Thursday, November 30, 2006

Why can't Christians keep their faith private?

The secular age we're living in seems to think that religion is best kept to the margins. Some are simply annoyed that Christians want to express their faith in the workplace or be located in Students Unions. At least from this side of the fence, it reads like a frustration that Christians wont retreat into Chaplaincy buildings, private piety and keep out of the headlines.

It feels like the best we're permitted is that we can have Jesus, so long as we keep him in our pockets and only let him out at Christmas (and sometimes not even then! - Winterval anyone?).... Or we can have our Christian beliefs but we'd better not let them affect the way we live (which sounds very much like being asked to be a hypocrite...). The world that is telling us this seems to be exterting a very public worldview, claiming all of life for itself... but putting that aside for a while, can this pocket deity Christianity work? And if not that, then what will it look like for a Christians to go public?

1. Jesus.
Jesus is portrayed in Colossians chapter 1 as being the one who made all things, who made them for himself and who holds all things together. That is to say, if Jesus stopped interfering with people's lives they would cease to exist. Creation would crumble and disappear. Furthermore, Jesus is the one who lived and died to reconcile all things to himself. He has an interest in relationship with all things that makes everyone else look half-hearted - he's not just in it for Christmas. He's not content to be kept out of sight.

2. Christians
The third chapter of Colossians turns to how a Christian should live. It tells us that we're to wear humility and kindness, love and patience. That these are the marks of Christian living, in relationship with other people. A Christian who keeps their faith private had better not be seen doing any of these things.

Then we're told that whatever a Christian does is to be done for Jesus. All things. Examples are cited: marriage, family life and the workplace. Christian faith is engaged in "all of life under the Lordship of Christ" (a favourite phrase of Richard Cunningham- UCCF Director). Christians who want to keep their faith private had better not love their spouse, or bring up their children well, nor work wholeheartedly - for to do such things is to live out their faith in all of life.

Living all of life under the Lordship of Christ
That means a Christian is not just an evangelism machine. When I worked for a bank I wasn't there to evangelise - though Jesus was the subject of conversation on many occasions. On day one I was asked what I was passionate about, and we continued to talk about our passions together throughout the year when we could. I was there to work wholeheartedly, and not just giving my manager eye-service but wholehearted service even when I wasn't being watched. I was there to work for Jesus, to be the best bank clerk I could be. That takes some thinking through!

All of this means I must think hard about how to work Christianly, how to eat Christianly, how to love Christianly, how to vote Christianly, how to rest Christianly, how to speak Christainly. Christian life is not mere private piety. Christians can't be anti-intellectual, anti-emotional, anti-physical. Rather we're all for wholehearted, wholeheaded, wholebodied life.

Christians can't be those who abstain from life, merely dive bombing into evangelise. Speaking for Jesus is vital and something perfectly normal. Who doesn't talk about what they love? And who could not speak of Jesus who is holding everything together! Jesus who comes into God's world to rescue people. Jesus who is the ultimate evangelist - good news personified. We're to be speaking for Jesus... and to be living for him. And of course, in varying degrees that's what Christians all do. Every decision is either submitted to Christ's word or isn't... most of the time we get on with living a quiet life in Christ, winning respect and gaining a hearing for the one thing we love more than anything else.

It's time to get involved. We're not to leave this world yet, but live in it. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul tells Christians to pray for all leaders so that they may live a quiet life. Politics is a Christian concern as much as anything else in life. A Christian student should engage heartily in their studies and in student politics, student sports, student societies and student welfare (as indeed may already do!).

Anyone left in a Christin ghetto needs to be rescued from it and set up camp in the heart of student life. The lecture theatre and the library, the sportfield, the bar and the coffee house are where people are. People made in God's image. Marred by sin. People who, like us, need relationship. People who like us need Jesus. And they are where Christians ought also to be found. That's normal Christian living.

Jesus is the one who made all things. Everything is his handiwork. Everything is God's good creation. Chapter 4 of that letter to Timothy says that what God makes is to be enjoyed. No hint of abstaining from good things like food and marriage - but rather a thankful enjoyment of them. Christian are, after all, those who "live life to the full", who live life the way it was always meant to be. And that has got to be interesting, and engaging, and enjoyable.

Living for Jesus, speaking for Jesus. Yes please.

Meanwhile, remembering The Man Who Brought People to Jesus.
Passion Podcast with Chris Tomlin

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

St Neots Evangelical Church

I like St. Neots Evangelical Church, we have friends there and they're just quality gospel people. This is also, I think, a great use of technology to talk about church for the benefit of those who aren't part of it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Five Quotes

A round-up of five quotes from the blogosphere and beyond....

Richard Cunningham in The Guardian

TODAY: RICHARD CUNNINGHAM SPEAKING AT READING UNIVERSITY: 1pm Palmer 108, "The arrogance of Christianity- In a relativistic age how can you say that Jesus is the only way?"

"What will prospective employers think of universities that churn out students with such faddish, brittle and incurious world views? Real tolerance presupposes judgment. You have to believe you are right and the other person is wrong in order to exercise tolerance. If you don't think someone is wrong, there is nothing to tolerate and so the only thing promoted is indifference. GK Chesterton once said, "The purpose of an open mind is the same as that of an open mouth - to close it again on something solid." If "open-mindedness" is being defined as a refusal to make judgments about religious truth and sexual ethics (for instance), then we are prone to contracting a form of intellectual lockjaw. This condition prevents us from ever discriminating between goodness and evil, truth and error."
Unity in Diversity, Richard Cunningham, The Guardian (Education) - Nov 28th

also:Donald Lees, Manchester CU Advisory Committee, The Times
Tim Suffield reports conversation between Nottingham Students Union and Christian Union

Testing Scientific Hypothesies?
"Darwin has for many people become a sacred cow... There's a sense that if you criticise Darwin you must be some kind of religious nut case...We might has well have said Einstein shouldn't have said what he did because it criticised Newton."
Nick Cowan, Teacher on BBC News

"Leaders who learn the art of apology on the nursery slopes of apologising for the mistakes of others may graduate to the challenge of saying sorry for their own errors and meaning it."
Guardian, In Praise of Saying Sorry

God comes close
"The distance religion created between sinful humanity and the holy God has been done away with from God's side. There is now free access to God the Father through the work of the Son on the Cross. God has come close. It is the event that takes place between the darkness and the tearing of the veil that helps us to understand why this is so"

Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance

Jim Hamilton reviews, The Cross from a Distance

Christian Unions
"The doctrinal basis, to which all committee members have to assent, is entirely orthodox. The lives of Christian union students played a leading role in my coming to a living faith in 1952. I have been involved with the Christian Union at Manchester University since 1963 and it has been a privilege to know its members. The Christian unions contribute significantly to the student bodies of which they are members and their banning brings no credit to those universities whose student unions have done so."

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Gutsy Faith (Hebrews 10:19-11:3)

Download MP3: Gutsy Faith (Arborfield Church, November 26th)
I wish I could have your faith? Have you ever said that? Has anyone ever said that to you? It's the 21st Century, faith was supposed to have become a relic of history, and yet it seems to be making a resurgence. A scientist recently tested the hypothesis “God exists” and came up with a 62% probability of it being true. How likely do you think it is that God exists?

But what is faith? Seems to me that when we say “I wish I could have your faith” what we often mean is, I don't have the mental weakness to believe. Is faith just a commendable quirk of the weak willed? And then we say of others - “He has really strong faith”. But what do we mean? Don't we often mean – he knows it's not true, but he has so much “faith” that he can still believe. But people who believe what isn't true aren't nice and quirky, they're deluded. And those who believe what they know isn't true aren't heroes they're insane!

What is faith? The part of the Bible we've just read, ends by saying – faith is being certain of what is unseen. Sounds like a leap into the darkness, doesn't it? Does “faith” require us to leave our brains at the door? We need to flesh out a bit what is being said. Look at chapter 11, sentence 1. Faith is about being: “Sure of what we hope for”, “certain of what is unseen”. Sure without seeing...

Faith leads to certainty about something unseen. Chapter 10, sentence 34, says that the unseen thing in this case is “a better and lasting possession”. Faith is described here as a certainty about eternity. When the writer uses words like “hope”, “unseen” and “a better possession” it's Bible language for spending forever with God. Above and beyond space and time.

