Sunday, 30 December 2007

Fear of God

"What do people mean when they say,' I am not afraid of God because I know He is good'? Have they never been to a dentist?" (CS Lewis, A Grief Observed p.43)

Assurance and humility

It struck me this morning that a heathy relationship with God has two elements that exist at the same, and which have a kind of interdependence: assurance and humility. On the one hand, I am totally assured of God's grace, love and salvation, but, on the other hand, I have a deep awareness of my own sin and unworthiness. These things must go together. Otherwise I drift towards assurance without humility. This is basically cheap grace, an easy-believism. This means there is no repentance in my life, no grieving over my sin, no awareness of wrath and holiness. This is superficial conversion. Or, on the other hand, I might drift towards humility without assurance. Here I feel bad about my sin but I do not solve it with the gospel. Rather I load myself with guilt and work hard to do better as a Christian. I see my sin but do not trust Christ to deal with it. This is religiousness. So, what my life needs is a combination of assurance and humility before God leading to joyful repentance.

Saturday, 22 December 2007


When you read in Matthew 2 of how Herod tries to kill Jesus, you are reminded that the Christmas story is really a shocking story of violence and massacre. It's not full of people rocking around the Christmas tree, but of mothers wailing and crying for their children. It is a story of man's opposition to God and His promises, prefiguring the violence of the cross. We see the real world of evil, love of power and oppression. That's repeated all over the world this Christmas, and, ironically, we also see it in the very birth place of Jesus this Christmas - in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is now an open prison, encircled by a huge military Berlin wall (picture above). The economy of the people has been destroyed and their freedom of movement very heavily curtailed. Draped over the entrance to the town, on the separation barrier, hangs a huge banner put up by the Israeli tourist board for foreign tourists. It says "Shalom" (Peace). The irony of this banner hanging on a fortified wall, surrounded by guns and soldiers, seems to be lost on the Israeli tourist board. The people of Bethlehem are certainly not experiencing shalom this Christmas. You cannot have shalom until you have justice so let's pray for justice in the Occupied Territories this Christmas. For more on the separation barrier see here.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

Check out this fascinating article by Walter Wink on the violent myths underlying our culture and the way we think.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

What's the role of apologetics?

There are lots of different views of apologetics and their role in evangelism - from very sceptical to quite scholastic. Some people see them as the necessary first step to presenting the gospel, others view them as semi-heretical irrelevancies. Of course, a lot of this is tied up with your views of revelation, sin and new birth. For my money, I wonder whether the problem stems from the categorization of something that seems, in many ways, just a natural part of conversation about God.

Your present a statement about God and your friend says "I don't believe that - why on earth should I believe that?" You respond by saying "It says it here in the Bible". They say "But that's tautological - you're just trying to assume what you're trying to demonstrate." And you say, "Ah, yes but you have to appreciate the subtlety of my epistemology, which is rooted in reformed presuppositional methods.".......

Well, I guess it could go like that, and perhaps that is good sometimes. But the reality is that we all try instinctively to persuade people that what we believe is Truth. We don't just state it in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. We seek to influence them and show them the attractiveness or rightness of what we're saying.... In other words, we argue, persuade, reason. Now, of course, one can debate which arguments are good ones or not, but the point is that all preaching is in some form apologetic because we seek to convince people and not simply state truth. Thus, it seems to me that apologetics is really unavoidable as part of ministry if we understand it to mean an integrated persuasion of people to change what they're doing and rather do this.

Friday, 14 December 2007


In so many situations and daily life we seek other things than righteousness. We ask ourselves, "How can I get what i want?", "How can I look good here?", "How can I succeed?". The key issue, though, is "how can I be righteous in this situation?" My success or getting what i want is always subordinate to being righteous. Or, to put it more clearly, righteousness in a situation is success. I need to re-think my goals and priorities in light of this one question - "what would it mean to be holy in this situation now?"

Postmodernity and persecution

Assumption: the age we live in is enamoured with the idea of tolerance and acceptance of every belief, except, of course, any belief which is held absolutely. This will increasingly lead to the persecution of absolutist faith beliefs.

Implication: in the future, voluntary and humble suffering of persecuted Christians, ironically persecuted by a 'tolerant' postmodern culture, may be the one way we will eventually convince our culture that we know the true way of Peace. When people see their own inconsistency, highlighted by our non-retaliatory, willing absorption of any suffering we are given, our culture may well start to believe in the cross.

Conclusion: our standing firm in the gospel and absorbing any suffering that thereby comes to us, may well be the means by which the gospel re-connects with our culture.

What takes away my joy in humble serving?

1. I worry about my status and that I'm being demeaned by this activity. Surely, I will lose something of who I am in doing this? BUT I have all the status I ever need from the Lord Jesus. Thus, my freedom and joy in serving directly corresponds to how much status I think Jesus gives me.

2. I feel that I could spend my time doing something more profitable. I need to maximize my time and resources to the full so that 'the kingdom might expand'. BUT this is modern efficiency thinking and not Bible-thinking. God is the giver of every good gift and He gives me enough hours in every day to do everything that He has appointed me to do.

3. I feel that I will not realize myself and be fulfilled by such a humble task. BUT the Lord Jesus says that the only way to realize myself is through serving! I can only find myself by giving myself away.

4. One last reason for joylous serving is anxiety about not having served enough or done enough for God. BUT the gospel tells me that I'm saved by grace and not by my serving. I have no need to impress any person or God because I am already accepted. I am free to serve.

Emerging Church

Some cool posters for emergent churches....

Monday, 10 December 2007

Where does crime come from?

I've just been reading Charles Colson's book "Restorative Justice", which is a thoughtful book on the penal system and origins/solutions to crime. Interestingly, he critiques both right and left for failing to properly deal with crime. The Right have seen harsh sentencing/incarceration as a solution to crime. But Colson argues that this approach views crime as a rational choice based on estimates of future happiness/displeasure (i.e. threat of imprisonment deters crime). He argues that this is basically utilitarianism and that it's shown to be inadequate by the re-incarceration rates (70-80%). It fails to understand the real issue of personal sin and evil that lies behind crime. The Left, on the other hand, externalize the causes of crime into social ills - poverty, racism, mental imbalance. They thus rob the individual of moral responsibility and view crime as a sickness. Incarceration here is for the purpose of rehabilitation. He quotes CS Lewis's famous essay on how this ultimately leads to tyranny. The similarity, however, between Right and Left in their view of crime is that we have to build more prisons! To what extent this is true now, I am unsure, but it has been the case historically.

I think Colson's critique is good and interesting, but it also left me dissatisfied. For, even the notion of sin is not really a sufficient explanation of crime. It explains evil in general, but not crime in the particular. The burning question is: why do some people sin in these ways? What leads some people to kill and others not to? Given that we're all sinners, why does our sin look different? It seems to me that a whole number of explanations have to be used in this scenario, but social evil is probably the most significant. The less educated, the poor, ethnic minorities are all over-represented in prisons. This must be connected to certain social factors. While I think that externalizing the cause of crime is wrong, social/psychological factors are undoubtedly an important context for the origins of certain kinds of crime. External, social factors do not make me a sinner, but they may serve to exacerbate my sin in certain directions.

Some of the problem with Colson's reasoning, in my opinion, has to do with the common understandings of sin as only a personal, individual thing - and not also a social thing. But surely, theologically, we can say 3 things simultaneously: 1. I am sinner responsible for myself 2. I am sinned against as a victim 3. I participate in a whole number of social sins (e.g. environmental destruction) that cannot be easily reduced to my individual decisions. The person that I am is wrapped up with all these different levels of sin. So, any analysis will need to maintain all of them at the same time or it will fail to deal with Biblical, psychological and social realities. Thus, any explanation of crime must take seriously every one of these levels of sin and not simply reduce crime to an issue of personal evil and corruption. It would be interesting, for example, to look at how the OT ideas of corporate responsibility for an individual's sin was reflected in the way the community dealt with. Justice should, therefore, take into account the whole context of someone's life and not reduce it to one thing.

Saturday, 8 December 2007


I happened to watch the film 300 this week with a friend. The film is adapted from a graphic novel, based on the ancient Battle of Thermopylae between the Spartans and the Persians, and is shot with that kind of aesthetic. But I have to say that it wasn't the most edifying film I have wacthed - it had plenty of violence and a couple of erotic scenes. The fast forward had to be used a number of times. Neither was the film interesting - the characters are one dimensional and the plot predictably bland. I kind of regret watching it now.

However, my real problem with the film were its ethical undertones, which were far more disturbing than the violence and occasional sex. What do I mean? Well, it doesn't require a great flight of imagination to read this film against the background of contemporary world politics - the courageous West against the wicked East. The Persian baddies (Iraqis and Iranians?) are vicious, enslaved and under the boot of a self-exalting tyrant. The Spartan goodies (the West) are under the leadership of their strong, courageous king and constantly speak of freedom. The small group of Spartans, militarily far superior to the Persians but completely outnumbered, gladly give their lives in defence of their country. There is, therefore, a strongly jingoistic flavour to the film. Further, the Spartans are harldy attractive heroes or models. Their culture is violent, proud, patriarchal, militaristic and fascist. They evince the worst kind of masculinity. And it is a reminder that courage for a bad cause is not really courage. To be honest, I thought the best ending would have been if everyone had just wiped each other out and we could start all over again....

