Saturday, 26 January 2008

CS Lewis - the Great Divorce (Part II)

CS Lewis's "The Great Divorce" has an amazing picture of heaven (new creation). It grasps the world to come with poetry and story, and not simply abstract concepts. Surely this is a good lesson for all our theology!

"I had the sense of being in a larger space, perhaps even a larger sort of space, than I had ever known before: as if the sky were further off and the extent of the green plain wider than they could be on this little ball of earth. I had got 'out' in some sense which made the Solar System itself seem an indoor affair. It gave me a feeling of freedom, but also of exposure, possibly of danger, which continued to accompany me through all that followed." (p.20)

"It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison..." (p.21)

"...all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it [Hell] contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good." (p.138)

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Is it OK for middle class Christians to employ cleaners?!!!

I had a chat with a friend about this today and thought I'd be put down some thoughts. Here are the main issues:


Humility - it is good for me to clean my own toilet as it grounds me and reminds me of who I really I am. I am just an ordinary man no more special than anyone else. The danger is that I outsource something that actually does my pride a lot of good. It can easily reinforce social pride and self-importance in me. I think one of the most important things I do as a pastor is to clean the toilets of the church I work in. It gives me an (often undesired) object lesson in servanthood and 'washing feet'.

Time - on the one hand it gives me more time for other more important things and priorities, but, on the other, perhaps I am trying to do too many things. If I am too busy to clean up after myself then perhaps I am too busy?


Justice - employing a cleaner may be exploitative and perpetuate someone's low-wages (and implicitly reinforce ethnic divisions as most cleaners have a non-British ethnic origin). This, however, is easily remedied by giving someone a decent, just wage which they can live off and will, of course, give someone employment. That's got to be a great thing and a good opportunity for a Christian.

Money - one might object to it on the issue of money - couldn't money be better used elsewhere? But, in addition to point 3 above, that is the case with anything I do. We spend our money on lots of different things and it is the overall use of money and my total budget that is the issue, not one thing that someone determines to be 'inappropriate'.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Obedience and identity

I always act on the basis of who I am. Who I perceive myself to be has massive repercussions upon how I behave and what my attitudes/motivations are. This seems to be the basis of Paul's exhortations towards holiness. As scholars have noted, the imperative in Paul's letters is always based on the indicative. He always exhorts us on the basis of who we are and what we have become in Christ. Our actions naturally flow out of our core identity and how we view ourselves. Change and sanctification are therefore strongly connected with a transformation in our identity. As our identity changes so we change. It is vital that I get to see who I am in Christ and what I have in Christ, for this is the basis of me being transformed.

Thankfully, Paul also gives us a worked-out example of this in 1 Cor 6:12-20, where he is dealing with sexual immorality. In confronting the immorality, he calls the Corinthians to understand who they really are and what they have become. They are now "in Christ" and so for them to sleep with a (shrine) prostitute is to unite Christ with a prostitute. The thought of that, a very powerful image, makes us aware of what sin really is when you belong to Christ. We are alive to God so why do we offer ourselves to sin? So, the basis of change here is not simply knowing that it's wrong and against God's will, nor feeling bad about it, but seeing yourself in the light of Christ. This example can be extended to lots of areas of life. In each and every situation I need to think "I'm in Christ, I belong to Him and enjoy all His benefits, so what is the natural thing to do here??" It is about looking at every situation from the vantage point of Christ.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Our responsibility to do ministries of practical mercy

The Bible makes very clear that compassion for the poor is a required fruit of regeneration, both individually and corporately. A lack of compassion for the poor may well indicate that one does not know Christ or that a church is spiritually dead (James 2:14-17, 1 John 3:16-18). Other Scriptures make clear that failure to help the poor will result in judgement and cursing (Prov 21:13, 28:27). It is striking that Sodom’s sin is identified in Ezek 16:49 with a failure to help the poor. Thus, how we deal with the poor will reveal the true nature of our relationship with Christ on the last day (Matt 25:31-46).

