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)