Were the politics intended? The producer says no, but can't producers at least take responsibility for the ethical implications of their work? It would not be hard for film watchers to draw implicit ethical lessons from this film. You can't just present things as heroic in a film context and not take responsibility for its effect on people.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Daniel's beasts

I have been intrigued by Daniel's visions all this week. They are amazing things. In Dan 7 we have this apocalyptic vision of four beasts, all representing different human empires. I noted down a few things I was struck by.

1. The empires are presented as beasts (v.3). Really, they are mutants - oversized, combining different body parts and violent. It is wonderfully fitting that Daniel represents arrogant human imperial power as distended animal mutants. Our craze for power does not make us greater but turns us into something worse than an ordinary animal. It erases the image of God from us. Note as well, that the beasts arise from the sea - a symbol of disorder and chaos all through the Bible. In a sense, these empires, though powerful (they are "great"), reveal a distorted, disordered creation.

2. These beasts are said to be "different" from one another, and yet they are actually the same kind of thing - they are all mutant beasts. They all reveal the same principles of violence and seeking after dominion. They all rise and fall. there are different arrogant human empires, but at heart they are all the same. They all reveal the same principles and they all have their endpoint. There is nothing new under the sun.

3. The great contrast in the passage is the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man. Here we have a picture of beauty, purity, perfect power and calm - everything that is unbeast-like.. The boasting of the last beast looks pathetic in the light of this vision. And suddenly we understand that the beasts only have dominion as they are given it - it is taken from them in a second. The Son of Man, however, has everlasting dominion and a kingdom that cannot be destroyed.


What does it mean to serve? I was thinking a lot about this in the summer when I had to lead a group of servant-hearted washers up on a kids camp. I remember thinking about Isaiah 53 at the time, where we get, of course, the most amazing picture of what servanthood really means. As I pondered this, it struck me that serving and saving are really inextricably interlinked. Jesus could only save us by becoming a servant. He is the Saviour because He was first the Servant. We cannot understand Jesus in any other terms. This kind of serving-saving is all about putting yourself at the disposal of another, submitting your needs to their needs, putting your joy in their joy. Perhaps,then, we should, as Jesus did, hyphenate everything we do with "serving". So we do serving-evangelism, serving-love, serving-mercy, serving-preaching, serving-serving. Serving is an adverb for us and not a noun. ANything less than that is not authentic Jesus-shaped activity.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Being word-centred and church planting

It's obvious that church planting has to be Word-centred if it is to do any good. Without the Word we're just starting up a new religious club where we share our thoughts and insights - really our own words instead of God's Word. And how on earth are any lives going to be transformed without the Word from the Lord God? How am I gonna have any power without it? In a big, word-centred church this might sound a bit like a truism and would really be taken for granted. But one of the biggest encouragements to me in trying to plant a church is the Parable of the Soils (Sower). There you can see that the impact of the Word - and its rejection. You can see how something very small, weak, even pathetic-looking like the 'seed' has the power of life in it. There are many other much more impressive things in the world, but you won't get life if you plant them. Nothing will result unless you plant the one thing that brings life - the seed of the Word. In fact, it doesn't just give life, but it multiplies itself beyond all expectation. Whole harvests and forests result from one seed. And the fact that the seed is rejected does not undermine its power. The resultant harvest is much bigger than the rejected seed. It is good to know this when you meet apathy and rejection. The Word is the power of God to plant a church.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Doing justice

Gary Haugen, the boss of International Justice Mission, comes with a big challenge to us on the issue of engaging with injstice in the world. This is taken from his book "Good News about Injustice".

“Many who lack faith will shrink away from the distant, dark world of injustice. Still others will water down the Word and imagine that they can love God without loving their brother or wanting to ‘justify’ themselves, they will invent elaborate quibbles with Jesus about who is and is not their neighbour.... To these the Lord says: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen. ....Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:15-17)”. (p.35)

This is a great challenge to those of us in church leadership. To what extent do we see a concern about justice as a normal part of ministry? To what extent is it part and parcel of doing the whole gospel and church thing together?! We cannot choose whether to love people or not, we cannot choose whether or not to be just. As Christians, it just isn't something we can opt out of. As churches it can't be optional extra. How can we speak of the just Judge who calls all to account and not demonstrate that in our own living?

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Here comes the millenium?

Rushing in where even fools fear to tread, I have some thoughts on the interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6. This has to be one of the most hotly-contested passages amongst Bible-believing Christians and, rather bizzarely, large theological edifices are built upon it.

"1Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
4Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years."

What is it all about? Let me suggest an interpretive framework/approach to it.

My first suggestion is that the 1000 years is not a literal period of time. This makes sense because of 1. given the genre of Revelation which revels in symbolism 2. the idea that in Jewish thinking world history lasted 6000 years with the final 1000 years being a Sabbath before the consummation. Thus the 1000 years could well be seen as a Sabbath day (see also Ps 90:4) of rest.

My second suggestion is that the main focus of the passage is on the symbolic (non-temporal/non-geographical) reign of the martyrs (v4) who have died for Christ. This first 'resurrection' is about them. The focus is upon their reign and victory over the devil and evil itself! Satan being bound is really about their victory over him. The symbolic reign of the martyrs is pre-emptive of the final reign of Christ in the new creation (see 2:26 - is this referring to this kind of reign?). They pre-emptively enter into a Sabbath rest of '1000 years' with the Lord Jesus (with the concomitant 1000 years of humiliation of satan). So Revelation 20 is about giving hope to Christian martyrs - positions are exchanged, satan is imprisoned, they are vindicated, given rest and made into kings. Their 'defeat' in death is turned into victory with Christ. The passage plays out the first part of the drama of Psalm 2, which concludes in v.7f - satan and the nations are finally crushed.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Ezekiel 18 - what does "righteous" mean?

What does it mean to be "righteous"? It's obviously a massive word in the Bible and heavily used. And it's one of those words which we use and have some ideas about, but which seems to have a certain amount of vagueness about it as well. "Righteous" is like "nice" or "good" - a word we use without always defining its meaning very closely. Perhaps, a common definition we have in our minds is something like "conforming to a standard" or "avoiding sin". Of course, to get what the word is on about we need to read it in context. This is much better (and more interesting) than trying to to uncover its etymology. Now, the context of Ezekiel 18 is a very interesting one because it is so explicit about what a "righteous" life is. we're not trying to infer what it means, but rather we get a rare explicit definition.

"5 If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— 6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, 9 walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.

10 If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11 (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself."

Notice how many of the elements of righteousness mentioned concern social justice of some kind (all in italics) ! Righteousness is not defined in purely individual terms but socially. It is profoundly relational - how I treat the marginalized is a vital elements of righteousness. And it's not just that these elements are mentioned, but they take up a lot of place in the definition. A lot of the focus is upon this social righteousness. How much do we put this focus on how we treat the poor? How much do we see it as a necessary part of sanctification? Further, notice the reward and threats involved in performing this kind of righteousness - life and death. It is not just an optional extra but demonstrates the reality of my status before God. It is a necessary fruit of the Christian life. To not do justice is to commit an abomination on the same level as idolatry and adultery (v.10-12). RIghteousness now looks a little different to how it did for me yesterday....

Saturday, 24 November 2007

N.T. Wright

Here is an interview with the man himself (linked to by several blogs now!). It's a good interview because it asks all the good questions and raises all the issues that have been raised by people who've read his stuff. While he has written a lot of really interesting stuff (see the link to his material on the right), he also, in my opinion, comes out with perspectives that sit very uncomfortably with evangelical theology. John Piper has just written a critique of him as well which you can get here. It will be interesting to see what Piper and Wright make of each other here.

Why was the early church so successful?

Helmut Koester (of Harvard Divinity School) says this...

"Now we have increasingly in the Christian churches, in the time up to Constantine, the establishment of hospitals, of some kind of health service, we have a clear establishment of social service - everything from soup kitchens to money for the poor if they need it. We have the very important establishment of the institution of widows, because a widow in the Roman society who had lost her husband and did not have money of her own was at the very bottom of the social ladder. One of the first welfare institutions we find in the church was all the widows who were recognized as virgins of the church, considered particularly precious possessions of the church; they were paid by the church and therefore were rescued from utter poverty in most instances.

Christianity really established a realm of mutual social support for the members that joined the church. And I think that this was probably in the long run an enormously important factor for the success of the Christian mission. And it was for that very reason that Constantine saw that the only thing that would rescue the empire is to take over the institutions that the Christians had already built up, [including], by that time, institutions of education in reading and writing, because Christians wanted to have their members knowledgeable and capable of reading the Bible.... We find that in administration of the last pagan emperors, before Constantine, at the very end of the third century, a large number of the people in the imperial administration are Christians, because they could read and write. Which constituted a big problem with the persecution of the Christians because they were thrown out of their office first when the persecution began, and suddenly the government didn't work anymore.