Putting certainty and faith in the same sentence runs contrary to everything our scientific education has told us we should do. But run with it for a while... Hear this true story. Chapter 10, sentences 32 to 34. The original audience reminded of their own experiences. Experiences that illustrate what he's trying to teach them. Christians had been put in prison for being Christians. That's rare in the UK today, but if we were in a church meeting in many, many other parts of the world this morning that would be commonplace. Even so, in UK in recent weeks we've seen disputes about the freedom of Christians to express their faith in the workplace – at British Airways, and on our University campuses.

We know our prisons are overcrowded, but they're laden with great luxury compared to Roman jails. Back then a prisoner only survived if friends and family stood up and fed them. If a friend or member of your family has been arrested for being a Christian it is risky to identify yourself with them. You might also get locked up! These Christians took their stand. They entered into partnership with the prisoners. And what happened? Their possessions were seized. All they held dear, taken from them.

How would you react? We might tolerate it, for a good cause. We might give it a good dose of British stiff-upper lip. We might mourn and weep for our loss. Look at sentence 34 and see what happened to them. They reluctantly accepted... no... they stoically accepted... no.... “you sympathised with those in prison and joyfully accepted...” joyfully. Joyfully!

If we're honest we take our comfort and safety as a right. We consider our good standing and possession to be deserved. But what if they were taken from you? What if your TV, mp3 collection, books or even your home were taken from you? Your reputation or your family? What if we send Rupert to the Gambia on his year out before University and he doesn't come back? What if everything we treasure was taken from us, because we called ourselves Christians...

How did they face this with joy? How? Sentence 34. They knew they had a better and a lasting possession. Faith makes a difference. This isn't something limp or fuzzy. This is an unswerving conviction. We're wary of strong convictions – We call it fundamentalism. But this isn't suicide bomber faith. This is faith that loves... even at great personal risk and loss.

This is the way faith is described in chapter 11, sentences 1 to 3. Faith is not believing in what is untrue. It is not wishful thinking. Sentence 1 – being sure... certain... So gutsy and convinced that removes fear and sets Christians free to love lavishly and dangerously. Faith is a confidence in a better possession. In heaven.

C.S. Lewis describes a journey in his book The Great Divorce: Imagine boarding the train tomorrow morning, but instead of arriving at Waterloo the journey ends in heaven. You step out into a grassy field and find blades of grass going straight through your feet... you stoop to pick up a flower and it takes the skin off your fingers. Everything is more solid. More real. Somewhere bigger. Brighter. Better.

These First Century Christians had seen the adverts, they'd heard that their HiFi could make them happy, and that their car would transport them into new world. But they disregarded this. They knew that there was something more real than their car or their HiFi, or their comfort or safety. They had set their hearts on what is better. They invested in eternal joy with God.
In pleasures evermore! Not a hedonists playground... but heaven. Not saint and angels playing on clouds... but Jesus forever. Seeing and savouring him for all eternity.

Bigger. Brighter. Better. Absolutely certain. Sure of eternity and, chapter 11, sentence 3, sure about the beginning of all things. By faith, understanding that God spoke the universe into being. “At God's command”. A word into nothingness and suddenly everything! How you get such convictions? Such gutsy glad faith?

It's not self-confidence. No, look back to chapter 10, sentence 19 and we'll see! The ground of this confidence is this: Sentence 19, “ "the blood - of Jesus", the death – of Jesus. We can stumble around in the dark looking for a way out, but God has stepped in. Into history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in the backwaters of the Roman Empire, 2000 years ago. Jesus the man who lived to die and who stands at the turning point of history. Killed on a Roman Cross. We're used to the cross these days, it's become sanitised. A symbol of fashion and architecture and even in our national flag.

In the first century the cross was scandalous. Dying on a Cross was a death too bad for a Roman citizen. It was shameful and it was violent. And for a Jew, like Jesus, it also represented dying under God's curse. Yet, sentence 19, it, the death of Jesus, on a Roman cross, opens the way for us to confidently come into somewhere new. The death of Jesus is the key to a place called “The - Most - Holy - Place”. That's Bible language for the place where God is. Not for a church building, like this hall... but God in heaven. The Most Holy Place.

The cross is a promise of access now and forever to knowing and enjoying God. Confidence about this gives us confidence about everything else that God says. Confidence about the unseen beginning and the unseen end... Confidence that traces back to what is now seen. To the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in human history. Documented in the biographies of Jesus in the Bible. Designed to give us all the evidence we need. Designed to invite us into the presence of God forever.

There is also a warning because this is serious. We can't just “take it or leave it”. Sentence 26 – We have received a knowledge of the truth this morning. If we walk away there is no where else to go except - Sentence 31 – into the hands of God in his judgement. Sentence 39. We're invited to “believe and be saved” - the only alternative is destruction by rejecting his promise.

So, how can we have faith? Let's just be clear – faith isn't the point. What counts is what we have faith in. Or, rather who we have faith in. We all exercise faith every day. When you took the milk out of the fridge this morning you put faith in the fridge, Tesco's and your senses that it was still good.

And when you took your seat here you looked it, at others sat on it, weighing up in your mind: can it carry me? The question is will you look at the death of Jesus and say – it can hold me.
If we'll do that then we must only learn to grow that faith. So let's spend the rest of our time considering four ways to develop gutsy, joyful faith.

1.Live near God.

Sentence 22. We're invited to “draw near to God”. Maybe you've never done that before. “Live near God” doesn't mean buy a new house next door to him, or Jesus' catchment area. Jesus gives us access to God. He's the keys and the door to God. If you want to know me: You'd spend time with me, You'd listen to me. Same goes for God. If we want gutsy faith we need to get listening to God. To hear what he says in the Bible and ask him to help us to believe. Live near God.

2.Look to heaven.

Sentence 23. Hold on! We live in a world that believes we're in peril – advertisers constantly tell us that we're in trouble. And they insist that they have the answer. Heaven, we're told is a place on earth. Gutsy faith flies in the face of that. It says heaven on earth is too small an ambition. Gutsy faith believes what God's word says about God's world. Gutsy faith believes God against everything our education and culture tells us. The air we breathe is poison, attempting to blind us from seeing how real heaven is.

3.Learn about each other

Sentence 24. “Consider how to spur one another on.” Christians can't go it alone. We need help from one another. And so we need to learn how to help one another:

The teenager. Facing peer pressure from every angle told that the here and now is ultimate. How can we give them a passionate vision of what it is to have faith in Jesus. A vision of how great it is to be a Christian, because Christians spend forever with Jesus. A vision for what's bigger, brighter and better. Not settling for the pleasures of this life when they could have the pleasures of God.... the kind of gutsy faith we see the the story we heard earlier.

Or, the pensioner... after 40 years of hard work perhaps tempted to take a break for the next decade or two before meeting Jesus face to face. What a tragedy it would be if those final years were absorbed in the here and now rather than a gutsy hungering for heaven.

4.Belong to the Church.

Sentence 25. “Don't give up meeting together.” The church is the centre of God's plan to show everyone how amazing he is. It's not an optional extra for the truly committed. It's not like signing up for the gym where we pay our monthly subscription but never go. The church is God's family – it's not always an easy place to live, it's full of imperfect people. Unimpressive? Unattrachive? But, God plans the church to be the happiest place on earth. A place where we can help one another to look to what is unseen by looking together at what has been seen.

A people who look forward together by looking back at the cross of Jesus. A “community of celebration”. It's the best place to be. Don't give up on the church! We don't meet to be religious, but to spur one another on. All the more. Increasingly. With acceleration! Our unseen future has never been nearer. It's closer now than when I began to speak. We help one another to take hold of it.

We began by asking “what is faith?”

Christian Faith is certainity about eternity because of Jesus. It means asking, “can his death carry me?” Christian Faith stands in conflict with all the pressures and pleasures of this world and says: “heaven is real!” Gutsy faith knows that its great to meet with God's people and look ahead to something bigger, brighter and better than anything in this world! Eternity with Jesus!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Seven Days

1. Train hits cow
How the announcers kept a straight voice on this one I don't know. Comedy moment of the week.

2. Greg Morgan
Hearing the story of the tyre again was great. And having you teach us God's word.

3. Church of England

Meeting with local vocations officer now arranged.

