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Monday, February 06, 2023

Living

It comes to us all. The children have flown the roost. You go to the cinema to see a superhero blockbuster. Batman, Superman, or some other character in a cape does battle with a baddie who threatens to destroy the world . Skyscrapers crumble around them and taxis fly through the air. It’s loud and visually stunning. Yet without the teenagers in tow it dawns on you that you’re not really enjoying this stuff anymore. And anything in 3D just gives you a headache. Reached that stage yet? I have.

My favourite film of 2022 was probably Living, staring Bill Nighy as an ageing civil servant, Mr. Williams. The actor has received an Oscar nomination for the role. His character’s life is stuck on hold in a bureaucratic machine. County Hall where he works  seems to operate with the sole purpose of stopping anything happening that would improve the lot of 1950’s Londoners. No capes are donned. No skyscrapers crumble, but the movie packs a powerful punch. Mr. Williams receives the devastating news that he is terminally ill. His first response is to try and live it up a bit with a trip to the seaside. But escapism fails to satisfy his desire to live out his days well, rather than just existing for the drudgery of the office.  

Although what does it for Mr Williams is returning to work. He unites his team in a project that will actually do something for the ordinary people of London, a city that has not yet been rebuilt following the Blitz. The message of the film is that we find purpose in life by doing things that make a difference for others. The final scenes are almost unbearably poignant.

Jesus said, ‘I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly’. That’s why he died for his people on the cross and rose from the dead. But Jesus’ vision of abundant life isn’t an endless round of parties, glitz and glamour. He called upon his followers to love their neighbour as themselves, to care for the sick and feed the poor. Life to the full is for those who believe in the Lord Jesus, die to self and give their lives in the service of others. That’s living alright.  

* For the February 2023 edition of various local magazines 

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Deity & Decree, by Samuel D. Renihan

 Published in the UK by Broken Warfe, 2021, 134pp.

Evangelicals rightly demand theological precision and accuracy when it comes to the doctrine of Scripture, or justification by faith alone. Any drift from biblical inerrancy is detected and rejected in short order. Similarly when it comes to including works in justification. 'By faith alone, by grace alone', we insist. The same theological care isn't necessarily displayed when attention turns to the doctrine of God. Some contemporary Evangelical theologians suggest that belief in divine impassibility makes seem God cold and remote. Others have argued that the Son stands in a eternal relationship of submission and authority to the Father. 

Part of the problem is that Evangelicalism contents itself with brief statements of belief, as opposed to elaborate confessions of faith. Compare the Doctrinal Basis of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches with the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689. Point 1 of the FIEC Doctrinal Basis has a 54 word statement on 'God'. What it says is perfectly fine and good. But by way of contrast, the 2LBCF Chapter 2 devotes three paragraphs totalling 408 words to 'Of God and the Trinity'. The older confession self-consciously echoes the creedal heritage of the church and gives expression to what is sometimes called the 'classic doctrine of God', 'The Lord our God is a... most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions'. Renihan wants to recover the older emphasis of the confession. 

If the doctrine of God is 'first theology' and of primary importance, we need to ensure that what we say of God is biblically accurate and informed by the theological reflection of the past. That is where Deity & Decree comes in. With impressive clarity and brevity Renihan gives attention to God's Unity, Triunity and Decree. 

God's Unity: God is self existent, with life in himself. He is uncaused cause of all things. God's attributes such as his omnipotence, holiness and love are not the bits of which his being is composed. God is simple, having no component parts. All that is in God is essential to God, because all that is in God is God. That is why he cannot change. An unchanging God is not susceptible to suffering. There is nothing within the being of the ever blessed God that could cause him to suffer. Suffering cannot be imposed upon him from without, as that would give the created order an advantage over him, compromising his omnipotence and immutability. The impassible God is not cold, or remote, however, for God is love, full of self-generated compassion and mercy towards lost sinners. The move towards attributing suffering to God's being risks compromising the uniqueness of the incarnation of the Son of God. In Christ as man God did what is impossible for him to do as God namely, to suffer and die for sinners. 

