The ambiguity of the world
There is a sense in which the world is unambiguous in its hostility to Christ. We should not be surprised at this, nor clutch at straws when people say that they do things out of some kind of loyalty to “god” (whoever he may be for them). No, confronted with Christ, he becomes a stumbling block to those refuse to believe.
Nevertheless, we also believe in common grace so that the world is not as bad as it could be and individuals, though steeped in sin which affects every part of them, sometimes do good things. God is good. Dealing with this ambiguity – seeing God working good in those who are not good in relation to them – is not always straightforward.
Broadly speaking, some of us are far too accommodating of such moral “niceness”. Others (and perhaps this is more likely to be an evangelical trait) are far too critical and dismissive. We struggle to hold, in other words, the tension between common grace and saving grace.
I was thinking about this as I watched the BBC adaptation of The Night Manager. It was a very classy affair, and at £3m an episode, deserved to be. But what struck me most was the happy ending – everything resolved cleanly. I like John le Carre books (from which this is adapted). And one of the things I like most is he manages to maintain something of this ambiguity – his books are very thoughtful. The original ending to The Night Manager was much less clean (and, ironically, more redemptive, as one person sacrificed career to save another’s life).
Perhaps it’s because evangelicals live in Hollywood land that we expect everything to be so black and white. At one (spiritual) level they are. You are saved or you are not. But at the moral level at which the world operates, because of common grace, things are a lot greyer. That may make you frustrated, but in the end it is a good thing, for a world without common grace would be desperate indeed.
I mentioned yesterday that Naselli’s conclusion to the Perspectives book on the extent of the atonement is first class. That warrants a bit more explanation. He tries to summarise the argument whilst clearly holding one of the views strongly himself. He has a list of ten warnings which are worth repeating. Some obviously require further explanation, but you’ll have to buy the book for that! These are listed as ten ways to create unhealthy schism over the extent of the atonement.
1. Uncharitably denigrating other positions
2. Setting up and tearing down straw men
3. Viewing other evangelical views as heresy
4. Insufficiently defining a personal position
5. Claiming that a personal view is the result of exegesis and biblical theology but not systematic theology (this one perhaps warrants further explanation; everyone, says Naselli, has a structure of systematic theology)
6. Overemphasising the importance of the atonement’s extent
7. Assuming that only non Calvinists can tell a non-Christian “Jesus died for you”
8. Requiring that others adhere to a particular view when flexibility is appropriate
9. Giving the impression that complete understanding is possible regarding the extent of the atonement.
10. Holding a personal position with sinful pride.
Many of these could equally be applied to some other secondary discussions!
Perspectives on the extentof the atonement – review
I’ve just finished reading the new Broadman and Holman book “Perspectives on the extent of the atonement; three views“. It’s one of those books where each person puts his view (definite, Carl Trueman, general, Grant Osborne and multiple intention, John Hammett) and then replies briefly to the others.
This is a vexed question and one you may have little time for. I urge you to think again. For our view of this doctrine might (not must, notice) lead us down some funny paths. Whilst it is not true, for example, that believing in limited atonement will make you a poor evangelist, it might do so, and so on (every view has a risky outcome).
In other words, we’ve always got to be thinking pastorally about our theological positions. We don’t change our positions because they become pastorally difficult (that’s precisely what some are doing with same sex marriage). But we are not naive either. We do think carefully. This volume really helped me do that – I appreciated both the brief outline of each position and the gracious interaction that followed.
It all felt like an important debate conducted in a proper manner. Top marks all round – and ultimately more helpful for me (I think because of size) than the enormous From heaven he came and sought her. Oh, and the conclusion by David Naselli is absolutely first class.
