Tuesday, May 31, 2011

They Did Not See The Same God?

One of the things that is said to put people off Christianity is the way we disagree with one another. It's part of having the freedom to engage our texts,  partly because Christianity is so different and good that men and women struggle to accept it as it is and so easily let a little yeast corrupt the batch, whether from Greek Philosophy, Consumerism, or whatever. There are challenges but finding Christ is by no means impossible, since he comes to us.

Some disputes are famous - such as that at Nicea and subsequently over Arianism (an early version of Jehovah's Witness theology that prefers god to be lonely rather than a community). Or, the East-West divide over aspects of the Trinity. Or that of Luther vs. The Scholastics (aka The Reformation) and so on.

Another is,  The Antinomian Controversy in New England. Don't switch off. Janice Knight's book Orthodoxies in Massachussets is a study into this falling out among New England puritans in the 17th Century. The debate isn't new and in many ways is a rerun of the Reformation... it is also not an obsolete debate. Knight's study is a comparison between two camps which (she openly acknowledges) inevitably highlights differences and polarises categories rather than stressing similarities. There was much common ground, and yet real difference.

What's at stake: God and the gospel.

The first party were The Preparationists or The Intellectual Fathers, Hooker and Shepherd, leaning on the English ministry of William Ames and William Perkins. The other, The Spiritual Brethren, led by John Cotton and others, following the lead of Richard Sibbes and others back in England. In England the Spiritual Brethen 'triumphed' but in New England it was the reverse...

In the opening chapter Knight lays out the ground.
[Intellectual Father] Thomas Shepherd would say to his listeners "wonder then at God's patience that thou livest one day longer, who hast all thy lifetime, like a filthy toad spit thy venom in the face of God"... Knight comments: "for the preparationists sin was an active presence, a blot on the human heart that had to be removed before Christ could consent to enter. Conviction of sin under Law was an essential prerequisite to reception of the 'good news' of grace under the Gospel." (Knight, p20)

By contrast, [Spiritual Brother] John Cotton said to his listeners to "wait like an eager bride for the moment when Christ would 'be-sprinkle you with the blessing of his grace' to attend to the moment when this gentle Bridegroom would come to 'the bed of loves' and shed ' the seeds of his grace.. abroad in your hearts'. Cotton's listener 'resembled no lowly washerwoman scrubbing a filthy rag of a heart. Instead, like the Shulamite, Cotton's saint was the comely bride waiting for the pleasures of union.' More mundanely stated, Cotton believed there are no 'steps to the altar', that the soul was passive until the moment that grace was infused... insisting that the ignorance and scornfulness of carnal hearts does not and cannot hinder the Lord, from piercing or pricking them." (Knight, p21)
It's a dispute about how people become Christians, and then what that Christianity is like... a dispute in the church that inevitably effected society and polictics. Knight highlights (p33) the consequences:
"Though men like Cotton and Hooker read the same Bible, they did not see the same God; when they looked inward they did not see the same creature. Covenant, grace, telos, communitas, had a different taste on the tongue, a different claim on the heart of these first preparationists and pietists."
What's that going to feel like? Two churches in the same area, both 'Christian', both 'Bible-based' and yet something feels very different.
If Shepherd is your pastor what will the preaching feel like? What songs will you sing? What will be the atmosphere in the room?
How about if Cotton is your pastor - what will his preaching be like? What songs would he inspire you to sing? What will it feel like to be a part of Cotton's church? How do we get there? Could my home group have that feel? My team? My church?

Friday, May 27, 2011

We get WHO He has

Galatians 3:26-4:7 was my favourite passage in the Bible. And I still love it. That and The Song of Songs. But this is stunning. Seeing it was one of those moments where I really feel the 'sweeter than honey'ness of the word as I taste and see the beauty of the LORD.
  • Luke shows us the intimate joy of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in which only the Father knows the Son and only the Son knows the Father. It's beautiful but seems closed.... Except that the Son reveals the Father (who will introduce us back to the Son he knows and loves!).
  • Don't get busy, instead listen to Jesus and he'll teach you to speak to his Heavenly Daddy (Gk: Pater, Aramaic: Abba), to say Father! (Luke 11:2)
ESV Study Bible cautions:
"It was the word used by Jewish children for their earthly fathers. However, since the term in both Aramaic and Greek was also used by adults to address their fathers, the claim that “Abba” meant “Daddy” is misleading and runs the risk of irreverence. Nevertheless, the idea of praying to God as “Our Father” conveys the authority, warmth, and intimacy of a loving father's care, while in heaven reminds believers of God's sovereign rule over all things" (On Matt 6:9)
Seems troubling to me to say let's deny intimacy for the sake of avoiding what might "run the risk of irreverence". Jesus is teaching reverent intimacy... and introducing us into the relationship he has always enjoyed with his Abba in Heaven... can't see him saying, "better keep my distance in case I get irreverent..." It may well be a term 'also used by adults' - this is patently true: the adult Jesus used the word when speaking with his Father in heaven, without any irreverence. Besides, Jesus' point here is that we're not to think of ourselves as grown-ups, all wise and understanding but as little children.

In an age when we're convinced of God's distance from us, perhaps 'Daddy' overstates it, but feel the shock that we don't have to cry 'Headmaster' or 'Your Distant Highness' or 'God' but we get to call out to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is now our Father. Slightly alarmingly the commentary 'the idea of praying to God as Our Father' is helpful. Has the ring of the ESVSB thinking that Father is a useful gloss on god to serve our prayer lives, rather than - we pray Father in the name of the Son and the fullness of the Spirit because this is who the persons of the Triune God actually are.