God's Trinity: The Bible reveals that in the one God there are three persons, or subsistences: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All three persons are equally and fully God, yet the Three are not interchangeable. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is these personal properties alone that distinguish the persons. We may not ascribe an attribute such as authority to the Father and submission to the Son in terms of their eternal relations. The Son has the same power and authority as the Father because he is of the same essence as the Father. But there is an order in the Trinity and the missions of the three persons in the world of time reflect the eternal relations. The Father sent the Son into the world at his incarnation. The Father and Son poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church on the Day of Pentecost. Getting the Trinity right isn't theological hair splitting. As the Second London Baptist Confession states, "which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on Him." (2:3). 

God's Decree:  The decree is a simple, eternal and sovereign act of God's being. The Almighty's unchangeable decree, however, does not reduce creatures to the status of puppets in his hands. As the confession makes clear, "nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears His wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing His decree." (3:1). The decree does not make God the author sin, which he willingly permits for his own ends. Neither does it  deprive human beings of  responsibility to God for their actions. God decreed the salvation of his people not because of anything in them, but because of his own free grace given them in Christ before the foundation of the world. Those not elected to salvation are passed by according to God's decree. The cause of the damnation of the wicked is not the divine will per se, but their own sin, which rightly deserves eternal punishment. 

In line with the Reformed Catholic tradition Renihan insists that God's decree is the expression of his will which is a property of the divine being, not the persons of the Trinity. This cuts across the idea proposed by some contemporary Evangelicals that the Son's will was eternally subordinate to that of the Father. The divine will is common to all three persons of the Trinity in the being of God. The Son, as well as the Father and the Holy Spirit was therefore party to the decree of salvation. The Son's submission to the Father in the economy of redemption cannot be read back into the eternal relations of the Trinity. 

Renihan handles the biblical materials underlying God's Unity, Trinity and Decree with insight and care. His treatment of these topics is enriched by the Great Tradition of Christian thought, especially writers of the Reformation and Puritan periods. The author's prose is limpid and precise, yet his tone  tone is meditative and devotional. A fine work of 'first theology' that demands a response of joyful doxology of the reader:
Glory be to God the Father. Glory be to God the Son. Glory be to God the Holy Spirit. 
Glory be to the only, living, true, and triune God.

Monday, December 12, 2022

‘Glory to the New-born King'

So says the chorus of a favourite carol, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. But why should glory be ascribed to the new-born Jesus? After all, he would have looked much like every other baby. Cute, yes, but worthy of the angels’ praise? I know artists often portray the infant in the manger as if he glowed in the dark with heavenly splendour, but that has no basis in fact. If anything, the Bible stresses how ordinary looking was Jesus. He ‘took the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’ wrote the apostle Paul. As with any other baby, Jesus was weak and totally helpless, ‘tears and smiles like us he knew’.

Yet Christians believe that he who as an infant was cradled in his mother Mary’s arms, was also the eternal Word of God who upheld the universe by his divine power. He is fully God, the Father’s only Son as well as fully human. That is why angels worshipped the new-born King. They recognised him as their Maker made flesh. Another reason for worship is what Jesus was sent into the world to do. As the angel of the Lord explained to startled shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.’

God became man in Jesus because we needed a Saviour. That tells us something about the human condition. The Bible tells us, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. We are incapable of saving ourselves from sin, otherwise God would have left us to get on with it. Jesus came to live a life of perfect obedience to God on our behalf. He then laid down his life as a sacrifice for sin. His death was sufficient to rescue the world from sin. That’s because it was the Son of God in human form who suffered in our place at the cross.

Jesus is the King of love. He was born in the royal city of David. He was crucified as ‘King of the Jews’ to win us a place in God’s eternal kingdom. He rose from the dead and was exalted to the right hand of the Father, where he reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords. He is able to save completely those who put their trust in him.  Will you join the angels in singing, ‘glory to the new-born King!’?

