Tuesday, December 12, 2023

‘You shall call his name Jesus’


“What's in a name?” asked Shakespeare’s character, Juliet, “That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.” Smell as sweet, maybe, but I can't help thinking that roses are called roses and turnips, turnips for a reason. Although, maybe the Bard had a point. When it comes to the names our parents bestowed on us, or we gave to our children, I doubt the meaning of the name was a big factor.

My mum wanted to call me Alexander, which has a rather distinguished ring to it. But my dad registered the birth and dubbed me Guy. The name means ‘wood’, apparently. I  guess the name was chosen more for how it sounded than what it meant. Unless he thought I looked as thick as two short planks. Oh, well. I’m stuck with it now. 

When it came to naming Jesus, Mary and Joseph had little choice in the matter. For according to the Gospel accounts he was named by the angel of the Lord. First, Mary was told, ‘And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.’ Then Joseph was informed concerning Mary, ‘She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus’, with the added word of explanation ‘for he will save his people from their sins.’

‘Jesus’ is the Greek version of the Hebrew name ‘Joshua’, which means ‘the Lord saves’. In Jesus’ case his name could not have been more fitting. The Bible teaches that the Son of God came into the world as a human being to bring us back to God. He lived a perfect, blameless life, died on the cross for our sins and rose again from the dead. Now we may be saved, by faith in Jesus.

As the angel of the Lord said to the shepherds of old, ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.’

‘What’s in a name?’ In the name of Jesus we find salvation.

*For various local parish magazines 

Sunday, November 12, 2023

When dinosaurs roamed the earth

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there', wrote L.P. Hartley. Just how foreign and exotic is the past was brought home to me the other week. My wife and I went to hear the author Tom Holland give a talk on his new book, Pax: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age (see report here). In the opinion of Edward Gibbon, the era covered by this work (69-138AD) was ‘the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous’. Not so much, perhaps, if you were a woman.

These days there is widespread outrage if allegations are made that a powerful man has exploited his position to gain sexual favours. #MeToo scandals have engulfed the words of politics, business, entertainment and the police. All that would have made no sense in ancient Rome. It was the expectation that rich and powerful men were entitled to pounce on anyone they pleased. 

As a boy Holland was fascinated by the heroes of Rome. To him they were the awe-inspiring apex predators of history. But as he grew up and immersed himself in the ancient world, the author found himself appalled by the monstrous cruelty and depravity of Rome’s overlords. Holland realised that he was viewing the mighty emperors of old from the perspective of someone who lived in a culture that was steeped in the Christian faith. He tells that story in his previous work, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind.

In his preface to Pax, the author describes Christians living in the period of Rome’s ‘Golden Age’ as ‘Mesozoic animals in an ecosystem dominated by dinosaurs’. Those tiny Christian ‘mammals’ seemed pretty insignificant as they scurried  around at the feet of towering T-Rex figures like the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. But they sparked a revolution that still affects the way we think today.

Christians held that men as well as women are made in the image of God. That is the basis of equal rights. Christ is pictured as a husband who loved the church as his bride and gave himself up for her on the cross. In the light of that the church upheld the importance of marriage and men were forbidden to use women just as they pleased. The #MeToo movement only makes sense in that context. 

In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians we discover the meteorite that destroyed the dinosaurs. The impact of that meteorite is still sending shockwaves around the world centuries later: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28)

*For November editions of various local parish magazines 

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Losing our religion

According to a survey cited in The Times newspaper, around 75% of Church of England clergy believe that the UK can no longer be called a Christian country. The latest census data bears that out. In 2011 the number of people identified as Christian was 60%, but by 2021 that had dropped to 46%.

For hardline secularists the decline of Christianity in our country may be an occasion for rejoicing. But as Rod Liddle argued in a recent column in The Sunday Times, what we’re left with as Christian influence has receded is a more individualistic society, devoted to the pursuit of material gain. The trouble is that looking after number 1 and buying endless stuff online hardly satisfies the deepest longings of our souls.

Similarly, as Celia Walden reflected in an article in The Telegraph, we’ve swapped the worship of God for the worship of self, “as a secular society, we’ve thrown ourselves into the cult of self, precisely because we’re flailing, with no basic spiritual scaffold to keep us steady.” Welcome to the brave new post-Christian world.

But if we broaden our perspective to take in the global picture, Christianity is not in decline. The faith is advancing in China, Africa, South America and even Iran. Even here in the UK Rod Liddle points to the “rapidly growing numbers attending Pentecostal and evangelical churches — where eternal biblical certainties are still enjoined upon the worshippers”. This is evidenced in a piece in The Spectator by Dan Hitchens, Inside the fastest growing – and shrinking – churches in the UK

The worship of self and wealth are poor God-substitutes. The eternal biblical certainties set before us the one true and living God who is worth worshipping.  He is the God who sent his Son, the Lord Jesus to die for our sins and be raised from the dead that we may have the hope of everlasting life. Jesus calls us to renounce the cult of self saying, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

* For various local parish magazines and newspapers 

Thursday, October 05, 2023

God's emotions!