The issue is not simply one of compassion, but also of justice. Here I am noting the very strong link between justice and concern for the marginalized in the Bible. Not least, this is grounded in the character of God Himself (Jer 9:23-24, Ps 146:5-10). Righteousness itself is defined in close connection with doing social justice (Ezek 18:1-18, Prov 29:7). The task is, therefore, not simply to take pity, but to demonstrate social justice in our relationships (i.e. limitation on economic inequalities, fair play, no favourtism to the rich/powerful). Doing mercy and justice is thus an end in and of itself and not merely a means to something else (i.e. evangelism).

We must also consider the Kingdom to come. The future salvation we are expecting is a physical new creation of shalom and social justice, ruled by King Jesus (Ps 72:1-4, Isa 11:1-10). This future world is breaking through into our world now through the church and is transforming the way we live, look at our possessions and do justice (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37).

Lastly, our responsibility is not simply local, but global. This kind of global responsibility is clearly shown amongst the first churches (e.g. 2 Cor 8-9), and we already acknowledge our global responsibility in terms of evangelistic proclamation. Further, we already enjoy the fruits of globalization in terms of our own possessions (made very cheaply somewhere else); should we also not take responsibility for the means by which those possessions come to us? If a benefit comes to me at the expense of injustice to someone else, that is clearly ethically relevant for me as a Christian.

" 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, Tenth Presbyterian Church)

“Where have we any command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms and in more peremptory urgent manner than the command of giving to the poor?....I know scarce any duty which is so much insisted on, so pressed and urged upon us, both in the Old Testament and New, as this duty of charity to the poor.” (Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Christian Charity, Section I)

Look below for answers to the objections.....

Objections to Ministries of practical mercy (3)

Objection: “Given that the Bible does command deeds of care and compassion for the poor, the poor spoken of here are within the covenant community. So we must not allow our evangelistic responsibility towards outsiders to be deflected by engagement with their practical needs.


1. The prioritization of the poor in our own family is a good Biblical principle outlined in the New Testament (Gal 6:10, 1 Thess 3:12). However, we should not take this as a de-limiting of our compassion. We do not usually take the need to provide for our own biological family to mean that we do not care about anyone outside of our own family. This issue has to be viewed in light of the broader injunction to love our neighbour (and we know the great error of wanting to define our neighbour too closely! (Luke 10:25-37)). To push it even further, what does it mean to love our enemy?!! This clearly moves beyond the bounds of our church community. Finally, we might remember how the “alien and stranger” are also to be included in the compassion of the church (Lev 19:33-34, 23:22; Matt 25:31-46).

2. Because God is Creator and Judge, He is concerned about justice for the whole world. Our God is a God who sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt 5:45). We can hardly say, doctrinally, that God does not care about unrighteousness and injustice simply because it is happening outside the church! And how weird it would be to think of a Christian living without regard to righteousness just because he is amongst unbelievers?

3. Well, even if we accept this point, there are enough poor Christians in the world to keep us busy for many centuries. The average Anglican is an African female who lives on less than $2 a day and is related to someone with HIV. What do I think the Lord Jesus will say to me on the last day when I stand before Him, next to my African sister? If we have shown no concern, what will He say about my wealth versus her poverty on that last day? Thus, an obvious rejoinder to the objection mentioned above is: well, what am I doing for my poor Christian brothers and sisters?

4. Evangelical church history is awash with men and women who have campaigned for justice for all regardless of their spiritual status (can we imagine Wilberforce only campaigning for the release of slaves who acknowledged Christ?!!). It is part of the glory of church history that we are a group who do not simply look after our own.

Objections to Ministries of practical mercy (2)

Objection:“Engaging with the poor will drain the church of its resources and try to fill a black-hole of need that can never be filled until the future kingdom.”


