Monday, 25 June 2007

Martin Luther on faith

If anyone knows how to tell us what faith is, it's Luther. This is from his introduction to his commentary on Romans.

"Faith is not what some people think it is. Their human dream is a delusion. Because they observe that faith is not followed by good works or a better life, they fall into error, even though they speak and hear much about faith. ``Faith is not enough,'' they say, ``You must do good works, you must be pious to be saved.'' They think that, when you hear the gospel, you start working, creating by your own strength a thankful heart which says, ``I believe.'' That is what they think true faith is. But, because this is a human idea, a dream, the heart never learns anything from it, so it does nothing and reform doesn't come from this `faith,' either. Instead, faith is God's work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn't stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. He stumbles around and looks for faith and good works, even though he does not know what faith or good works are. Yet he gossips and chatters about faith and good works with many words. Faith is a living, bold trust in God's grace, so certain of God's favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire! Therefore, watch out for your own false ideas and guard against good-for-nothing gossips, who think they're smart enough to define faith and works, but really are the greatest of fools. Ask God to work faith in you, or you will remain forever without faith, no matter what you wish, say or can do. " (my italics)

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Control freaks

Some key gospel principles for those of us who like to be in control of life and our environment.

1. I need to know that I cannot control things - I don’t have the power, authority nor do I have the ability to do it. In trying to control everything I am trying to be like God.

2. The Lord controls all things and He providentially cares for me - my life is not in my hands, but His hands. Every situation and event in my daily life is given to me by Him.

3. The gospel is all about me giving up control and losing my life that I might gain it. Faith implies self-emptying and giving control to Him that I might find peace.

4. Anger/frustration with others is a problem for controlling people. I need to remind myself though that people have their own mind and wills, and they will cross me! That is a normal part of life and should not lead to anger. Allowing people to ‘invade’ my space, change my routines, ‘control’ my actions is part of what love, grace and humility are all about.

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Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Justice for Israel 2

My last post on Israel generated some debate. Let me put down a few reasons in favour of a bias towards the Palestinians.

1. The Palestinian territories are occupied by a foreign power. They are not part of the original borders of Israel and resolution 242 from the UN condemns their occupation.

2. The territories have been colonized by Jewish settlers and dismembered into different zones, making any Palestinian state a collection of fragmented islands - a parody of what they should have. Colonization of territory occupied in war is against international law. The building of the separation wall is further de-humanizing Palestinians by forcing them into ghettos and unilaterally annexing territory (

3. The difference between the suffering of the Israelis and the Palestinians is totally disproportionate. For example, according to B'Tselem (Israeli human rights watchdog), there have been approx 4000 Palestinian deaths since the beginning of the recent intifada and approx 500 Israeli deaths. All the power lays with Israel (backed by the US).

4. Israel does not follow standards of international law/justice in its treatment of the Palestinians. For example, one can look at its treatment of 'terrorists' (i.e. revenge executions, bulldozing of houses, civilians as 'collateral damage', use of torture). In what sense can Israelis call Hamas 'terrorists', when it treats them in the same way you might treat a foreign army?

5. Israel uses the violence and targetting of Israeli civilians by Paletinian groups as a justification for its actions. Yet, this is a separate issue. Justice for the Palestinians is not an optional extra but an ethical imperative. While such violence is evil and unjustifiable, it does not justify Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, nor their occupation of the territories. The same goes for the corruption/misuse of power associated with the Palestinian authority.

Lots more could be said, but this is a taster.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Where is Jesus?

The NT makes clear that Jesus is exalted in heaven, at the right hand of the Father. This is the whole point of the ascension. On the other hand, Jesus is in me by the Holy Spirit. He dwells in me as a living temple. Now this two-fold perspective is very important. On the one hand Jesus is outside of me, exalted, reigning above every power and supreme. On the other hand, He communicates Himself to me, dwells with me and imparts all His benefits to me. If we rupture that two-fold perspective we will end up with a wrong view of Jesus - Lord but not Pastor or Pastor but not Lord. We need both - Someone who I can worship and fall down before and Someone who will lead me beside quiet waters and restore my soul. I need Jesus outside of me and Jesus inside of me.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Holy Spirit and Experience 2

In a seminar I did on Saturday I made 3 basic points about the role of experience in our walk with God.

1. Experience is part and parcel of our walk with God. Our knowledge of Him is not merely conceptual (though all knowledge involves that) but is personal, real and living. We know Him as living Presence in our lives e.g. Ps 27, Ps 63, Eph 3:14-19.

There are, though, some qualifications here. Firstly, experience is not an end, but a by-product of our relationship with God. Secondly, experiences are always unstable and go up and down - and experiences of God's absence can also be given by God. Thirdly, experiences can be deceptive - we may be growing far more when we feel 'cold' and less when we are 'warm'.