4. UCCF: The Christian Unions, in the news

So the story rumbles on.

5. Two of my favourite people:

I don't really need to say anything more, other than that I love having Relay. Seeing them grow in grace week by week is a real pleasure. It's also great to hear news of the previous three Relay I've had the priviledge of supervising, going on with God in youthwork, speech therapy and accountancy across the country.

6. Reformation Day
Hebrews 9:10 says that the real reformation happened when Jesus died to secure our eternal redemption by his blood!

7. The Great Divorce
I read a copy of C.S. Lewis' classic book that I picked up in Oxfam Bookshop this week. Bring on the future that is more solid and real than this world.

Tori & Simon

Tori & Simon's Wedding

Friday, November 24, 2006

Mark my words!

How can a few people change the world? How can the nations stand in awe of God once more? How will God's kingdom come?

Episode I (2 Chronicles 17:1-10)
Jehoshaphat ascends to the throne in the place of his Father Asa. The new king is commended for walking in the ways of King David and setting his heart on the LORD. He gets rid of idolatry in the nation, restoring worship to the temple. Under his rule the nation is established and strengthened. Life is good.

Jehoshaphat then sends people out to teach in the cities of the land. They teach God's law. The effect of this is a bit surprising. We're not told of the effect on God's people but we are told how it effects the nations (2 Chronicles 17:10). This is similar to the response of Canaan to the arrival of Israel on their doorstep at the start of the book of Joshua. They melt in fear as they hear of God's promises and rescue of his peopel from Egypt. The world hears of the awesome power of the LORD as God's people are strengthened by God's word. A people deep rooted in God's word are able to stand and shine. They make God famous! This should be the result as God's people live by the word of God, written on their hearts, dwelling richly in their life and speech.
"I'm gonna be a history maker in this land
I'm gonna be a speaker of truth to all mankind"

Martin Smith, 1996
Episode II (2 Chronicles 18:1-19:3)
All seems well, but then we pick up with Jehoshaphat with Ahab king of Israel. They're making an alliance and preparing for war. We've already heard that Israel aren't true to God's word and yet here good king Jehoshaphat is allying with them. They prepare to go to war. Jehoshaphat wont go without consulting the LORD. Ahab presents 400 prophets to endorse his lust for war. Numbers don't sway Jehoshaphat so he asks if there is anyone else.

Ahab replies “There is still one man through whom we can inquire of the LORD, but I hate him because he never prophecies anything good about me, but always bad” (2 Chronicles 18:7). Mark Dever commments on this: “How stupid to reject something regardless of whether it is true, simply because you don't like it! Can you imagine sending back a low bank balance report, or a high credit card bill, or a medical x-ray, just because you don't like what it says?”. This foolish evil king only wants to hear from God if God is going to tell him what he already wants to here. This is not a strategy for faithfulness.

The one true prophet Micaiah is called and initially agrees with the four hundred. Soon he opens up and explains that this is a lying voice designed to entice Ahab to war. Ahab can test what Micaiah says by going to war. His words should be marked and considered. If Ahab comes home alive then Micaiah was wrong. They go to war but Ahab is gutless, he disguises himself to try and stay safe. Jehoshaphat by context cries to God for help and is saved. By "random" Ahab is struck down by an enemy and perished by the end of the day.

Jehoshaphat gets away with it but wrath comes against him for his error. He should not have made an alliance with a man who hated the LORD. How did Ahab hate the LORD? By hating the word of the LORD. The LORD and his word cannot be divided... This isn't about the defence of dry orthodoxy, but rather a concern for who our God is. Jehoshaphat took it lightly, and God was angry. It's enough to make us weep that a godly man would make such compromises.
...those who hate God's word, hate God...
Jehoshaphat is commended for seeking the LORD but he was wrong to stand with Ahab. The King survives but God's people are in need of a King who will be true to God's word, a king who would be The Word Incarnate, doing only what God commands. A King true to the Word of God, and a people with God's word written on their hearts will change the world.
"People whose minds are saturated with God's Word and submissive to His thoughts have a wisdom that in eternity will prove superior to all the secular wisdom in the world."
John Piper

Other posts on 2 Chronicles:
See also Orthodoxy (Reformation Day) - an overview of 2 Chronicles

"Bishops back student fight for religious freedom on campus"

" a faith-sharing organisation, CUs specifically invite people who do not share the Christian faith to attend their meetings. However, the executive committee of CUs act rather like charity trustees, and as such they are responsible for two things: firstly, that funds donated to the CU are used only to further the stated objects, and secondly, that the object of the union, the proclamation of the Christian gospel (as understood by orthodox Christians around the world), is advanced.”

Now the Revd. Alan Robson writes (Letters, November 25th):
"The Christian union is a non-denominational body representing the more extreme wing of evangelicalism, and is dogmatic and anti-intellectual in its approach. Its enthusiasm for the Bible does not extend to scholarly or critical study of it, and it is intolerant of Christians with differing views. "

The Revd has every right to disagree with our views and conclusions, but perhaps he'd be better to avoid the mudslingingly inappropriate phrases like "dogmatic" and "anti-intellectual". If you disagree with our conclusions, just say so! Any encounter with a real (rather than straw-man) university Christian Union makes it hard to conclude that we're not interested in rigorously thinking (not to mention deeply affectionate) Christianity....

....And of course, I'd always wondered why something as anti-intellectual as UCCF had bothered to set up IVP's Apollos academic book imprint, bethinking resource for apologetics and Tyndale House for theology research and indeed to want to work with University students who obviously have no interest in thinking hard about anything.... :)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Your renown, our desire

258 Passion Blog including podcast interviews by Louie Giglio
with John Piper and forthcoming with Chris Tomlin etc.

....rooted in the confession of Isaiah 26:8: “Yes Lord,
walking in the way of Your truth
we wait eagerly for You,
for Your name and renown
are the desire of our souls.”

As a result, Passion seeks to gather college and university students across the nation and around the world to seek the face of God, asking Him to ignite in our souls a passionate pursuit of Jesus Christ and a desire to spread His fame to everyone on earth. We believe God is calling out a generation of college students committed to the glory of His name in all things. God longs to bring awakening to every campus, mobilizing the students of today to finish the task of global evangelization in this generation. God is calling us out for this purpose, in this moment, for His renown.
Here's to the same passion on campus in the UK!


"And we all, with unveiled face,
beholding the glory of the Lord,
are being transformed into the same image
from one degree of glory to another.
For this comes from the Lord
who is the Spirit."

2 Corinthians 3:18

The Cross from a Distance

Peter Bolt writes in The Cross from a Distance, p28:
“Mark exposes religion as having multiple faults. It has teaching that lacked authority (1:22-28). It had allowed the daimonic into its core (1:21-28). Mark shows that the Jewish religion had rules that excluded people from their own homes in the interest of cleanliness (1:40-45), and rituals that could pronounce that people had become clean, but could not do anything to make them so (1:44). It grumbled over potential blasphemy (2:7) while committing the greatest blasphemy of all time, the destruction of the Messiah. It fostered a judgemental spirit, in which rules were placed above relationships. It displayed an inability to offer real help in the face of human suffering. When somebody died, religion could provide the professional mourners and the rule to ensure that the corpse did not pollute, but could do nothing about the problem of death itself and the grief under which it forces human beings to live. Obsessed with status and position, the religious leaders could miss the miracles in their midst (6:1-6) while demanding miracles more in keeping with their own desires (:11-13). They nullify the Word of God in order to keep the human traditions (7:1-13), and have the appearance of being scrupulous about the things of God, but in reality have hearts that are rotten to the core (7:14-23)..."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Train hits Cow

Delays on the Reading-Shalford line today after a train hit a cow, sometime this morning (I wasn't on the train at the time). Not as bad as the recent floods on that line in terms of delays - though they were still effecting things 8 hours later. From this we conclude cows are not as bad as rain. How useful to know. Quite why a cow would want to throw itself under a train is a mystery. Maybe a political campaign?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Outline from seminar at Reading CU houseparty:

What comes to mind when you think of “personal prayer”
What's your experience of it?
What's good? What are the struggles?
“God knows we have an allergy to prayer. God knows prayer is difficult. God knows that when we're young,
we think prayer is not doing anything and we do not have much time to pray. Prayer is one of the greatest gifts of the Gospel to the church. Prayer is the promise that God acts in response to the requests of his people.”