1. Any strategy, ministry or action has the potential to drain the church’s resources if handled unwisely, so this is simply an issue of wisdom whereby we use all our resources to do everything God has commanded us to do. Ironically, is not evangelism itself a ‘black-hole of need that can never be filled until the future kingdom’? We would not see this as a reason not to do it!

2. One could take an opposite viewpoint; that is, that we lack resources because we do not engage with the poor. Isaiah 58 outlines the hypocritical religiosity of Israel, who come to worship but who do nothing about injustice and the suffering of those around them. The condition for renewal, blessing and prosperity in that passage is a repentance from this indifference and social sin (see also Deut 15:7-11). My personal experience of running a homeless shelter in my last church showed me that more resources (financial and human) become available when you try to start something along those lines.

3. The mere fact that we can not do everything, does not mean that we do nothing. The very fact that the future kingdom will be a kingdom of justice and goodness, which is breaking through already in the church, should inspire us to reflect it in our lives now.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Objections to Ministries of practical mercy (1)

Objection: “We must prioritize that which is most important - evangelism - because feeding people’s bodies will not save them from the wrath of God.”


1. Life is full of different priorities, some immediate and pressing, some less important but still significant. But the fact is that we normally manage to negotiate all these different priorities without setting them up against one another. For example, is it more important to praise Christ or to feed myself? If I saw these as a constant choice at every point in my life I would become pretty thin. How about reading my Bible or caring for my wife, or prayer vs. evangelism? We recognize that there are many things that need to be done and that the most important does not cancel out all the rest. We must be careful not to polarize alternatives all the time so that we start cancelling out some of God's commands with other ones.

2. Christians go out to restaurants, re-decorate their houses and use their resources for all kinds of things that are not evangelistic. We take our own bodies and comfort very seriously. We are not officially ascetics or dualists who see physical creation as bad, and so we do not condemn the appropriate use of these things. Given that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves, can we not at least do the same for the people around us as we do for ourselves? Why would we ever consider treating someone according to ascetic principles when we do not do that for ourselves?! The objection above (which I confess to having used myself before!) can easily lead to a hypocritical distinction between the way I treat myself and the way I treat others.

3. This is a case of systematic theological thinking that has lost touch with the Scriptures, which explicitly command us to help the poor. We must be very careful not to pit God’s commandments against each other so that we start canceling some of them out with other ones. To use a point from Tim Keller, we don’t say that we have the capability to do only 8 out of the 10 commandments this year because we need to prioritize! Rather, we try to do all of them with the resources and time that we have.

4. But, how about Acts 6:1-6? This is a much-used passage on this topic. Firstly, these decisions are particular, individual ministerial decisions, and not decisions for the whole church. This is an issue of gifting and calling of certain members within the church, but it does not remove mercy ministry from the overall ministry of the church as a whole. Secondly, we should not miss the obvious - that ministries of mercy were already taking place (already implied in 2:42-47 and 4:32-37)! Thirdly, the apostolic decision was not to cancel the ministries, but rather to strengthen them (!) by calling men who were extremely capable, mature and gifted (note that Philip was a gifted evangelist!). Fourthly, it is interesting to read Acts 6:1-6 with 1 Tim 5:3-16 and 2 Cor 9 in mind. Here we see Paul (and Timothy) taking a very active role in the organization of mercy ministry in the churches, nuancing the way we might read Acts 6:1-6.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

CS Lewis - the Great Divorce (Part I)

Another great book I read (or re-read) over Christmas was "The Great Divorce" by CS Lewis. This is a really interesting view of the after-life and what it is like. It's not meant as a systematically correct understanding of the life beyond death but it is very though-provoking. It's basically the (imagined!) experience of a man who sees both heaven and hell after death and how they operate. Both are presented in very striking ways.

