Thursday, April 30, 2009

2009 Banner Ministers' Conference Report

What with 2009 witnessing the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, it was no surprise that the life and teaching of great Reformer loomed large in this year’s Banner of Truth Minister’s Conference.

That said, the conference was not a total Calvinfest. Lindsay Brown, well known for his work with the student body IFES gave the opening sermon on Hebrews 2:1-3, focusing on our “so great salvation”. In a time when many seem to have lost confidence in the gospel, the preacher urged us to consider: 1) God is the author of salvation:, 2), We have been saved from sin and death, 3) We have been saved for forgiveness, adoption and eternal life. The richly illustrated message proved an attention grabbing and encouraging start to proceedings. Brown also gave a most helpful talk on ‘Calvin and Mission’, which demonstrated that the Reformer had a deep and abiding interest in missionary work.

Sinclair Ferguson gave two addresses, both based on Colossians 3:1-17, entitled, ‘Union with Christ: Gospel Foundations’ and ‘Union with Christ: Gospel Implications’. The theme of union with Christ was undoubtedly close to Calvin’s heart, but Ferguson’s aim was to expound the Scriptures rather than consider what the Genevan preacher had to say on the subject. After setting out the architecture of the doctrine in the first message, the theologian explained how we must deal with sin and pursue holiness in the light of our union with Christ.
Derek Thomas, an acknowledged Calvin scholar drew attention to ‘Calvin’s Sermons on Jeremiah’ and ‘Calvin’s Sermons on the Pastoral Epistles’ . These papers were well researched and afforded fresh insights into Calvin the preacher. But they were marred slightly by the speaker's choppy style of delivery. His last address on ‘Calvin the Theologian’ was the best of the three. Thomas gave a lucid and compelling exposition of some of the main themes in Calvin’s theology.

For me, conference highlights were two the addresses given by Garry Williams. In ‘John Calvin in the Valley of the Shadow of Death’, we were helped to see that Calvin was no untouchable colossus. He was a man with like passions as ourselves, experiencing intense suffering in his personal life, family, ministry. He faced suffering with fortitude, trusting that God, his sovereign Lord and loving Father was able to work all things together for good. Then in ‘John Calvin and the Judgement Seat of Christ’ we observed the Reformer in controversy as he responded to Cardinal Sadolet's letter to the citizens of Geneva. Calvin was a model controversialist. He was a courageous advocate of the truth and a careful analyst of doctrinal differences. Both emphases are important as we do battle for the truth as it is in Jesus.
Mark Johnston gave the closing sermon on Isaiah 66:2, drawing on Calvin’s comments on the importance of Scriptural piety. Other stuff happened like a panel discussion for younger men with Derek Thomas and Sinclair Ferguson. There were a couple of 15 minute shorts on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, one on the 1859 Revival in Ulster by Jonathan Watson, and the other on preaching by Alan McNabb. The issue of Word and Spirit in preaching was raised by Stuart Olyott in one of the discussion sessions, something I've blogged about in the past.
In all this was a pretty good conference. A few of the addresses and sermons were a little workmanlike and lacked a certain passion. But there were also some also some deeply moving and challenging messages that will fortify Ministers for the trials and tribulations of pastoral life. It was nice to meet up with old friends including fellow bloggers Martin Downes, Gary Brady, Gary Benfold, new boy Jonathan Hunt and Jeremy Walker. On the Wednesday evening my little room was jam packed full for the annual gathering of the "Taffia" cartel of Welsh Ministers. Geoff Thomas quizzed Sinclair Ferguson on his experiences in the USA and other things. Oh, and our side won the footy 7-6. And my legs still ache.
Gary Brady live blogged the conference, tapping at his mini-laptop while I scribbled away like an old fashioned hack in my Reporter's Notebook. You can see his detailed reports here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Some rough notes on John 20:24-29

At our fraternal last Wednesday we fell to talking about preaching without notes, as was the practice of John Calvin (see here). I only caught part of the discussion as I had popped out to buy a bacon roll for lunch. But amongst some there was a misconception that not using notes in the pulpit means preaching without premeditation or preparation. But this isn't the case. I blogged on this a while back. Extemporary preachers should still work on preparing a written sermon, even of the document is not used in the pulpit. Writing a sermon will enable the extemporary preacher to work on exposition, structure, doctrine, illustration and application. Structure is all important as it is the basic structure and thrust of the message that will be committed to memory rather than the whole sermon. The notes will be a bit rough and ready. They are not meant to be a polished literary text, so much as a framework for the preacher containing fragments of thought and prompts for further extemporary elaboration. Just to give an example of what my notes look like, even though I don't use them in the pulpit (aside from the non-Bible quotes, which I print out!), here is a lightly edited sermon text from last Sunday evening's preaching.
John 20:24-29
In his new book on the resurrection, Jesus: Dead or Alive?, John Blanchard recalls a long conversation that he had with an atheist in South Africa. As a parting shot, Blanchard asked, ‘What do you think of Jesus Christ?’ The atheist replied, ‘I am not sure, but I do know this: everything depends on whether or not he rose from the dead.’ That is a very perceptive answer. If Jesus is not risen, we can discount his claims and give up the Christian faith as a dead loss. But if he did rise from the dead, that changes everything. The early Christian movement sprang to life on the basis that Jesus had defied death. Their essential message was: “God raised Jesus from the dead”. But these bold witnesses took a lot of convincing that Jesus was alive. One of them was especially sceptical about the whole thing. That man was Thomas.