2. Experience means gaining a deeper realization about who God is and the gospel. It is these things becoming more real to me so that they change me and transform me. It is about not just knowing about honey as food, but actually tasting honey. Eph 1:15-21 is very helpful here as Paul prays for the Spirit of wisdom and revelation for the Ephesians. They are already CHristians but he prays that the Spirit would 'reveal' to them the greatness of the power of Christ (see also Eph 3:14-19). Here, we can distinguish between 'Revelation' (objective, historical) and 'revelation' (subjective, appropriation). The objective, historical needs to be appropriated, not simply understood conceptually, and this is the Spirit's work in me. Yet, experience cannot be disconnected from the the 'Revelation' - otherwise it's free-floating. Really, this is simply the doctrine of illumination. The Spirit is driving me to 'see' the wonder and glory of the gospel, not simply to know in an abstract way that is wonderful and glorious.

3. I suggested ways in which we can attain to a deeper experience of God.

Firstly, we need to keep the gospel of free grace first. Legalism destroys joy. We cannot hope to experience God while we are living out a kind of Christianized Islam. We need to know that we are "in Christ", and keep the gospel primary in our relationship with God.

Secondly, we need to re-orientate our prayer lives so that we are mainly seeking God, asking to know Him and not simply bringing petitions before Him.

Thirdly, we need to meditate on the Word. We need depth and a grasp of the implications of the gospel/Word. Breadth is not enough (though it is also important). The danger is that we simply becoming dictionaries of information and not living stones of a new temple. We need to learn to dig down and dig out the riches of God in the gospel and His word.

What we need most of all is not more experience, and certainly not less experience, but a deeper experience that goes beyond mere emotions and self-preoccupation. We need to seek Lord Jesus as the end of all things.

Culture and Worship

Here is a good article by John Piper on issues of style and language in corporate worship. Those who want to adhere to a strict 'regulative principle' may not like it but I think it's very good and is nicely balanced. It has applications beyond corporate worship to all forms of church life.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Holy Spirit and Experience

I'm doing a seminar this weekend on the Holy Spirit and experience. To what extent should we 'feel' anything as Christians? And what should we 'feel'? Here's a great quote from my hero John Newton (of Amazing Grace fame) who wonderfully speaks of his relationship with Christ....

“The love of God, as manifested in Jesus Christ, is what I would wish to be the abiding object of my contemplation; not merely to speculate upon it as a doctrine, but so to feel it, and my own interest in it, as to have my heart filled with its effects, and transformed into its resemblance; that with this glorious exemplar in my view, I may be animated to a spirit of benevolence, love and compassion to all around me…”

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Plummeting pigs...

I gave a talk on the Gerasene Demoniac last week (Luke 8:26-39 par) and came up against the issue of the pigs. AS always, the question is: what on earth are the pigs about? Here are my reflections...

1. The sending of the spirits into the pigs is a prophetic sign to teach a deeper truth.

2. The pigs are unclean animals and so there is a 'fit' between the unclean spirits and the animals.

3. The pigs are basically cash for any local farmers - it is their livelihood and sucha a huge number would be worth a lot. Jesus is showing what the man is worth. A man's life is worth much more than local business... The locals would perhaps want Jesus to drive this 'cursed' man into the sea in judgment but Jesus, by way of contrast, has come to redeem him.

4. The name "Legion" can not be accidental and echoes the Roman Legions occupying Israel. Many Jews would want to drive the Roman Legions into the sea, but Jesus is showing what the real occupying legions are: the forces of the evil. Jesus has come to drive these legions into the sea. This is the thing that we really need deliverance from.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Justice in Israel?

I've just been away in Israel for 10 days (it was my second time there). And, again, I was very challenged by the whole political situation there. What does it really mean to seek justice in that situation? Often as Christians we seek neutrality. We wash our hands of politics, fearful of allying the gospel to a particular view. I think this makes sense with many issues - liberty of conscience is a valuable thing. And we see through a glass darkly - it is good to be humble. Yet, there come moments when to be 'neutral' is to be injust. There are situations where not to act/protest is fundamentally immoral. The God of the Bible is not a 'neutral' God, and justice in the Bible does not mean detachment but involvement and partiality. The God of justice is the God who intervenes on behalf of righteousness and the powerless/oppressed.

When it comes to Israel, I am, of course, a foreigner but that does not mean I can just exclude myself (nor be excluded) from basic moral questions. At some point we have to relate to the realities there e.g. even using the term 'Israel' implies acceptance of al kinds of issues that are controverted in the Middle East. The issues in the Middle East affect everyone. Therefore, I think we as Christians need to be fighting for justice for the Palestinians - who are basically an occupied and oppressed people. We need to take their side as people who have been wronged. Do I think the Palestinians are sinless? Absolutely not! Do I think the violence/murders perpetrated by Palestinian groups are OK? Absolutely not! Do I think the Palestinian Authority is corruption-free and democratic? Absolutely not! BUT, the Palestinian people have been fundamentally wronged and are fundamentally mistreated. The Israeli state has ironically made security its national idol, at the same time as its actions undermine its long-term security. If it would seek justice, it would get security thrown in. How we must pray that the Palestinians and Israelis might live together in peace!