We have to say: introducing us to (and into) "God as Jesus (and then our) Father in Heaven" is Jesus' message (Luke 10:22). The Triune God introduces himself to us personally and intimately, not firstly powerfully and impressively.... not to say that Jesus and his Father are not powerful and impressive - they are. But the gospel is not a wham-bam message, there is power but it is power wielded in tenderness and yielded in loving sacrifice... the kind of omnipotent kindness that describes the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that you see when you look at the cross.

Jesus is introducing us to Father in Heaven...
  • Jesus Father is so generous that he loves to give, he is the fountain of life (Psalm 36:9), the great giver who will give us what we need for each day, more than that he given his Son, and much more loves to give the Holy Spirit. (Luke 11:13). There is no Christianity without the Spirit, no entering into the love of God without the Spirit. More!
  • Result? We step inside Jesus' prayer life, and like him can joyfully say 'Daddy'. (Luke 10:21)
We get what he has! We get who he has! Risky? Uncomfortable? Hard to believe? Certainly. As Calvin puts it ‎"Without participation in the Spirit no-one can taste either the fatherly favour of God or the benefice of Christ" (Calvin 3.1.2) or in the words of Sibbes, we're "swallowed up in the love of Christ". That's a better story than your wildest dreams.

How is that possible?
1. Jesus reveals his Father to us. (10:21-24)
2. Jesus is The Good Samaritan who has mercy on us. (10:25-37)
Love him as he lays himself down to have mercy on us.
3. Jesus asks us to stop doing and listen. (10:38-42)
4. Jesus teaches us to ask. (11:1-13)

"How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son – not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men?
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 for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us."
(Calvin 3.1.1)

By the love of Christ let it be said, that in that hour, I rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said "Father..."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Our God is Greater!

Here's a helpful analysis of the problem of the god that people don't believe in, and which even Christians seem to believe sometimes... a god we might call OmniGod, or the OmniBeing on account of his bigness...
If they don’t believe in “God” we draw a deep breath and rummage around for some arguments to convince them of “God”: There’s order in the world, there must be an Orderer. Everything is caused, there must be a Cause at the top of the chain. There’s morality – there must be a Moral Lawgiver. You have a sense of something more, there must be Something more."we argue towards some kind of OmniBeing.
You know the omnis – maybe you learnt them in religious studies at school. God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnivorous, ambidextrous, and so on. And if our arguments are clever enough, maybe they’ll agree to our philosophy. Hallelujah, they believe in the Omnibeing! This is surely a step in the right direction, we imagine."
The unbeliever goes away and reads the Gospel. And what do they find? A laughing, crying, shouting, serving, healing, loving Human Sacrifice. And the non-Christian says – “Wow, that stuff’s interesting. But it doesn’t sound to me like the Omnibeing.”
More about The image of the invisible omnibeing (by Glen Scrivener)

More on the God we know when we look to Christ at Steve Collier's blog:
Christ: Sun of Righteousness
And Dan Hames: Is the Bible a book about 'God'?

The Charismatic Puritans: Looking to Christ whose love they experienced

Charismatic Christianity takes many colours, and the word is used in many ways. It's used to describe styles of worship, and more so to speak of the continuation of Spiritual gifts. Charismatic also comes with a strong emphasis on experiential Christianity, those who expect direct experience of God today as was evident in the early church. Not as a pursuit of experience but looking out of ourselves to Christ having an effect upon us. Call it Mystic or Affectionate if you want...

Anyways, this is no new phenomenon. As Ron Frost observes, in these final excerpts from his Dissertation... Series link: The Divided House of Christianity.
For Sibbes' the main purpose of union with Christ "is to make us one with him, and thereupon to quicken us, to guide us, and to dwell in us continually, to stir up prayers and supplications in us, to make us cry familiarly to God as Father". Thus, just as the Bible regularly presented the Spirit as directing Christ in the gospels, and the apostles in the book of Acts, so believers can also expect the same work of direct guidance in their own lives. (p146-7)
The Spirit on Jesus, the Spirit on the Apostles, the Spirit on us.... perhaps the Gospels and Acts are not just descriptive but normative for us...
"Most other ministers in puritan circles were happy enough to leave any immediate or dramatic work of the Spirit to the primitive church. Sibbes was certainly aware of the dangers in opening a door to spiritual enthusiasm, but his position was a logical concomitant to his Spirit-Christicism... He warned against placing limits on the Spirit... "we must have especial heed of slighting any motion" of the Spirit."
This puritan calls for a high expectation of the Spirit's work today, not relegating his ministry to the early church, but taking high regard for him today. Frost is analysing the Puritan era, but could be speaking of the church today just as easily.
The Breath of the Spirit in us is suitable to the Spirit's breathing in the Scriptures, the same Spirit does not breathe contrary motions. Thus the Word of God and the words of God were of the same Spirit and can never be at odds with each other.
Sibbes' confidence that the Spirit's motions, working in accord with the scriptures, is an important part of normal spirituality was characteristic of his moderate mysticism.
This stood in contrast to Perkins' belief that most Christians will have little, if any, direct experience of the Spirit's motions. Perkins prefered to see the Bible as the source of God's will, epitomised in the decalogue, which is applied by the Spirit-enabled mind and will.
The Spirit acts in accord with Scripture. This is a moderated mysticism, anchored to the Scriptures, fixed upon Christ. And it argues that we can expect 'direct experience' of the Spirit today. Can we, or Perkins right to say we can't, or at least shouldn't really expect to? The division stands. The question is asked, do we come down with Sibbes or Perkins in this?  Heart or Will? Experienced Spirit or Distant?
The flavour and feel will be very different.
Calvin:"Will not biblical warnings of God's wrath only cause the soul to shun the God whom it dreads?" From this, Calvin concluded, "merely to know something of God's will is not to be counted as faith. But what if we were to substitute his benevolence or his mercy in place of his will... for it is after we have learned that our salvation rests with God that we are attracted to seek him." (Institutes 3 2 7)
Frost notes that Sibbes was largely disinterested in Predestination, though he believed in it. Many think the choice we face is to be Calvinist or Arminian. I think Frost's work suggests that there is at least one other position to take in light of the Reformation... or perhaps more that you can be Sibbesian or Perkinsian (with the Arminian/Calvinist debate being held within the House of Perkins).