In a previous post I argue that God does not have emotions, see here. In this post I want to assert that God does have emotions like us. Joy and sorrow, compassion and anger, astonishment and disappointment are all part of the range of feelings experienced by God. 

But I am not contradicting myself.

How am I able to hold that God both does and does not have emotions? Because God did something that enabled him to do things that God cannot do. Given the aseity (self-existence) of God, he cannot die. His life is self-sustaining. Given his immensity, God cannot be bound by space. Given his eternity, God is not subject to time. Given his impassibility, God experiences no fluctuating feelings. But the God who has life in himself became mortal. The omnipresent God was bound by space. The eternal God entered time. The impassible God experienced fluctuating feelings. How? Because 'the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us' (John 1:14).

At the incarnation the Son of God took a human nature. In his human nature our Lord not only had a human mind and will, but also human emotions. B. B. Warfield writes most helpfully on this in his essay, The Emotional Life of Our Lord. Even in his exalted state, Jesus 'knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust'. He knows what it is to be a member of suffering humanity from the inside. Jesus  can therefore sympathise with us in our weaknesses, having been tempted on all points as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:14-15).

The Reformers developed the idea of the 'communion of attributes' to help clarify the relationship between the divine and human natures in the person of Christ. They certainly did not mean that divine attributes are communicated to Jesus's human nature, or the other way around. At the incarnation the Son of God became what he was not [man], without ceasing to be what he was [God]. That is the so-called extra-Calvinisticum. According to John Calvin, 'The Son of God descended miraculously from heaven, yet without abandoning heaven; was pleased to be conceived miraculously in the Virgin’s womb, to live on the earth, and hang upon the cross, and yet always filled the world as from the beginning. ' (Institutes of he Christian Religion, II:xiii.4). 

The 'communion of attributes' is an aid in making sense of passages in the Bible say things like, 'they... crucified the Lord of glory' (1 Corinthians 2:8), or 'the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me' (Galatians 2:20). Does that mean Jesus suffered as God and died on the cross? No. Should we understand, then, that Christ's human nature died for our sins? No. We believe the person of the Son of God gave himself to the suffering and death of the cross in his human nature. The Second London Baptist Confession explains,

Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture, attributed to the person denominated by the other nature. (8:7 - see also WCF and SDF) 

It is in that sense we may speak of 'God's emotions', because in the person of the Son, God entered into the sorrows and joys of life in our fallen world, 'tears and smiles like us he knew'. We don't need to cut God down to size to make him more relatable when he has already descended to our level. In other words, if you want a God who feels like us, don't deny the impassibility of God, proclaim the incarnation of God. 'And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us'.

See here for an earlier post on Anselm and the suffering of the impassible God.

Monday, October 02, 2023

God’s emotions?

In his article God's emotions in September's Evangelical Times, Psychiatrist Alan Thomas argued that God has emotions that correspond to our human feelings. He tries to square this view with the impassibility of God taught in historic Reformed confessions such as the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. Here is my response. 

God's 'emotions' and accommodated divine self-revelation 

Thomas notes that biblical revelation depicts God as having 'a complex range of emotions', including 'raging, painful emotion' (Genesis 6:6). Such descriptions of God reveal something of his character - his wrathful response to sin, but are they meant to be taken at face value? After all, Scripture also speaks of God having 'hands', 'eyes' and 'back parts'. We usually regard language like that as anthropomorphic, or speaking of God in human terms. That is not because of some prior philosophical commitment, but because Jesus tells us, 'God is Spirit' (John 4:24). God is also 'one' (Deuteronomy 6:4). Divine simplicity rules out God having a bodily form, which necessarily involves being composed of complex parts (1 Corinthians 12:14).

The fact that the Bible uses anthropomorphic language of God tells us something about biblical revelation. It speaks of God in ways that are accommodated to our capacity as finite and fallen human beings. To get technical, Scripture does not speak of God univocally so that what is true of us is true in the same way of him. Rather, the Bible speaks of God analogically, or by way of analogy. When passages describe God delivering Israel from Egypt with his 'outstretched arm', they are speaking analogically of a display of his power on behalf of his people. We would not understand such speech univocally, as if God acts as we do by extending a divine limb through time and space.  

The analogical view of divine self-revelation in Holy Scripture is in place to safeguard the Creator/creature distinction that is fundamental to sound Christian theology. If anthropomorphic figures of speech are taken univocally, what you get is a vision of God remade in our image. The same holds true when it comes to interpreting the Bible's 'anthropopathic' language, which speaks of God in terms of human emotions such as 'grief' and 'regret'. 