Dysfunctional families, turn to page…
Teaching the Jacob narrative recently at Cornhill, I found myself describing the account of the birth of Jacob’s children in Genesis 29.31-30.24 as a state of affairs worthy of an appearance on the Jeremy Kyle Show (which of course, I must hasten to add, I don’t make a habit of watching. Is it still on?!). Here is a man fathering lots of children by four different women, two of whom are feuding sisters who end up bartering for his reproductive services with mandrake plants (30.14-16), which according to the commentaries were an ancient aphrodisiac (and not one of those dangerous magical plants from Harry Potter). It’s all rather distasteful, and is probably the low-point for Jacob in his role in the emerging covenant family. It portrays a family that is, to use a modern coinage, rather dysfunctional.
Why is it included in Scripture? (a good question to train ourselves to ask). We might think that this was surely one event which Israel would have liked to airbrush out of its history. I also take it as a small argument in favour of the historicity of this part of Genesis: a nation that indulges in myth-making to account for its own origins is surely going to invent a rather more gilded family life than this for the man after whom it is named.
I asked students what the purpose might have been for Israel, if we take it that this was written for the nation as it stood on the verge of entering the promised land. Two good answers came back:
– an encouragement: God gave birth to the nation in the midst of human mess, so whatever mess they would get themselves into once in the land would not thwart his purpose
– to bring them down a peg or two in their own eyes: God was about to give them other people’s land, taking it from them in judgement. But let Israel not imagine that this was because they were any better than those other nations: just read this story about the kinds of people you’re descended from.
This is of course not the only ‘Jeremy Kyle’ moment in the history of the patriarch’s family: battles between Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers; the foolish favouritism of Isaac and Rebekah. It’s a pretty consistent theme through Genesis. I suspect the reason I don’t personally resonate with it much is because the family in which I happen to have been blessed to grow up did not have these kinds of dysfunctionality on display for all to see. But I did notice in pastoral ministry how often people who lived very obviously in midst of dysfunctionality all the time loved these stories: here are people whose lives are as messy as mine! And God’s people are named after one of them!! I discovered that for some people that was a great relief because they really thought that the open secret of the church is that only people whose families appear to be squeaky clean can really be in the top rank of keen Christians.
Now of course, as we track this Genesis family theme carefully through to the NT we’re probably going to want to make sure that we go through Christ first of to the church, the household of God. But it must also be right to speak from these chapters about us and our messed up families, both in warning and encouragement. I suspect that for many, whatever their social status, that will come as a great relief.
Christians in Sport podcast
It’s taken me a while to get round to this, but I’m glad I did. Christians in Sport have a new podcast – a substantial programme exploring the relationship between sport and faith. In the first episode Graham Daniels interviews Cyril Regis. The second and third are with Debbie Flood and Garin Jenkins. It’s well worth spreading the news about these in your church. Why?
First, because there will be many in your church who love sport and these are powerful testimonies. Testimony has an important (but sadly dwindling) place in church life and these may be just what are needed to encourage some of your guys and girls.
Second, they are an important piece of our evangelistic armoury. This works in two ways. Some people are obsessed with sport and will hear nothing else except sport chat – well, if that is the case then why not pass on some Christian sport chat. But there are also another group who think Christianity is so ridiculous that no one could possibly believe it. Such people need to hear their heroes confess – so we need Christian scientists, Christian doctors, Christian poliiticians and so on speaking up for their faith.
And Christian sportmen/women. Here’s a great place to start.
The scope of the resurrection
It’s Easter (have you noticed) which means, for some of us at least, the special sermons get rolled out. I’m not sure what I think about this – Easter is rather curious for London churches anyway; many of our younger guys take the opportunity to go and see family; younger families are often away on holiday and – to cap it all – our local transport line is out of operation. Add in the change to British Summer Time and I may be preaching to my wife and the dog.
Still, the dog needs to hear about the resurrection, so I have been preparing with a happy heart: it is – after all – a grand theme. I’m preaching John 20 and the three encounters people have with the risen Jesus. It’s a fascinating account – not least because it widens the scope of the resurrection. What I mean is that this amazing event – surely the pinnacle of all of John’s signs (the tenth sign?!) is more than a standalone abstract reality. Of course, the resurrection is true: but it is not isolated from everything we believe about the Messiah.