I. Thomas’ Doubt

Now, Jesus had appeared to his disciples on the evening of the first Easter Sunday. But it appears that only ten of the remaining apostles were present. Who was missing? Thomas, vs. 24. Where was he? I haven’t a clue. But wherever he was he missed out on something big, 20:19ff. The other disciples told him what had happened, vs. 25a. But he was having none of it, vs. 25b. Thomas knew as much as everybody else that dead people do not simply spring back to life. He knew that Jesus was a special teacher and miracle worker. It was so sad that he was dead. But dead he was and that was that. If Thomas was going to accept that Jesus was alive, he wanted proof. No ghostly apparition would have satisfied him. He wanted to see and touch the nail pierced hands and wounded side of the risen Jesus. Nothing else would do. Without that evidence he says, “I will not believe.”

Perhaps is why we label this disciple, “doubting Thomas”? But let us not be too hard on the man. It is not as if the others came to believe that Jesus was risen without hard evidence. Mary Magdalene’s journey of faith. John saw and believed, vs. 8. Other ten – vs. 19ff. Luke tells us, 24:10 & 11. It was only the bodily appearance of the risen Jesus in the locked room and the sight of his hands and side that convinced them that Jesus was alive. Thomas wanted no more than what his fellow disciples had experienced.

Now, according to Richard Dawkins, faith is the great cop out, (Richard Dawkins' God, Alister McGrath, p. 84). It’s a bit like when Alice encountered the White Queen who informed her that her age was,

“one hundred and one, five months and a day”. "I can't believe that!" said Alice. "Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes." Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."
"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

According to Dawkins, Christian believers are in the same position as the White Queen, self-deluded wishful thinkers, who believe things despite of what the evidence says. But that is not quite right is it? Thomas was not a gullible fool who simply accepted what the others had told him concerning Jesus’ resurrection because he had trained himself to believe “six impossible things before breakfast.” He was adamant that without evidence he would not believe. The Christian faith is not based on irrational wish-fulfilment, but on eyewitness evidence to hard facts.

We do not simply dismiss all doubts and demand that people exercise blind faith. There is a place for doubt and healthy scepticism in the Christianity. The writer and literary critic A. N. Wilson once professed Christianity. Then he became an atheist. In recent articles in the New Statesman and the Daily Mail, Wilson explained why he had converted back to Christianity. He explained that he had become weary with the undoubting dogmatism of the atheist community. He describes the time when Christopher Hitchens quizzed him to make sure that he did not have a lingering belief in a divine being. There could be no room for doubt that there is no God. But slowly Wilson began to doubt his atheist certainties. Regarding his old atheist cronies he wrote,

“Sadly, they have all but accepted that only stupid people actually believe in Christianity, and that the few intelligent people left in the churches are there only for the music or believe it all in some symbolic or contorted way which, when examined, turns out not to be belief after all.
As a matter of fact, I am sure the opposite is the case and that materialist atheism is not merely an arid creed, but totally irrational.
Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat.”

Wilson’s doubts concerning atheism led to faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus,

"In the past, I have questioned [the truth of Jesus’ resurrection] and suggested that it should not be taken literally. But the more I read the Easter story, the better it seems to fit and apply to the human condition. That, too, is why I now believe in it.
Easter confronts us with a historical event set in time. We are faced with a story of an empty tomb, of a small group of men and women who were at one stage hiding for their lives and at the next were brave enough to face the full judicial persecution of the Roman Empire and proclaim their belief in a risen Christ."

Wilson is no naïve fool. He has been convinced by the biblical evidence for Jesus resurrection and the evidence of the transformed lives of those who believe that Jesus is alive. Thomas was not wrong to demand evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The Christian faith does not silence and suppress honest doubt. It confronts our doubts with a surprising fact that calls for genuine faith.

II. Thomas’ Surprise

Now it is the Sunday after Easter Sunday. Once more the disciples were gathered together. But this time Thomas is present. Something remarkable happens, vs. 26. He singles out “doubting Thomas”, vs. 27.

i. Jesus invites Thomas to examine the evidence that he is risen

vs. 27a The evidence is unmistakable. This is the same Jesus who was crucified. Yet now he is alive and not only alive but he has been strangely transformed so that vs. 26. He has not “done a Lazarus”. He has been resurrected from the dead. All that the other disciples had told him concerning Jesus were true. His doubt is confronted and unsettled by the surprising fact that Christ is risen.

ii. Jesus calls Thomas to believe that he is risen

Note that Jesus does not zap Thomas for his unbelief. His first word to the disciples including Thomas was “Peace to you!”. But now he does challenge his doubting disciple, vs. 27b. You have seen the evidence. Now believe! And does Thomas believe!

III. Thomas’ Confession

He not only believed that Jesus was alive from the dead, but in believing he was given understanding of Jesus’ true identity, vs. 28. In a sense Thomas’ statement here is the high point of John’s Gospel, told from the outset, 1:1, 14 etc. But it takes the resurrection of Jesus for his divine identity to be fully revealed. This risen Jesus, bearing the marks of his shameful crucifixion in his hands and his side is none other than Lord and God. Remember that Thomas was a religious Jew, Deut 6:4ff. By faith he sees that Jesus is included in the divine identity so that what might be properly said concerning Yahweh may also be said of Jesus. He was Lord, the sovereign ruler of the universe. He was God through whom all things were made. Remember that John 1:1ff was written in the light of John 20. It is only because of the resurrection that Jesus was confessed as Lord and God. Other than that, he would have been another failed Messiah.

This is the genesis of Christian theology. We confess the risen Jesus as Lord and God. He was with God, he was God, he was made flesh and now he is seen to be Lord and God in his resurrection. This is why the early church worshipped Jesus alongside God, because as the risen Lord he was shown to be the eternal Son of God.

Note that this is a deeply personal confession. The one who said, vs. 25 now says, “My Lord and my God.” Is that your confession too?