Frost argues "Calvin's affirmation of sin as self-love set up his belief that a solution is provided by a new and greater affection." And, "the focus of all promises, the whole gospel, is on Christ". Sibbes believed with Luther and Calvin that God fulfills his promises of salvation through Christ alone. And that "faith is nothing but the act whereby we apprehend this effectual love of God to us in Christ" (Sibbes, Matchless Love). Frost:
"But while Sibbes held, with Calvin, that the salvation comes through the Spirit's work of drawing the elect through the mind, will and affections to encounter the melting quality of Christ's love, Sibbes realised that many of his listeners lacked this experience. Thus he affirmed Perkins' position, in part, by setting our a twofold ground for assurance." First the Spirit's illumination, and then in our progress in sanctification.... "However, unlike Perkins, Sibbes made the discernment of the Spirit's active presence the primary ground for assurance rather than a secondary and largely unexpected experience." Frost argues then that Sibbes' teaching on assurance is a little inconsistent. Yet: "In a final sermon before he died Sibbes continued to cling to his Christological emphasis for assurance, "look to him for all perfections and for your title to heaven, and not to faith"
Frost concludes:
"Sibbes and Perkins offered profoundly different portrayals of God. Both men believed in God's trinitarian nature, in his absolute authority, his wisdom, and his predestinarian work by which he shows mercy to some, and judges other in their sin.
Perkins' God... is primarily transcendent, characterised as pure will and motivated by the goal of self-glorification.
Sibbes' God, by contrast, is characterised by the inherent self-love of the Godhead, who as a community of Father, Son and Spirit, offers a spreading goodness to the creation.
In other words, God's eternal love overflows to his creation, a belief Sibbes drew from Jesus' prayer of John 17. Thus paradoxically, God's essential motivation is a selfless self-love which extends outward. These different views of God led to fundamentally different definitions of grace..."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

God: A Lord who Hammers the Heart or a Lover who Melts the Heart?

Ron Frost writes: "[Richard} Sibbes held that salvation is applied to the elect through their participation in the hypostatic unity of Christ.... he was the image of God. And none but the image of God could restore us to that image."
"Mystical marriage defined Sibbes' covenantal theology. It was developed in, and probably derived from, his exposition of the Song of Songs... Further support for this approach was to be found in the explicit New Testament use of the marriage metaphor, particularly with the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation and its culminating vision of Jesus... offering readers eternal bless with the church, having been wedded at the marriage supper of the Lamb. And the Spirit and the bride say 'come'. (p107-8)
This approach to the Song was supported and popularised by the marginal notes in the Geneva Bible which was then replaced by the note-less King James Version. That approach to The Song of Songs has been suppressed in recent years by many highly regarded evangelicals, and doing so has robbed the church of language and convictions about the reality of our relationship to God, perhaps leading us to a more distant and vague view of who God is. Whereas, maintaining the place of the Song we're helped to see (with so much of the Scriptures) that we are joined to him. So that what is his is ours also.
"The Song of Songs disclosed God's gracious love in Christ. Luther used the marital imagery of Ephesians 5:30 to explain how faith funcions... this imagery served as an alternative to the medieval theology of infused righteousness."
Betrothed to be married. No infusion of righteousness, his has become ours. We are joined to him. We will have him, and see him:
"Believers are invited to "see" Christ in biblical promises, which is the ground for the formation of relationship.... by looking to the glory of God in Christ we see Christ as our husband, and that breeds a disposition in us to have the affections of a spouse.
In marriage, love grows. And especially when we are married to one who is love.
"God's loving kindness, not his law, is given absolute theological primacy. From the stance of believers, then, sanctification is the fruit of this distributed goodness coming to them. By this means God both motivates and transforms the elect. The believer is drawn to God by God's self-disclosure, revealing one so loving and so gracious that if unbelievers or inattentive believers were to pause to consider him, "their hearts would melt". God is love.. "and his course to man is love. He does not say he is justice, or rigour, but his is love... we are saved by a manner of love. God's love once experienced, results in a "sweet kind of tyranny in the affection of love, that will carry a man through thick and thin." The secret of sanctification is not, however, just in the motive force of love, but also in the conforming quality of love. "Is not love a glorious grace, that melts one into the likeness of Christ?" Thus, having been awakened by God's love in Christ, the believer is called to a voluntarism, not strictly of the will but of the will informed by love. "Beloved get love" Sibbes urged, because, "it melts us into the likeness of Christ... Nothing can quench that holy fire that is kindled from heaven. It is a glorious grace".
Love is the language for Christianity, for knowing God, for God is love. And so,
Sibbes emphasised a real union with Christ as the ground for communion with God. He held that 'God hath made the soul for a communion with himself, which communion is especially placed in the affections, which are the springs of all spiritual worship'" (p123)
We are affectionate, hearty-passionate beings, like our God.
"Love, Sibbes argued, is the first born affection. This love breeds desire of communion with God and stirs up dependence, confidence and trust in God. If God be thy God, Sibbes asserted, you have grace given you to love him above all things. He loves us, and we love him again. This is a sure sign that God is our God, if we love him above all. Janice Knight captures this motive function in Sibbes' theology, noting that he defined "a God who was a lord, but more importantly a lover, one who melted the heart instead of hammering it" (p131)
What does a Christianity centred upon a lover look like?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