More specifically, the encounter with Mary draws us to the ascension (John 20.17) according to Jesus himself. The encounter with the ten disciples results in the giving of the Spirit and the commission to go (John 20.22). The final encounter with Thomas shows us that we live by faith in the risen Jesus and not by sight (John 20.29). These three astounding truths are not disconnected. Mary wants to hold onto Jesus, but he must ascend. His Spirit therefore continues his work and presence. And because such a ministry is outward, the Christian life is one of faith not sight.
I’ve been thrilled by these extraordinary encounters and so my sermon on Sunday is about the breadth of the scope of the resurrection as John presents it. There’s lots here, so perhaps even those who turn up an hour late will still be in for a treat.
Refreshing the heart
I finished my rather elongated study of Philemon today and have been bowled over by some of Paul’s vocabulary. Significant, I think, is the strong language of heart refreshment. Paul uses this elsewhere (e.g. 1 Cor 16.18), but nowhere as obviously as here, where the language becomes an integral part of his appeal to Philemon.
Notice first that Philemon’s reputation is as a heart refresher and, moreover, it is this (rather than, say, his theological brain) which stirs up Paul’s spirit: “Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.” It is possible that Paul is referring to a one-off event, but the context and content of the verse make this unlikely: more obviously, this is simply who Philemon is.
Then the language reappears in Paul’s appraisal of Onesimus who has been converted whilst under Paul’s care. “I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you.” The relationship between Onesimus and Paul is more than utilitarian (though it is not less than this, v11).
Finally, Paul brings the threads together and makes his appeal to Philemon on the basis of this demonstrable refreshing nature. “I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ.” Philemon can demonstrate his own reputation is well founded by welcoming the slave back home.
This language got me thinking. And there are all kinds of challenges that result.
Who has refreshed your heart? Do you remember to thank God for them and allow them to encourage you, the way Philemon did to Paul?
Would anyone describe you in this way? Who? Why? Why not? This is not the kind of normal evangelical language to describe relationships, but shouldn’t it be? You? Your church?
There’s lots to pray about. We’ve recently (and rightly) become obsessed with keeping the heart in a Flavel-Proverbs type way. But we must also think about refreshing the heart.
New issue of Credo and interview
There’s a new issue of Credo out – some interesting stuff here to reflect on, plus an interview with me where you will learn how to demonstrate the superiority of cricket to baseball. Always worth knowing.
And yet another question preachers ask
In this very short series, I’ve left the hardest till last: does a gospel sermon always need to get to the cross?
It’s a commonly asked question, and one which is often used in a more pejorative way of preachers – especially by those unhappy with the current preacher and his evangelistic efforts. By way of answer, let me suggest that the question itself presupposes some fallacies:
It’s a strange view of expository preaching. We believe the Scriptures to be inspired, don’t we? That means the text we have in front of us has a kind of sufficiency for the moment. It is the entire Scripture that is sufficient, but we also believe the task of preaching is to present the passage as the Spirit has inspired it. If we start adding bits that we are think are missing, we are walking on a very narrow path with deep valleys either side. The preacher who feels in constant need to add in the cross to every passage has something of a deficient view of the doctrine of Scripture and of preaching.
It’s a strange view of the gospel. The gospel is good news, big news. At its heart is the atoning death of Jesus in our place – but this is not the entirety of the gospel. The danger with thinking that gospel preaching is cross preaching is that it is reductionist about the gospel itself. There are many ways of expressing the gospel, none of which deny the truths going on internally. If you believe that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead, for example (Romans 10.9), you will be saved. How will you be saved? Through the death of Jesus in your place, of course, but the particular confession in this case is about the lordship and resurrection of Jesus, not his atoning death. The gospel is almost certainly bigger than we think.