One should not see the success of Christianity simply on the level of a great religious message; one has to see it also in the consistent and very well thought out establishment of institutions to serve the needs of the community."

Friday, 23 November 2007


I was reading through my spiritual journal this morning and it struck me how so much of the Christian life is really about repetition. It's about going back over the old thing again and again, learning the Scriptures again and again, hearing again and again. We need, undoubtedly, innovation and newness, but the mainstay of our spiritual lives (and actually the whole of life) is repeated action and acknowledgement of truths. This is partly because of sin. We are constantly leaking spiritually, constantly wandering off and our hearts are always hardening. So, we need to repeatedly apply the gospel and the means of grace to ourselves. The persistence of sin needs repeated grace. But repetition is also an integral part of holiness. You can't be godly without repeated action - what is faithfulness or love but repetition of good actions and intentions? Character is essentially what we repeatedly do. Perseverance is simply the repetition of godliness in adverse circumstances. My repeated actions and words tell me who I am. Of course, then, the big challenge is what this means for contemporary culture, which hates repetition. Boring, humdrum repetition is the one thing we loathe - it is the opposite of self-realization (which is always found in something new). The concept of discipline is a difficult one in our culture. Yet how can any serious goal ever be reached without repeated, disciplined action? So, let's guard against a dislike for the familiar, repeated patterns of spiritual disciplines, church and persevering love. Let's learn to repeat ourselves.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Meaning and History

Some thoughts based upon Leslie Newbigin's book "The Open Secret"......

Given the reality of death, a big problem for us is to know how to keep together the meaningfulness of both our own personal histories (i.e. me) and big public, world history (i.e. humankind). How can both matter and have meaning at the same time? For example, you can choose to abandon public history and just care about myself. In religious terms, this means that my hope is for individual life after death in another spiritual reality or world. Many religious ideas cater for this and focus on this. Of course, this means that public history is meaningless. What happens in this world is not really significant as it's all 'going to hell'. Society, institutions, politics, world events, the body - none of these things really matter. On the other hand, I can abandon personal, individual meaning and history in favour of Progress. What matters is humankind, poverty, society and the world. The problem with this is, firstly, that I am cut out of the imagined future by my own death. I won’t enjoy it! Secondly, though, the danger is that individuals disappear in the grand scheme of things. The personal and individual no longer matters. It has no value - only ‘mankind’ counts. This is basically where you find Marxism, for example.

Now, the wonderful thing about the gospel is that it holds both the personal and the public together. The gospel of resurrection deals with both. It gives us the hope of a new body/life but also the hope of a renewed world. My personal history and longings matter. But public history also matters. God is working to transform both. Death is not the end of either of them. They are kept together by Jesus. The resurrection, then, lays the foundation for the meaning of the world.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

The Cross and the Return of Christ

I've been struck, in my musings on the return of Christ this week, by the great need to constantly connect the doctrine of Christ's return to the doctrine of the cross, and vice versa. If we see Christ's return without the cross we may well tend to legalism. We will emphasize the final judgment and assessment of our lives and the need to live well. The danger is that we will basically become Islamic in our understanding of the final day - it will all be about living a good life. We need to know the grace of the cross to look hopefully to Jesus's return. Further, the cross also tells us Who is coming back. The One who has gone away is the Lord Jesus, my crucified Saviour. He is one who is coming back to judge and rule the world.

On the other hand, we must also view the cross in light of the return of Christ. As I've posted below, we must see that the cross is stepping stone to a new creation. It is the means to the end - and the end is the return of Christ. If I don't have the return of Christ, I will essentially be living 'forgiven' for this life and this world. The cross will lose any sense of hope and will tend to become individualized and spiritualized in its implications for my life.

So: we need both - the crucified Christ and the returning King - to live properly and relate properly to the future.

Mercy Ministry

" is not simply this part or that part of our theology that compels us to show mercy; it is everything in the whole Reformed system of doctrine. To reiterate: it is not just part of our theology that calls us to mercy ministry; it is everything in our entire theology. We must never forget that every doctrine that is taught in every part of Scripture from creation to the final judgment compels us to show the mercy of God to lost sinners, in the gospel of His Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit."

(Philip Ryken of Tenth Presbyterian Church)

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Parable of Sheep and Goats

What an amazing parable this is! I've been thinking about this for the last week or so and have been very struck by its profundity. Just a couple of remarks on its message...

1. Though it has a strong bent towards provision for the family of believers ("the least of these my brothers), I think its scope of application can hardly be limited to that (e.g. the "stranger" mentioned, Parable of the Good Samaritan, Gal 6:10). Even if we were to limit its scope just to believers we have absolutely more than enough poor Christians in the world to keep us busy for several centuries.

2. Care of the poor means tangible provision and support for practical and obvious need. This covers a wide range of things - food, relationship, acceptance.

3. Care for the poor is a necessary sign of personal and corporate regeneration. If we do not demonstrate care for the poor it calls into question whether or not we know Jesus. The whole point is that the goats don't recognize Jesus, they don't seem Him. They have a false Jesus in view and so are 'surprised' by the judgement. So, when you neglect the poor you neglect Jesus. To do nothing for them is actually to do nothing for Jesus. The real sin at work here is, then, not so much the sin against the poor, as the sin against Jesus. That is the deepest reason for why I am judged. As 1 Jn4:8 says - the man who does not love his brother, does not know God.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Matthew 25 and the return of Christ

A few more comments following on from the last post....

Matt 25 contains three parables Jesus tells just before the cross. They all focus, surprisingly, not upon the cross, but upon Jesus's return. This is somewhat surprising as one might expect Jesus to teach here on how one is to live in light of the cross, yet as the cross approaches he seems to focus more and more on His coming again. The pattern of discipleship that is laid out here is all in light of His return. He is going but He will return - and that fact leads to a distinctly different lifestyle.

It reminds us that the gospel does not end with the cross or even the resurrection/exaltation - it is concluded by the return of Jesus. It is only when Jesus has come back to restore all things and bring in the fullness of the kingdom that God's plan has been fulfilled. It is only then that all things are brought back under one head. It is, therefore, amazing that no real gospel presentation I have heard (or made myself) has ever mentioned the return of the Lord Jesus. It is normally something like Jesus has dealt with our sins so i can be forgiven and have a restored relationship with God. What do I lose by this? I lose Christ-centredness and I individualize the plan of God. The gospel is really about ME!

The fact that Jesus speaks like this also reminds me that the cross is not the goal, but the means to the goal. It is not the end, but the vital step towards the end. The point of the cross is a positive one: salvation in every sense of the word in a new creation and kingdom under the rule of the 'returned' Lord Jesus. If liberals want to remove propitiation from the gospel, then we can be in danger of reducing the gospel to propitiation. How often I hear something like "Jesus died to take the punishment for our sins" as a summary of what Jesus did on the cross. That is an absolutely wonderful and fearful truth, but He died for much more than that! The focus on the return of Jesus reminds us of that.

Monday, 12 November 2007

The Return of Jesus

I'm doing a series of talks on the return of Jesus on Saturday and it got me thinking about why we speak of this so little. It's ironic because in many contexts, end times is massive. But in my context we speak very little of the return of Jesus. It kind of gets lost between the doctrine of the cross and the doctrine of eternal life. Perhaps there's a sense that it seems pointless to us. After all, won't we meet Jesus when we die anyway? Why is it so important whether or not He comes back - it's simply pre-empting something that we're gonna personally experience sooner or later.

Given that the NT speaks so much of the return of Jesus and seems to think of it as massively important, there must be something wrong with my/our thinking. What's the relevance, then, of the doctrine of the return of Christ?

1. Our hope is not to escape to 'heaven' (i.e. ethereal, spirit existence in another reality) but to live in a renewed creation with the Lord Jesus. He 'must' come back to re-create and restore justice, goodness and peace. We are not escaping to another world, but He is returning to judge and renew this one.

2. The return of Christ is about the exaltation of the Lord Jesus. It reminds us that, wonderful as our salvation is, the gospel is mainly about Him and His Kingship. His return means his ultimate vindication and the recognition of Him by the whole creation. The return of Jesus is, then, about His glory.

3. It is very striking to see how much Jesus makes His return a key element in the life of discipleship - particularly as He goes to the cross. He doesn't say so much about living in light of the cross, but He says an awful lot about living in light of His return. Why? It must be that His return is the endpoint of the gospel - it is the conclusion of the gospel. If we stop at the cross (even the resurrection) we truncate the gospel. The danger will be that we seek our ultimate fulfilment in this life with Jesus. we settle for less than is promised....