Mark Lauterbach

“What a man is alone on his knees before God,
that he is, and no more”

Robert Murray M'Cheyne

“Prayer is the measure of the man,
spiritually, in a way that nothing else is”

J.I. Packer

...such words can leave us in despair, but we pray because of God's to us, focussed less on our prayer and more on God.

“prayer is the chief exercise of faith and by it we daily receive God's benefits... We dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord's gospel, and which faith has gazed upon”.
John Calvin

1 Timothy 1v12-2v6 – Christ our Mediator

a. The glorious gospel
Who does God save? (1v13-15)
Why does God save? (1v16-17)
How might this help us in our struggles with prayer?
b. The gospel applied
Who should we pray for? (2v1-2)
Why should we pray like this? (2v4)
(note the repeated word: all in 2v1-6)
How might this help us in our struggles with prayer?
c. Prayer is possible:
How can we pray for ourselves and others? (2v5)
How might this help us in our struggles with prayer?
“Christian prayer is only offered on the basis of our union with Christ”
Graeme Goldsworthy

“We must now examine this question. How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only begotten Son – not for Christ's own private us, but that he might enrich poor and needly men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us... [so let us] climb higher and examine the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits”.
John Calvin

We seek the treasures of the gospel in prayer...

“You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore”

Psalm 16v11

“One thing I have asked of the LORD,
that I will seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple”

Psalm 27v4

“Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.”

Psalm 63v3

“For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere”

Psalm 84v19
Matthew 6 – Laying hold of the treasures of the gospel

How does Jesus teach us to pray? (6v5-6)
Why should we pray this way? (6v5-6)
Does this mean we shouldn't pray in public?
How ought this to effect the way you will pray?
“[we pray] ...that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor” -
John Calvin

“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us, to the glory of God.”
2 Corinthians 1:20
Praying God's Word

1. Pray Biblical prayers.
e.g. Read Matthew 6v9-13 slowly.
In pairs take a line each and pray a brief prayer from that line,
work your way through it.

2. Pray in the passages of God's word
e.g. Slowly read through Ephesians 1v1-14 at least twice.
Turn this revelation of God into short prayers.

3. Pray in the promises of God
The writer of Psalm 119 inclines himself to God's word (v112)
and prays that God would incline his heart to God's word (v36).
e.g. James is a great source of promises
Ask: What is the promise? What action does it require? Pray that!
James 1v2-3, 1v19-21, 1v22-25, 4v6, 4v13-15.
And remember, permission to fail, grace for all our past and future failings in prayer... if you reach the end of the day prayerless, humble yourself, confess it and seek God's grace and then admit you need to sleep because you're not God after all.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Seven Days

1. RUCU houseparty with Dave Burke.
Dave's Website will have the notes on soon. (update: Christ's Ambassadors) And I think the main talks will be on the RUCU site as mp3 soon. I'll probably blog my prayer seminar later this week. The election seminar is too long for blogging and in need of some restructuring I think.

Vary degrees of creativity in the cabaret. Mike's guide to worship songs was simple and fun. Matt's bed time story was amusing - and I take the committee member abuse as endearing! Lisa's song also great - we need more songwriters and general creativity. And Fish, what can we say that hasn't already been said!

RUCU-ers: Comment your highlights... what did God say to you this weekend?

2. Political Correctness? Why can't Christian Unions have Christian leadership and teaching?
Links gathered by Adrian Reynolds, from The Times. See also Zoomtard and Pete. And very helpfully, RUSU president Dave Lewis (on facebook).

3. Bond
We liked it.

4. Suffering and the Sovereignty of God
Complimentary copy recieved. Many thanks!
Starting to read the previous freebie Overcoming Sin and Temptation - John Owen is very challenging and spot. There's a seriousness and surgical care to his writing that is better than most modern writing I'm sure. It's not comfy writing that tells us what we want to hear. It wont scratch itching ears.

This looks good: NewGenBooks

5. TV
Our seems to be dying. Going shopping for one last weekend was a very odd experience. Hopefully we'll have something sorted by the time the next series of 24 starts in January...

6. Marriage
I love being married. Something I should say more often.

7. Permission to fail
Grace is for the many

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Cup

Reading University Christian Union, 16th November 2006
Download mp3: The Cup: Mark 14:1-31

Mark 14v1-31. The Cup – Part 1.

What are the most significant words ever spoken? Darth Vader: "I am your father" - Renee Zellweger: "You had me at hello" - Christopher Lloyd's Doc Brown: Roads, where we're going we don't need roads" - Rene Decartes: "I think, therefore I am". - Neil Armstrong: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind..." - Churchill: "We will fight them on the beaches.." Tony Blair: "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime"

If we're being fair we should admit that most of the really significant things in history have been said by God. How about "Let there be light" for a start. And then within Mark's gospel we have God saying "You are my son" - his own Darth Vader-esque moment, with somewhat greater significance. Over the next three weeks we'll hear Jesus say three of the most significant things ever said. Friends, we are on holy ground. Possibly the all time top three. You could argue that it's two other people who say the most important things in Mark - namely Peter who confesses, in Mark 8, "You are the Christ" and the Centurion who says, in Mark 15, "You are the Son of God" - however they are response to the real revelation of Jesus and the gospel. Next week - "Remove this cup from me" as Jesus wrestles with the prospect of drinking dry the cup of the Father's wrath at the Cross. A second cup, to follow tonights. And then "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?" as Jesus drinks the cup of God's wrath, abandoned on a cosmic scale. But first we must hear Jesus tell us of the life that is ours from his death, saying, Mark 14:24: "This is my blood of the covenant poured out for many". This not a cup of wrath but of life and promise.

My Bible tells me that this chapter is about The Institution of the Lord's Supper. I think that rather misses the point. The cup is not about communion, it's about the cross. The meal is not the point, his death is. This event has fascinated many, from Indiana Jones' last crusade to Dan Brown's extrapolations from Da Vinci's painting of it. Many have pursued the “holy grail” the physical cup used here. Others like Dan Brown have suggested that the San Greal was the Sang Real – Holy Grail, or Royal Blood? Though he draws dozens of false conclusions he's on to something. This cup is precisely about Jesus' blood. Not however a blood-line of imaginary children, but a blood-line of faith for those Jesus sheds his blood to save. Something for all generations and all people groups. We'll focus on what Jesus says and look for their meaning, not in folklore but in Jesus words in their context.

Read Mark 14v1-31

"This is my blood, of the covenant
which is poured out for many"

I. The Promise is in blood
It was a promise
We live in an age where promises seem all too breakable. People find ways out of contracts. Even the lifelong promises of marriage are shaken off. Just watch Britney do it “one more time”, as irreconcilable differences break a bond that was agreed to only be parted by death. Oops... That can make it hard for us to believe God's promises. But his aren't just symbolised by a ring on a finger, but achieved and sealed in blood. And not just any blood – the blood of Jesus.

The Bible is God's book of promise. Time and again we see him commit himself to humanity. Our terminology for the Bible emphasises this. Old and New Testaments – meaning Old and New Covenants. Two volumes of Promise. And all of those promises are YES in Jesus. If we look back to the start we see God promise Abraham that he will make an uncountable people with a land. But by the start of the second book, Exodus, the people are numerous but they don't have a land. They're slaves in a foreign land.

Mark wants us to think about these events. Come close, and see what's going on. Look at Mark 14v1 you'll see that these events are in focus here. It's passover time. And moreover, look: 14v14 Jesus is speaking at a passover meal. At the passover, God's rescue of his people out of Egypt he told them to kill a lamb. It's blood was to be painted over their doors. God would then pass over in wrath, but the blood would spare them. God would not inside the house, seeing the blood would be enough to save.

Likewise when God's promises to them are reinforced in Exodus 24 blood is shed and sprinkled on an altar and on the people. Someone dies so another can live. And God's promises are confirmed. Every year God's people would remember that rescue with a passover meal. But Jesus isn't looking back at this pass over – he looks forward and brings new meaning into the meal. Not the lamb, but bread and wine to symbolise the death he is about to die.