Christmas Services at Providence & Ebenezer

* For the Christmas/New Year editions of several parish magazines 

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

History on Fast Forward

I’m old enough to remember life before music could be downloaded or streamed. I can even remember when CDs were a novelty, rather than old hat. Apart from a few cassettes most of my teenage music purchases were on vinyl and had to be played on a record player. Records had two sizes and speeds. Albums had to be played on 33rpm, singles on 45rpm. If you forgot to flip the switch from 45rpm when listening to an album it would play at high speed and at a higher pitch than was intended. You could produce the same effect by pressing the ‘play’ and ‘fast forward’ buttons at the same time on a cassette player. That was our idea of fun in the 1970’s and 80s. We didn’t have TikTok and stuff back then.

Right now it seems like the album of history is being played at 45rpm. It’s a pain if you have to submit a monthly article like this one, which sometimes includes comment on current affairs. As I write this just before the deadline, Kwasi Kwarteng has been sacked as Chancellor and Jeremy Hunt has been appointed in his place. Prime Minister Liz Truss has vowed to carry on, but who knows who’ll be PM by the time you read this in November? In September Boris Johnson stood down, Liz Truss took over and then the Queen died. Now we’re all having to get used to singing, ‘God save our gracious King’. It’s all happening too fast.

It’s much better when history proceeds at a glacial pace and nothing much seems to be going on. But time is hurtling by at a dizzying speed. The key thing is to have the wisdom to know what do to with the brief span allotted to us. We live in a day of great gospel opportunity. God has sent his Son the Lord Jesus to die for our sins and rise again from the dead. Jesus now calls us to put our faith in him that we may be forgiven and have the hope of eternal life. History seems to be stuck on fast forward. In the words of the old hymn, ‘swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day’. So, hurry up and wait for what’s worth waiting for. Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.

*For November edition of various parish mags

Saturday, August 13, 2022

An unexpected visit to the National Gallery


The car started to make a funny noise as we travelled to London for a family visit. The idea was that we would stay in London from Thursday to Saturday and then set off to Eastbourne for a two week break. 

But as we turned off the M4 we noticed the car sounded a bit odd. Like our old school unleaded guzzling Ford Focus had transitioned into a whining elecric job. Freaky. On arriving at our destination a peek under the bonnet revealed a fluid leak. Not engine oil, but whatever it was, there was quite a bit of it. Too much to risk proceeding with our journey without getting it looked at. 

A visit to a garage on Saturday morning revealed that the power steering pipe needed replacing. Couldn't be done until Monday at the earliest. We were stuck. In London. Where there's always stuff to see and do.

Like arty stuff in an air conned gallery during yet another summer 2022 hot spell. And so we braved the sweltering Bakerloo line and headed for the effortlessly cool National Gallery. 

We hadn't visited for years, so it was like bumping into old friend after old friend as we wandered through the various exhibition rooms. There's Rembrandt as a young man and then as an oldie. The greatest self-portraits ever? And his epic Belshazzar's Feast. 

I wanted to see Turner's The Fighting Temeraire. There it was. Like, wow. The ghostly old ship being towed to the breaker's yard by the fiery, modern tug boat. That sunset. On the way we saw Gainsborough's portraits of gentry couples proudly posing on their estates, shooting a confident gaze at their  viewers. Placed next to tenderly intimate depictions of the painter's young daughters. 

Then the Monets and Reniors. Not to mention Van Gogh's Sunflowers, Chair and Wheat Field. It was the visual eqivalent of playing a setlist of all your favorite songs, with some welcome surprises thrown in. And this was a rushed 2 hour visit in which we sampled only some of the artworks on display in the grandeur of the National Gallery. All for free. To think, we could have been travelling to Eastbourne. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

An Introduction to John Owen: A Christian Vision for Every Stage of Life, by Crawford Gribben


Crossway, 2020, 190pp

Crawford Gribben has written a full scale biography of John Owen entitled, John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat. This is something different. Here Owen's story is interwoven with his teachings on how the Christian faith casts light on every stage of life, from childhood to death and eternal life. Novices will find this a useful way of getting into Owen and will be stimulated to dive deeper. Seasoned Owen readers will discover fresh insights into some of his key writings. 