This has certainly challenged me to think more deeply about the difference the return of Jesus makes to my daily life.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Grace from Galatians

I've just finished (with the help of some others) preaching through Galatians in our local congregation. Someone, in response to hearing that I'd be doing that, asked me this week, "Don't you find that every sermon is the same?!" I thought for a moment, and realized that yes, Galatians is basically one sermon. It is basically setting out a simple choice: do you read the story of the Bible mainly as Law to be enacted or mainly as Promise (of Jesus and His Spirit) to be believed? The letter returns to this theme again and again, and it is the underlying theology of all the discussion. Is the Bible mainly about commands and law from God, or is it mainly grace and salvation rooted in Jesus? Paul's opponents did not on the surface disbelieve in Jesus, nor were they simply saying "you must earn your salvation." But the structure of their theology was actually marginalizing the work of the Lord Jesus. And it is when we see this that we see how easily we move into this. Don't many Christians see their relationship with God mainly in terms of law? Don't we often think of discipleship as working hard to follow Jesus? But Paul is preaching to us: the main thing in your relationship with God and your discipleship is to to trust in the promise of the Lord Jesus. I live, not by Law, but by faith in the Son of God who loved me and died for me (Gal 2:20). It is not about what I do, but what He has done.

Saturday, 10 November 2007


I was listening to a talk recently where the speaker asked us to complete the sentence "The Son of Man came....". He suggested some answers. How about " seek and save the lost" (Luke 19:10)? Or perhaps " give his life as a ransom." (Mk 10:45) But the speaker reminded us that it can also be completed "...eating and drinking." (Matt 11:19) I remember my surprise when he mentioned that possible version. His talk was a powerful reminder of the hospitality of the Lord Jesus. His sharing of meals with the 'sinner' and the poor is a well-documented and attested aspect of his ministry (particularly in Luke's gospel). Meals serve as a powerful kingdom visual aid. They foreshadow its coming, highlight the kingdom as celebration but, above all, stress the hospitality of God to the outcast. But, what consequences does this have for our practice of hospitality? A few suggestions...

Hospitality easily degenerates into having people over for dinner once in a while. But surely the middle class dinner party falls far short of the ministry of the Lord Jesus. True hospitality is about welcoming people into our lives. It must be part of an ongoing commitment to people. It's also about 'embracing' people whoever they are and whatever they've done. Hospitality is really being practiced when we welcome the outcast, the sinner, our enemy (Luke 14:12). No-one gets left behind in the church. At that point the grace of the kingdom is being powerfully shown. Further, we need to get away from the idea of meal as 'performance' i.e. a display of my culinary skill/ showing off the perfect ordering of my home. Perhaps we need to do meals in a very different way, involving people, letting them share in the preparation and asking for help (rather than showing our self-sufficiency). The meal then becomes a display of community rather than an invitation of people into my 'perfect' world. How easily we slip into a bourgeois spirituality that is more about surface, appearance and performance than grace, authenticity and community.

Working among the marginalized

Here are some more great titbits from the book Total Church (Timmis and Chester) on work amongst the poor and marginalized.

"He [Jesus] has come to call sinners and welcome them home. God is the God who eats with is enemies.' (p.69)

"Indeed part of our evangelism to the rich is our evangelism to the needy. We subvert their preoccupation with power and success as they see us loving the unlovely." (p.71)

"Many of the divisions within evangelicalism are as much about social class as theological differences." (p.74)

"So in any Christian ministry, including ministry among the poor, proclaiming and teaching the word of God must be central. And that is because the greatest need of the poor, as for us all, is to be reconciled to God and so escape his wrath." (p.75)

What is poverty?

"In part it is about having no money, but there is more to poverty than that. It is about being isolated, unsupported, uneducated and unwanted. Poor people want to be included and not just judged and 'rescued' at times of crisis..... [it is about] lack of resources, physical weakness, isolation, powerlessness and vulnerability....It is to be lacking social connections and community. The poor are, by definition, those who are powerless and marginal...... Our first instinct when faced with someone in need is to give something to them or do something for them. 'Rescuing' the poor, as Mrs Jones puts it, can be appropriate in times of crisis or important as a first step. But if it never moves beyond this, it reinforces the dependency and helplessness at the heart of poverty. The poor remain passive. It does not produce lasting or sustainable change. This is why a central theme of the literature on development is the importance of participation." (p.77)

"When we look at the church throughout the world, God is choosing the weak and lowly to shame the power and wealth of the West. It seems that God's response to the imperialism of global capitalism is to raise up a mighty church in the very places this new empire marginalizes and exploits." (p.81)

"They [the poor] do not want to participate in projects. They want to participate in community. A woman told me: "I know people do a lot to help me. But what I want is for someone to be my friend." People do not want to be projects. The poor need a welcome to replace their marginalization; they need inclusion to replace their exclusion; to replace their powerlessness they need a place where they matter. They need community. They need the Christian community. They need the church." (p.78)

Friday, 9 November 2007

Tim Keller

Here's a link to a link (!) of every kind of (free) Tim Keller resource on the web. In case you don't know who he is, he is one of the major US evangelical leaders. His material and preaching have become very significant in the US and UK evangelical contexts.

Receiving the Word

Ben Witherington (NT scholar) has written an interesting blog entry on the "word of God as sacrament". It has a very interesting slant on how we think about the Scriptures.

Holiness and culture

Here are some great questions developed by Mark Driscoll to tease out the way we engage with culture and, particularly, lifestyle choices and decisions. These help me work out what it means to love Christ as I engage and participate in our culture and daily activities.

1. Is it beneficial to me and the gospel (1 Cor 6:12)?

2. Will I lose self-control and be mastered by what I participate in? ( 1 Cor 6:12)?

3. Will be doing this in presence of someone who I know will fall into sin as a result (1 Cor 8:9-10)?

4. Is it a violation of laws of my city, state or nation (Rom 13;1-7)?

5. If I fail to do this, will I lose an opportunity to share the gospel (1 Cor 10:27-30)?

6. Can I do this with a clear conscience? (Acts 24:16)

7. Will this cause me to sin by feeding sinful desires (Rom 13:13-14)?

8. Am I convinced that this is what God desires me to do (Rom 13:5)?

9. Does my participation proceed from my faith in Jesus (Rom 14:23)?

10. Am I doing this to help other people, or am I just being selfish (1 Cor 10:24)?

11. Can I do this in a way that glorifies God (1 Cor 10:31-33)?

12. Am I following the example of Jesus to help save sinners (1 Cor 10:33-11:1)?

Jonathan Edwards on the poor

I have been very intrigued and challenged to read Edwards' treatise on Christian Charity and our obligation to the poor. It is a masterful exposition of Deut 15 and I think it comes as a bit of surprise to a number of people today. After all, Edwards can hardly be written off as a 'wooly liberal' who doesn't care about gospel preaching. As with everything he writes and preaches, he turns his logical-biblical bazooka style of argument on those who object. It's unnerving stuff for those of us who want to excuse ourselves from generosity and kindness.

"...God foresaw that the wickedness of their hearts would be very ready to make such an objection. But very strictly warns them against it, that they should not be the more backward to supply the wants of the needy for that, but should be willing to give him. “Thou shalt be willing to lend, expecting nothing again.”

Men are exceedingly apt to make objections against such duties [generosity to the poor], which God speaks of here as a manifestation of the wickedness of their hearts: “Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart,” etc. The warning is very strict. God doth not only say, Beware that thou do not actually refuse to give him, but, Beware that thou have not one objecting thought against it, arising from a backwardness to liberality. God warns against the beginnings of uncharitableness in the heart, and against whatever tends to a forbearance to give. “And thou give him nought, and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee.” God warns them, from the guilt which they would be liable to bring upon themselves hereby."

Proverbs on the poor

It is very striking to read what the book of Proverbs says about the 'poor'.

1. The situation of the poor

The poor have no protection (Prov 22:7, 28;15, 10:15 "A rich man’s wealth is his strong city;the poverty of the poor is their ruin"). In other words a significant element of poverty is powerlessness and marginalization. Money is power, influence and control and thus one of the major incentives behind getting as much as possible. The poor lack this and so are defenceless in the face of oppressive social control, recession and mistreatment. The poor don’t have a chance because of injustice (Prov 13;23 "The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food,but it is swept away through injustice.") Poverty is cyclical and self-reinforcing as one is laid out a victim of social injustices. It is essentially middle class to think you have got to where you are because of your own efforts and work and deserve it all. The poor have no friends and no-one cares (Prov 19:4, 14:20 "The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends."). They lack social connections and influence. They have very little that anyone wants in terms of buying capital or skills. In fact, the main friends of the poor are the loan companies.

