Providence not just sovereignty
This is not the first time I’ve applied a simple truth to my own life, nor will it be the last. The truth is this: we believe in God’s sovereignty and his providence. I wonder if our renewed interest in all things reformed, especially as we ingest what he hear from across the pond, has made us super-sovereignty adherents (something that is of course true), but have neglected the doctrine of providence.
It is, of course, possible, to read too much into providence. Famously Oliver Cromwell used to see all kinds of portents in all kinds of places. And God’s providence as a sole means of determining God’s will for us seems a little haphazard and unwise. We could say, I guess, that at times some of the puritans had an over-realised understanding of God’s providence.
Nevertheless, we must not throw out the proverbial baby. God is indeed sovereign and he is provident – his sovereignty is worked out in the lives of his people for the good of his people. Therein lies our comfort. We pray ‘Our Father in heaven.’ He is both in heaven ruling and reigning and he is also our Father. What amazing truths: truths which I need to preach to myself over and over again.
Five lessons from our wives’ conference for guys
As a bloke, and a husband, I always find it fascinating and alarming in equal measure to listen to minister’s wives talk to me at our wives’ conferences. I think, for the most part, the wives are more honest than their husbands or, at least, more direct about the various joys and struggles of ministry. Here are five themes I picked up this year – they’re all pretty general as I don’t want to reveal any confidences. However, I did wonder as I heard some of these things whether husbands were aware of them or (in some cases) their own negligence. Make of them what you will.
1. “I get to hear hardly any Bible teaching”. This is a common refrain. Wives are often busy running the Sunday School (because no one else will) or with the younger kids. Her husband is always on duty and so her spiritual input tends to be picking up a few crumbs here and there. We get many women coming to our conferences who simply can’t get enough input because it’s their only annual fix. Guys, how did you let things get like this?
2. “My walk with God is completely dry/I don’t have a quiet time”. This is not quite the same point as number 1. A number of wives confided this year that their spiritual life is completely dry. Time is taken up with kids, husbands, ministries and so on and they have let things slip. My follow up question was generally, ‘Does your husband know?’ More often than not the answer was no. The blame here – in my mind – lies squarely with husbands, called to lead their families. It is no kind of leadership to squeeze the spiritual life from your spouse. Shame on you.
3. “My husband and I have no time together.” This is a common refrain, sometimes expressed more explicitly in terms of sexual intimacy (or lack of it). Not only is a lack of intimacy prohibited by Scripture (1 Cor 7), it is a sign of deeper malaise. Often the flip side of this is that our kids demand all our time, but the best gift to our kids is a strong marriage. Again, husbands need to bear some or all of the blame here.
4. “My husband spends all his spare time in ministry.” I want to be careful critiquing this complaint. Ministry is all consuming. Those of who are ministers need to feel something of the burden of the high calling we have as under-shepherds of Christ’s sheep. But we serve neither our people, nor our wives (nor Christ) by operating as though we were single men. Paul is right, being married and in ministry does mean we have ‘divided interests’ (1 Cor 7.34). That is not a complaint on Paul’s part, it is simply a statement of fact. But many married ministers carry on as though they were not.
5. “I am not discipled or taught by any elder women.” Perhaps this is for younger wives especially. But a shocking number tell of how they are not mentored at all. There is very little Titus 2 stuff going on. Perhaps, you say, this is not down to you. Maybe so. Maybe not – as a husband and a minister, you should be making sure your wife is pastored, just as you should be ensuring all women are pastored appropriately. Why is she missed off this list?
Perhaps I am too provocative? Perhaps a little too much hyperbole? Forgive me, but I want to make the point clear. In short, too many of us married ministers are scarcely loving our wives as Christ loved the church.
The Two Hills
Regular readers of The Proclaimer will know that this summer I am moving from one ‘hill’ to another: I’m leaving the Cornhill Training Course to join the faculty of Oak Hill Theological College. One’s named after a road it used to be on but now isn’t which is miles from the nearest cornfield and isn’t really a hill anyway, and the other sits atop what looks at best like a small rise in the ground. All very confusing.
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to teach at Cornhill, albeit for quite a short time. Each year the Lord sends a wonderfully stimulating and enthusiastic posse of new students to Cornhill. To see so many of them grow in love and gifts is a deep delight. A number of readers of this blog will be pastors who have sent students our way, and it is gratifying that good local churches continue to think that Cornhill is useful.
I’ve received a few comments on my move (not many, but a few) which have reflected a sense that one or other the ‘Hills’ is thought to be the real deal, where the real training happens, while the other is a bit lightweight / a bit unfocused / a bit blinkered / not turning out people with the right convictions solidly in place [delete as appropriate]. Now I have no doubt that both institutions have their weaknesses (both have employed me, for a start). But I find it impossible to think that I am moving from somewhere lesser to somewhere greater, or the other way round. I think instead that I am moving from training institution that has proved itself incredibly useful in the Lord’s hands and has the opportunity to continue doing so in the future, to another of which the same is true.