An Opportunity to Explore the Meaning of Life

The Alpha Course has spread like wildfire, giving men and women all over the world the opportunity to 'explore the meaning of life'. Alpha is great for exploring life and for getting the foundations of Christianity. Alpha isn't the first place to raise the topic.
When the Puritans ran Alpha they had the same tagline in different language: what is the chief end of man? Ron Frost (Chapter 2, Dissertation) outlines how the answer unfolds...
"The chief end of man, Richard Sibbes believed, is "to look to Christ". This goal has two elements. "The one, that [God] might be glorified, the other that we might be happy. And both these are attained by honouring and serving him." Was Sibbes anticipating the first premise of the Westminster Catechisms here? Only if the divines of Westminster meant to affirm Augustine's affective theology rather than Perkins' and Aquinas', moralistic approach. Sibbes in fact, clarified his own position later in a paragraph: the goal of the Christian is to be swallowed up in the love of Christ"
What is eternal life for Sibbes? It's what happens when Jesus comes into the world, tells us about his Father, lays his life down to show us mercy, and then freely enfolds little children into his relationship with his Father as we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and so come inside his joyful relationship with his Father in Heaven who is then our Daddy too.... to derive a working definition from Luke 10:20-11:13. Thinking so relationally has implications for everything...

Augustine showed that our sin is self-love. So that only "through the illumination of the soul by God's love that the soul moves, by response, out of its imprisonment of self-love... we would not love God unless He first loved us.... Now the love of God is said to be shed abroad in our hearts, not because He loves us, but because He makes us lovers of himself. Thus the presence of the Spirit in believers represents the sanctifying force in faith."

Sin as self-love can't be treated from the outside-in with behaviour contrains, instead we need an inside-out change. Change coming not from self but from Christ and the Spirit in the heart...
"The inside-out movement of the heart-behaviour continuum. By adopting an intentional and relational definition of sin, rather than the more extrinsic definition of law-breaking, Luther, like Augustine, radicalised sin. Even the best beahviours as measured by extrinsic values were thus rejected.... Luther.. "we do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds", and "virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace".
We need change that we cannot achieve. Swallowing Aristotle's Ethics boils down to DIY Christianity, Augustine takes the approach that Thomas Chalmers would later follow as he wrote of the explusive power of a new affection. Frost writes:
"The key principle, that "affection is overcome by affection", captured Augustine's solution to the conundrum of God's initiative and human free will... the solution of the affective tradition..."the gift of God is the Holy Spirit himself, whom God has poured out into their hearts... He breathed on them, and said to then, receive the Holy Spirit". This assumption when defining grace as God's benevolence, affirmed a dependency of the recipient of the gift on the presence of the giver rather than on the gift itself."(p55-6)
Sibbes shows disinterest in debates over predestination, focussed instead on the love and beauty of Christ. Contrary to Sibbes, in William Perkins arguments "love is striking in its absence as a motivation in God, this despite the primacy of love in biblical descriptions of God".
"Sibbes offered reasons for his resistance (to Perkins). They were shaped by his belief in an affectionate God. God as loving. The goal of Sibbes' theology was relational. The conclusion of creation is defined by the reality of God's love. God created the universe on the basis of his inherent social nature as three-in-one. "If God had not a communicative, spreading goodness, he would never have created the world The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were happy in themselves, and enjoyed one another before the world was But that God delights to communicate and spread his goodness, there had never been a creation nor a redemption... it is the nature of the believers to look principally to that which is his last and best and main end, which is God, and union and communion with God in Christ." Sibbes' broader theology, in comparison to Perkins', reveals differences in tone and substance. Sibbes emphasised God's mercy and insisted that communion with God is an immediate prospect rather than a distant possibility. Mark Dever summarises... "For Sibbes, Christianity was a love story"" (p65)
What does this mean for our thinking about salvation?
"Given the reality of the fall, God, within his Triune communion, determined to send the Son to "woo" listeners to himself... Sibbes believed that the obstacle to salvation is a sinful distortion of God... he is unattractive apart from the illuminating work of the Spirit. For the elect, however, the 'veil was lifted' and God is seen as lovely. ... Sibbes ought to convince his listeners that the love of the Father had been guaranteed to them by the unity of love found within the Godhead - presented in John 17 - so that the elect, once united with Christ, can be assured of God's eternal love.... and the Spirit represents God to believers in the most immediate and effective manner possible" (p67-68)
Explore the meaning of life? Come to Christ, come into Christ, find yourself freely loved by his Father in the Spirit... At the heart of the Universe is relationship... figures that one of the great strengths of the Alpha Course has been that it invites you into a community, a place where you can freely talk and ask and listen, and be welcomed, be shown hospitality, and be loved.