IV. Thomas’ Faith and Ours

Now Jesus addressed Thomas, vs. 29. Why are we blessed in believing without seeing?

i. Not because Thomas had evidence for his faith and we do not

We will not see the risen Jesus (until he returns), but that does not mean that our faith is a leap in the dark. We have the compelling eyewitness testimony of the apostles. The fact that they could be so sceptical and doubting adds to the integrity of their confession. We have the authority of Scripture. God is there. He has spoken. His word gives us many infallible proofs that Jesus is alive. Dawkins was so wrong. In believing in the resurrection of Jesus we are not in the same category of the queen in Alice in Wonderland. Faith is convinced by the demands of truth that Jesus is alive.

ii. Because we believe in the same Jesus as Thomas

We believe in the one who died for sins and has been raised again from the dead. We cannot see him. But he is a real and living object for our faith, Rev. 1:18.

iii. Because we have a living relationship with the risen Jesus

Not simply figure in history. Whitefield and Lloyd-Jones. He is alive, John 14:21. 1 Peter 1:8.

iv. Because we have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

If Jesus is risen, then we can trust his word, John 11:25 & 26. It is not irrational to stake your eternal destiny on that claim. You can entrust your death to Jesus knowing that he has conquered death himself. Consider the facts. Examine the empty tomb. Reflect on the resurrection appearances. Scrutinise the integrity of the apostolic witness. Then with Thomas confess concerning Jesus, vs. 28. Don’t be unbelieving, but believing. For, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have yet believed.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

Banner here we come

I'll be off to the great Calvinfest in Leicester shortly. Should be good. Some excellent speakers this year and I'm looking forward to renewing fellowship with old friends. I think I'll give the football a miss, though, this year. 1) Because I'm so unfit that my legs kill for days even after limited running around. 2) Because I'm embarrassingly rubbish at football. 3) Becasue I need to get a bit of reading done in the afternoons. 4) But then again, I need the exercise, so I've packed my kit just in case.
I hope to post a report of the conference when I get home.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

An evening with the Army

This evening Sarah and I attended an event in a local military camp organised by The Army Presentation Team. It was an interesting occasion with talks on Army life by high ranking officers and NCO's. The aim was to show members of the community the wide range of activities in which the Army is engaged across the globe. Obviously there's the fighting, but our troops also provide humanitarian assistance and help to restore in infrastructure of war torn countries. We were also shown a film featuring snapshots of Army life, introduced by the well regarded Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt. The film was followed by Q&A session in which several issues were raised, including troop welfare, the quality of Army housing, and whether our fighting men and women are now receiving the best equipment for their difficult and dangerous work.
The most interesting aspect of the evening for me was the opportunity to mingle and chat with ordinary soldiers prior to and after the official presentation. They spoke of their experience of Army life in an open and honest way. Among other things, we talked about foreign policy issues, the impact of Christianity on British culture and values, and the provision the Army makes for the spiritual needs of its troops. I take a just war stance rather than a pacifist position and it was fascinating to discuss the moral aspects of present day conflicts. The soldiers expresses huge pride in the Army, both in its fighting capabilities and in its principles of selflessness, discipline, courage and respect for the rule of law.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when invited to attend this event. But I'm glad we went. The evening gave us a renewed appreciation of role of British Army in today's world. See here for an interview with General Sir Richard Dannatt, where he discusses his Christian faith and speaks of the importance of Christian values in our society.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

