The book of the dead and the absence of grace
Both Christopher and I have recently taken our wives on hot dates to go and see dead girls – not as odd as it sounds, I'm talking about the Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum. It's almost over (sadly) and there are no more tickets on sale (although there is a free iPhone app which is pretty neat). It's a very well thought out exhibition; well narrated and incredibly informative – and all stuff from Bible times and, sometimes, directly applicable to Bible people.
But, independently, what struck us both was the moment of judgement when the heart of the dead man or woman is weighed in the balance. In particular:
- it's a deceptive process. The Book of the Dead inherently recognises that the heart will not pass the test. The weighing is not good vs bad with the victor the one whose heart weighs more good than bad. The weighing is more accurately a measuring against the measure of absolute truth and justice (represented by a feather in this picture). No less than perfect will do. So, the Book of the Dead provides spells which the dead person can use to fool the gods into thinking the heart is purer than it really is. There's a lot that's biblical about that in an unintentional way. Unlike the thinking of some religious optimists, judgement is not a good vs bad weigh-up. It's a measure up against an impossible standard. But it's sadly unbiblical too – there's no spell will get us past our creator Judge.
- it's a graceless process. There's no grace. Period. It's alarmingly numbing. I looked at the beautiful pictures which the curator told me through headphones were beautifully drawn etc. But it's bleak. Thank God for Jesus and thank God for grace.
London Preachers Day: Saturday 5th March
There's still time to book up for our London Preachers Day this Saturday. Focused towards the ministry of occasional or lay preachers, we've already run this day in Bath and Colchester (above) where it has been very well received. It's a low cost, high impact training day here at our offices in Willcox House. You can book online here.
Vaughan and Adrian at The Preachers Weekend
We've just had our Preachers Weekend where Vaughan Roberts and I each spent a day taking delegates (occasional preachers and teachers) through their prep on two passages then preached those sermons before doing some work together on what worked and what didn't. It worked really well as an approach and we thought you might like to see the two example sermons from our guys. Neither was the finished article, but they give some idea of what we got up to.
Rubbish Sitcoms and Easy Sin
Mrs R and I have just finished watching BBC's new sitcom made by the creator of Friends. It's called Episodes and it's been showing on BBC Two on Monday evenings. It had one or two funny moments, but on the whole it's fairly crude with far too much bad language. Don't know if there's going to be a second series, but I don't think we'll be watching. However, it did teach me something.
Although supposedly happily married, the characters played by Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan are easily tempted. In fact, Tamsin Greig ends up having a one night stand with the character played by Matt Leblanc. It's all very sad and casual. But here's what I learnt – marital unfaithfulness is an easy path. Those of us who are in ministry must never think it could never happen to us and we must be very careful of ourselves.
In particular, we must not underestimate the sexual allure of leadership to others. I remember a fat ugly pastor once telling me that though he was the ugliest pastor in the world, women still found him attractive because he was at the front. I concur – there's truth in that bald statement (take it from a fat ugly pastor). Sin is crouching at our doors because of our sinful nature. Pray that God will give you strength to keep the door shut.
Faith and Obedience
At our preachers weekend conference this weekend just past, I picked up a copy of the tribute book for John Piper: For the fame of God's name edited by Sam Storms and Justin Taylor. I'd held off getting this book for sometime because (a) it's not cheap and (b) being a good Brit, festschrifts make me feel a little uncomfortable, I just squirm in my seat a little. However, reading through the contents I realise that this is actually a series of essays on really important subjects, not least Wayne Grudem's contribution: "pleasing God in our obedience."
It seems to me that there is a great danger that we get so excited about grace that we completely misunderstand it. According to Ezekiel 36 the new covenant gives us hearts which delight to obey – this is grace at work, something that is echoed in Titus 2.12. It explaina why the New Testament is full of commands. These commands could be legalism or justification by works if taken in the wrong heart, but the regenerate heart where the Spirit is at work makes these commands part of our living for Christ.
Wayne Grudem explains this carefully and thoughtfully – as well as the reason why we don't talk enough about obedience:
I suspect the main reason for the neglect of this doctrine in evangelical circles today is that pastors and teachers and writers are afraid of compromising the great doctrine of justification by faith alone. If we can please God by works, doesn't that sound like justification by works? No, it does not, or else the New Testament authors would not put so much emphasis on telling Christians to please God by their obedience! The key to understanding this is to distinguish clearly between justification (on the one hand) and sanctification and our daily relationship to God as Christians (on the other hand).
Why Psalms are not like hymns
I have been reading Michael Lefebvre’s enormously stimulating book Singing the Songs of Jesus [Christian Focus, 2010]. It is full of thought-provoking and perceptive comment on the value of the Psalms and – in his well-argued view – why we ought to sing them as well as read and preach them.
In one chapter (chapter 5) he addresses one reason why we struggle to sing the Psalms, which is that we expect them to function pretty much like our hymns and songs. To do this, he argues, is like trying to hammer a screw into a piece of wood. Hymns and songs tend to be declaratory, giving us conclusive statements, typically of praise and affirmation of the greatness of God. But the Psalms do not function like this.
True, they often end with praise, and the whole Psalter is structured to end with a paean of praise. But the characteristic motion of the heart in the Psalms is not declaration but rather meditation. They force us to engage and feel the conflicting emotions, affections, perplexities and struggles of faith and in so doing, lead us finally to affirmation and praise. So, for example, ‘the Psalms are designed to help people who don’t always feel like praising begin by meditating on the mess the world is in, and only through a full and robust process of meditation, to come out with praise.’ Lefebvre argues that we ought not to jettison this often painful process of meditation and settle for the conclusion in our hymns and songs. So, he says, we need to sing the messiness of the Psalms. It will do us good. I agree.