Next: Chapter 4 on Mystical Marriage. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tell of the Beautiful Saviour, or bring people to the brim of despair?

Evangelicalism has different flavours depending on where you find yourself... today and historically. What's the difference? Does it matter? Why are some churches warmer and more generous? Why do some Christians seem more free than others?

 I'm reading Ron Frost's PhD "Richard Sibbes' Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology". He begins with an analysis of the divided house of English Reformed Theology... which show us that the differences we see today are not new. Push Ron Frost's arguments to their extreme and you might become uncharitable but see it as the appeal of an academic and a pastor to taste and see the beauty and love of God afresh and you'll be deeply encouraged.

Ron traces the roots of the New England Antinomian Controversy of 1637 back to England, and then later on to Luther and Calvin, and Augustine. John Cotton was the man of grace at the heart of the 17th Century debate, accused of being Antinomist by those who could be called Nomists (which labels the debate as relating to the law, which is an aspect of the issue).
"Cotton came to an assured faith under Sibbes preaching..." by contrast to that of William Perkins whose preaching had "laid siege to and beleagur'd [Cotton's] heart." (p14) for Perkins saw "it was the preacher's task to bring his listeners even to the brim of despair before sharing the gospel." (p28)
Many today would surely follow Perkins lead, must we? Is it the preacher's task to break and beleaguer the listener, to make them miserable so they may come to Christ? Must we give sermons that are 'challenging' and 'convicting' or could we perhaps instead portray Christ, so that people see him...
"Those who followed Sibbes were committed to a more emotional and even mystical theology which stressed divine benevolence over power. Emphasising the love of God, they converted biblical metaphors of kingship into ones of kinship"
The question isn't just do you start with sin or with Christ, but often also whether you start with God as creator or lover...
The Sibbesians saw that "it was insufficient to contemplate and adore God as the Creator, eternal but distant in the heavens. God must be found in direct personal experience... John Calvin made the believers personal experience of God the centrepiece of his theology"(p26-27)
When the focus is on the love of God then experiential Christianity is surely in view, and this must relate to the Holy Spirit by whom the love of God is poured into our hearts.
Sibbes pneumatology served as the centrepiece of his applied theology. God, by his Spirit, is seen to be locally present in the soul of every believer... in Sibbes' view by the 'wonder at the love of the Holy Ghost, that will take up his residence in such defiled souls' The Spirit, Sibbes held, is the agent of all grace through a real union with Christ."
Pursuit of experience isn't the point however, but rather of Christ with whom we have a real union as believers. This is about Christ, Christ who can be known.
"Sibbes also cited Augustine regularly and drew heavily from Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons on the Song of Songs.... Sibbes own sermons on the Song of Songs, as will be seen, offered the clearest expression of his affective theology. It provided the primary paradigm for the union and communion the believer is to have with Christ... Sibbes regularly affirmed the palpable immanence of the Spirit as something believers should expect in their experience of faith."
Sibbes then is seen to have an emphasis on portraying Christ, setting expectation of a felt communion with Christ, by union with Christ, through the gospel. His Christianity is warm and wooing, like his god. No hard-edges, no machismo, no shame at speaking of a lovely god or of the gospel in the language of The Song of Songs. Full of grace, full of love, full of the Holy Spirit, focussed upon Christ.

More to come over the next three days.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

In the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD

I'm using Ron Frost's approach to reading through the Bible around 10 chapters a day, and underlining the things that strike me. That's meant being in Exodus 16 only six days after I was in Genesis 1 - really helps to see the recurring themes. Such as....

The week of creation has days that run, unlike our darkness to darkness days, from evening to morning - darkness to light. Light always triumphing but then darkness returns, awaiting the day when The Light that shone before the sun will go on to shine forever.

In Exodus 16 Moses speaks from the LORD to his people in a chapter that is laced with the language of Genesis 1, in reference to evening and morning, to sixth days and seventh days:
“At evening you shall know the LORD brought you out of Egypt, in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD" Exodus 16:6-7
How is that? How does the evening reveal that it was the LORD who brought them out of Egypt? The sun goes down, the darkness rises... In the short term.... In the evening quail come up - revealing that the LORD brought them out? Reminding them of the dark night in which they were driven out of Egypt. The dark night in which blood was shed and life was received...

How does the morning reveal his glory?  In the morning dew, fine as frost - revealing the LORD's glory? Salvation and glory displayed by providing food to eat? The sun rises and daily bread from heaven comes. A new day, the triumph of light over darkness. What love! He who first fed his people in the garden will sustain them again. He will give them good food and life, taste and see!.

Surely points beyond itself too, right? Beyond this to the darkness of the death of the Son that reveals that it was the LORD who brought his people out of Egypt, and out of the slavery of their sin? And beyond this to the Sunday morning when the LORD's glory was revealed in the resurrection of the Son? The LORD reveals his salvation and shows his glory less in absolute power and more in his self-giving love that gives us life...