A qualification first: though I love this book in lots of ways there are a few things about it which are left very unclear. For example, Lewis views Hell (and Heaven) very much as an extension of individuals' personal choices into all eternity. This is very insightful on many levels, but it's inadequate if made into the central principle for understanding heaven or hell. The danger is that God's grace and judgement disappear into a karma-like after-life, where my destiny hangs more upon my good or bad choices rather than upon God. A further problem is the tendency towards a Platonic view of the afterlife where the notion of resurrection on a renewed earth is marginalized.

That said, I think there is much here that is very thought-provoking. Heaven and Hell are basically seen as the ultimate extensions of life in this world. Both echo this world but in opposite ways. Lewis's narration starts with his character in Hell. It is strikingly described as a kind of empty, dark and formless town where people live, "the grey town" (p.8). It is a huge, shadowy, dark place - and seems very deserted, "the parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?...." He is told, " "Not at all", said my neighbour. "The trouble is that they're so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he's been there twenty-four hours he quarrel with his neighbour." (p.10)The 'town' is so big because people cannot get on with each other. They quarrel with neighbours as soon they move in. Everyone is trying to get away from everyone else and so they move away from one another. Thus, the 'city' is always expanding but feels increasingly empty because everyone is trying to get away from everyone else. This town is not a place of gathering, rather it is an incredibly lonely place. Lewis gives us a depiction of individuals who are totally self-absorbed and foolish, unable to form relationships but constantly seeking to dominate one another. The irony of the place is that "they have no Needs. You get everything you want (not very good quality, of course) by just imagining it." Hell, counter-intuitively, actually brings the satisfaction of of our desires in a way that never really satisifes. We get what we want but find that it was never what we wanted. The essence of Hell is made clear as the book goes on. Hell is really an insubstantial place, incredibly small (though it seems big when you are there), dark and self-absorbed. Some of the characters from Hell get, in the story, to 'visit' heaven and they find as they get there that they can't walk on the grass and the lightest stone weighs tonnes for them. They are simply too insubstantial, "one had the feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew stronger." (p.17) Above all, Hell is depicted by Lewis as cursed and nightmarish, but the nightmare is a self-imposed, self-centred prison. Evil essentially makes people mundane, irrelevant and ghost-like.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Conflict in Christ

How are Christians to deal with conflict and disagreement with each other? Well, the category of being "in Christ" has got to be the starting point for any dealing with this problem. It is fascinating to see how Paul continually describes other believers as being "in Christ". For example, look at Rom 16:2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11b, 12, 22. Also striking is how Paul asks Euodia and Syntyche "to agree with each other in the Lord" (Phil 4:2). Being "in Christ" is the framework or atmosphere in which we are to view each other as Christians, and we need to particularly hold onto this in the midst of conflict. What implications does this have? Well it means that in speaking truth to one another and sorting through an issue...

1. I cannot distance myself from you as if you are a thing or an object because we are united in Christ. Whatever issue divides us, it is smaller than Christ.
2. When I look at you I must remember that I am dealing with a member of Christ, yes even Christ himself. When I wound/lie to/manipulate/rage at/hate you, I am doing all these things to the body of Christ.
3. All Christ's promises are as true for you as they are for me.
4. The Cross saves you as much as it saves me.
5. When I speak truth, righteousness and goodness, I am honouring Christ in you.
6. When I am cowardly before you or avoid confronting your sin I dishonour Christ in you.

The point is: being in Christ does not mean that we stop having conflict or diasgreeing with one another. It does not mean that we avoid open and truthful discussion. Nor does it mean that visible, immediate harmony is the ultimate goal. But, rather, it means that we handle these issues in a unique way amongst ourselves. We remember that we are "in Christ" right now and that sets the parameters for how we deal with the conflict. Look here for an excellent article on creating healthy peace within the church community.

In Christ (Part II)

More things that I have in Christ....