Childhood 

John Owen was a particular favourite among early Particular Baptists such as Nehemiah Cox. They valued his account of the relationship between the old and new covenants, which they saw as tending in a Baptist direction. Owen was an Independent and a paedobaptist, however. He wrote in defence of infant baptism, but he had a cordial relationship with the Particular Baptists.  Unlike other contemporaries he did not accuse them of being schismatic Donatists because they insisted on baptising believers who had been 'baptised' as babies. 

Owen's advocacy of infant baptism made for tensions in his ecclesiology. He acknowledged that in the apostolic church "all baptized initiated persons, ingrafted into the church" were recognised as "sanctified persons" (p. 57). Further, "the proper subjects of baptism" are "professed believers... and their infant seed" (p. 58). But this did not mean children of believers should be admitted to church membership, at least not until they had made a credible profession of faith. Admitting unconverted people into the church would have compromised the Independent's vision of churches as a gatherings of visible saints. 'Well, quite', Owen's Baptist friends may have been tempted to say. 

Issues of baptism aside, Owen firmly believed that the children of believers needed careful instruction in the faith. To that end he penned The Primer and The Principles of the Doctrine of Christ, Unfolded in Two Short Catechisms. These texts were intended to supplement the teaching children will have received in church meetings.   

Youth

The rise of William Laud not only made church life difficult for Puritan-minded types. It also made things rather challenging for godly students at Oxford and Cambridge. Certainly for Owen, whose dreams of pursuing an academic career at Oxford were dashed. 

Owen's university days had given him a good grounding in theology, but it was through the ministry of an unknown preacher in London that he was converted. Now he had an experiential knowledge of the truths he had studied so diligently at Oxford. 

Owen returned to the city in 1651, where he was appointed dean of Christ Church and then vice-chancellor of the university.  He took the opportunity to preach to the young people in his charge. Knowing the danger of having only an intellectual knowledge of the truth, the laid great emphasis on  practical godliness. John Locke was among Owen's students, but he didn't take kindly to the Puritan's attempts at fostering reformation among the student body.  

Two of Owen's sermon series preached to students at Oxford later became the basis of some of his most celebrated works, On the Mortification of Sin and Of Communion with GodIn the second title, Owen sought to show how the believer may enjoy distinct communion with each person of the Holy Trinity. He wanted his students not only to have a clear understanding of orthodox theology, but also to deep delight  in the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Middle Age

The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 spelled the end of Owen's role as a prominent public figure. He was dismissed from Oxford and had to keep a low profile, giving himself to pastoral ministry among Independent congregations. Owen now had to plead with the authorities to grant toleration to Puritans who would not conform to the Church of England. He argued that Nonconformists were law abiding citizens who sought to contribute to the common good of England. They were no threat to the established order and should therefore be accorded liberty to practice their faith free from persecution. Owen's ideas were later taken up by his old student, John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Toleration, which is often regarded as a key text in the development of classic liberalism. 

For Owen, middle age involved an experience of painful defeat that followed the collapse of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth. But if this world often meant suffering for the godly, Owen consoled himself, "It is but yet a little while before it will be no grief of heart unto us for to have done or suffered any thing for the name of the Lord Jesus." (p. 116).

Death and Eternal Life

John Owen looked forward to better days for Christ's 'peaceable kingdom' on earth. Jesus would not, he believed, "leave the world in this state, and set up his kingdom on a molehill." (p. 128). But in later life he lost confidence in his ability to understand what God was doing in history. Gone was the old certainty that the Lord was on the side of Parliament, showing his approval by granting the Ironsides victory over the Royalists at Naseby and Marston Moor. After all, the Charles II was now King, and those identified with the Good Old Cause found themselves on the losing side. He reflected, "I do not know... a greater rebuke, in the whole course of my ministry, than that I have been labouring in the fire to discover the causes of God's withdrawing from us without any success." (p. 130). 