Another promise securing death. A wrath bearing death that becomes for us a wrath averting death. God's unbreakable promise of life. A promise that does everything. A promise that means that God is only looking at the blood of Jesus. A colleague of mine puts it helpfully... “If a quiet time could have got you right with God, Jesus would not have died.” (Mike Reeves) We don't get this life by painting blood on a door, nor by splattering it on ourselves, nor by behaving better, nor actually by drinking the cup. The cup is symbolic and it points to the cross. And says – believe. Believe in the death of Jesus.

Jesus arrived on the scene in Mark 1, saying that all God's promises had been fulfilled. Everything previous was now YES. And Jesus showed how he rules with powerful authority – “be cleansed” -- “you're forgiven” -- “follow me....” “arise”... The son of man came to give his life as a ransom for sin... and now he speaks with that same authority: “this is my blood - of the covenant” He doesn't arrive to be served but to serve us. To do for us the one thing we could not do for ourselves. To save us from the wrath of God and bring us into the forgiveness and favour of God.

This is the ultimate promise. The final promise. The old ones were good, but this puts them in the shade. The cross is where we see the promise of God. The historic event at the heart of Christianity. The promise is sure.
More things to see and savour:

How will he die? Voluntarily
Everything is happening just around the time of passover - but look at v1b: The chief priests and scribes are plotting to kill Jesus - though they're scared of the people so they're stalling. They've been after Jesus since he started drawing crowds and claiming to be God. Their dirty tricks campaign has failed to dispell the crowds or stop him preaching... they tried to brand him demonic, law-breaking and blasphemous... his family were nice and just said he was insane. But nothing has been able to stop Jesus... only one way remains...

They think they've got him this time. But look at 14v8. Jesus knows all about it – and he's not the only one. He famously commends a woman who annoints his body. Preparing his body for burial. He knows what is happening. Mark isn't hanging around though. 14v10. Judas plots to betray Jesus. It looks like the religious authorities and one of Jesus' own disciples are going to defeat him. But, v18. Jesus announces that he will be betrayed. He knows what is happening... though his followers are more concerned for their reputation than the reality of Jesus dying. Clinching it 14v21. All of this - is "as - it – is - written". Jesus is in control here. He has written the plan. He's not being caught out. His word stands. When he says his blood will be “poured - out” - he means voluntarily. Its not a tragic accident that Jesus dies.

How will he die? Killed by God
But there is another side we need to see to the HOW of Jesus death. Everything here is God's plan... v27. God has said - it is written - that the shepherd - will - be - struck. Jesus quotes Zechariah to help interpret his death. Words about God judging because of the spiritual adultery of his people – unfaithful to God. Here's the idea: Sin is so serious that it will require the shepherd to be struck. Struck down. Killed. And by whom. God says “I - will - strike”. The LORD will kill the shepherd. Jesus is the shepherd and his Father will strike him down. The whole Trinity in agreement that Jesus must die.

Killing him outright with a blow of his awesome and terrifying personal wrath. The Father and Son are not pitted against one another – Jesus goes voluntarily in full agreement. He went voluntarily to die. And it wasn't the Pharisees, Sadducees or High Priests. It wasn't Judas or Pilate. It was God that killed Jesus. And he did it to complete his wonderful salvation plan by satisfying his wrath that we sinners deserve. Jesus goes to his death voluntarily, and it will be his Father who executes that death. This is the promise-making blood-shedding death of Jesus. That's the first big thing: The promise is in blood... 2nd, the invite is for sinners...

II. The Invite is for sinners

Jesus speaks about his death in v24, but Mark arranges other words around it – and they give us great insight into the meaning and purpose of Jesus' death...
v21. One of them will betray Jesus.
v27. You will all fall away.

In both cases the disciples are most concerned about themselves – they ask: will it be me, and then defending themselves under Peter's leadership: They all agree that they will not desert or deny Jesus. But Jesus says – it is written. You will all fall away. V27. “you - will - all – fall - away” and the word is “skandalizein” -- meaning scandalised or caused to stumble. The cross makes them stumble. It offends them. Their saviour crucified under God's curse... it's been tripping them up ever since they first heard of it – back in Mark 8 – when Peter rebuked Jesus for saying he had to die.

The Cross has become a great symbol of fashion and architecture and faith, so much that it's become sanitised. But this was the most scandalous form of execution ever invented. The shameful way of killing criminals. And it fitted with the Jewish understanding that to hang on a tree was to be cursed by God. It was unimaginable that God's Saviour would do that. But one would betray him to that, and the rest would stumble.

Now, we might imagine that Jesus going to the Cross somehow shows how valuable we are. Irresistable to God.... But, that would entirely miss the point. Yes it shows God's love but more than that it shows our peril. It shows terribly evil we are. Not evil because we, humanity, crucified the Son of God – though that was an act of unbelievable evil.

So deeply evil that it was necessary for the perfect Son of God to die, bearing the wrath of God for us. Personal and rightful wrath that should be ours. And wrath which endangers any who haven't sought refuge in Jesus. We are so bad that it takes Jesus being crucified to rescue us from hell. Such are our crimes against our maker.

James Edwards puts it very helpfully:

“The sin that necessitates the sending of God's son is not the sin of Caligula or Nero or the legion of tyrants in human history ever since. It was the sin of the tenants of his own vineyard. Of his own disciples. Of Peter and James. Of you and me. The essential evil in the world and the essential atonement for the evil of the world are present at the Lord's table”

His death was for many. It was a substitution. One in the place of another. And it was for a group called the “many”. This recalls what Jesus said in 10v45 about being a ransom for many. For Who? For sinners. For rebels. For betrayers. For deniers. For usurpers who commit “identity fraud” on God (citing: David Horrocks). Claiming for themselves what only he can do. Jesus death serves us, by doing what we could not do – setting us free from slavery to sin and from a death sentence under God's wrath. Here is love!

Peter thinks he could die this death, but he could not. Only the Son of God can die for sinners. Only the Shepherd can be struck for sinners. The disciples are tragically missing the point. They stumble over it. Do we? Polly Toynbee was scandalised by the Cross last year as she reviewed the Narnia film. And she confidently proclaimed: “I will die for my own sin”. How we stumble over the Cross! The next event in Mark's story is Jesus in Gethsemane where the prospect of that other cup – the cup of God's wrath will overwhelm Jesus. Jesus will be thoroughly terrified, almost to death, by the prospect of facing the fullness of God's wrath. This is not a death we could die. The cross says clearly this is something you cannot do. Let us not be scandalised by the cross but rather rejoice in it.

Dan Brown and Indiana Jones and co missed the point. This cup is not about the cup - it's about the Cross. But, Peter and Polly Toynbee missed the point also. The cross of Peter or the cross of Polly will save no-one. The Cross of Christ, is all. Jesus' terrifying death secures for each person who repents and believes in it, God's full favour instead of his wrath. The great exchange. It gives us total - confidence - to know - and to enjoy - God - forever.

Our society says that this is terribly arrogant. How could we be so confident? But this is not self-confidence in religiosity or desire or works. Jesus is the one and only ground of our confidence. "This is us, we you and me together". Not a company of the respectable and self-righteous. We are a company of betrayers, deniers, stumblers and liars. Repentant - and forgiven. Soaked clean - by the blood of Jesus.

And that means we go away this weekend without faking goodness. We need no Peter-like bravado, but the honest confession of our struggles and sin, and our sure dependence on the blood of Jesus. - we could not do what was needed, but Jesus did it for us... And the same honest confession should mark our lives daily. The old hymn captures it well:

Guilty - vile - and helpless we
Spotless - Lamb of God - was He
Full atonement - can it be
Hallelujah, what - a - Savior

Jesus wasn't caught out by the cross it was God's plan. God's blood-sealed promise of life for The Many, for people like us. A secure unbreakable promise. The life-changing promise of the coming of his global rule under King Jesus. And the invitation to blood-soaked eye-opening sin-forgiven new life. A life in the full favour of God because of the blood of Jesus.