Another day begins as the sunsets, and the sun rises... the heavens declaring the glory of God (and the cursed frustration too), directing my gaze to the true light that is the life of men, the one whose glory is seen in the evening and the morning.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Do you know the god of Aristotle or the Triune God? (MP3s)

It's observable among Christians that some seem to be warm and generous people with a warm and generous god, while others are cold and a bit mean, like their god.Granted that's a polarising and inevitably caricatured way of coming at things, and that we all sin, it's not without basis in realty.  
(It's worth observing that most "atheists" are atheistic about the cold and mean god, and seem not to have heard of the warm and generous god)
Ron Frost comes at this as a historian as much as anything else and sees how these lines have run together generation after generation in the history of the church.

You can listen to Sessions 1 & 2 here. Continuing on, Ron draws from his PhD Dissertation (which I'm enjoying reading at the moment) and explores the difference between these two threads of church history. On the one hand William Perkins, Theodore Beza, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. On the other figures like Richard Sibbes, John Cotton, Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin. Different approaches....

Session 3: Two very different approaches (1). In this we explore what's meant when we think of God doing things for his glory, how is glory defined with the Triune God. We get into questions of free will, the heart etc. More on what it means that we're not people who did wrong who need to do right, but who love ourselves, and need to receive God's love in Christ.

Session 4: Two very different approaches (2). We get into the feel of Sibbes preaching, the love of God, the nature of the soul, the ministry of the Spirit.

More from Ron at Theology Network and Cor Deo.
And Get to the Delighted in God conference on June 4th in London.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ron Frost on THE fault-line in Christianity

Dr. Ron Frost (Cor Deo Mentor) spent Monday with my team.
Here are the first two of four sessions for your listening. 

1. Ron's Story (43mins). If you listen to this and it doesn't inspire you then you might not be alive... The story includes an introduction to his approach to Bible reading which he expands on in his book Discover the Power of the Bible.

2. The Faultline. (63mins) In the next session Ron continues his story but turns to Richard Sibbes who led him to uncover a fault-line at the heart of the story of the church, between those who think our problem is law breaking answered by law keeping, and those who think our problem is self-love remedied by receiving the love of Christ. This is the key debate between Augustine and Pelagius, the real issue for Luther at the Reformation as he contended against scholasticism, and the issue that divided the Puritans (Sibbes and John Cotton vs. William Perkins and others)... and the debate is alive and well today. In the final sessions he develops the issue further from his PhD Dissertation from Kings College London (Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why does the church needs the Holy Spirit? The Espousal Letter to Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6

I've posted before on the espousal themes of the letter to Thyatira in Revelation, and my inkling that the whole book leans that way (as the whole of the Bible does). Nice theory if it holds for the fourth letter. But what about the other six? Let's start with the fifth letter to the churches, to Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6)?

1. Jesus writes as the one who holds the Spirit.
2. The church has a reputation of life but is actually dead. It's just the appearance of churchliness.
3. They need to awake, obey and repent.
4. If they do this they'll be clothed in white and given a name never blotted out.

Picture the scene. The dutiful wife, busy in the kitchen like Martha, maintaining the appearance of the happy home. But it's loveless and sexless, there's no relationship let alone intimacy. The dinner parties are good, the carpets are clean, but the air is cold. Is this the Sardisian church? 

What is needed? The divine husband Jesus writes...
True love, the works need to be filled out with love... with that love that the Spirit gives... Then, knowing that she is truly loved this bride will come alive. Out of the overflow of the Spirit in her heart her works will abound. Her face will sparkle and shine from the Spirit-given sight of the glory of God in Christ. As she sees that her husband lovingly laid himself down, slaughtered for her, then she'll obey. She'll obey as a wife should, that is by receiving his love for her. He loves and so dies for her, she receives. In marriage husbands love by dying and serving, which is hard. And a wife by receiving love and believing that she's loved, which is hard.

Such a marriage isn't lived in fear of Jesus blowing up at her, throwing her out on the street and replacing her with another (which our Christ would never do... but which doubtless many Christian's fear will happen to them. Robert Jenson argues for marriage being us saying to someone else 'you're not replaceable'). No, she'll see her security and her beauty which he has given her and come to truly enjoy the Spirit-filled life of love with him that he longs for her to have. His love will put resurrection life and eternal life in her and she'll flourish as she's caught up into relationships with her husband, and with his Father, all by the Holy Spirit.

That's my kind of puritan-charismatic theology, Spirit-filled Christ-focussed, loved-up into communion with the Triune God. Let the Spirit and the Bride say 'Come, Lord Jesus. Make haste my beloved'

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Listened to the RZIM day conference on Doubt on the train last week. Some excellent and thoughtful stuff. Prof John Lennox, Michael Ramsden, Amy Orr-Ewing and Tanya Walker teaching on Doubt
One of my team highlighted the relevance of the subject to me last week again.
Can we be sure? What are we to think? What can we do with our questions?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Bride and the Bridegroom in The Book of Revelation

I've been pondering some parallels between the themes of The Song of Solomon and The Book of Revelation. Revelation and The Song are high peaks of the Bible, much disputed in their interpretations but surely important!

My question is - is Revelation marked by 'espousal theology' - the story of the bridegroom and his bride? 