John Owen died on 24 August 1683. He knew that death is not a kindly friend, but an unnatural rending of body and soul due to sin. But death could be welcomed, none the less. For the believer death means the end of a lifelong struggle with sin and a departure from this world to be with Christ. Despite the disappointments and reversals he experienced of his earthly life, Owen did not die a broken, disillusioned man. One of his final works was Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, in which he sought to set forth his view of the supreme glory of the Lord Jesus. The believing soul, which has glimpsed the glory of Christ by faith will at last see him by sight. "the sight of God in Christ, which is intellectual, not corporeal; finite, not absolutely comprehensive of the divine essence, is the sum of our future blessedness." (p. 139). 

In his conclusion the author reflects on Owen's lasting impact on society and the the church. The old Puritan's ideas on religious toleration helped to sow the seeds of classic liberalism. His theological writings are the subject of renewed attention in the contemporary Evangelical world. 

Crawford Gribben has ably opened up John Owen's Christian vision for every stage of life. An excellent read. 

* I am grateful to the author for kindly sending me a free copy. 

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

A tough question

With Boris Johnson announcing that he is standing down as Prime Minister various candidates have been vying for his job. Now the list has been whittled down to the final two, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. It is up to Conservative party members to decide who will be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street. You would expect journalists to quiz the candidates on what they would do about the cost of living crisis if they gained power, would they cut taxes and so on. But these days it seems than no media interview or hustings event is complete without politicians being asked: ‘What is a woman?’ Tough question. 

The dictionary definition is ‘adult human female’. No surprises there. But giving that answer could get a politician into hot water with those who believe that anyone who says they are a woman is a woman. Even if their anatomy suggests otherwise. Debates over the ‘trans’ issue have become a highly contested aspect of today’s ‘culture wars’. Everyday words are changed to reflect this. In guidelines produced by one NHS trust ‘mothers’ are renamed  'birthing parents’, ‘fathers’ as ‘second biological parent’. There is great concern over the number of children being referred to the NHS Gender Identity Development Service because they believe they were born in the wrong body. The vast majority of children seeking help are girls. It was recently announced that the Tavistock child gender identity clinic is due to close, following criticism the quality of care provided in an independent review

Of course, people suffering from gender dysphoria should be treated with respect and given all the help they need. But there is no escaping biological reality. Each cell in our bodies either has two X chromosomes (female) or one X and one Y chromosome (male). That cannot be changed. It is the way God made us, “So God created mankind in his own image, male and female he created them.” The Bible honours the created differences between men and women, but also insists that male and female are of equal value and worth before God. 

Jesus counted women as well as men among his early followers. According to the gospel accounts it was women who first discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty and saw him risen from the dead. At the time of the early church society was deeply divided between ethnic groups, salves and masters, men and women. Yet the Christian message was one that brought people together. It teaches us that we are all sinners, but through Jesus we can be forgiven and be put right with God. To believe in him is to belong to his people, where there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

*For the August edition of various parish magazines 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Particular Baptists and Calvinistic Methodists on the Covenant of Grace

John Eilas (1744-1841)
Hanserd Knollys (1599-1691)














Chapter VII of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the Savoy Declaration (1658) is devoted to 'God's Covenant with Man' (see this tabular comparison). The two confessions are not identical at this point. The wording  is different here and there. Savoy omits quite a bit of Westminster's paragraph 5 and the whole of paragraph 6. But they have quite a lot in common. Both both the Presbyterians and Congregationalists were Paedobaptists, holding that the children of believers should be baptised. An essential element of Paedobaptist theology is that just as Abraham's offspring were to be circumcised, so the children of believers should not be denied the new covenant sign of baptism. 

That is why Westminster and Savoy say that the covenant of grace was 'differently administered' during the era of the law to what is now the case under the gospel (VII:5). In other words, the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants were administrations of the covenant of grace, as is the new covenant. Under all the various administrations the children of covenant members were to receive the sign of the covenant and either be circumcised (under the law) or baptised (under the gospel).  