John Stott puts it well: “The Christian community is a community of the cross, for it has been brought into being by the cross, and the focus of its worship is the Lamb once slain, now glorified. So the community of the cross is a community of celebration." Let us put our trust in the blood of Jesus and rejoice! Let us join the cry of the people of God... the people from whom the shepherd was struck... The confession of Zechariah 13v9, Jesus blood is poured out as God's promise, so we confess: “The - LORD – is - my - God” - Amen!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Pastoral Refreshment Conference

30th January to 1st February. £150. Hothorpe Hall, Leicester, UK

What is the Pastoral Refreshment Conference?
The Pastoral Refreshment Conference is an oasis for Christian leaders. Our aim is to provide spiritual refreshment for leaders and spouses, nurture for their walk with the Lord and sustenance for their hearts in the demanding work of ministry.

The conference is an opportunity for leaders, pastors and partners to seek the Lord together for the on-going refreshing of life and ministry. It is not primarily a theology or ministry skills conference, but rather a chance to rejoice, weep and worship with peers, to be prayed for and to receive spiritual sustenance from God and encouragement from others.

What will happen at the conference?

From 30th January to 1st February you will find a warm welcome and sense of family with other leaders and their spouses. We will have 3 days of encouragement in developing godly character for leadership. There will be inspiring Biblical preaching from Dave Burke on Psalm 103, exploring the theme “Experiencing the Love of God in Leadership”. There will be lots of worship, opportunities for mutual prayer and a safe environment in which to be yourself.

There will be a variety of optional seminars including practical pastoral issues related to the lives of leaders and their families. There will also be a couple of world-class seminars that many wouldn’t otherwise have access to. But there will also be plenty of space within a relaxed programme for personal interaction, developing friendships, mutual care and good food.

The seminar programme will include sessions on: grace, marriage and ministry; grace, singleness and ministry; personal relationships in the church (setting boundaries, having friends, handling spiritual intimacy appropriately); the demands of an infinite work (perfectionism, burnout and failure, or joy in the work from knowing God).

Main preacher: Dave Burke, worship led by John Risbridger.

An ethos of grace

The Pastoral Refreshment Conference will have a strong ethos of knowing and enjoying the grace of God together. We believe that this is foundational to continuing to love the Lord, love the church and love leading when the demands of ministry are arduous.

When couples minister together it is often the case that the partner recognised as being in ministry receives encouragement and help but their spouse finds fewer such opportunities. The Pastoral Refreshment Conference is a place to come and receive from God together.

It can often be the case that churches are unable to see the draining and lonely demands placed on single leaders. The conference is intended to provide friendship, support and love for those who minister on their own.

More about Marcus Honeysett, Director of Living Leadership. More conference information

Booking deadline: November 30th 2006.

Living Leadership Website

love the church

"Even if the whole fabric of the world
were overthrown, the church
could neither totter nor fall"
-- John Calvin, Institutes IV.I.3

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Free Love

Galatians 5v1-14. A few final nails in the law-keepers coffin and Paul turns his attention to how we should then live....

Christians are people set free - Paul sets out his gospel as freedom from this present evil age in 1v3-5. A present evil age that is not so much this world as the slavery of religious zeal, idolatry or law observance. He's shown extensively that it is absurd and evil for a Christian to forsake this freedom to become enslaved again.

A few last reasons -
  • 5v2, the free person enslaved will find Christ to be of no advantage to them.
  • 5v3, when the slavery embraced is law it carries an in built obligation to keep all of the law...
  • 5v4, the path of slavery severs the free person from the source of their freedom, namely Christ.
How? Because it is by faith, through the Holy Spirit that the believer lives in hope of righteousness - not by becoming enslaved. And what counts is not slavery - though the issue isn't the particular slavery, slavery itself doesn't have power - but what counts in life is faith and the sign of faith is love.

The compulsion to slavery might seem like a small detail, circumcision, a food law, some other small safety net in addition to Christ. But, the smallest addition spreads like yeast in a batch and has great consequences. Paul however never endorses even the most minor slavery. What's the proof? He's being persecuted and people don't tend to persecute teachers of slavery. It seems counter-intuitive that slavery would be popular but most of us like to make some contribution to our standing before. God. The offense is found in the Cross which allows us no contribution. It requires nothing additional - because it is utterly sufficient to set us free!

In Galatians we find Paul bewildered, astonished, perplexed and angered. Gospel-denial is the one thing above all others that enrages him. Such is his concern for the glorious gospel. We see this in action as we looks at Athens enslaved to idols and is provoked. Not provoked to destruction but provoked to reason with people about the Cross. But here in 5v12 he is infuriated with false teachers - people who pretend to teach the Cross but lay extra burdens on people.

How then should a Christian live? We saw Peter not wanting to sin and that was a good desire. Law shouldn't be used to control sin, but neither should freedom be used to indulge sin (whether in legalism or idolatry or otherwise). Christians are not compelled to sin. Sin is not something that has to be done by a believer - it's enslavement is ended. Sin is now essentially voluntary but that is a freedom to be avoided.

Instead our freedom is an opportunity to serve others in love. To do, ironically, the very thing that any Jew could tell you is the summary of the law - to love your neighbour as yourself. But this isn't brute force law-keeping by the backdoor. Faith works out through love (v6), and by the Holy Spirit (v5). The believer takes action to love and the Holy Spirit acts to produce love. Love, patience, kindness and more.

The law was a prison and slave master to Israel and yet here we see it in a more positive light. This is unexpected! The new free life of a Christian is wrapped up with God. The Holy Spirit lives in the believer - the key benefit of the gospel - as Christ is being formed within. Christ's righteousness is counted to the believer and Christ is the clothing the believer wears. That kind of life evidently looks like a law-kept life. The power and motivation are very different and the goal is higher. Not slavelike obedience but Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered living.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Darkest Day

Cheryl begins:
"I believe that what separates humanity from everything else in this world - spaghetti, binder paper, deap-sea creatures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley - is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins. Even those of us who try to live a good and true life remain as far away from grace as the Hillside Strangler or any demon who ever tried to poison the village well. What happened that morning only confirms this.
She writes in reflection upon a High School Shooting in Douglas Coupland's Hey Nostradamus! She could as well be refering to the darkest day in history. Not a human atrocity but the day Jesus died. That day showed the great depth of human sin more clearly than any other day. Not in our capacity to kill the Son of God - though that was an act of great evil committed by man. But rather by the very necessity of the day. The necessity of the Father striking down his Son as a substitute for our sin, under his perfect wrath. That was the darkest day of all.

In his book of good news about Jesus Mark portrays Jesus dying under the cloud of God's judgement. Darkness covers the land declaring the wrath and curse of God. But it is the cry of Jesus that speaks loudest: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" as Jesus is cut off from his Father. The perfect Son abandoned by his Father - the Trinity torn apart as Jesus drinks dry the cup of his Father's wrath.

Why? So that humanity, sinful to the core, could be welcomed into relationship with that same Trinity God. The curtain of the temple torn apart to open the way. A new day would follow. A day when sin-scarred bearers of God's image would drink God's other cup. The cup of life - the cup of Jesus' blood, of life and the sure promise of life. Death dies and a new life is made possible. Life forgiven, to be lived in union with Christ with a new heart, a renewed image, washed clean, made new.
"This the power of the cross:
Son of God, slain for us.
What a love! What a cost!
We stand forgiven at the cross"
-- The Power of the Cross, Getty/Townend, 2005

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Seven Days

1. Marcus Honeysett

Stepping in at the last minute to impersonate Nigel Pollock for three God-besotted sessions on postmodernism etc. Thanks for showing us how great Jesus is.

Kenny presents Honeysett's History

2. Team Life

Hanging out with Gareth and Olly on Monday, and then the rest of the team from Wednesday-Friday. This work can be very lonely, it's great to be team.

3. D.I.S.C.O.

Andy Tuck's five reasons why people don't do evangelism, for Thames Valley CU.

4. New books

By Terry Virgo and Dale Ralph Davis. Mmmmm. And BIG THANKS to Justin Taylor for a free copy of Owen's Overcoming Sin & Temptation.

5. Get some new shoes

You are one of my Relay

6. Jim Walford

Fanclub-boy. Glad you like the blog.