But how do we know that God doesn't actually 'feel' regret when the text of Scripture says he does? Consider 1 Samuel 15:11 & 35, where the Lord is said to regret making Saul King of Israel. Surely we should take these verses at face value and not try to rationalise expressions of divine disappointment? The prophet Samuel no less suggests otherwise when he says, 'And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.' (1 Samuel 15:29). God works all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11), including the appointment of Saul as King of Israel and his subsequent rejection. Taken literally expressions of 'regret' would mean that Saul's reign didn't work out as God intended, but that is not the case. God is not a man that he should feel regretful when his high hopes are not realised. A univocal reading of 1 Samuel 15:11 & 35 would be misleading, for in reality God is not like us in harbouring regrets.  

God's 'emotions' and divine impassibility

Thomas notes that historic Reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Second London Baptist Confession teach that God is 'without body, parts, or passions' (1689, 2:1). He reflects on the theme of impassibility later in the article, arguing that it means that God is unchangeable and concluding, 'God has emotions, but he does not change.' But he has already admitted that our human emotions are in a state of constant flux as we interact with the world around us. Indeed, emotion may be defined as 'a strong feeling deriving from one's circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.'  (Oxford Languages). Which is why theologians have tended to be cagey about ascribing emotions to God. We are creatures of ever-changing moods. Circumstances affect how we feel, from the simple pleasure of eating an ice cream by the beach, to deep grief on losing a loved one. God is not like that. He is the ever-blessed God. There is nothing within him to disturb his infinite peace. Nothing outside of him can affect him. That is not because God is apathetic, but because he is perfectly fulfilled in the joyous perfection of his Triune life. That is precisely why the church has confessed impassibility.

What about divine wrath against sin, isn't that a case of the world impacting on God's emotional life? We must not think that God's wrath involves him being provoked into ‘losing his rag’. That would be a passion. Rather, God's wrath is the unchanging expression his holy justice when confronted by sin. Apart from the Fall God would have been eternally just, but his justice would not have been revealed in the wrathful punishment of sinners (Romans 1:18, 2:5). God's wrath is removed from sinners not because his feelings towards them change, but because his justice is satisfied by Christ's propitiatory sacrifice, Romans 3:25. God sent his Son to propitiate his wrath out of love for his people, 1 John 4:10. We benefit from the atoning work of Christ when we are united to him by faith. 

Properly understood, impassibility  does not make God cold or remote. The Lord is most loving and merciful. But his love is not a fickle passion that was ignited by our love for him and may be doused if our love should grow cold. His love for us is eternal and unchangeable, flowing to us from the infinite depths of God's being. The Father loves his people even as he loves his own Son (John 17:23, 26). That is why Paul can assure believers that, 'nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord' (Romans 8:39). Depicting God's love as if it were a passion or fluctuating emotion robs us of that certainty. Thomas knows this, saying, '[God] is utterly different from us as our exalted Creator who is eternal and unchangeable.' Yes, hence impassibility. 

God's 'emotions' and divine personality 

Thomas's tendency to start at a human level and then project up to God doesn't end with his handling of texts that speak of God in an arthropathic manner. He also reinterprets key theological terms in the light of human experience. For example, 'To be a person is to be a being who experiences emotions.' That may or may not be an adequate definition of human personhood. It is way off beam when applied to God, as the author does here: 'To be a person is to be in relationships, and such relationships always generate feelings. So since God is personal and eternally in relationships within the Godhead then feelings must be integral to who he is.' 

The Fathers who developed early Trinitarian terminology were very circumspect when it came to defining what is meant by divine personhood. Augustine confessed, 'We say three persons, not in order to say that precisely, but in order not to be reduced to silence.' In traditional Trinitarian theology the words 'person' or 'hypostases' simply denote what is true of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as they may be distinguished from each other, as opposed to what is true of the being of God, which is wholly possessed by the Three. Hence the formula: 'One God in three persons'. The three persons may be distinguished only in terms of their eternal relations of origin. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. That is their manner of subsisting in the being of God. The Fathers certainly did not read characteristics of human personhood such as having emotions into the divine persons. 

The Fathers also carefully distinguished between the personal attributes of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as reflected in their eternal relations of origin and the attributes of God's being, which are possessed equally by the three persons of the Trinity. What makes God 'personal' is that the one God subsists in three persons. It is misleading therefore for Thomas to speak of God's 'personal attributes, including emotions' or, 'In personal terms, he is faithful and true' and, 'Since his emotions are the attributes of a person'. Faithfulness and truth, much like justice and love are moral attributes of God's being, not personal attributes such as Fatherhood and Sonship. The person-to-person love the Father has for his Son is the infinite and eternal love of God's being. The Son who is of the same divine essence as the Father loves him with the same infinite and eternal love. Trinitarian orthodoxy demands that the we maintain the distinction between what is true of the three divine persons and what is true of the one divine essence. In construing attributes of God's being in personal terms we are in danger of making it sound like his being is a fourth person alongside the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Thomas's novel definition of divine personhood plays havoc with Christology. According to the Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD), the incarnate Son of God is person with two natures, divine and human. The historic Reformed confessions like the Second London Baptist Confession reflect this understanding: 'two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person..which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ' (1689, 8:2). However, according to the author'To be a person is to be a being who experiences emotions.' Jesus experienced emotions in his human nature such as sorrow and joy, anger and compassion. Using Thomas's definition, that makes Jesus a human person, as well as the second person of the Trinity. The incarnate Son, in that case, is a union of two persons, rather than a union of two natures in one divine person. That is a Nestorian understanding of Christ, which is explicitly ruled out by Chalcedon. 