2. God's identification with the poor

Here we have the famous proverb that to lend to poor is to lend to God (Prov 14:31, 17:5, 19:17). How we treat the poor indicates how we think about God (cf. parable of the sheep and goats). Generosity to the poor and marginalized is an absolute sign of righteousness and a massive spiritual health indicator. Judgment comes on those who fail to help poor (Prov 21:13 "Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered." ). The prosperity and success of my life may well depends upon the degree to which I give and have compassion on those who are marginalized around me ("Whoever gives to the poor will not want,but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse. Prov 28:27). Finally, the wise man will understand all of this without needing to be convinced of it (Prov 29:7 A righteous man knows the rights of the poor;a wicked man does not understand such knowledge.) What are the rights of the poor? They are the rights God in his mercy has given them to our generosity and kindness. How about we start here?

Missional community

Do mission weeks and evangelistic events work? Well, I don't mean to say they don't, but I can't help feeling that they are increasingly ineffective in the culture we live in. We tend to pour in a lot of energy and resources into them but actually see very little fruit in terms of real conversions. I think they are decreasingly effective for several reasons.

1. Such approaches seem to work better in a culture of Christendom where much of the basic Christian worldview is still present and 'decisions' become easier. Our culture is not like that any more.

2. They tend to implicitly compartmentalize gospel communication (even though we don't want to) to a certain parts of a calendar.

3. They tend to focus explaining the gospel in doctrinal, systematic ways only.

4. They abstract gospel witness from community life and relationships.

5. Gospel communication becomes an event rather than an ongoing witness.

6. The vast majority of people need a long time to become Christians and so they will need to have much more significant contact than simply a mission week.

In contrast to this approach is the idea of church as 'missional community'. This means:

1. Gospel communication to outsiders/insiders is a part of everything you do and every gathering. We are always addressing the issues of our culture and objections of our culture - they are often our hidden issues as well. The gospel is not just seen as systematic doctrines to be believed but a hermeneutic that shapes all teaching and activity.

2. This communication is grounded in community life, so that people are invited to see the community in action and relationships in action. This means that the quality of our community life is actually a key apologetic and context for the gospel. We don't therefore just need to invite people to events but simply invite them into what the community is doing together. Hospitality is something the whole church does as a body. The goal if for gospel communication to occur at every point and in every context - both formally and informally.


The excellent book "Total Church" by Steve Timmis and Tim Chester (a very easy and stimulating read) has some stirring challenges to the way we think about church and community.

"We are not save individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group." (p.37)

"I am a person-in-community. I cannot be who I am without regard to other people." (p.39)

"My being in Christ means being in Christ with those others who are in Christ." (p.39)

"The prevailing view of life today is that of an individual standing on his or her own, heroically 'juggling' various responsibilities... An alternative model is to view our various activities and responsibilities as spokes of a wheel. At the centre or hub of life is not me as an individual, but us as members of the Christian community. Church is not another ball for me to juggle, but that which defines who I am and gives Christlike shape to my life." (p.42-43)

"In our experience, people are often enthusiastic about community until it impinges on their decision-making. For all their rhetoric, they still expect to make decisions by themselves for themselves. We assume we are masters of our own lives." (p.45)

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Self-examination questions

Questions for assessing my spiritual progress...

1. Do you have an increasing joy in God and His fame?

2. Are you governed increasingly by the word of God?

3. Are you more forgiving and patient with the faults of others?

4. Do you base who you are on what the Lord Jesus has done for you rather than what you do for Him?

5. Do you have a growing concern for the needs of others, whether of this life or or for eternity?

6. Do you delight in the people of God?

7. Is your day-to-day speech life-giving or destructive?

8. Do you grieve over your sin and delight in your salvation?

9. Do you pray with God’s priorities and with joy?

10. Do you yearn to be with Jesus in the new creation?

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The Poor and the Gospel

The middle class gospel says this:

I'm basically good and I can sort out my life by making free choices and working hard.

But Jesus said that to be saved we must be poor in spirit. In other words, we may be outwardly wealthy, but we must become like the poor if we are to be saved.

In other words:

I'm not basically good. I can't just sort out my life by trying hard. I don't have the power and there are lots of things that enslave me. I need a Saviour to come and rescue me.

The poor teach us the gospel and this is why the gospel is for the poor. The rich can only access it by becoming like them, by realizing their need of Another's spiritual wealth to help them.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Union with Christ from and for eternity

The wonder of our union with Christ is truly breath-taking. It spans from before the beginning of time into eternity.

1. We were elected in Christ, chosen in Him before the world ever was.

2. We were created through Him. All things owe their very existence to Him.

3. We were born again in Him and have become a new creation through His death and resurrection.

4. We live by faith in Him now and are united with Him as a branch in a vine or a brick in a temple or as a bride with her bridegroom.

5. We will die in Him. My final breaths will be taken in His presence and with His loving care.

6. We will be with Him for all eternity - He will be the object of our affections and words.

This is really vast! This relationship is the most significant relationship we can and will ever have. It is more important, eternal and solid than anything else. He is the A to Z of our very existence. He is there before me, in my life and after my death. This has massive implications for every other relationship I have and every other thing that I value.

Union with Christ and sufficiency

Ephesians 1:3 "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ."

Some questions....

Where are the spiritual blessings located? Answer: in Christ

How do I get spiritual blessings? Answer: from God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ

How many spiritual blessings can I get? Answer: all of them

What do I have to do to get these blessings? Answer: you get them through faith in Christ

So, what do I need in addition to Jesus Christ? Answer: nothing

What am I lacking if I only trust in Christ? Answer: nothing

What else do I need to contribute to get them? Answer: nothing

Conclusion: union with Christ alone and by itself gives me every single possible blessing that it is possible to get from God.

Union with Christ and Quiet Times

I remember being struck a couple of years ago by how much I relied upon prayer, Bible reading etc (basically all spiritual disciplines) as ways of bringing me into the presence of God. I thought of my QT as leading me to God in some way and that if I didn't have a QT then I had not been in the presence of God. It struck me, though, one day that actually it had all become a works religion. For, the thing that brought me into the presence of God was my union with the Lord Jesus. He had done it all and won it all. He had finally and eternally and completely made me right before God. My relationship with God was based upon this very thing - Jesus had established it and He maintained it.

What does this mean? It means that evangelical spirituality must always begin with union with Christ and not spiritual disciplines. It must always begin with the covenant I enjoy in Christ. If someone asks me, "How is your relationship with God going?" I must answer, "Very well because the Lord Jesus has done everything to secure it and maintain it." Whatever I feel and however zealous I am, my relationship with God is very good indeed! If I don't do this, then everything I do will be legalism. I'll be trying to win something I cannot get any other way than through Christ. And how on earth could I ever think that my prayers could bring me to God without the Lord Jesus??!! Subsequent to this, I have always started my QTs by rejoicing in the gospel and my union with Christ. This must come before and after every spiritual discipline.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Union with Christ and Church

The great covenant promise of the OT is "I will be your God and you will be my people". The irony of the promise is that it is actually quite 'difficult' for God to do it. The tabernacle/temple gives us a 'contradictory' message - "come near/don't you dare come near". It is really very hard to see how a truly holy God can dwell amongst His people. For God the people's sin is offensive, and for the people God's presence is deadly. This 'problem' is only resolved in Christ. In Christ, the great promise is fulfilled and completed. God can not only dwell amongst us, but He is in us. Through union with Christ, God's holiness becomes redemptive and salvific.

But the really striking thing here is that the OT promise is not an individualistic thing, but a corporate thing. It is addressed to a community. We are meant to experience God together as a people. So often I think of God's presence in my life, rather than our life. Union with Christ, seen in this way, is about the church, not simply my relationship with God. Jesus speaks to us collectively "I wll be your God and you will be my people." So, to know this covenant promise being worked out in "my" life, I must see "my" life as part of a "we". The great blessing of knowing Christ is a corporate experience.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Deliver us from Dawkins?

Richard Dawkins is continually his campaign against religion - now in political terms. He's seeing to help the victimized lobby of atheists in America to gain public political influence. Read about it here. I can't help thinking that Dawkins fails to appreciate the difference between religious and secularized. The US is much more religious than Europe (a shock to liberals) but still incredibly secular (a shock to religious people). I don't think Dawkins has all that much to worry about to be honest. The media constantly hype up the role religion plays in American politics. Just mentioning God does not mean that God is really taken seriously. Anyway, there is an (unusually) excellent comment on this in the Guardian which gives his whole approach a great critique. Here's a taster.

"I have been chided in the past for referring to the "militant" atheism of Dawkins and his like. But the desire for one's creed to spread, in order to make the world a better place, surely merits the label. Atheists reply that there is nothing dangerous or sinister in the desire to see more rationality, less superstition. Really? Dawkins was asked what he hoped an atheist bloc in the US might achieve, and this is the first part of the answer he gave: "I would free children of being indoctrinated with the religion of their parents or their community." Is this not amazing? I have seldom read a sentence that has induced such a sharp shiver of revulsion. This man evidently dreams of a state in which it is illegal to take one's children to a place of worship, or to say prayers with them as one puts them to bed."