7. Bethinking @ Surrey

I wasn't there but Cat Hare hosted it for me:

Q2. Egotistical restrictive and out of touch: what kind of a God demands so much

Review: Suffering and the Sovereignty of God

"John Piper and other contributors explore the many categories of God's sovereignty as evidenced in his Word, helping readers form a biblical view of suffering."

Get it from Crossway
Sufferinga and the Sovereignty of God (Eds: John Piper & Justin Taylor, 2006) This book is a breath of fresh air. "If God is good and all powerful, how can there be suffering" is one of the classic objections to Christian faith. All too often this is defended by dropping the sovereignty of God. The hapless Christian conceding that God isn't actually in control... Into this comes a book that makes no attempt to deny the suffering that we experience, nor the sovereignty of God (and it doesn't say God isn't good either).

This book comes with doses of reality - much of it is written by those who have suffered and it's poignancy is added to by the subsequent suffering of Piper and Powlison.

This book is worth owning to have Piper and Powlison's work on "Don't Waste Your Cancer". Their words show us why we should be filled with sound doctrine, prepared in advance for almost inevitable suffering. And that is what makes this book really valuable to the church - we need to be ready for suffering because it will probably come to most of us.

More than that this book reminds us that we're not in the hands of chance but of Sovereign God. And he does not promise an easy ride for his people.

We live in the midst of a fallen world and you can add promises of persecution for Christians.

Desiring God Ministries do the church a great service by hosting conferences on these issues (in addition to last year's one on Sex & The Supremacy of God), and then writing them up for our benefit. The case may not be complete but it's extensive and careful. John Piper's teaching on joy is probably what he is most recognised for, but I wonder whether it may be his gutsy attitude to suffering that is shaped by Scripture that will be his legacy. The church needs to learn how to suffer once more and this book will help us set down a solid anchor before the storm comes, or to help us find our bearings in the midst of the storm.

Paul Huxley's review

Review: The Tide is Turning (Terry Virgo)

"It is evident that new churches are springing up everywhere. Why? Because God's purposes for His church will not be thwarted."

Buy from Newfrontiers

The Tide is Turning: Terry Virgo (New Wine, 2006)

Let me say from the outset I'm a big fan of Terry Virgo and Newfrontiers. They have a passion and energy for God and for reformed doctrine that is rare. And this is a classic book from and for Newfrontiers.

I've read Terry Virgo's previous two books (on church and grace) and found them to be outstanding and so I approached this one with high expectation. This study of three Old Testament characters is miles ahead of similar books (the phrase "character study" is enough to make some of us shudder...)

This is a God-centred examination of the events of the lives of Joseph, Gideon and Nehemiah - calling us to take God at his word. I gather this book is a rework of Virgo's earlier book Men of Destiny.

The material on Gideon is probably the strongest and Virgo finds a great key to unlock the battle of Midian - from Isaiah 9 which tells us that the coming of God's kingdom will be like Midian. This strikes me as an overlooked interpretive key that opens up this story in a Biblical way.

The book has an energy to it which is like being in conversation with Virgo or sitting under his preaching. He enthuses to see the church be restored. He makes other books look frankly lifeless and theoretical as he pushes the boundaries for us. God's word requires change and this book wont let you avoid that.

Three minor weaknesses:

1. Virgo clearly writes from within the restorationist movement which can sometimes feel like there isn't much life beyond it. This feels a little strange when you read it from the outside and hear calls for unity alongside parts that feel like "serves you right if the charismatics leave" - I'm not sure this is intentional but that's how it felt!

2. I think there's a little lacking in appreciation of the wider story of salvation - particularly in Nehemiah, where the restoration post-exile is surely only ever meant to be a shadow that is fulfilled in Christ's coming. I'm wary of saying this because he's one of the strongest advocates of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series and that wider perspective isn't absent.

3. Weakness in doctrine of creation - by which I mean there are overtones that true commitment to God probably means leaving your workplace rather than remaining in it. And this is combined with a strong future-heavenly-focus which seems to emphasis the burning up of this world over it's being re-created. I may have felt this more strongly because I've just read Julian Hardyman's Glory Days which is the strongest book on all-of-life-for-Jesus that I've come across.

These three are minor critiques in an overall very good book that would be of benefit to any Christian. We need to be a generation who will take God's word seriously, boast in the Cross, love the church and pursue the work of the Holy Spirit. A church with these priorities will surely see change.

I think my lasting memory from this book is this: Virgo comments on the number of churches that have closed, noting that we're are now planting more UK churches than Starbucks is opening coffee houses... but then he comments that it isn't satan who shuts churches down. It is Jesus. He is sovereign over his church and if he decides to shut you down that's his business. Likewise a church that flourishes ought to credit Jesus with this.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Zealous and burning desire

John Calvin calls prayer the chief exercise of faith by which we daily receive God's benefits. He writes extensively on it in The Way We Receieve the Grace of Christ. And he does so with great warmth and gentle direction and correction. He notes that by prayer we dig up the treasures that are pointed out by the Lord's gospel and which by faith we gaze upon. And then I'm struck by this, on why we pray:
"...That our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor..." XX.III.3.

I love this because it gives me great motive to pray. I can sort of see how it would work - though I'm on the hunt for scriptural promises that say as much.

In the gospel the treasures of heaven are opened to me through the One Mediator, Jesus Christ - what a pitiful fool I am to disregard such treasures. I really am that fool. Why would I neglect to pray? Why would I find it so hard, not to discipline my prayer with the word but simply to get down to doing it in the first place. Whoever it was that said that prayerless Christianity is practical atheism was probably right. I don't want to go there.

What amazing grace that forgives even my failing in prayer and invites me to come again to pray.

"...Just as faith is born from the gospel, so though it our hearts are trained to call upon God's name (Romans 10:14-17)..." XX.III.1.

Many people seem not to be too keen on Calvin/Calvinism. I guess this is because of a perceived problem with his emphasis on how big God is. Many haven't read the Institutes. Some of that is because it's old. Some because it's big. Some because it's called The Institutes of Christian Religion. What I'm discovering is that these books aren't that big and they are very accessible and warm. I'm loving Book III: The Way we recieve the grace of Christ. Whether you accept his teaching on election or not, what he has to say about Union with Christ and Prayer is priceless - and all of that is laid out before he enters the "sacred precincts of God" (election).

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

FAQ: What should we look for in Christian Union leaders?

Choosing New Leaders - Tuesday 8th November 2005.
Reposted today with some addditional comment:

Over the coming months the current leaders of Christian Unions I work with will begin to search for new leaders. Its an exciting time, releasing new students into ministry within the context of the Christian Union. This generally works with a period of open nominations, then the existing leaders seek to put together a team who they will put forward to be approved by the CU. This seems favourable to out-right democracy since its hard to discern Biblical qualifications that way, and to construct a team. It also seems to have some parallel with the involvement of the people and their leaders in selecting leaders in the cases of Moses and also the early church in Acts 6.

My underlying presumption is of course that a Christian leader is a Christian... once that's in place... It should also be noted that in many situations a Christian Union is of a size where these factors are not luxuries available to consider. Being an available Christian in such a group may be enough! Where possible, five factors worth considering.

Titus 1, when Titus is told to find leaders he's instructed to look for people of impeccable character. The search there is for church elders, for a new young church. No reason to aim lower just because Christian Union leaders don't have all the same responsibility of church elders. The search is for leaders of a student-led gospel centred mission team. People with good character, humble servants, self-controlled and applying the gospel to all of life. As Don Carson notes the qualifications are essentially pretty ordinary for a Christian...

Character shows in service and relationships. Sometimes leaders have to be picked within a few months of a person arriving at University. That makes this more difficult. Ideally it'd be good to pick those who have been tried in action a bit more. University placement schemes often prohibit this.

Character also shows in study. Laziness is not a virtue, neither is being a workaholic. But, good character should make someone work hard without it becoming an idol. Excellence isn't the same thing - some of us could work very hard and still not get a First Class Degree, but if I'm honest there were reasons why I got a Third rather than a 2:2 which have nothing to do with my intellect, and quite a bit to do with my pride and slackness in my 2nd year at University.

Another key for character comes in how we deal with getting things wrong. A qualified leader wont have an impeccable record, but they will deal with mistakes well. Do we become defensive and try to hide it? Or are we humbly correctable? That's not to say failure should be flaunted or pursued but that teachability and desire to change and learn is a vital evidence of grace.