I am an heir of God (Rom 8:17)
I have been crucified (Gal 2:20)
I have been clothed (Gal 3:27)
I have been made alive (Eph 2:5)
I have died to the world (Col 2:20)
I am bearing spiritual fruit (Phil 1:11)
I will reign with Him (Rev 20:4)
I have Life and Light (Jn 1:4)
I have hope (1 Thess 1:3)
My spiritual thirst and hunger are quenched (Jn 6:35)
I have the words of eternal life (Jn 6:68)
I know the Way and I have the Truth (Jn 14:6)
I have the promise of answered prayer (Jn 14:14)
I have the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:16-17)
I have the Father (Jn 14:20)
I am continually given life and strength (Jn 15:5)
I am hated by the world (Jn 15:19)
I have joy (Jn 16:22)
I have power to endure hardship (Phil 4:13)
I belong to the line of Abraham (Gal 3:29)
I have died to the law (Rom 7:6)
I share in his sufferings (Phil 3:10)
I have Wisdom (1 Cor 1:30)
I have gifts from God (Eph 4:7)

"There is enough grace, mercy and pardon in one of God's promises for the sins of millions of worlds, if they existed, because the promise is supplied from an infinite, bottomless reservoir." (p. 62, Communion with God, John Owen (Banner of Truth ed.))

Tuesday, 15 January 2008


I just read through CS Lewis's "A Grief Observed" this Christmas and was quite struck by Lewis's quite profound wrestling with grief and doubt at the death of his wife. The book has a rigorous honesty and language we sometimes find hard to appropriate. It is basically a modern lament psalm moving through the familiar psalmic structure of pain-doubt-faith in God.

The omnipresent effect of death..... "if one were forbidden all salt one wouldn't notice much more in any one food than in another. Eating in general would be different, every day, at every meal. It is like that. The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything." (p.11)

The emptiness after death.... "I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn?" (p.15)

The finality of death..."What pitiable cant to say, "She will live forever in my memory!" Live? That is exactly what she won't do. You might as well think like the old Egyptians that you can keep the dead by embalming them." (p.20)

The challenge of death..."You never really know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn't you then discover how much you really trusted it?" (p.22)

Does the gospel comfort in the face of death? ..."What St Paul says can comfort only those who love God better than the dead, and the dead better than themselves." (p.26)

Death and marriage..."bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but its next figure." (p.50)

The imapct of death upon our images of God..."Images of the Holy easily become holy images - sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are 'offended' by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not." (p.66)

Monday, 14 January 2008

in Christ

Being rather forgetful and foolish, I thought I'd make a list to remind myself regularly of what I have in Christ. This is the bare minimum of what the Bible says.

I am dead to sin (Rom 6:1f)
I am alive to God (Rom 6:11)
I have eternal life (Rom 6:23)
I have no condemnation (Rom 8:1)
I cannot be separated from the love of God (Rom 8:39)
I belong to God's community (Rom 12:15)
I am sanctified (1 Cor 1:2)
I have received grace (1 Cor 1:4)
I have the sure hope of resurrection (1 Cor 15:22)
All of God's promises are Yes to me (2 Cor 1:20)
His victory is mine (2 Cor 2:14)
I am a new creation (2 Cor 5:17)
I am reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:19)
I am free (Gal 2:4)
I am justified (Gal 2:16)
I am a son of God (Gal 3:26)
I am one with my brothers and sisters (Gal 3:28)
(Eph 1:1-14)
I have every spiritual blessing
I am chosen
I am adopted
I am redeemed
I am predestined
I am raised and seated in the heavenly realms(Eph 2:6)
I am created for good works (Eph 2:10)
I inherit all the promises of the OT (Eph 2:13)
I am forgiven (Eph 4:32)
I have a righteousness from God (Phil 3:9)
I have a heavenly prize (Phil 3:14)
I have peace (Phil 4:7)
I have glorious riches (Phil 4:19)
I have fullness (Col 2:10)
I have a promise of life (2 Tim 1:1)
I have salvation (2 Tim 3:15)
I am called to eternal glory (1 Pet 5:10)

Every sin means simply to step outside of these things as if I did not know that I had Christ, and every obedient act flows naturally from knowing Christ and all that He is for me.