John Calvin in England

At our Ministers' Fraternal in Bradford on Avon, Robert Oliver spoke on the influence of John Calvin on the Reformation in England. Not that the Reformer ever visited these fair shores. But his ministry and writings had a powerful impact on the course of the English Reformation. After giving us a brief sketch of the Reformer's life, Robert began to show the way in which the Calvin helped to shape the course of the Reformation in England.
In a sense there were two Reformations in England; a political Reformation triggered by Henry VIII's break with Rome over his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, and a grassroots religious Reformation powered by the new Protestant teaching. Although Henry split from the Pope and made himself head of the Church of England, he was no Protestant. He harboured political suspicions against Catholics, regarding them as potential traitors. Yet the king disliked Protestant doctrine. It is said that on one day he had three Roman Catholics beheaded for treason and six Protestants burned for heresy.
Henry VIII was succeeded by Edward VI, who, under the influence of Protestant counsellors sought to advance the cause of the Reformation in England. The Church was made Protestant in doctrine and forms of worship. Protestant preaching was encouraged. But Edward died at the age of 16. He was followed by his Roman Catholic half sister, Mary. Some have suggested that the Reformation under the boy king was rather superficial. But the fact that 300 men and women, including leading churchmen like Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were willing to die for their Protestant faith under Mary's reign of terror suggests that Reformed teaching was beginning to take a hold upon the populace.
But Mary's attempt to re-Catholicise England was a failure. Indeed, by the end of the reign in Elizabeth I in 1603, Protestantism was the dominant form of Christianity in the country. John Calvin had a very important role to play in the advance of the Protestant faith in England. Many leading English Protestants fled from their homeland during the Marian persecution and found refuge in Geneva. A church was founded for the English exiles, complete with its own confession of faith, psalter and a copy of the New Testament all in their own tongue.
Men who would later take Reformed teaching back to England came under the influence of John Calvin. Above all he gave them a model of reverent and accurate biblical exegesis. Calvin exemplified his careful approach to the biblical text in his own preaching ministry. It could also be seen in his many commentaries on books of the Bible. Gone was the fanciful method of exegesis favoured by the medievals. Calvin's aim was to discover the mind and intention of the biblical authors and set forth the plain sense of Scripture. He employed grammatico-historical exegesis, interpreting Scripture by Scripture in the light of the analogy of faith. The Roman Catholic Church claimed that she alone could interpret the Bible and argued that Protestantism would lead to theological anarchy. Calvin countered that through the witness of the Spirit and careful exegesis, it is possible to arrive at an accurate understanding of Scripture. His Institutes of the Christian Religion was written to aid Protestants in their reading of the Bible .
But Calvin provided more than a model of biblical scholarship for the English exiles. He was also an exemplary preacher. The Reformer would preach every day of alternate weeks, and up to three times each Sunday. He preached straight from the original Hebrew or Greek. His sermons were plain and simple as he explained the text of Scripture and showed how God's Word applied to the people of 16th century Geneva. In order to maintain eye contact with his congregation, Calvin preached without notes. This also helped to ensure that his ministry was lively, direct and punchy.
All this did not go unobserved by the English refugees in Geneva. When Mary died, Elizabeth I ascended the throne. She made the Church of England Protestant once more. But when the English Protestants returned home, they found that their queen was in no mood to sanction further reform of the Church. The Protestant leaders turned their all attention to preaching after the model of John Calvin. By this means, the hearts and minds of the English people were won for the Reformed cause. Powerful Puritan preachers like Henry "Silvertongue" Smith proclaimed the message of the Bible to their fellow countrymen. Elizabeth didn't much like preaching and did all she could to discourage "prophesyings". But by the 1570's is was evident that Protestant preaching had won the day. The English had become a "People of the Book."
Another big factor in the advance of English Reformation was the publication in 1560 of the Geneva Bible. This translation of Scripture was started by English Protestants in Geneva during the reign of queen Mary. By 1644, 100 editions had been printed. The Bible had several distinguishing features. It was printed in clear Roman type and verses were added to the biblical text for ease of reference. Although a hefty tome by today's standards at 24.1 x 18.8 x 6.6 cm, the Geneva Bible was much more portable than the old Great Bible, which was described as being "as portable as Stone Henge." The Bible contained a concordance, maps and diagrams of things like the tabernacle and garments worn by the Old Testament priests. But above all, the Geneva Bible was a study Bible with marginal notes that explained and applied the text. The notes were written after the model of John Calvin's lucid, brief and telling comments on Scripture. With the Geneva Bible in hand, any Christian man could now read Scripture with understanding and expound its message to his family with accuracy and conviction. Biblical literacy rates rocketed as this new version of the Scriptures became readily available. Ordinary believers demanded that their parish priest gave them Bible-based preaching. Like the Bereans of Acts 17:11, English Christians were in a position to scrutinise preaching against the standard of Scripture. People would travel many miles to hear God's Word preached by a godly, gifted and Spirit empowered Puritan Minister. It is said that the Puritan pulpit had more influence on the Elizabethan populace than the plays of Shakespeare or Marlowe. If the English had become a "People of the Book", that book was the Geneva Bible. And that Gevena was Calvin's Geneva.
So, John Calvin, though his expository labours and preaching ministry had a profound effect on the progress of the Reformation in England. With the Reformer's life and work receiving renewed attention in this, the 500th anniversary of his birth, let us pray that his vision of Bible-based gospel preaching may once again take hold of the pulpits of this land.
Bibliography: Robert Oliver mentioned several books

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pastors' Forum

Here is the programme for the Pastors' Forum, held at Mount Pleasant Chapel, Measycwmmer.
Thursday 11th June 2009 - Prof. John L. Mackay (New College, Edinburgh)
09.30 Registration & Refreshments
10.00 Neil Evans - Introduction & Devotions
10.15 Prof. John L. Mackay - The Relevance of the Old Testament to Preaching
11.00 Coffee Break
11.20 Prof. John L. Mackay - Preaching Christ from the Old Testament
13.00 Lunch
14.00 Prof. John L. Mackay - Preaching from Kings and Chronicles.
15.40 Close
Thursday 10th September 2009 - Dr. R. Neil Evans
1) The biblical doctrine of personhood and its pastoral implications
2) The nature of mental wellbeing
3) Practical considerations
Thursday 5th November 2009 - Prof. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia
1) What is biblical theology & how is it related to systematic theology?
2) How to interpret and preach from the OT in the light of the NT
3) The resurrection in Paul.
Thursday 12th March 2010 - Prof. Carl Trueman, Professor of Historical Theology and Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia
1) 18th Century Evangelicalism: the Bebbington Quadrilateral
2) The Bebbington Quadrilateral - a critique
3) Theological evaluation of 'Conversionism'
Interested? Drop me an e-mail if you would like to be added to the mailing list for further details.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Work in progress