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Union with Christ

A quiet revolution has been going on in me for the last few years which has probably been more profound for me than anything else: a deeper appreciation of what it means to be "in Christ". It has reconstructed my view of a whole number of things in my relationship with God. It has led to much greater joy and peace in my life as well. It has opened up whole new vistas in my spiritual life. So, I'm gonna write a number of posts in the next few weeks about this wonderful reality which we get as Christians.

Yet, the funny thing about this relationship with Christ is the fact we speak of it so little. I guess this wouldn't be so weird if it was a minor theme in the Bible - but actually it's truly massive. It's everywhere. "In Christ" and its cognates litter the pages of the NT. I think we have a really deficient understanding of what it means to be a Christian if we neglect what God has given us here. But, it's almost as if we filter all these Bible passages out of our thinking. Perhaps we just struggle to understand it. I did an Amazon search on books connected with union with Christ and there really aren't all that many. Compare that with justification and you'll see a huge difference! Why is it that we are so unbalanced in this? I don't know.... I guess we always have our blindspots. It's just that this one is particularly large and robs us of so much joy and strength in our knowledge of God.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

The glory of the cross

"It was because the Son of God, supremely glorious in His matchless person, undertook to vindicate the law by bearing the sentence due to me, that therefore God is able to pass by my sin. The law of God was more vindicated by the death of Christ than it would have been had all transgressors been sent to Hell. For the Son of God to suffer for sin was a more glorious establishment of the government of God, than for the whole race to suffer." (Spurgeon)

No, not the love without the blood
That were to me no love at all
It could not reach my sinful soul
Nor hush the fears which me appal

The love I need is righteous love
Inscribed on the sin-bearing tree
Love that exacts the sinner’s debt
Yet, in exacting, sets him free

(Horatius Bonar)

"God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him." (Jurgen Moltmann)

Dodging suffering

It's rather obvious from any cursory reading of Acts and church history that outreach and mission involves suffering and self-sacrifice. More than that, it seems that churches cannot be planted nor the church significantly grow without, at some point, our suffering for the name of Jesus. Taking up the cross is not an option for particularly zealous disciples, but is the model for all evangelism.

Given that fact , it's surprising that we speak so little within this paradigm. It may well be because we live in a society where you can dodge suffering. No police are knocking on our door because we're having a Bible study and no-one's confiscating our Bibles from us. No-one's been sent to jail - and the very thought that one of us might fills us with shock and horror. Because suffering is not forced upon us we settle for a comfortable life. And, in a sense, who can blame us because no-one wants to suffer!! Yet, surely, forced suffering is not the only kind of suffering the gospel calls us to.

How will London or the UK be reached for Christ? It is not simply through strategic planning or even Bible teaching. It is through the self-sacrifice and willing suffering of the people of God. For example, how can churches be planted into the inner cities or ethnic minority areas without self-sacrifice? You can't reach these areas without living there and sending your kids to the local schools and involving yourself in their problems. How can these ministries be funded apart from tremendous self-sacrifice from wealthy givers? How about the thousands of villages and small little towns where there's no real gospel witness? And I haven't even mentioned the 10-40 window and the muslim world. I guess the kind of suffering involved here is: 1. making where you live a gospel issue and not a comfort issue 2. willingly taking a cut in your standard of living 3. giving away loads of money and resources. All this comes from letting my joy and comfort come from Jesus and my eternal home with him rather than my home here. When I'm interested in really getting my joy from Him and His glory these other things seem less necessary. “Oh, the awful emptiness of a full life when Christ stands yet without.” (Jim Elliot)

I say yes to all the skills of ministry such as relevant preaching, strategy, church planting etc. Yet, if all this comes in a package that doesn't call me to take up my cross and suffer for the Lord Jesus then it is shallow and ultimately ineffective.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

One more thing on James...

One other passage I've been struck by in James is 1:22ff

"Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does."

Time and time again when we look at this passage we end up making it into a 'we'd-really-better-obey-all-the-rules-and-not just-know-what-they-are' kind of a thing. But if one looks carefully at the context the "word" is not simply commands from God which we'd better remember to obey. Rather, it is the gospel - it is the word that gives new birth and that brings salvation. This is certainly a command, but it is much more than that and much more empowering than a simple command. It is the perfect law that gives freedom - the law of Christ. In other words, the point James is making is that true 'religion' is rooted in doing the gospel. It is about being one who does not only listen to the gospel but who enacts it, incarnates it. It is about becoming someone who demonstrates the gospel in action. What James is doing here is to draw a powerful link between the Christian life and the gospel - how it starts is how it is meant to go on. We must never forget how we look in the mirror of the gospel, to hear it and think on it. We are never to forget it. And we are to do it i.e. to live out the life of faith in gospel and all its implications.

Faith is of the devil?

I was very struck by this verse in our Bible study yesterday.

James 2:19 "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder."

Here James is outlining the difference between true and false faith. It's very striking here that he takes the revered OT and Jewish confession of faith (the Shema) as his example. He shows how even such a great declaration can become a tool of self-deception and spiritual evil. A superficial, dead belief in the one true God is really no different from the kind of faith the demons have. In other words, this kind of belief is not just bad, inadequate, hypocritical - it is demonic! It is a faith that comes from the devil rather than from God. And, one might add, at least the demons shudder, while people may go on full of confidence and self-satisfaction with their dead faith, all the time not knowing they are on a collision course with God. Again, this passage is a good antidote to dead orthodoxy and dry doctrinal correctness. It really isn't enough to have your evangelical theology all sorted without joyful and passionate trust in the Lord Jesus. May God protect us from it!

Monday, 24 September 2007

China and suffering Christians

Take look here at these videos. Downloading them needs a decent broadband connection as they are big files. They are very moving and inspiring.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Public prayer

I came upon this great article on public prayer by John Newton. It's really good!

Some highlights....

"The prayers of some good men are more like preaching than praying. They rather express the Lord's mind to the people, than the desires of the people to the Lord. Indeed this can hardly be called prayer. It might in another place stand for part of a good sermon, but will afford little help to those who desire to pray with their hearts."

"It is possible to learn to pray mechanically, and by rule; but it is hardly possible to do so with acceptance and benefit to others. When the several parts of invocation, adoration, confession, petition, etc., follow each other in a stated order, the hearer's mind generally goes before the speaker's voice, and we can form a tolerable conjecture what is to come next. On this account we often find that unlettered people who have had little or no help from books, or rather have not been fettered by them, can pray with an unction and savour in an unpremeditated way, while the prayers of persons of much superior abilities, perhaps even of ministers themselves, are, though accurate and regular, so dry and starched, then they afford little either of pleasure or profit to spiritual mind. The spirit of prayer is the fruit and token of the Spirit of adoption."

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Starting the day right

I'm a great believer in distilling the essentials truths of the Scriptures into simple propositions that I can remind myself of and meditate on every day. I use lists of propositions regularly in my QTs to direct my thinking and affections, and to shape my heart with the gospel. Here are 5 key things that i've just formulated to get into my head and heart at the beginning of the day.

1. The Cross is the only thing that can deal with my sin.

2. I am now in Christ. I have every spiritual blessing and and live for God.

3. Sin is my worst enemy and righteousness my greatest friend.

4. This day must be lived in the light of the Day of Christ.

5. My life is about bringing glory to Jesus Christ.

Friday, 21 September 2007


Given the increased individualism in our culture, it's become harder and harder for family to retain significance in our lives. I think that, increasingly, adults struggle to relate to their parental families and so the role of friends has become a lot bigger in our lives. This is even more the case with broken families. In light of this, a couple of thoughts about families....

1. We need to remember that our families are part of God's redemptive plan in our lives. God's work does not happen outside of our families nor apart from them, but in and through them. We don't get to choose our families, like we do with our friends or marriage partner. They are given to us. They are part of God's providence in our lives and thus, for good and for bad, and so we need to see God's work in and through them. This means that even the worst experiences in any family can be a vehicle of redemption used by God in our lives. He can take the worst things and make them servants of our joy and sanctification.

2. The fact that we can't hide who we are in our families is also absolutely crucial to our spiritual growth. This is a place where we can't pretend or hold up a spiritual mask. Who we are with our families is who we are. We can often feel that it's the worst bits of us that come out in our families, but actually it's the truest parts of us that really come out. This gives us a real opportunity for self-knowledge, growth and sanctification.

3. Our families need to be viewed in the light of God's family. Even the best family is only ever a signpost to something much better and longer lasting - God's eternal family. And the worst family does not define us - we are not trapped by our past. For we have been adopted into a new family that will never fail us or fall short of our hopes.

Thursday, 20 September 2007


In Bible study I was looking at Psalm 51 this evening. And I was very struck by the power of these words.

16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.

17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.

The sacrifices being spoken of are sacrifices of worship/thanksgiving from the Levitical code. What is very striking here is that it is not simply saying that worship is about the heart of the worshipper (a profound and important point though), but that confession itself is worship. When I run to the Lord with my sin in brokenness and contrition this is true worship. It honours God and brings him glory. It is not that I'm twisting God's arm in order to make Him merciful to me, but I am actually humbly honouring Him as a holy, pure, gracious Saviour. Confession is right at the heart of a God-honouring life and is worth more than a thousand songs that do not have it. What a wonderful gracious God we have!