It’s a strange view of the service of the word. Preaching does not happen in a vacuum. It’s good for us to remember that – especially many of us who are raised on a diet of internet listening. I shudder at the thought of people listening to last night’s sermon, for example, without hearing my preamble to the reading or the prayer I prayed at the beginning, or the way I drew attention to the words in a particular song. A lot happens in a service of the word which supports, emphasises, and sets up the ministry of the word. You can cover a lot of ground where the word is being proclaimed at one level – after all, if singing is a ministry of the word (Col. 3.16), then unbelievers are being ministered to from the get-go in a service.
But what about 1 Corinthians 2.2, I hear you cry. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Christ and him crucified.” Doesn’t that end the argument? We don’t know much about Paul’s ministry in Corinth from Acts, although there is a little hint there that is summary statement in 1 Cor 2 should be taken in its broadest sense – for he testified to the Jews that “Jesus was the Messiah” (Acts 18.5). It’s important to see Paul’s statement in context, Garland in the Baker Exegetical Commentary is helpful here:
“Paul’s reminiscence that he resolved to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (see additional note), does not promote anti-intellectualism but explains his modus operandi. … He intended to proclaim the gospel in ways that were consonant with its message of Jesus Christ crucified and in ways that caused hearers to concentrate on that message and not on the messenger. He deliberately chose to set aside any methods that would showcase his own knowledge and wisdom. Paul is not anti-intellectual, but he does oppose intellectual vanity. He did not come to them as a know-it-all or compose speeches fishing for admiration. On the contrary, he was content to be identified as a know-nothing who preached foolishness: Jesus Christ crucified. But announcing the gospel was his sole focus, and the cross moulded his entire message and his whole approach. It was not a new development arising from some previous failure (cf. Acts 17:22–31) but his standard procedure everywhere (cf. 1 Thess. 2:1–10; Gal. 3:1). Jesus Christ can only be preached as the crucified one, and no one can preach Christ crucified to win personal renown.”
Please don’t mishear me. I’m not soft on the cross or – God forbid – penal substitutionary atonement. I delight in preaching the cross. It is at the heart of God’s saving work. If anyone shows even the remotest interest in Christianity, I quickly get there. So gospel ministry always needs to get to the cross. But does a gospel sermon always need to get to the cross? I think you now know my answer.
Another question preachers ask
Possibly one of the most vexed questions preachers ask is whether every sermon must go to Christ?
Short answer – in my opinion – yes. The boy Spurgeon agrees. Here are some fruity quotes compiled by Tony Reinke. “The motto of all true servants of God must be, ‘We preach Christ; and him crucified.’ A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.”
Or how about, “The Spirit of God bears no witness to Christless sermons. Leave Jesus out of your preaching, and the Holy Spirit will never come upon you. Why should he? Has he not come on purpose that he may testify of Christ? Did not Jesus say, ‘He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you’? Yes, the subject was Christ, and nothing but Christ, and such is the teaching which the Spirit of God will own. Be it ours never to wander from this central point: may we determine to know nothing among men but Christ and his cross.”
Or even, “Leave Christ out? O my brethren, better leave the pulpit out altogether. If a man can preach one sermon without mentioning Christ’s name in it, it ought to be his last, certainly the last that any Christian ought to go to hear him preach.”
But that needs some qualification. The devil is in the detail – an unfortunate expression if ever there was one. There is preaching Christ and there is preaching Christ. There is a kind of preaching Christ which is dull, predictable, repetitive and monochromatic. I say no to that kind of preaching. There is preaching Christ which is robbed of morality, especially OT preaching. I say no to that kind of preaching too. But there is preaching Christ which does justice to the text and sees in the Bible supremely the message of Jesus, Jesus who needs to be held out to sinners as the only Saviour and to believers as the true Son of God, the exact representation of his being, one who calls us to love, serve and follow him.
Now that is the kind of preaching Christ I like, and we must surely pursue.