Aside from my regular pastoral and PTS work, I have a couple of side projects on the go. Evangelical Times has commissioned two articles for publication in the autumn. The first concerns the life and theology of Jacob Arminus. By a rather strange historical coincidence, Arminus shares a big anniversary with John Calvin, 2009 being the 400th anniversary of the former's death. The second piece will be on the Reformed response to the Arminius inspired teaching of the Remonstrants at the Synod of Dort. For research purposes, I'm currently reading God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy, by Richard A. Muller, Baker, 1991. Very enlightening it is too. Thanks to Paul Helm for lending me his copy of this hard to obtain title. But for the Grace of God, by Cornelis Venema is very helpful on the history and theology of the Synod of Dort (see here). I also plan to revisit Jim Packer's introductory essay to John Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Banner of Truth edition). Any other suggested reading?
Also I've been booked to speak to a Ministers' Fraternal in Dunstable, Bedfordshire in May on "Challenging Biblical Inerrancy – A response to A. T. B. McGowan’s proposals in The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging evangelical perspectives". I spoke on this subject at our local fraternal back in January and published the text online (see here). The chairman of the Dunstable fraternal came across my paper and invited me to address the subject of biblical inerrancy. It seems that views similar to McGowan's are causing something of a stir up there. I want to revise and update the original paper a little, so I've recently finished Holy Scripture, A Dogmatic Sketch, by John Webster. The book was quoted approvingly by McGowan. Besides, I enjoyed Webster 's work on Holiness (see here) so I was interested to see what he had to say on the Bible. Watch this space for a review. To try to get to grips with the controversy surrounding Peter Enns' views on inerrancy in the States, I'm currently working my way through, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, by Greg Beale, Crossway, 2008. Enns argues his point as an OT scholar rather than a systematic theologian like McGowan, so Beale's study helps to broaden the perspective a bit. Key reading for interacting with McGowan is Herman Bavink's treatment of Scripture in the context of God's-self revelation in Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1. The Scottish theologian claims a precedent in Bavinck for his proposal that evangelicals should reject inerrancy in favour of a reconfigured notion of infallibility. I hadn't quite got to the relevant point in Bavinck in January, as I'd not long taken delivery of the full set of RD. But I'm poised to start on Chapter 12, where the Dutch dogmatician begins to discuss the doctrine of Scripture in earnest. Lastly, Paul Helm highlights what looks like an excellent new book on Scripture, Words of Life, by Timothy Ward, IVP (see here). What did a certain Preacher say about the making of many books?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Now for some good news

There is often so much anti-Christian stuff in the secular media. These articles make a refreshing change:
N. T. Wright on Easter in the Times here.

A. N. Wilson returns to the fold, see pieces in the New Statesman here and Daily Mail here.

Rod Liddle socks it to C of E bigwigs for failing to stick up for persecuted Christians in the Spectator here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

In my place condemned he stood

An Easter message on 1 Peter 3:18

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ lie at the heart of the Christian gospel. Everything centres around these central facts. Peter has been addressing the subject of Christians suffering for their faith, 1 Peter 3:14, 17. Now he relates our suffering for Christ to Christ’s suffering for us. If we sometimes have to suffer for doing good, then consider Christ who “suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust”. Here in this verse we have another one of those “Gospel soundbites” – a very brief and full statement of the truth that matters most.

I. Christ suffered for sins

We will never understand the suffering of Christ unless we grasp why he had to suffer – for sins. His death on the cross was a sin offering, Lev 4:2-3, Isaiah 53:10. What it is that makes sin so serious that nothing less than the suffering of Christ could save us? One of the early Archbishops of Canterbury was a man by the name of Anselm. He wrote a book called ‘Why did God become man?’ It was in the form of a dialogue between Anselm himself and a man called Boso. Anselm explained that Christ had to die to satisfy the honour of an offended God. Boso objected, “But that is far too harsh – did Christ really have to die so that we might be forgiven?” Anselm responded, “You have not yet appreciated the seriousness of sin.”

Sin is an offence to the infinite majesty of God. Sin detracts from his glory, Romans 3:23. Sin therefore deserves God’s terrible wrath and punishment. Some people have a problem with the eternal punishment of the wicked, but they have not grasped that when we sin against an infinite person, then we deserve infinite, unending punishment. When we sin, we break God’s law and defy him to his face. We refuse to acknowledge his sovereignty. We ungratefully despise his goodness and love. God will deal with sin justly. He would not be God if he simply ignored the problem and swept it under the carpet. Because God is holy love, he must deal with sin in a way that is right, whether in punishment or mercy.

Christ suffered for sins. That is why his suffering was so terrible. Films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ concentrate on Christ’s physical suffering. We should not minimise that. He suffered severe flogging. A crown of thorns was thrust upon his brow. He was nailed to a cross. He endured the most intense physical agony. But we have only looked at the surface of things if we focus on Christ’s physical sufferings. Earlier Peter wrote that Jesus “bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). That signified he was under God’s curse. (Galatians 3:13). Jesus suffered the punishment due to our sin. Christ suffered the God-forsakenness of a sin-condemned man. At the cross there was no reassuring word from the Father, “This is my beloved Son I whom I am well pleased”. There was only in impenetrable darkness of Calvary. Tradition tells us that Peter helped Mark write his Gospel. The Evangelist was careful to record the strange and mystifying words of Jesus upon the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). That is what Peter means by “Christ suffered for sins”. That is how seriously God takes sin. When his Son was made sin for us, he forsook him.

Now Christ endured his sufferings voluntarily. He gave himself to the suffering and forsakenness of the cross. As Rabbi Duncan put it, “Here was damnation and damnation taken lovingly.” His suffering was no futile gesture. Peter points us to the finality of Christ’s suffering for sin. He suffered “once”. The Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly draws attention to this, 7:27, 9:28. Before Jesus died, he cried “Finished!” And it was finished. The work of redemption was accomplished because Christ had suffered for us once and for all.

We need therefore look no further than the cross for full and free forgiveness of all our sin. They have been punished in Christ and God is satisfied with the finished work of his beloved Son. Go to him therefore for fresh forgiveness and cleansing from sin. And if you are called to suffer for Christ’s sake then remember that whatever men may throw at you, they can never plunge you into hell. Christ suffered the torments of hell on the cross that you might not have to.

II. Christ suffered as a substitute: the just for the unjust

Christ did not die on the cross for his own sins. He suffered the “just for the unjust”. But where is the justice in that? I have heard of cases where drivers with 9 points on their licence have been caught by a speed camera. They don’t want to be banned from driving so they persuade a friend with a clean licence to say that they were driving the vehicle. The law views such actions very dimly. If caught, both parties may be had up for perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice. The guilty man who broke the speed limit deserves his fine and driving ban, not his innocent friend. The very law of God demands that justice be done – Deut 25:1. So, how come Christ died as a substitute, suffering as the just for the unjust? If the speed-camera scenario is dodgy justice, then what of the cross?

