mighty leader whose exploits redounded to the glory of the Empire.

Holland became increasingly aware that his perspective on life was vastly different to that of the old Romans and Greeks. He realised that his idea of what’s right and wrong had been formed by a culture that had been deeply influenced by the Christian faith. In his most recent book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, Holland shows how our commonly accepted moral values were shaped by Christian teachings. We take it as self-evident that all people should be treated with dignity and respect. But that belief didn’t come from nowhere.

The Bible insists that all human beings are made in the image of God and are deserving of love and care from womb to tomb. The value of human life is underlined by the belief that in Jesus our Creator became one of us. He came to suffer and die on the cross that we might be forgiven and be put right with God. “It is the audacity of it”, writes Holland, “the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe”.

We went to hear the author give a talk on Dominion towards the end of last year and I’ve just finished reading the book. It’s a brilliantly written account of the impact of the Christian faith on Western culture and values, covering everything from the Bible to The Beatles, Monasteries to #MeToo. Holland is not a personal believer in Jesus Christ. He calls himself a ‘cultural Christian’. But he recognises that the ‘molten heart’ of the Christian revolution is the cross of Jesus. The message of the cross turned the world upside down, exalting the lowly and humbling the mighty.

For the Romans, crucifixion was a symbol of brute power, ‘this is what you get if you mess with us’.  Since Jesus the cross has an altogether different message, ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ The love of God that streams from the cross changed the course of history and is still transforming lives today.

*Write-up for local publications: White Horse News, Trinity Magazine and News & Views. A full review can now be found here