John Owen, of course, saw this as obvious, "There is nothing that Jesus Christ is more delighted with than that his saints should always hold communion with him by giving him their sins and receiving his righteousness. This greatly honours him and gives him the glory that is his due. What great dishonour we do to Christ to try and get rid of our sins in any other way.....It is Christ's great aim to be highly esteemed by his people. And how could he be more highly esteemed than to be acknowledged as the oe who takes our sins and gives us his righteousness."

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Are there 9 marks of a healthy church?

Mark Dever's book "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church" has been a big hit in recent times. The books does what the cover says and lists 9 marks. Here they are:
1. Expositional Preaching
2. Biblical Theology
3. The Gospel
4. A Biblical Understanding of conversion
5. A Biblical understanding of evangelism
6. A Biblical understanding of church membership
7. Biblical Church discipline
8. A Concern for discipleship and growth
9. Biblical Church leadership

I have to admit that I have a real problem with this book as it stands. My problem is this: where on earth does the personal appropriation of the Lord Jesus in faith and life fit in here? Where is faith, holiness, hope and love?!! It seems to me that Dever has defined spiritual health largely in terms of doctrine and not in terms of personal faith and character. Now, doctrine is certainly vital but it is hardly sufficient in delineating health. I reckon you could have all these signs and yet still be a profoundly unhealthy church - with only counterfeit faith, hope and love in the Lord Jesus. It's no use having a biblical understanding of conversion if you're not actually converted. It is quite possible to be an unbelieving, hypocritical puritan reformed evangelical sound 'Christian'. This list is far too weighted towards the cognitive and intellectual. It worries me that so many people are happy to use this book as a definition of the main marks of a healthy church. I am very sure that Dever would say that holiness etc is important but he should, in my opinion, re-write the book both in terms of content and structure.

Let me suggest my own (I hope it is the Bible's!) one mark of the healthy church: living faith in the Lord jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Got that and I reckon you can be called healthy (even if you've also got some spiritual ulcers and ingrowing toenails).

Prayerless ministry

I was thinking the other day why I haven't been praying all that much in my ministry lately. I know it's not a good thing to do, but I couldn't quite figure out why. After all, i want the work to thrive and I want people to know Jesus. I honestly have this desire. Am I just ill-disciplined? Am I no good at praying? So I spent a little time reflecting upon it.

Firstly, it struck me that a lack of prayer reflected a lack of dependence. This insight did not come as a shock. I could easily see that my lack of prayer shows that I'm not really thinking rightly about who God is. It means I don't feel a sense of His greatness and love and generosity.

Secondly, if I dug a little deeper I could see that this was rooted in unbelief. My heart was fundamentally unbelieving - the promises of God, the achievement of the gospel was not meaning all that much to me. This was a bit more of a shock. After all, it's not good to have unbelieving minister is it?

Thirdly, the real shock came when I saw that it wasn't just that I lacked dependence and was unbelieving, but I was actually depending upon other things. It wasn't that I had given up on ministry and wanted to find something else to do, rather I was trying to do God's ministry whilst relying upon something else for power and grace. It was not difficult to see that what I was relying upon was my own gifting, power, resources - and partly also other people's plus a little bit of 'luck.' Now, I would never come out with something so crass and obviously boastful as "all the preaching, ministry and evangelism in this church is rooted in me, it comes from me and my gifts." After all, I normally 'pray' before/after sermons and on other public occasions asking for God's help!. But actually my heart was saying that it was all about ME! If I thought it all came from God, I would pray. As I think it comes from me, there is no need to.

Yes, as you probably guessed, I have had some repenting to do.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Why we don't want big churches

Ah, yes, I thought I'd stick my nose into this controversial topic. The statement may seem rather stupid because, after all, don't we want churches to be REALLY big? Well, of course, we want there to be lots of Christians. But this does not mean big churches, for it can also mean lots of Christians in lots of churches. Let me give some reasons why I think big churches are a bad idea.

1. They obscure mission. Large churches give a feeling of success and size and 'we are many' and therefore do not engender a thirst for mission. If you sit in a church of a thousand you feel like there are loads of Christians in London, if you sit in a church of 30 you feel like there are loads of people to be reached for the gospel. Small churches remind us constantly that 97% of our nation are not evangelical Christians. It's harder to feel that in a large church.

2. They undermine mission strategy. Large churches develop strong Christian subcultures which are difficult to penetrate, and which insulate Christians from the 'world'. They hinder communication with our culture and are more likely to be overly self-confident in their proclamation.

3. They are less evangelistically successful. The percentage number of unbelievers in a large church is much less than in a new church plant. Large churches draw Christians by attraction and transference. Small church plants can't do that and so don't. Instead they have to 'make do' with unbelievers.

What do you think?

The appeal of atheism

CS Lewis speaks in Surprised by Joy of the great appeal that atheism had for him...

"the materialist's universe had the enormour attraction that it offered limited liabilities. No strictly infinite disaster could overtake you in it. Death ended all...The horror of the Christian universe was that it had no door marked Exit. It was also perhaps not unimportant that the externals of Christianity made no appeal to my sense of beauty....Christianity was mainly associated for me with ugly architecture, ugly music....But of course what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatredof authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the centre what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer."

It is often the position taken by the evangelist that Christianity is inherently attractive and that if people think for a moment, then they will choose it. Now, I don't want to dispute that at all, and yet Lewis reminds us here of something else. The gospel will always be unattractive in many ways, and perhaps an evangelist's job is to explain as much why it is so darn unappealing. Understanding my dislike may after all lead to that dislike being removed. Lewis's awareness of his fear of Cosmic Interference helped him see why he disliked God so much, and played a role in engendering a desire for God in him.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Romans 6-8

These chapters have long preoccupied my thinking. I think their depths and issues are a real challenge and I long to plumb their depths. Some thoughts on the paradigm in which to read them.

1. Taking a creation-new creation perspective has been very helpful. This has involved taking a much more literal reading of the chapters when it comes to the concepts of body and death. Our problem is with a fallen creation and sin is 'incarnated' in the real created world. Death is the end of life in this world, it represents a kind of uncreation or anti-creation. We are stuck in this fallen creation and cannot escape it. Our problem is not a 'spiritual' (=purely non-body) problem - it is the problem of a fallen creation (including us!) permeated with sin.

2. God's resolution of this problem is the death-resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the 2nd Adam (= true, righteous regent over creation in contrast to false, unrighteous first regent) who is righteous, but who surprisingly dies. His death though is for us, not for Him, and it ends 'surprisingly' with His resurrection. His literal death-resurrection is the solution to the fallen creation and the body of death. He initiates a re-creation/renewed creation of which he is the Head. His resurrection is the beginning of this creation - which is coming in the future to undo the fall and re-create.

3. The Spirit is the One who connects us to everything Jesus has done and to this new creation of the future. The coming of the SPirit means that time is forward-winded for us in a sense so that we experience the firstfruits of the future world now in our lives. The future is breaking into our lives now. On the one hand, then, Jesus's death-resurrection becomes utterly ours, we are united with Him and we live with Him in the new world. we belong there now. This means that the fallen world under the power of sin resulting in death regulated by the Law is in the past and defeated. This is the basis for the Christian life and holiness. Yet, on the other hand, we are also waiting for this resurrected world to come and transform our 'bodies of death' (=fallen created existence). We live in between the worlds. We are united with Jesus, alive to God and connected to his eternal love in a proleptic experience of the future. Yet we are also living in a fallen world with fallen bodies destined to die but knowing that our deaths have become death-resurrection through Jesus into a new world.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Road Rage

This week, my wife, after having nearly been knocked off her bike by one driver, was subjected to a whole string of totally unjustified expletives, honking and the 'finger' by a second (female) driver. Women tend to be a lot less aggressive so it was a bit surprising. But this woman had clearly 'lost it' over nothing. Perhaps the driver was having a bad day... who knows? Apparently, the UK has one of the worst road rages in the world. We certainly have anger management problems. I've always suspected that underneath the traditional politeness there is a lot of violence and anger wanting to get out. We English are a repressed bunch, I think.

The roads are a mirror to the soul and it's where our raw selfishness and narcissism come out most clearly. Thousands of egos are competing with each other for limited space. Thinking about road rage biblically, it seems to me that it reflects a desire to want to be (a rather nasty version of) God. It's like I feel I am in charge of the roads and everyone has to do what I bid them to do. No-one should cross me and if they do I will vent my wrath on them. I need to control everyone else around me and if they don't do as I desire then I will crush them. Road rage increases to the extent that I demand that everything and everyone be ordered around me and my needs.

How do you defuse it? By recognizing that I am not God, I am not in charge, I cannot control the world and that people will always do things that cross me.