Concluding thoughts 

Of course, there is nothing stopping us redefining time-honoured theological terms and investing them with new meanings, but in doing so we may find ourselves inadvertently stepping outside the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy. For all their emphasis on sola Scriptura, the Reformers and Puritans were happy to identify themselves with the ancient creeds of the church. With its drive to reinvent theological wheels contemporary Evangelicalism is in danger of drifting from the Reformed Catholic faith of our Fathers. That said, we would be rather suspect if someone from the Evangelical family tried to rework the doctrine of Scripture so as to call into question its inspiration and inerrancy. We would also look askance at any attempts at including good works in a redefined doctrine of justification by faith. The doctrine of God, however, seems fair game for theological revisionism. Strange, that. 

Friday, September 22, 2023

Tom Holland on Pax: War and Peace in Rome's Golden Age

Last night we headed for Waterstones in The Galleries, Bristol to hear the author Tom Holland give a captivating talk on his latest tome, Pax: War and Peace in Rome's Golden Age. I received the book as a birthday present from my son and have just started to dip into it. The last time we heard Holland speak at the same venue he was promoting his previous work, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (see a report here). 

The speaker began by taking us to Hadrian's Wall, which marked the northernmost point of the Roman Empire. The Emperor Hadrian liked to visit the outposts of his vast domain, which stretched from Scotland to Arabia. The point of Hadrian's Wall was not so much to keep the barbarous Scots at bay, as to rub their noses in the fact that they had been excluded from the vast cultivated garden that flourished under Roman rule. 

Nero was the last Emperor to have descended from the great Augustus. His demise triggered the 'Year of the Four Emperors' in 69AD. Wannabes Galba, Otho and Vitellius failed to maintain their hold on power. Those who followed such as Vespasian, Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian ruled for long enough to ensure stability. That stability was the product of good PR as much as the might of the legions at the Imperial overlord's command.

The Emperors had statues erected in their honour across their domains. Coins bore the stamp of the Emperor's face. These images depicted how the Emperors wished to be seen, whether as aged throwbacks to antique virtue, or eternally young and virile rulers. Roman noblemen were usually clean shaven, but Hadrian affected a soldierly beard, which also gave him the aspect of a Greek philosopher. Holland had a suspiring amount to say about imperial barnets and beards. Otho's toupee made him an altogether unsuitable candidate for Emperor. No wonder he only lasted three months and a day in office. 

The writer described the Roman Emperors as the 'apex predators' of history. They ruled unhindered by any Christian notion of what constitutes right and wrong. After the death of his wife Poppaea, Nero spotted a slave boy who bore a passing resemblance to his dear departed Mrs. He had 'Sporus' castrated and married him. Following Nero's death, Vitellius sought to win the approval of the masses by having Sporus gang raped at a gladiator show. The poor lad only avoided this public humiliation by committing suicide. The short-lived rule of Vitellius ended when he was slaughtered by his successor Vespasian's troops. 

Holland described Christians of the time as 'Mesozoic mammals in a ecosystem dominated by dinosaurs.' But it was the little Christian mammals who won the day. The reason why we are appalled at the blood-soaked deeds of the mighty Emperors is that the 'Christian Revolution' totally transformed the moral landscape of the ancient world. How that happened is the story told in Dominion.    

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The destroyer of worlds

'Ban the Bomb' was a thing in the 1980s. The Greenham Common women protested at the presence of nuclear missiles at the Berkshire RAF base.  A little more modestly, I braved being told off in school for wearing a CND badge. Those were the days. The prospect of nuclear oblivion haunted our teenage imaginations. In their number 1 single, Going Underground, The Jam lamented, ‘You want more money, of course I don't mind/To buy nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes.’ Fun, eh?

The man who wrote the ‘nuclear textbook’ was the subject of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie, Oppenheimer. Richard Oppenheimer brought together some of the most brilliant scientists of his day to develop nuclear weapons ahead of Nazi Germany. Winning that arms race was a massive scientific achievement. The resulting bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. Yet Oppenheimer was deeply disturbed by the weapon of mass destruction he had helped to create, ‘I have become death, the destroyer of worlds’, the scientist reflected.