The difference is Christ did not suffer for his friends in a private capacity, in an attempt to thwart God’s justice. We have to bear in mind the doctrine of the believers’ union with Christ. Why are we sinners? Because Adam sinned. We share in his guilt, Romans 5:12. Adam was the representative head of the human race. His actions therefore affect us all. Christ is the representative head of God’s new humanity. He died for the sins of those whom the Father had given him in eternity. Yes, they were unjust sinners, but Christ had come to act as their substitute. He died in the place of those who were united to him in God’s eternal purpose, John 17:2, 4. Those who say that the idea of substitutionary atonement a travesty of justice ignore the plain teaching of Scripture and have failed to take into account the believer’s union with Christ.

Christ suffered as a substitute, the just for the unjust. And thank God he did, because unless the just and holy Saviour died in my place, there would be no hope for lost sinners like us. Will you join this guilty sinner in saying, “In my place condemned he stood, Hallelujah what a Saviour!”?

III. Christ suffered for a purpose: that he might bring us to God

Someone once asked Noel Coward if he had ever spoken to God. He replied, “We have never been properly introduced”. The cross is our introduction into God’s presence. Through the cross, Jesus takes us by the hand and brings us to the Father. We can now draw near to him. Fellowship has been restored, the way of access opened. We can have communion and fellowship with God in prayer, Ephesians 2:18. We can offer him our worship and service. Let us then make much of the blood-bought privilege drawing near to God in Christ.

The Saviour will ultimately bring us to God in the glory, Hebrews 2:10. He will do so “having been put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). We have seen that Christ was put to death in the flesh when he suffered and died on the cross. But that was not the end of the story. He was made alive “in the spirit”. That is a reference to Jesus’ mighty resurrection from the dead. He now he has what Paul calls a “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44-46). Christ is no longer “in the flesh”, subject to weakness and suffering. His bodily life exists in the life-transforming power of the Spirit.

Because Christ rose again, we too have the hope of resurrection life, 1 Peter 1:3. We shall be made partakers of his glory (1 Peter 5:1). Christ will bring us to God as resurrected and glorified human beings. Jesus did not die for us and rise again simply to “save our souls”. He will also raise up our bodies that they might be made like his glorious body. Isn’t that just amazing? The resurrection of Jesus is the reason for the hope that is in us in a hopeless and dying world. Do you share this living hope through Christ who suffered for sins and was made alive in the spirit? Are you trusting in him to bring you to glory and to God?

Our God is the end of the journey,
His pleasant and glorious domain:
For there are the children of mercy,
Who praise him for Calvary’s pain.
(William Vernon Higham)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Reformed heuristics

Here is my insider guide to some of the different camps within the Reformed movement:

1. Fundy-Reformed
Big Influence: Peter Masters
Bible Version: AV
Favourite Hymn Writer: Isaac Watts
Blog: What's a blog?
Likely to Say: "Beware of those who are given to change!"

2. Trendy-Reformed
Big Influence: John Piper
Bible Version: ESV
Desiring God
Favourite Hymn Writer: Stuart Townend
Likely to Say: "Hi, I'm a Christian Hedonist. Very happy to meet you, man."

3. Bendy Reformed
Big Influence: Tom Wright
Bible Version: TNIV
Blog: N.T. Wright Project
Favourite Hymn Writer: Graham Kendrick
Likely to Say: "Are you getting in, staying in, or just stopping for tea?"

4. Barthy-Reformed
Big Influence: Karl Barth
Bible Version: Why read the Bible when you have Church Dogmatics?
Favourite Hymn Writer: Martin Rinkar/Tom Waits
Blog: Faith & Theology
Likely to Say: "Being is becoming, if you know what I mean, actually. Now pass the coffee."

5. Clappy-Reformed (Suggested by Andrew Roycroft)
Big Influence: Wayne Grudem and possibly Martyn Lloyd-Jones (well...erm bits of him, maybe). [Oi!]
Bible Version: Varies, but they particularly like revelation, oh and probably the book of Revelation too.
Favourite Hymnwriter: Stuart Townend also.
Likely to Say: A variety of things in a variety of tongues, as long as they have an interpreter.

6. Taffy Reformed (Suggested by Martin Downes)
Big influence: The Doctor
Bible Version: AV/NKJV
Blog: Exiled Preacher [The cheek of it!]
Favourite Hymn Writer: William Williams
Likely to Say: "Oh [said with a note of sadness] what we need is re-viv-al, not what man can do". [Amen and bendigeddig to that, boyo!]

7. Dispy-Reformed
Big Influence: John MacArthur
Bible Version: Scofield Reference Bible/John MacArthur Study Bible, ideally a combination of the two in one big bumper Dispy Bible
Blog: Pyromaniacs by MacArthur sidekick Phil Johnson
Favourite Hymn Writer: J. N. Darby
Likely to Say: "If you dis premilenialism, you're gonna have to go through the Great Tribulation. So go on, punk, make my day."

8. Westy-Reformed (Downsie with a little input from yours truly)
Big Influences: The Princetonians/The Trueman Show/Waldorf and Statler
Bible Version: ESV Study Bible
Blog: Reformation 21
Favourite Hymn Writer: Forget hymns, stick a bit of Wagner/Led Zeppelin on and turn up the volume.
Likely to Say: "As for me, I'm simply going to continue sitting in that metaphorical dingy motel room, a cigarette hanging from the corner of my mouth, a glass of bourbon on the bedside table, bashing out copy on my typewriter."