If marital language has any part in Biblical thinking then obviously Genesis (where marriage is founded) sets the tone, clearly books like Hosea continue this along with the Psalms (say, Psalm 19 where the sun reveals the glory of God as bridegroom in the sky... or Psalm 45 that is laden with marital language), and of course Ephesians (so much of Christ's love, and his love is to lay his life down for his bride the church), plus plenty of bridegroom language in the Gospels (where Jesus is the loving bridegroom, where the bridegroom will depart, and then return). The Song is perfectly in tune, but what if the very last book of the Bible draws it all together?

Sam Storms: "Of special importance is the possible allusion in this passage to Song of Solomon 5:2 which if intentional, would lend support to the possibility of a typological/figurative interpretation of the book."While Ann Matter writing on Medieval Commentators says: "It is no historical accident that so many medieval exegetes commented on both the Apocalypse and the Song of Songs." That might lead you down some mystic roads, but anchor that to the gospel and it leads to the kind of intimacy that is suitable if Christ is the bridegroom, and we his bride.

Espousal Themes in The Book of Revelation
Mike Bickle would call it The Bridal Paradigm. He has some great insights as well as some quirks!
Turning to the text. The opening descriptions of Jesus echo the portrayal of 'Him' in The Song of Songs.
The Seven Letters have some kind of chiastic pattern.

1 - Jesus seeks the first love of his bride.
  2 - Jesus promises to hold on to his bride even to death.
     3 - Jesus gives his bride a new name
        4 - Jesus wont tolerate his bride being seduced into spiritual adultery
     5 - Jesus gives his bride a secure name, secure in his love
   6 - Jesus promises to hold fast to his bride, it'll be evident she's loved.
7 - Jesus seeks union with his bride, to come and enjoy love with her.

Then we have the defeat of the harlot (using the bridal imagery negatively, as sin is spiritual adultery)... And the wedding supper (19:7) and the bride adorned (21:2) And the final cry of the Spirit & bride (22:17), Come Lord Jesus, or in the Song 'Make haste my beloved'. With Jesus as the longed for royal bridegroom who is slaughtered as a lamb, for his bride... I think that's how you know if the Spirit is at work in you: do you have a growing desperation for Jesus to come?

1. The Book of Revelation isn't so weird. But, like The Song needs a bit more thought than some other books. Note, I'm not saying it's the only theme in the book - probably many many Biblical themes are drawn together in this book, as in The Song (where there's lots of land, temple, royal, sacrifice language)
2. Jesus is the royal bridegroom not the bad guy in judgement. The ultimate lover is wrathful toward the one who tried to seduce and persecute his bride. 
3. If the "espousal gospel" theme runs through The Book of Revelation then the end of the book isn't disconnected from the opening, but a rather a suitable climax.
4. The book isn't about predictions and strange theories, it's about the bridegroom and his bride. The  love that they share and the sweet expectation of their wedding. Read Revelation rightly and you long for Jesus.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Why doesn't God make himself clearer?

I've been down to Falmouth Uni and up to Oxford Uni in the last week or so to speak to the question Why doesn't God make himself clearer? (Download mp3, Oxford version)
It's a new subject for me and I'm still sharpening the material, appreciating Q&A and feedback. Managed to miss a paragraph out of my intro and didn't say some other things I'd planned either, at Oxford today which is a shame. A last minute switch from a printed passage to a gospel-book made it slightly tricky to find my place on the page occasionally... I'm trying to make minimal use of notes to improve the flow of speaking and eyecontact, means learning it in advance and keeping it simple and rooted in the Bible text (here, Luke 10:20-11:13).  Pic is our venue today before people arrived, at The Mitre pub, Oxford. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Discover the power of the Bible

You can pick up Ron Frost's book on Bible reading cheaply from Amazon. I suggest you do. Ron's spending a day with my team next week and I'm excited about that.
He's a Cor Deo mentor known for doing a PhD on Richard Sibbes and for his "read through" approach to the Bible.
The basic idea: read the Bible. Read it fast, and mark what strikes you. Then meet with someone else and share the verses, in the context of relationship and prayer. Ron's book will renew your taste for the word of God.

Along the way are nuggets about friendship around common delight, insights into what it means to encounter Jesus in the Bible and much more.
It's practical and liberating.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What story does your CV tell?

What qualifies as a good use of the years between 17 and 30?
What's my story in those years? I finished school, became a Christian, got a degree (just), worked for a dotcom  startup, did an internship, held down a job for 9 years, got married, got a mortgage, and become a father. Not bad by most estimates, though not quite the kind of story my University Alumni magazine is ever likely to publish (not enough money involved!).

How about Joseph?. At 17, clothed in splendour, his father sent his beloved son to his brothers who made him the victim of an attempted murder, sold him into slavery, reporting him as dead, and the spent his 20s in slavery and prison for an offence he didn't commit. At 28 it looked like he'd get his break for freedom but he languished a further two years in obscurity before finally at the age of 30 our Joe got his SuBo moment.

Genesis 41:37-57 tells the story.

He was recognised by the Pharaoh as having the Spirit of God within him (the first time we're told that happened to anyone) and to be full of wisdom. He was set over the kingdom, sovereign over everything. He's given a new name 'Zaphenath-paneah'- the treasury of glory, revealer of secrets or even the Saviour of the World. He stored up abundance for the world. Got married had two sons (between the age of 30 and 37) whom he named to reflect his experience. They testified that though he was fruitful it had come through affliction and hardship that was now behind him, blotted out. Then, the Pharaoh told the whole cursed world (struck by famine) to go to him. And he fed the world.