In Titus 1, the final consideration is those who are committed to sound doctrine. The healthy teaching of the gospel. Why? Because sound teaching is what is used to encourage believers and to refute those in error. Sound teaching equips God's people for action, false teaching corrupts.

Even if a CU leader doesn't actually teach in the CU (though they could), they are responsible for arranging teaching and training programmes. They need to know the importance of sound teaching, and in a CU context the central truths concerning the gospel, the cross, scripture, the holy spirit - as set out in the CU doctrinal basis (the central truths that form the basis of fellowship for a CU). This isn't exhaustive of Christian belief but they are the essentials. Beyond them there is much room for difference.

Convictions shape service and they shape character. Error in practice very often comes from error in convictions. However, we are all learning so direction of travel is vital in both character and convictions. One may well have areas of clear error but be making good progress, whilst another is "sounder" but travelling in the wrong direction.

To be a leader in a Christian Union will require commitment to its vision. Its true in all walks of life - you can't lead if you're not committed to the vision.
The Christian Union vision is: "Live for Jesus, Speak for Jesus as a Student-led Gospel-centred Mission Team on Campus"
. This can be worked out in various ways and the application of the vision may need some correction, but the vision remains. Get the inside story. Commitment to the vision shows in various ways, though essentially an evangelistic lifestyle.

A Christian Union leader needs to be rooted in one local church. Good pastoral oversight and support is essential. Christian Unions gather students from a wide range of local churches to do evangelism together.

The second consideration then is to try and get some kind of church mix on a leadership team - its not essential, but just helpful as the Christian Union seeks to unite believers across the local churches.

This is really not essential but is helpful - its just good sense to have a mix of guys and girls on the team, and to have a range of people, people with different personalities, perspectives etc. People are different and that's ok! In fact our differences display God's glory in being able to unite people by the gospel. A team don't need to be friends already, in fact it probably helps if they don't all know each other well at the start of the year, and if they don't live together - because they need to be connected to the rest of the CU and living with those who aren't Christians is a pretty good idea. This last section is common sense stuff, and the kind of stuff only a big CU can probably have the luxury of considering.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Why bother with theology?

Daniel Strange: Why Bother With Theology?
(I'd forgotten this was online, HT: Saints & Scholars)

Dan writes:
So many Christians don’t get excited because they do not see the gospel in all its polyphonic and glorious Technicolor but rather settle for a little mono 'black and white’ version. But just ponder on these questions for a few moments:
  • Do you know the holy character of the Living God who created all things for his glory?
  • Do you know who you were before you were saved: vessels of God’s wrath, God-haters?
  • Do you know what Christ accomplished on the cross, bearing the wrath of God on our behalf, and how the Spirit applies this to the believer, that we are justified by grace through faith and seen as righteous in God’s sight?
  • Do you know that Christ is coming again and that we will spend eternity with our Lord?
This is truly amazing!!! At the end of the day ‘an anaemic Christianity that is not virile enough to strive for the truth can never possess the nerve to die for it. A truth not worth defending very soon comes to be seen as a truth not worth professing.'*

*Gary Johnson

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Growing Up

Growing Up - Hebrews 5:11-6:12
Piers Bickersteth
Arborfield Church
November 5th 2006

Don't stay at base camp,
look up and go for it!

The self-defeating strategy of rule-keeping

Inevitably, and coincidentally, Spurgeon says it better: Morality fosters immorality (Today from the ever helpful Pyromaniacs). But I already had this prepared from Galatians 4v8-5v1.

1. The joyless slavery of rule-keeping (4v8-20)
Why did the Galatians get enslaved? Was it fear? The pressure of persecution or opposition... peer-pressure... shame of the cross... persuasive personality... convincing words about Christian maturity? Perhaps a desire to avoid sinning. All of these and others are possible reasons why they submitted to rule-keeping. None of them ultimately make sense and whichever it was left Paul thoroughly perplexed.

He begins by equating law-keeping with slavery to idols. This is a shocking connection. The experience and reality of rampant sin and law keeping are indistinguishable. We'd be unlikely to imagine that religious zeal, whether in rituals or religious days or otherwise could be the same as outright sin. But, it's as miserable in it's slavery and undoes the work of the gospel. It leads to the gospel's work in us being in vain. All the glorious promises and power of the gospel cancelled out by the foolishness of submitting to law.

Never one to be guarded Paul displays his utter anguish and perplexity at the way young Christians he has loved and served are being ensnared so easily. Heretics have come in amongst them and gathered a following with their popularist message. Their rule-keeping message feeds believers ego by giving them a part to play. It appeals perfectly to the sinful nature whilst looking pious.

The heretics arrive full of zeal. But zeal is not their crime. Paul is all for zeal and passion, he has it in abundance. But it must be passions for the gospel not for fanmail or false teaching. He recalls the zeal with which the gospel was recieved by the Galatians, and the great joy they had - yet dow they live in the misery of law-keeping slavery.

Rulekeeping is utterly senseless. It doesn't compute. Slavery to religious law might look good, but actually it is a miserable way to live today. Useless. Rules aren't a way to resist sin they're just a way to return to it's slavery. It's the classic con. A strategy that looks spiritual, but is self-defeating. Spurgeon says "The preaching of morality seemed to lead to immorality", and more! When rule-keeping morality is required of a Christian it is immorality.

Sin isn't to be avoided because there are rules against it. It should be avoided because its bad, it destroys joy and only makes much of people. In the words of 6v12, it evades persecution for the Cross and 2v21 - makes nothing of it. It minimises and denies the reputation and work of the Cross. Any such strategy is doomed to fail and is inherantly evil.

2. The futureless slavery of rule-keeping (4v21-5v1)
And then comes the wierd bit. It involves the recall of Old Testament history, an allegory from it, and some conclusions drawn. The conclusions aren't all that difficult even if they route to them seems a bit peculiar. Paul draws the story and allegory from the law. He does this because those he writes to are captivated by the law - and so, just as he did in chapter 3, he uses the law against them. The story is Abraham. God promises that his wife Sarah will have a child by God's power. Abraham struggles to believe that his barren aged wife will bear a child, so he has a child "in the ordinary way" with his slave Hagar. From this he extrapolates an allegory or figurative understanding of the story.

(We don't appear to be given a Pauline right to allegorise the story of salvation... rather Paul allows the story to instruct us by drawing parallels and warnings for us from it at high altitude.)

He moves from Hagar to Sinai and then to Jerusalem. All three he says lead to slavery. And so the path of slavery is to be gotten rid of. Slaves will persecute the free but they're living in the past. Their way his already history. It leads to misery now, and has no future - no inheritance This is in contrast with Sarah and "the Jerusalem above". Notice no in-between-phase here. The people who are free are plugged back into the old, old promise to Abraham. The law had been just a temporary measure to prepare for the coming of Jesus.

Logically Hagar will have more children, and law makes people better. But Paul draws on words in Isaiah to assert that God's plans defy that. It's the barren woman who produces more children. Freedom leads to inheritance, to a future! Those who are free then should be free. They should resist any attempts to burden them with slavery. Attempts will come to return the free to slavery - opposing them outright, or singing their praises to win them over... same difference.

In chapter 5-6 Paul will flesh out what it means to have Christ formed in us - to be a new creation and how to live in freedom and keep in step with the Spirit, but the application here is simple. RESIST slavery. However appealing the teaching, or persuasive it's arguments... however safe or secure it might seem to use rule... Whatever anyone says: The Christian must fight against rule-keeping with all the zeal they have. Say no with a passion! Don't be burdened. Don't be a rule keeper any more than embracing idolatry. Neither works, because rules lead to misery today and no tomorrow.

Joy and a secure future make much more sense! The slavery of rules is to be avoided because it defames the cross and destroys the blessing Christ won there - God's sure promise of blessing for all peoples, of the Holy Spirit and sonship and life in Christ. There has to be a better way, a better way to find joy today and hope for tomorrow.

See also: Lifestyle is a matter of justification (Galatians 2)
And Adrian Reynolds is on this sort of thing to: 10 Commandments? and Sabbath. So also was The Coffee Bible Club recently.