You won't find me sporting a CND badge these days. Sadly, nuclear weapons can’t be uninvented, although I certainly hope they will never be used again. Oppenheimer highlights what is best and worst about human beings. We are capable of the most astounding scientific breakthroughs, yet we are also capable of unleashing death and destruction on a massive scale. The Christian faith recognises that human beings are made in the image of God. Hence our exceptional abilities. But the Bible also testifies, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.

Jesus came to deliver us from sin by dying in our place. Christ’s resurrection from the dead  brings the hope of a new creation for those who put their trust in him. The film Oppenheimer concludes on an ominous note, with the world teetering on the brink of nuclear oblivion. The Bible ends more hopefully, pointing us to Jesus as the one in whom there is life, the Saviour of the world. In the Book of Revelation John is given to see this glorious vision: ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth... and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’.

*For September edition of various parish magazines 

Monday, September 04, 2023


Even Jesus needed a break. After a time of extremely busy activity he said to his followers, ‘Come away and rest a while.’ The trouble was that the crowds got wind of where Jesus was heading and followed him there. Cue the feeding of the 5000. So much for that break. At least the intention to stop for a rest was there.

The Lord did not make us to keep going 24/7. We need a good night’s sleep and beyond that, regular breaks from the daily grind. God commanded the people of Israel to rest on the sixth day of the week, or the Sabbath. The Christian day of rest is Sunday, the first day of the week. It was on that day that Jesus rose again from the dead.

It is often during the summer that people take time off work for their main annual holiday. But there is a big difference between rest and leisure. The American novelist Marilynne Robinson  reflected, ‘The Sabbath has a way of doing just what it was meant to do, sheltering one day in seven from the demands of making money. Its benefits cannot be commercialised. Leisure, by way of contrast, is highly commercialised. But leisure is seldom more than a bit of time ransomed from habitual stress.’

I’m sure anyone who has braved a busy theme park would agree. You pay through the nose to spend up to an hour queuing for the brief thrill of a rollercoaster ride and then its on to the next thing. Fun, if you like hurtling around while upside down. Restful, not so much.

Yet it’s rest that our troubled souls and weary bodies long for. Days off and holidays are of some help, but there is more. We were made for God and it is only in being reconciled to him that we can find true peace. Jesus died on the cross for our sins that we may be forgiven and be put right with God. He says to us, ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

* For the August edition of various local parish magazines 

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Better to Arrive than Travel

Yorkshire is often called 'God's own country', especially by Yorkshire folks. Never by anyone from Lancashire, though, apparently. But I have no wish to reignite the Wars of the Roses, you'll be relieved to hear. What side would Wiltshire people be on, anyway?

According to the well-known saying, 'it's better to travel than to arrive'. If you're driving from Wiltshire to Yorkshire it's not, as we did the other week. At first it's OK as you speed north up the M5, casting a pitying eye on the columns of traffic making little progress as they head to the beaches of the South West. But the further north you go, the slower the journey becomes. Mile after mile of crawling along the M6 at 10 MPH, or stopped altogether. In the blazing sun. And the car’s aircon has packed in.

It was certainly better to arrive in Yorkshire than to travel. We enjoyed rambling on Ilkley Moor. Certainly not 'bar’tat'*, though, with the sun beating down. There were magnificent dales and waterfalls to admire and lovely old towns and villages to explore. Not to mention treating ourselves to tea at Betty’s, complete with the obligatory Fat Rascal scone.  

In the Bible the Christian faith is likened to a journey. Old Testament heroes of the faith Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are described as pilgrims on their way to ‘a better country, a heavenly one’. No, they weren't heading for Yorkshire, not even Wiltshire. Their eyes were on the city of God. Jesus is the way to that special place. He died for our sins and rose again that those who believe in him may be with him for ever. The journey to that heavenly country is sometimes hard going, but it will be more than worth it.

* ‘bar’tat’ = without a hat.

For July edition of various local parish mags 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Broken Stones

Paul Weller at Westonbirt
Way back in the late 1970s/early 80s, I was a teenage mod. I had the Sta-Press trousers, button-down shirts, and desert boots to prove it. Plus the obligatory fishtail parka.  When it came to music, my favourite group at that time was The Jam. How heartbroken we fans were when lead singer and songwriter Paul Weller announced in 1982 that he was splitting the band.

But for Weller the music didn't stop there. He went on to form the Style Council and then became a solo artist. Riding the crest of a Brtipop wave, his album Stanley Road (1995) was a massive hit. I was listening to it the other day on my car stereo. The track ‘Broken Stones’ especially grabbed my attention. Weller sees a metaphor for life in pebbles kicked around on a beach:

Like pebbles on a beach
Kicked around, displaced by feet
Oh, like broken stones
They're all trying to get home

Kelly Jones of Stereophonics recently joined Weller on stage to sing this song.  

The track’s vision of people as ‘lost and alone...trying to get home’ says something profound about the human condition. There is a deep restlessness in our souls, a feeling that we are somehow lost and far from home. That applies to successful musicians like Paul Weller, as well as the likes of you and me.