Fruitful through affliction, a true suffering servant.
Vindicated after hardship, a true type of Christ.
Full of the Spirit and wisdom, a true son of God.
And Joseph, like he one he foreshadowed, has abundance of food for the famished, abundance of blessing for the cursed, abundance of life for the dead. His people surely are called to the same path, which questions how it's by prosperity that I easily remember when I reflect on my life....

What I forget is.... that as seventeen year old middle-class kid I was among the famished, in a famine of the word of God, following the prince of the air and living as a child of wrath having born to Adam's cursed people. The years I've lived through have seen Christ's suffering appropriated for me, my testimony know - the years have been kind thus far, but Christ has been much more kind, his gospel is my life, in times of plenty and want. And as I've been drawn to him, to he who has the words of eternal life (for where else could I go?), I've become a child of a new humanity, given a whole new life, my old life blotted out - as Joseph's hardships were in his vindication. And all of it out of the riches of Christ's love, his Father's love and the power of the Holy Spirit - who was poured out upon Christ and so upon me!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Help! I'm scared of dying (Luke 8:40-56)

I had the honour of preaching Christ for the church this morning on the first of a four week Biblefresh series in Luke's gospel. Download mp3 from our website: Dave Bish - Luke 8:40-56

Thirty churches across our city preached from Luke 8:40-56 today, 29 brothers and sisters proclaiming Christ in our city. 
Have a google for some of the other versions. I've had a listen to Jonny Elvin at Trinity, Collette at Riverside, Chris Keane at St Leonards, Alan Bailyes at Pinhoe Road, John Campbell an Belmont. Different approaches to the same text, suitable to the preacher and their contexts no doubt. 

Saturday, May 07, 2011

No sea can quench Your jealous, raging flame

Matt Giles has written an excellent new song on the jealous love of Christ for his bride.
It picks up the themes that Ray Ortlund explores in his outstanding book God's Unfaithful Wife (quite possibly my favourite book).

Matt Giles: We are your church (follow link to lyrics & mp3 & chord sheet)

Monday, May 02, 2011

Turn or burn: The gospel at gunpoint?

We had dinner with the couple who oversee us as home group leaders in our church at the weekend. Good food with good conversation about our journey's with our God.
Each of our conversions to Christ centred not on fleeing hell but on embracing Christ, two via childrens evangelists, mine via Cranmer's liturgy. We came to believe because of Christ. Christ who led us to faith. Christ who convicted our hearts. It was Christ. And it is. .

Got me thinking about my evangelism. What do I speak about?

And then Bobby Grow cited Karl Barth's observation on Billy Graham's evangelism. Whether the observation is valid about Graham isn't my concern. I don't want to attack Graham or defend Barth, or vice-versa here. It simply makes me ask about my own preaching. Quote:"It was the gospel at gun-point . . . He preached the law, not a message to make one happy. He wanted to terrify people."

Sometimes, I get the feeling I might see a bit more immediate fruit if I preached a "gospel at gun-point". Now, of course we preach for a response, and final judgement certainly seemed to be a factor in the appeal made in the book of Acts, but even then it was their extolling of Jesus and the Resurrection that seems to dominate Luke's sermon summaries. There is urgency. There is wrath to come, and today. There is much to say about sin too. And there is terror outside of Christ. Yet, that terror is not because our God is not a God of love, but because he is so full of love, the Father for the Son, the Son for the Father, and for his Bride, and the Spirit for all of the above etc. The love of God compels us to invite people to Christ.

I supppose it might come down to what's the aim. We don't preach to make people feel bad about themselves, though I know I have done that. And we surely don't just preach to try handle objections, though we do that. And we cannot preach to send people to hell. Jesus' hardest words were for the hard hearted Pharisees and yet even then (say in Luke 15-16) he was still pointing them to the Father's invitation to the party, and to the testimony of the Scriptures that they might turn and receive Christ.

Interview with Mark Driscoll: Spirit filled leading from Terry Virgo on Vimeo.

Mark Driscoll asked Terry Virgo: Do you like God? - if the answer is no, we have some serious problems. And yet as Rob Bell observes, many fear the god lurking behind Jesus.  I imagine many who call themselves Christians would falter on that, and certainly many who wouldn't call themselves Christians do say it's because they don't like him. Mike Reeves says::
 "...again and again when talking with non-Christian students I find that their description of the God they don't believe in sounds more like Satan - greedy, selfish, trigger-happy and entirely devoid of love - than the loving Father of Jesus Christ. We need to make the living God known as who he is: the Father of Lights, the fountain of all love and blessing, the one for whom holiness and wrath are not 'nasty sides' but his beautiful commitment to goodness" (Quoted in NB Magazine, Who is God? by Pod Bhogal March 2011)
If we speak of Jesus, and of his loving Father's view of him surely we can't but love him. My colleague Chris Oldfield says:
"The Father loves the son, not arbitrarily, but just look at him! See why the Father loves him - there's no darkness, no conspiracy in him at all; and he's so secure in his Father's love that he'll go to a cross for him. He'll empty himself for him. What a son."
Whatever the setting, whether in answering hard questions or expounding a text, I want to say, with much persuasion and much passion. No gun points, just a humbled beggar pointing, saying: Just look at him.