The trouble with that is under the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants, simply being a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh did not make a person a true believer in the coming Messiah. Paul says as much in Romans 9:6-13. How, then could the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants be administrations of the covenant of grace, when, according to both Westminster and Savoy, the covenant of grace was between God and the elect, who would most certainly be saved?
the Covenant of Grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. (VII:3).

The framers of the Second London Baptist Confession (1689) denied that the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants were administrations of the covenant of grace. Rather, they were 'steps' under which the covenant promise of salvation was revealed until it was fully made known under the new covenant.

This covenant [of grace] is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament (VII:3). 

Accordingly, baptism is only for those who were ordained unto life and have been savingly engrafted into Christ, the evidence of which is their profession of repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Chapter XXIX 2LBCF). 

Now, eyebrows might be raised at the idea of 'Calvinistic Methodism', thinking that Methodists were Arminians like John Wesley. But George Whitefield was both a Calvinist and a Methodist. So too were his Welsh counterparts, Daniel Rowland and William Williams. Second generation Welsh Calvinistic Methodists left the Church of England and formed their own church grouping. Their leaders such as John Elias and Thomas Charles were very much Calvinist in doctrine and Methodist in spiritual vibrancy. Their confession of faith reflects that. 

What I want to highlight here is how the Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists (1823) resembles the Second London Baptist Confession more than it does Westminster or Savoy in its treatment of covenant theology. Chapter 13 is entitled, 'Of the Eternal Covenant of Grace'. The confession says that the promises of the covenant of grace are given to 'Christ and his seed' and under this covenant this 'seed' will receive eternal life. That could not be said of all Abraham's natural descendants and regretfully, neither is it true of all children of new covenant believers. The final paragraph of Chapter 13 says,

God in his own time reveals this covenant through the gospel to all his people, and, by bringing them to approve and embrace it, brings them into the bond of the covenant, and into actual possession in their own persons of its grace, gifts, and privileges. The covenant of grace was revealed by degrees, and under various dispensations; but the gospel dispensation is the last and most glorious. This covenant is free, sure, holy, advantageous, and eternal.

Note the way in which the penultimate sentence seems to echo the emphasis of the Second London Baptist Confession. Contrary to Westminster and Savoy, the covenant of grace is not said to be 'differently administered' over time, but 'revealed by degrees, and under various dispensations: but the gospel dispensation is the last and most glorious'. That is more or less the equivalent of the 2LBC's  'revealed... by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament'. Quite how on this basis the Calvinistic Methodist fathers still went on to affirm infant baptism in Chapter 37 of the confession, I am at a loss to know. 

My point is that few would doubt that the early Welsh Calvinistic Methodist churches were part of the Reformed family. Their confession placed them in the mainstream of Presbyterian and Reformed thought. Particular Baptist teaching on the covenant of grace sprang up from within the Reformed churches, especially the Independents in the seventeenth century. But they saw with greater clarity that the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants could not simply be identified with the covenant of grace. They were 'covenants of promise' (Ephesians 2:12) in which the covenant of grace was progressively disclosed. 

All agree that the covenant of grace is with God and his elect people in Christ and made effective by the Spirit. The genius of the Particular Baptists was to follow the biblical logic of that position to say that  baptism should therefore only be administered to believers on profession of faith, who are then admitted to the membership of a local church. Doctrinally speaking, we are indeed Reformed Baptists. But that in itself is not sufficient, we also need something of the life and fire of the old Calvinistic Methodists. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The cost of living (Jesus' Way)

Here’s where I embarrass myself by writing an article on what the government needs to do to fix the cost of living crisis. Basically, they have to make sure that stuff is cheaper, and that people have enough money to pay for the stuff they need. I think that just about covers it. Agreed?

Whether Liz Truss or Rishi Sunack wins the Conservative leadership election, their success as Prime Minister will rest on coming up with  policies that address the cost of living crisis. Especially when it comes to fuel and food. It can’t be right that some people in our society will have to choose between heating and eating come the chilly winter months.