Friday, 7 September 2007


Having just written a post on work, I also thought it would be good to think a bit about rest as well. As we know, rest is a big Bible theme - it is an image of salvation and the future with God. A few thoughts about rest.

1. Resting requires faith. Work can easily be an expression of my need to control and anxiety that everything will fall apart without me. I think this is a big part of the workaholic lifestyle. Rest, on the other hand, depends upon God and know that He is in charge. Sleep is a gift from Him and a reminder of my fragility and dependence upon Him. The Sabbath was a way of reminding Israel that the Lord is the provider of all things, not their work.

2. We don't need just recreational rest, but the deep rest Jesus brings. Everyone knows that simply doing nothing is not necessarily restful. Your mind can still be a blur, my internal processes can still be churning away. This is dealt with by Jesus when I realize that He brings rest from all these things - the results of work are in His hands, He brings salvation etc.

3. Work and rest need each other. Work without rest becomes legalism, rest without work becomes meaninglessness. I have no reason to think that we will be unemployed in the new creation, but it will also be a place without 'thistles and thorns' governed by a deep Sabbath.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007


A good sermon on work on Sunday got me re-thinking and remembering the significance of work in God's plan for the world. Again, I was reminded that ministry is not something one does in the workplace or alongside work, but work is ministry. How transforming this is! My work, as work, is also God's work if I do it remembering HIm and depending upon Him. Work, as work, is worship.

A life centred on Christ expresses itself in many different ways. I pray, read the Bible, spend time with my family, serve my local neighbourhood, fellowship with believers and work. All these are valid and good ways of serving God and all of these honour Christ. Christ is in all of these things and all of them are necessary, and they all have different functions. This saves me from thinking the following: "Christ is in my quiet time or at church, but when I go to work... well, this is stuff I have to do to pay the bills but it doesn't really have anything to do with Jesus. The best I can do is to tell my colleagues about Jesus... and perhaps earn some money to give away to church." I haven't wasted my day working, nor I have done something 'secular' - rather I have worshiped Christ by doing my job well and under His Lordship. I have been in God's ministry while I have been at work, I have fulfilled God's purpose for me as a steward of His world, I have (hopefully!) served my fellow man and done good. How liberating this is!

Saturday, 1 September 2007


I read a stimulating book by Miroslav Volf (American theologian at Yale Univeristy) called "Free of charge: giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace". Here are some highlights.

"If I were to say that today everything is solid and nothing is given, that would be an exaggeration. But like any good caricature, it distorts reality in order to draw attention to what is characteristic. Mainly, we're set up to sell and buy, not to give and receive. We tend to give nothing free of charge and receive nothing free of charge: "The person who volunteers time, who helps a stranger, who agrees to work for a moderate wage out of commitment to the public good, who desists from littering even when no one is looking...begins to feel like a sucker" (p.14)

"Far too often power - not fairness and certainly not generosity - is the name of the game. We assert ourselves and our own interests through raw physical strength, political connections, or loads of cash..." (p.14)

"Yet Jesus taught that is is more blessed to give than receive (Acts 20:35), and part of growing up is learning the art of giving. If we fail to learn this art, we will live unfulfilled lives." (p.17)

"To give to God is to take from God's right hand and put that very thing back into God's left hand." (p.33)

"We live, not so much on a borrowed, but on a given breath. We work, we create, we give, but the very ability and willingness to work, along with life itself, are gifts from God." (p. 34)

"God gives so that we can help others exist and flourish as well. God's gifts aim at making us into generous givers, not just fortunate receivers. God gives so that we, in human measure, can be givers too." (p.47)

Friday, 31 August 2007

Looking good this summer?

1 Peter 5: 5 "Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."

In a society obsessed with appearance and with our own egos so preoccupied with how we look, this verse is very striking. What is proper Christian adornment? Simply character, particularly humility. I am to put on virtue rather than trendy clothes, hold up a mirror to my soul rather than to my face, to beautify my character rather than my appearance. I am to live inside-out. Now, I guess this can sound a little trite in some ways, but when you really think about it, it is very powerful stuff because it brings a completely different orientation to our lives. If we were to spend more time gazing at our souls rather than shop windows, and to spend more mental energy focused on extending our character rather than our wardrobe, surely big changes would come about in our lives. We might even suggest that our focus on clothes and fashion is not just idolatrous, but an attempt to cover over moral bankruptcy - we are perhaps clothing our moral nakedness with fashion. It's not just an over-preoccupation, but a diversion. It is, after all, easier to buy a FCUK t shirt than it is to 'wear' humility or love. You can't buy character.

And the warning/promise at the end of the verse makes it all very serious. If my adornment is pride then I can be sure that God will oppose me - surely a frightening thought. But if I am humble I can depend upon a wonderful promise - the grace of God.

Thursday, 30 August 2007


I read CJ Mahaney's book "Humility: True Greatness" this summer. Here are his list of suggestions for inculcating true humility.

1. Reflect on the wonder of the cross
2.Begin your day by acknowledging your dependence upon God and your need of God.
3. Begin your day by expressing gratitude to God.
4. Practice the spiritual disciplines.
5. Seize your commute time to memorize and meditate on Scripture.
6. Cast your cares upon him (anxiety is rooted in pride).
7. At the end of the day transfer all glory to God.
8. Receive the gift of sleep from God and acknowledge your need and His purpose in it. (ie you are a dependent, created being)
9. Study who God is.
10. Study the doctrine of grace.
11. STudy the doctrine of sin.
12. Play golf as much as possible.
13. Laugh often, and laugh often at yourself
14. Identify evidences of grace in others.
15. Encourage and serve others.
16. Invite and pursue correction.
17. Respond humbly to trials.

Spurgeon on how great God is

Muslims say "God is great", but I reckon they should read some Spurgeon on what the greatness of God really means....

"His mercy is so great that it forgives great sins to great sinners, after great lengths of time, and then gives great favours and great privileges, and raises us up to great enjoyments in the great haven of the great God."

Monday, 27 August 2007


I'm now back after a long, restful and stimulating holiday!

Wednesday, 18 July 2007


Having just read through the familiar story of Samson (Judges 13-16) I was once more struck by how you can have power without character. Again and again, Samson does tremendous things, powerful things and yet throughout he is characterized by presumption, pride, lust, violence and a vengeful spirit. The Spirit of the LORD comes upon him and yet he is at last trapped by his own sin and foolishness, dying tragically. He is, above all, a man of great strength who is profoundly weak in godliness. I'm reminded by something that Jonathan Edwards said about how there is a difference between the Spirit of God working upon a person and the Spirit working in someone. The Spirit can empower or work through someone without imparting Himself to that person. This is the difference between power and regeneration-sanctification.

Whenever you get talks on leadership they are always about the great heroes/examples from the Bible. But I just wonder whether we need the example of Samson even more - to scare us a bit! The danger of being used by God and experiencing the working of your spiritual gift is that you can think that that power is sanctification. You can start to feel that the work of the Spirit through you is the same as the work of the Spirit in you. There is something very alluring about the praise of people and the feeling that you are impacting people's lives. But what a sad thing it is to win others to Christ and yet lose yourself. Leaders need to be, above all, repenting and praying and seeking the gospel in their own lives. They need to be seeking holiness for themselves before the holiness of others. This is where true greatness lies - in finding oneself in Christ and not in "the ministry." I'm gonna try to hold Samson in front of myself for the next few weeks so that I won't be tempted to go down the wrong path.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Engaging in politics

I was involved in a panel discussion after church on Sunday on politics. It was great to learn from others and to be forced to think more deeply about this. Here are a few principles I came away with.

1. All life is politics - from the details to the official world of Politics. Everything we do in life is political and involves the distribution of power and the administration of the social good. There are no purely individual actions in that everything we do has an impact upon others. We need to see all actions as political. The key issue is to be conscious of what we are doing and as involved as we can be.

2. This general observation is also confirmed by the way the Bible speaks on politics. There was no distinction in the ancient world between 'politics and religion'. And if you look closely, loads of the NT's vocabulary is deeply political. That is, Jesus has a kingdom that is re-ordering the world according to His purposes and challenging the present powers that be. It's not that Christians care about 'spiritual things' and not politics, but that they construe politics in a different way. They have a different identity. Imagine a political journalist in conversation with the Christian community in Acts 2.

"What are you - socialist?"
"Are you, then, an anarchist commune?"
"Well, are you basically rich benefactors giving to the poor?"
"Well, what are you then?"
"We're Christians."

It just doesn't fit any label.

3. The gospel subverts every party political label. We can not be beholden to one manifesto or agenda. Of course, those involved in the official world of Politics must choose who to be involved in and where to locate themselves. And we must also vote for someone (or at least choose not to vote). Yet we should also frequently find that, if we are being faithful to Christ, we will not unoften find ourselves alienated from the party we 'support' (we are aliens and strangers in this world).

4. There are 2 errors - to have too much faith in our ability to order the world or to withdraw from involvement. Our problem in the UK is most likely the second one. So, we must leanr how to be more involved in our world, to do good and to serve.