9. Confessy-Reformed (Pure Downsie, well almost)
Big Influences: The Reformed Confessions
Bible Version: Reformation Study Bible
Blog: The Heidelblog
Favourite Hymn Writer: The Holy Spirit/King David
Likely to Say: "You don't get to define Reformed, the Reformed Confessions get to define Reformed. Got it?!" or "Stop calling yourself 'young, restless and reformed' you are 'young, restless and predestinarian'."

Into which category do I fit? None of them really. I don't like being pigeon holed. Like to suggest a grouping all of your own? No sloppy definitions please. Note the strict heuristic rules: All submissions should rhyme with either "Fundy" or "Trendy", or at the very least must end in "y". Got it? Oh, by the way, if I like your suggestion I'll add it to the list.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Pathway to Jesus: Crossing the thresholds of faith

Pathway to Jesus: Crossing the thresholds of faith,
by Don Everts & Doub Shaupp, IVP, 2009, p. 142.
The church faces the challenge of bearing witness to Christ in a postmodern world. As missionaries with the Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship in the USA, the writers have a wealth of experience in doing just that. Here they draw on the stories of over two thousand postmodern young people who have come to faith in Christ.

Everts and Shaupp came to the realisation that the cultural shift that is postmodernism had rendered older forms of evangelism ineffective. Simply turning up on the College Green for a good old Christian sing-song was no longer attracting the interest of students. A change of focus was needed if young people were to be reached for Christ. By a process of trial and error, the evangelists noticed that “postmodern conversions” often involved people passing through five distinct thresholds. This book is an exploration of those thresholds. The authors make it clear that their approach is not to be used a as one size fits all evangelistic technique. They insist that conversion is the work of God, rather than the product of any outreach programme.

A chapter is devoted to each of the Five Thresholds, ‘Trusting a Christian’, ‘Becoming curious’, ‘Opening up to change’, ‘Seeking after God’ and ‘Entering the kingdom’. The emphasis is on Christians cultivating open and honest relationships with non-believers. Often we are reluctant to do this, but Jesus was a "friend of publicans and sinners". He took an interest in people and engaged with their concerns. If we are going to get people to listen to what we have to say about the Saviour, we must first win their trust and friendship. Once we have gained the trust of a non-Christian, then we can encourage them to become curious about Jesus, and ultimately lead them trough the remaining thresholds to the point where they enter the Kingdom of God for themselves. The writers freely make use of personal anecdotes and stories to illustrate what they are trying to say. The style is chatty and informal, well suited to the student circles in which Don and Doug move.
There is a lot of practical advice to be found here on how best to win postmodern people for Christ. Churches endeavouring to reach young people, UCCF workers and the like will no doubt be able to pick up some useful pointers from the Five Threshold approach. The trouble is that the book carries little material on the theology of conversion. The oft repeated phrase, "postmodern conversion" makes me feel somewhat uneasy. It is problematic because it suggests a unique morphology of conversion for postmodern people. Surely a biblical understanding of conversion rather than our perception of cultural trends must be allowed to define the nature of conversion to Christ. Conversion entails repentance from sin and trust in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord (Acts 20:21). There is a whole world of theology in there - why we need to turn from sin, the person and work of Christ, how trusting in Jesus makes us right with God and so on. While no two conversion experiences are exactly alike, the basic elements of repentance and faith remain the same for people at all times and in every culture. In that sense there is no such thing as "postmodern conversion", although postmodern people may cross several recognisable thresholds before they are actually converted. Despite the authors' best intentions, their scant treatment of the biblical theology of conversion may lead to some taking up their proposals as nothing more than the latest evangelistic technique. We do after all live in a postmodern world that is impatient with doctrine, much preferring 'can-do' pragmatism. But we cannot simply assume the gospel and move directly to the practicalities of Christian witness. Our evangelistic methods, however good and effective they may be in themselves, must be firmly and explicitly rooted in the evangel we proclaim.
An edited version of this review will appear in a future issue of the Protestant Truth Magazine.

Banner Mags going begging

Rob Bradshaw of has the following bound editions of the Banner of Truth magazine which he is offering free to anyone in the UK who is prepared to take them all - preferably by collecting them from him in West Wickham, Kent:
(June) 1977 - (Dec) 1979
(Jan) 1980 - (Dec) 1981
(Jan) 1982 - (Dec) 1983)
(Jan) 1984 - (Dec) 1985
(Jan) 1986 - (Dec) 1987
(Jan) 1988 - (Dec) 1989
Extra volume containing some issues from May 1987 to Dec 1990

Leave a comment on his blog if you are interested in this special offer.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Izzy, wizzy let's get busy

One of my favourite childhood TV characters was Sooty. He would wave his magic wand, utter the words, "Izzy, wizzy, let's get busy!" and make all kinds of amazing stuff happen. Well it's going to get pretty busy round here this week. We have a Holiday Bible Club on Monday to Thursday mornings at Penknap Chapel. A good number turned up this morning, and they all seemed to have enjoyed themselves, which was great.
Easter weekend is looming. We have visiting speakers for Good Friday, but I'm preaching twice on Sunday. Sermon prep will have to be squeezed into the afternoons. That's a bit unusual for me, as I usually do my prep in the mornings.
The other day I finished John Webster's Holy Scripture, A Dogmatic Sketch. But I won't have time to review it for a little while. I know you'll be disappointed about that and I'm very sorry, but there we are. I don't have a magic wand and saying "Izzy, wizzy, let's get busy!" doesn't make stuff happen without one, at least for me.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

A life on the ocean waves

Snaps from a day trip to Portsmouth, home of the Royal Navy, including the ghostly wreck of Henry VIII's Mary Rose, Nelson's HMS Victory, the first iron battleship, HMS Warrior and views of, from and inside the majestic 170 meter tall Spinnaker Tower.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Why I'm a rubbish blogger (and I don't even care)