Now, the singer does not claim to be a Christian, but what he says chimes in with what the faith has to say about restless humanity. The early church leader Augustine prayed to God, ‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’ In our sin we are far from God, ‘lost and alone’. But we can’t escape that longing for home.

The Lord Jesus said of himself, ‘the Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost’. That is why Jesus came to die for our sins upon the cross and rise again from the dead. Through faith in him ‘broken stones’ are made whole and brought home to the Father. 

Kelly Jones joins Weller to sing Broken Stones 

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

‘King of kings’

On Saturday 6 May millions of us watched on TV as His Majesty King Charles III was crowned in Westminster Abbey. The Coronation Service was rich in ceremony and symbolism. The Archbishop of Canterbury anointed the king with oil and placed St Edward’s crown upon his head. The newly crowned King Charles III was given the ceremonial Orb and Sceptre, tokens of his royal power.  
Much of the symbolism associated with the Coronation was drawn from the Christian faith. The anointing recalls that kings in the Old Testament period were anointed with oil to symbolise that they were empowered for their role by the Spirit of the Lord. The Hebrew word ‘Messiah’ means ‘Anointed One’. The Greek equivalent is ‘Christ’.  St Edward’s crown, the Orb and Sceptre all feature crosses as a reminder that earthly rulers are subject to a greater King, Jesus.  
As the firstborn son of  Queen Elizabeth II, Charles was born to be King, although he only assumed that title on his mother’s death. Similarly, Jesus was born to rule. The angel of the Lord told Mary, Jesus’ mother, that her Son would sit upon the throne of his royal ancestor, David. When Jesus was born wise men from the East sought out the infant King of the Jews and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Yet when the Lord Jesus Christ was crowned on earth it was not with a jewel encrusted crown of gold, but with a crown of thorns in preparation for his crucifixion. ‘Behold your King!’ said Pontius Pilate of Jesus, the man he had condemned to die. Jesus could have used the power by which he calmed the waves and healed the sick to avoid the suffering and shame of the cross, but he did not. Jesus came to die in the place of sinners that we may be forgiven and be reconciled to God. His lifeless body was taken from the cross and laid in a borrowed tomb, which is where it remained until Easter Sunday morning when God raised his Son from the dead.
Forty days later Jesus ascended to heaven to assume his place at the right hand of God the Father. That was his Coronation Day, when Jesus was crowned King of kings and Lord of lords. He is exalted far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. King Jesus offers his royal pardon to all who will come in faith and bow the knee before his throne.

*For May edition of various local parish mags

Wednesday, April 05, 2023

‘The Son of Man must suffer’

The Cross stands at the heart of the Christian faith. Yes, believers sit at the feet of Jesus the Teacher, captivated by his compelling vision of the righteous life in the Sermon on the Mount. They marvel at the miracles the Bible reports he performed; making the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. But the Gospel accounts never let us forget for a moment that the Man who preached the Sermon on the Mount and made broken human beings whole was heading for the death of the Cross. Jesus knew it, which was why he repeatedly told his followers, 'the Son of Man must suffer... and be killed'.

What lies behind that 'must'? Was Jesus' death by crucifixion the outworking of the unstoppable forces of history? When Boris Johnson resigned as Prime Minister he acknowledged he was powerless to resist calls in the Conservative Party that he should be removed from Number 10, ‘When the herd moves, it moves', he reflected. In Jesus' case, the Jewish religious establishment wanted him out of the way. They feared unless Jesus was stopped they would lose their power. They manipulated Pontius Pilate by forcing him choose between loyalty to Caesar and condemning Jesus to death. Inevitably, Pilate sent Jesus to the Cross rather than risk upsetting the Emperor. But there is more to Jesus' 'must' than that.

Perhaps the 'must' can be attributed to the blind forces of fate that are said to determine who wins the Lottery and who gets run over by a bus? But Jesus wasn't being fatalistic when he spoke of his impending death, going to the Cross resigned to 'whatever will be will be'. No, the 'must' that compelled Jesus towards Calvary was his sense that it was his God-given mission to suffer and be killed. Why? The Bible's answers that quite simply, 'Christ died for our sins'. In other words, the 'must' of which Jesus spoke was the fulfilment of God's rescue plan for the world, 'God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ Now all who believe in Jesus are forgiven and put right with God.

Not only Jesus’ death, but also his resurrection was covered by the divine ‘must’, ‘the Son of Man must suffer... and be killed, and after three days rise again’. It was not possible for death to maintain its iron grip on the Prince of Life.