Jesus spoke about the cost of living too. According to the economics of the kingdom of God the gift of eternal life can’t be bought, but it will cost you everything. It can’t be bought because salvation is by God’s free grace, not our efforts. That’s why he sent Jesus to die for our sins so that all who believe in him may be forgiven and have the hope of glory to come.

While grace is free, it is not cheap. People may quite like the idea of eternal life, but strictly on their own terms. Well, no. Jesus wants disciples who will follow him, not consumers who just want what he has to give. The Lord Jesus challenged his would-be followers, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” He urged people to count the cost of discipleship saying, “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” If we would truly live, we must die to self and follow Jesus. That’s the cost of living his way.

*For the July edition of local parish magazines. 

Friday, July 08, 2022

Pastors, bodily training is of some value

In one of the Bible's Horrible Histories moments Eglon the tubby tyrant is put to the sword by Ehud the left-handed judge. See Judges 3:12-30 for the lowdown. When Ehud stabbed the King of Moab in the guts with his sneakily concealed blade we are told, "And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the excrement came out." (Judges 3:22). Nice. 

Now, I don't think this episode is in the Bible first and foremost to shame us into keeping ourselves in trim. But it does seem that mention of Eglon's weight is meant to tell us something about his character. Similarly, when Eli fell backwards off his chair on hearing the Philistines had captured the ark of the covenant, we are told, "his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy." (1 Samuel 4:18). Eli and his sons had previously been accused of, "fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?’" (1 Samuel 2:29). 

Gluttony is condemned in Proverbs 23:20-21, 28:7. According to Paul a distinguishing mark of "enemies of the cross of Christ" is that, "their god is their belly" (Philippians 3:19). Meanwhile, among the fruit of the Spirit is "self control" Galatians 5:23). While Paul urged Timothy to "train yourself for godliness", he also admitted, "bodily training is of some value" (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Too right. 

A recent government report revealed that around three quarters of those aged 45-74 in the United Kingdom are overweight or obese. Being overweight leads to a range of other serious health problems. According to a report in thebmj, "Covid-19 death rates are 10 times higher in countries where more than half of the adult population is classified as overweight". 

The answer to question 73 of The Baptist Catechism on the sixth commandment ("you shall not kill") spells out what is required in that commandment, "The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life (Eph. 5:28,29) and the life of others". That's why self control in diet, plus regular bodily exercise aren't optional lifestyle choices for followers of Jesus, but a matter of obedience to the Lord.

Now, the reasons why people become overweight are complex. Physical exercise isn't a possibility for people with debilitating illnesses that severely limit their movement. We know that. But in general terms regulating weight is about eating sensibly and taking regular exercise. Elders/overseers should model a life characterised by self control (1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:8). How can we preach to others on that virtue (Titus 2:2, 5, 6, 12) when self control is conspicuously lacking in us?

Perhaps all this is easy for me to say as I've never had to battle with being overweight. My teenage nickname was 'Ribs the Mod' because I was skinny and a mod. Shortly after getting  married in my mid 20's I went up a waist size from 32" to 34", but I've remained that size until now (mid 50's). If I did one of those 'before and after' photos, all you'd notice is I now have less hair than 10 years previously. In fact few things bring out the Pharisaic 'older brother' in me than the hearty congratulations elicited by 'after diet' snaps, "‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving [slimming] for you and never disobeyed your orders [rarely ate biscuits]. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.'" (Luke 15:29). 

You want to know the secret of the 'Davies Diet & Exercise Regime'? Sorry to keep you in suspense until the end of the post. Here it is. Eat less stuff as you get older and your metabolism slows down. Rarely eat between meals. Spurn biscuits. Mostly. Enjoy a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veg. Have a bit of a workout with some reps & a spin on an exercise bike most days. Go for a decent walk with your wife on your day off. Climb a mountain every now and again. Because bodily training is of some value.