ImageChef Word Mosaic -

1. Far too many embarrassing typos. The other day someone kindly pointed out that writing on Synod of Dort, I had typed "Irresistible Grave" rather than "Irresistible Grace". I changed it so that "Grave" became "Grace", and death was swallowed up in victory. But what a howler!
2. Some of my posts are a bit too long for a blog.
3. Some of my posts are so short as to be pointless.
4. I insist on posting my musings on music even though it really annoys some people.
5. Quite a bit of my material is recycled stuff rather than made to measure blog posts.
6. I 'discovered' David Sky and Dai Corleone.
7. I often can't be bothered to respond to comments.
8. My Facebook page is composed almost entirely of blog feed headlines. How sad is that?
9. I only have a few blogs in my Google Reader, which speaks volumes for the interest I take in other blogs.
10. But despite all that, I quite enjoy blogging so I won't be sounding the Last Post just yet.

Easter Hope

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire.

The kids break up from school today. The Easter holidays will soon be upon us. Now, for many people, Easter means that we get a long weekend off and eat far too many chocolate eggs. But perhaps there is more to it that that. For Christians Easter is a most important period. We take time to reflect on the events that lie at the heart of the Christian gospel.

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. Believers recall Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. He entered the city as a King, but he did not charge down the streets on a war horse. He was seated upon a lowly donkey. Jesus is the King of peace.

Crowds of people hailed him, waving palm branches in their hands, hence “Palm Sunday”. Yet by the following weekend they were howling for his blood and demanding that he be crucified. How had it all gone so terribly wrong? Was Jesus aware of how things would turn out? Yes he was. He often told his followers that he would be arrested in Jerusalem and then condemned to death. He knew that he had to die for the sin of the world, so that those who trust in him might experience forgiveness and new life. That’s what happened on the first Good Friday.

Jesus’ death left his disciples baffled. They had hoped for so much from their Master. But now all their expectations were dashed. However, on the first Easter Sunday morning their hope was reborn. Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his friends. They were overjoyed to see him alive. Now they realised that his death was not a tragic accident, but God’s way of brining his people back to him.

Easter is all about the restoration of hope. And we could do with some of that these days.
The last five talks (apart from the one they "banned") were broadcast on BBC Radio Wiltshire around 6.25 each morning from Monday 30th March to Friday 3rd April. Frequency 103.6, 104.3 & 103.5 FM, or online.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Wired for Sound?

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire.
I understand that congratulations are in order. BBC Radio Wiltshire will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this weekend. All week Graham has been giving us a blast from the past with some special archive clips. The one of him flying with the Red Arrows sounded fun. Although rather him than me.

I suppose that radio is so much part of our lives that we take it for granted. But it’s a rather strange, even unnerving medium isn’t it? You can’t see me, which may be just as well. But you can hopefully hear me speaking to you just where you are. I don’t know what you are doing right now. You may be having your breakfast. Perhaps you are at work. Or if you have one of those radio alarm clocks, you could even still be in bed! But wherever you are, you can hear my voice. Someone you can’t see is speaking directly to you.

One of the early Russian cosmonauts once quipped that he had a good look round in space, but hadn’t seen God. What did he expect? We can’t see God, he is invisible. How, then can we know that he is there? Because he has spoken.

God speaks to us through the world that he made.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
(Psalm 19:1&2)
In our every waking moment, we are being addressed by the God's speech, summoning us to forsake our idols and glorify our great Creator.

God speaks to us through the Bible. Its great message is that the One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit has acted to bring us into a meaningful relationship with himself.

Above all God speaks to us through his Son Jesus Christ. In his life, death and mighty resurrection we see the full extent of God’s love and compassion for our broken world.

God is speaking. He is there and he is not silent. It’s a little bit like the radio. The signal is being broadcast. We just have to switch on and tune in to what he is saying.

On BBC Radio Wiltshire around 6.25 each morning from Monday 30th March to Friday 3rd April. Frequency 103.6, 104.3 & 103.5 FM, or listen online.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Values and Priorities

An edited version of my Morning Thought, for BBC Radio Wiltshire (not broadcast for some strange reason).
As from today Wiltshire has a unitary local authority. Great isn’t it? And also today, the leaders of the world’s 20 richest nations will be descending upon London in preparation for the G20 Summit. On the agenda: What on earth to do about the economic downturn. The connection between these two events? Well, in our globalised world everything is connected. Even before it starts our grand unitary authority has a hole in its finances. An 8 million pound hole to be exact. Why? Because the old Wilshire County Council invested a good chunk of our Council Tax money in an Icelandic bank. Not to mention North Wiltshire District Council’s missing 5 million. (I've checked my facts - see Aduit Commission report). We’ve been credit crunched. That’s globalisation for you, where the international and local collide. If nothing else, this reminds us of the interconnectedness of life. As the poet/preacher John Donne famously put it, “No man is an island entire of himself”.

Now, I’m not an economist. I find talk of “quantitative easing” and the sale of government gilts as baffling as the next person. But whatever global rescue plan the G20 Summit comes up with, there can be no return to the consumer boom of the last ten years, fuelled as it was by cheap credit. No more boom and bust, eh?

But perhaps the so-called credit crunch gives us an opportunity to reflect afresh on our values and priorities. What shall we put first in life, the material or the spiritual? Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and money”. He calls us to value treasure in heaven over treasure on earth. Only then we will be free from our obsession with material things. Jesus said to his followers,

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Matthew 6:31-33).

I don’t know if that’s the message that we’ll be getting from the great world leaders. But it sounds good to me.
On BBC Radio Wiltshire around 6.25 each morning from Monday 30th March to Friday 3rd April. Frequency 103.6, 104.3 & 103.5 FM, or listen online.