Easter services at Providence & Ebenezer

Providence Baptist Church
Good Friday 10.30am
Easter Sunday 10.30am & 6.00pm

Ebenezer Baptist Church
Easter Sunday 4.30pm

* For April edition of various parish magazines 

Monday, April 03, 2023

The Pastor as Counselor: The Call for Soul Care by David Powlison

Crossway, 2021, 76pp
In this little work, David Powlison underlines the uniqueness of pastoral counselling. All pastors are counsellors, but their counselling ministry is distinct from others who offer a ‘talking cure’ to distressed individuals. Pastoral counselling is about soul care, that ‘art of arts’ that aims at helping form people into mature and fruitful followers of Jesus. Pastors are not to maintain a professional distance from those they seek to counsel. Pastoral counselling is part and parcel of the minister’s close relationship with members of the flock he is called to serve.
The pastor’s counselling may take place in snatched conversations at the fringes of church life, where he asks people how they are doing and seeks to encourage them in the Lord. When bereavement, family breakdown or other forms of suffering strike, the counselling will be more intensive. Similarly, when a pastor gives support to a believer who is engaged in a massive struggle with temptation and sin.
In all these things the pastor offers counsel not as an expert with all the answers, but as a fellow-sufferer and fellow-sinner. The work is to be carried out in God-dependent prayer, as the minister endeavours to apply the teaching of Scripture to the troubled soul. Personal counselling is not an alternative to public preaching. It is an extension of the pastor’s calling as a minister of the word of God in the service of the people of God. 

*Reviewed for the Banner of Truth Magazine 

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Natural Theology by Geerhardus Vos

Reformation Heritage Books, 2022, 106pp
Gerhardus Vos will be know to readers of this blog for his famous work, Biblical Theology, published by the Banner of Truth Trust. Vos served as Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1892 until his retirement in 1932. His main interest during that period was in tracing the redemptive-historical flow of the Bible’s big story. Prior to that he taught at the Theological School at Grand Rapids, where among other things Vos lectured on dogmatics and natural theology.
It is commonplace to say that God has two books in which he has revealed himself; the ‘Book of Nature’ and the ‘Book of Scripture’. The task of natural theology is trace what can be seen of God’s self-revelation in the created order. In a useful introduction to the work under review John V. Fesko places Vos’s contribution to the field of natural theology in the context of Reformed thought. John Calvin and his fellow Reformers drew on the teaching of earlier theologians to emphasise that while God reveals his existence to all in nature (Romans 1:19-20), natural revelation cannot give saving knowledge to sinners. Fesko argues of Cornelius Van Til’s negative attitude towards natural theology was a departure from the mainstream Reformed teaching as represented by Vos.
The main body of the work is drawn from notes made on Vos’s lectures on natural theology by his students at Grand Rapids. His lectures would follow and question and answer format. This is retained in the text. But what may have been an effective means of communication in the lecture hall does not work quite so well on the printed page. The Q&A approach makes it more difficult for the reader to follow the overall drift of Vos’s argument and a sense of momentum is lost.
That said, there are good things here. Vos gives attention to the meaning of natural theology. He discusses the strengths and weaknesses of arguments for the existence of God. The Professor interacts with older and more modern objections to arguments for God’s existence, many of which are still doing the rounds today.
*Reviewed for the Banner of Truth Magazine, 

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Pure Church: Recovering God's plan for local churches

Edited by: David Skull, Andrew King & Jim Sayers
Grace Publications, 2022, 283pp

I've been using this book as a tool for discussing church membership with someone who is not from a Baptist background. Meeting up to discuss a chapter or two at a time has helped to clarify the biblical teaching on the church that we seek to put into practice as a fellowship. The aim of this work is to sketch out a biblical vision of church life from a Grace Baptist perspective. The premise here is that God has a plan for how local churches should function and that he has revealed that plan in Holy Scripture. Of course, there are true gospel churches other than of the Grace Baptist variety. That is acknowledged in the first chapter, on The Visible Church. The visible church is the manifestation on earth of the universal church of Jesus Christ to which all genuine believers belong, irrespective of the denominational label. But the visible church is only made manifest when a local congregation holds to and holds forth the message of the gospel. 

That is the place to start when it comes to the biblical doctrine of the church. Not in finding snazzy new ways of 'doing church for the 21st century', but by having a sound grasp of the gospel of salvation that calls the church into being. These are the truths of 'first importance' defined by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and helpfully outlined by Jim Sayers in the first chapter. Issues such as church membership and the proper subjects of baptism are second order doctrines. They may not be essential for salvation, but they are certainly not unimportant when it comes to recovering a biblical understanding of church life. 

Evangelicals have sometimes justified serving in theologically mixed denominations on the grounds that having unconverted members in the churches makes them a 'good pool to fish from'. Convinced Baptists believe that according to the New Testament local churches are gatherings of converted and baptised people where the Lord's Supper is celebrated. These matters are helpfully discussed in chapters two to five, on Conversion, Baptism, Membership and The Lord's Supper. 

On the Day of Pentecost Peter urged his hearers, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38). Luke then tells us, "So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls." (Acts 2:41). That repentant and baptised people were added to the Jerusalem church strongly suggests a properly defined church membership made up of converted individuals. We should also bear in mind that it was possible for someone to be removed from the membership of a local church should they stray into serious error, or fall into open sin. The fact that they could be put out implies that they were formally received into the church in the first place. 