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Tongue tied. No more.
I've just finished reading a book I really enjoyed. It's not a Christian book – it's a work of fiction, somewhat in the line of 1984, but lighter and more quirkier. It was funny and thought provoking (if you're interested it's called Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde). But here's the thing. Though I loved, and would love others to read it too, I'm a bit embarrassed about talking about it. After all, it's not a Trollope or a Henry James or anything classic. Because it's slightly unusual, I worry that as I try to explain a brief synopsis of the plot, I will get all my ideas twisted round and it will end up sounding like garbage or the least desireable read in the entire Universe. Better, I reason, not to put people off at all, I'll just keep quiet – even though deep down I wish and know that others would read it and share my enthusiasm. It's on Amazon, after all, so maybe people will just read it anyway and enjoy it and then get in contact. Then over a coffee we can talk about it without fear of embarrassment.
Hmm. That response sounds familiar.
This week I tried. I swallowed my pride and scaredy-cat-ness and told some others about the book. After all, they know me, don't they? They know what I'm like. They're not going to stop liking me because they don't like my book! Guess what? They listened. Someone even wrote down the title and said "I might get that." Someone else wanted to know more. Someone else wanted to borrow my copy.
You know where this is going don't you?
The key to a new world: Union with Christ
A few months back I had an email from a former Cornhill student saying that he was doing a talk on 'Union with Christ' and asking me to direct him to resources to help him. So I gave him a crash course in Union with Christ. Happily, (though sadly not in time for the former Cornhill student), Justin Taylor has done a much better crash course here, and I would commend it to all who read the PT blog.
We don't talk much these days about our union with Christ. And yet it is the key to a new world, the key that unlocks so much of the New Testament and what it means to be a Christian. One of the reasons we think so little about it is because in much of our evangelism we have got the direction lop-sided. We tell people that we need to invite Christ into our hearts. Whilst the New Testament does talk about the glorious reality of 'Christ in us' (Colossians 1:27), it seems to talk a great deal more about believers being 'in Christ', which is the New Testament's favourite description of the Christian. In other words, the direction is less getting Christ into me, and more about me getting out of Adam and into Christ. So take Justin's crash course. And delight in and preach our union with Christ!
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Don’t be afraid to preach to the affections
Don’t be afraid to preach the beauty of God
I am reading Tim Chester’s outstandingly helpful and important book on porn (Captured by a Better Vision). I am going to encourage every Cornhill student to buy and read it. Even if it is not a problem for them, it will most certainly be for people they are seeking to encourage and help.
I was struck yesterday by the following quotation, from a Christian who has struggled with porn:
Modern conservative evangelicalism fuels sex addiction because it has come to focus on the externals of religion, not the affections. By externals I mean such things as confessions, dogmas, personal priorities, church growth strategies, church attendance, training courses, evangelism, Bible study groups and son on: things that are visible in a believer’s life. By affections, I mean those things that cannot be heard or seen directly – fears, loves, joys, delights, hates, anxieties: the currents that swirl in the waters of a believer’s heart; the hidden desires that lie deep beneath our decisions… If we are going to help people struggling with sex addiction, we need to recognise that the manger in which their sin is cradled is not the intellect, but the heart, the seat of their desires. They therefore need something more than mere information: they need to be wooed by the true and pure lover that their heart secretly seeks. (pp74-6)
I suspect this speaker’s portrayal of conservative evangelicalism may be a bit jaded and one-sided, but I also suspect there is something important in what he says, and that it applies much more widely than just to sex addiction. One of the traditional markers of real evangelicalism is a concern with the heart rather than externals (as John Stott expounded in his magisterial older work Christ the Controversialist chapters 5 & 6). If we have drifted into emphasising externals (perhaps as an over-reaction to charismatic excess and error?), let us return to a healthy focus on the heart in our preaching.
One related problem I have noticed at Cornhill is that we tend to think of “application” rather narrowly, in terms of what I ought to do in response to the word of God. We must not forget that to be moved to wonder and adoration at the sheer beauty of God and of the gospel of the Lord Jesus is a deeply valid “application”.
Tim Chester is speaking on issues of the heart, with particular reference to pornography at the Spring Younger Ministers Conference. There are one or two places remaining. Also, look out for a future EMA on this important subject.
How attentive hearers assist loving preachers
Why do we find it easier to preach to eager hearers? We know from 2 Timothy 4:3,4 that often people will not endure healthy teaching. And it’s very hard to go on giving healthy teaching when people don’t want to hear it. But why is it hard? Is it just that we love the praise of men and we hope that their attentive listening during the preaching will translate into praise for us after the sermon? That would indeed be an ungodly motive. But that is not the only possible reason. In his wonderful little Treatise On the Catechising of the Uninstructed, Augustine says this:
A sense of weariness is … induced upon the speaker when he has a hearer who remains unmoved, either in that he is actually not stirred by any feeling, or in that he does not indicate by any motion of the body that he understands or that he is pleased with what is said. Not that it is a becoming disposition in us to be greedy of the praises of men, but that the things which we minister are of God; and the more we love those to whom we discourse, the more desirous are we that they should be pleased with the matters which are held forth for their salvation: so that if we do not succeed in this, we are pained, and we are weakened, and become broken-spirited in the midst of our course, as if we were wasting our efforts to no purpose.
We want our hearers to be instructed and moved by the gospel truths we preach, partly because we love them. We should pray that this motivation of love will sweep away the ungodly motive of wanting their praise.
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