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.