We live in highly individualistic times in which the consumer is king or queen. That may be well and good when it comes to choosing our favourite breakfast cereal, but such an attitude can be disastrous when it comes to following Jesus. The Lord has not simply saved a bunch of random individuals. He is gathering people together into his body, the church. If we may continue with Luke's description of the rapidly congregation at Jerusalem, "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." (Acts 2:42). Discipleship and discipline are two sides of the same coin when it comes to how local churches seek to form converts into fruitful followers of Jesus. See chapters six and seven. 

Discipleship is an essential element of the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20. It involves both formal teaching by pastors and teachers in the church and also members caring for each other and encouraging one another in the life of faith. Church discipline acts as a corrective when church members stray. Its purpose is to safeguard the purity of the church and to restore the straying member to faithful Christian discipleship. The Lord Jesus has given his local churches the keys of the kingdom that they may admit to their number those who have made a credible profession of faith and remove from their number those whose credibility as believers is in doubt. Attention is drawn to Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5. 

Chapters eight and nine deal with the Independent governance of the church and church leadership. Baptists believe that each local church is independent under the lordship of Christ and subject to the authority of Scripture. The church members' meeting is the key decision making body of the church. Leaders are appointed by church members and may be removed by them if necessary. The biblical pattern for church leadership is one of a team of elders who share in the oversight of the flock, one or more of whom may be called to 'labour in the word and teaching' (1 Timothy 5:17) on a full time basis. The qualities required of overseers are detailed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Deacons are appointed to meet the practical needs of the church in line with Acts 6:1-7 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13.  

For all the right and proper emphasis on the importance of local churches comprised of baptised believers, the value of inter-church fellowship is also underlined in the final chapter on Gospel Unity. Churches with a shared confession of faith such as the Second London Baptist Confession, 1689 may wish to form formal associations. Confessional Grace Baptist Churches can enjoy fellowship with churches from other Evangelical and Reformed groupings. This may involve meeting together for times of ministry and prayer, or supporting shared activities like youth work. 

Despite the title, the writers of Pure Church do not claim that Grace Baptist Churches have reached a state of ecclesiological perfection and purity. Far from it. But they do hold that it is for the good of individual believers and churches when God's plan for the local church is followed. The various authors of this book have strongly Reformed Baptist convictions, but they do not lapse into sectarian polemic against those who belong to other church groupings. The stance taken is sometimes more 'Strict Baptist' on church membership and the Lord's Supper than all Grace Baptists would be willing to countenance. Surprisingly perhaps, the teaching of the Second London Baptist Confession on matters covered here isn't cited by the authors, which is something of an omission. That said, the work offers a lively and compelling vision of church life such as may be discovered in the pages of the New Testament. 

Monday, March 27, 2023

Cultural Christianity


Several years ago we spent our summer holidays in Carmarthen, West Wales. Disaster struck. I ran out of books to read. But ever the intrepid traveller I endeavoured to remedy the situation by popping into a local bookshop. Browsing the history section, a book with an orange and gold cover caught my eye. It was Rubicon by Tom Holland, who was originally from Salisbury. The book told the story of the rise of Julius Caesar. It was a bloodthirsty tale of ambitious men jostling to become top dog in Rome.

Caesar made a name for himself when leading the campaign to subdue Gaul. It is said that in pursuit of that goal he slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. Today we would call him a war criminal and demand he be tried for his atrocities at the Hague. But the people of Rome hailed Caesar as a hero. The glittering prize of being appointed ‘dictator for life’ was bestowed upon him in 49 BC. Although his life was cut short when Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC. (This is discussed on The Rest is History podcast with Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, 13 February 2023). 

At first Holland admired the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, but the more he immersed himself in that world, the more he was disturbed by their casual cruelty. The author realised that he was viewing the actions of the likes of Julius Caesar from the perspective of a culture that was deeply steeped in the Christian faith. Christianity teaches that all people are made in the image of God and are therefore worthy of dignity and respect (even Gauls!). That was the basis of modern day human rights. Jesus said, ‘blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’. Caesar wouldn’t have agreed with that. But today we champion the underdog and demand that the poor receive the help they need.

Tom Holland doesn’t claim to be a personal follower of the Lord Jesus, but he does recognise that some of our most cherished values derive from the Christian faith. His book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind shows how the faith has shaped our culture. But it is one thing to admire ‘Christian values’ and another to actually be a Christian

The Christian believes that Jesus is the Son of God who died upon the cross for our sins and rose again from the dead. Jesus promises those who believe in him a place in his everlasting kingdom. Cultural Christianity may admire the faith for its benefits, often picking and choosing the bits it likes, while rejecting the rest. But the kingdom of heaven is not to be selectively admired from outside, but entered as a person is transformed on the inside. As Jesus said, "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

* For the March edition of various local parish magazines 

Monday, February 06, 2023


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