As we are all aware, there is a growing diversity of training routes for Christian ministry on offer, from colleges to courses, from residential and full time to local and part-/spare-time. There is of course always the danger of dilution as things diversify and as training is developed by a variety of people, each with their own strengths and blind spots. We’re all slightly uncomfortable when we see others doing things that we (whether rightly or foolishly) think we could do better. But it’s surely better to run those risks and attempt to address the issues as we go, in order to get as many pastors, elders, leaders and others trained as possible.
Seen in the right perspective, all colleges and courses are not merely businesses trying to strengthen their customer base (although of course they need stay solvent and be professionally and competently managed). They are ultimately servants of the real work of the Lord going on in local churches. And it seems for now to be the case that a varied set of training possibilities, varied both in terms of structure and small emphases of content and focus, serves churches well, as we seek to grow the gospel in as many places as we can.
Fighting Sin and Growing in Godliness, according to Galatians
There’s a very particular take in Galatians on fighting sin and growing in godliness which is worth noting, firstly in our own lives and secondly in our preaching and pastoring. It emerges towards the end of the letter. Paul sets out the contrasting ‘acts of the flesh’ (5.19-21a) and ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (5.22-23a). But he does not (we must note!) directly command or exhort the Galatians to fight against sin or to work directly at growth in godly characteristics. He does both of those things elsewhere – respectively in, for example, Col 3.5-10 and 2 Pet 1.5-8 – but not here in Galatians. Mortification of sin is biblical teaching, but not Galatian, I think.
What is Paul doing in Galatians with regard to godliness, then? ‘So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh’ (5.16). Here is a command – live by the Spirit – and a statement of a consequence that will follow if we obey that command – it will then turn out that we are in fact not gratifying the desires of the flesh.
So the crucial godliness question in Galatians is, what does it means to ‘live by the Spirit’?
Two answers stand out:
i) In the immediate context, Paul has commanded them to ‘serve one another humbly in love’, because this fulfils the entire law (5.13b-14). The subsequent command to ‘live by the Spirit’ (v.16) looks rather like a restatement of this. Thus to live by the Spirit is to live a life of humble, loving service towards others.
ii) In the wider Galatian context, living by the Spirit means not relying on law-keeping for security in right-standing with God: ‘Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?’ (3.3).
Put this together, and it looks like this:
We must keep striving to find our entire security in our right-standing with the Lord not in any law-like list of achievements, but only in the works that the Spirit brings about in us. We must strive, too, to make humble, loving service of others the distinguishing feature of our attitudes and actions. (And note that these two have a natural link: if I get my sense of secure right-standing with the Lord through any list of laws I have kept, I will inevitably compare myself favourably with others in order to make my list of well-kept laws seem impressive enough – and that is the very antithesis of a loving, humble, servant heart.)
As we are focused on these two strivings – for the right foundation of our justification, for the right fundamental attitude to others – we will discover (back now to 5.16) that we are not gratifying (fuelling, feeding, stroking, pleasing) the desires of the flesh.
There is more than one way prescribed in Scripture for fighting particular sins, and we need all of them. One is to assault them directly. Another, as set out in Galatians, is to focus Christ and the Spirit, not law, as the basis for our secure standing with God, and to co-operate with the Spirit’s work in developing in us a life of humble, loving service.
If you read the fruit of the Spirit as a preacher, I wonder if one of the greatest challenges is whether we are patient. Evidence of the fruit, of course, is evidence that we are keeping in step with the Spirit, filled with him. So it’s sometimes a useful exercise to read the Galatians verse and ask yourself some pretty searching questions.
On this basis, I wonder how many of us preachers would stumble over patience (or long-suffering, or forbearance, depending on your translation). I had a happy lunch last week with Dick Lucas and we reflected and riffed on this for a while (if you can imagine him riffing). We live in an instant gratification world, as we all know. We complain when we see this quality creeping into church – we see a lack of commitment, we see people flitting from church to church at the slightest provocation.
But do we pause and ask whether we suffer from the same lack of patience in ministry? I long for people to be changed by the word. I long for conversions. I long for breakthroughs. And I get impatient when there are none. There is a kind of godly ambition which is holy and fuels prayer. But there is also a kind of ministry impatience which gets too easily frustrated at people’s lack of progress.
There’s a tension here, is there not? I want to be on my knees praying that John Smith will believe, pleading that Joan Smith will be sanctified. But I also need to channel my impatience into godly prayer rather than letting it overflow into ministry frustration.
Patience, Mr Preacher, patience.
Never lose the wonder
I cycle home over Tower Bridge most days, alongside the Tower of London. It’s a pretty magical views. Every now and again, particularly in the summer, the bridge lifts. It’s never unplanned – you can go on the Tower Bridge website and see when the liftings are which, in my better moments, I remember to do before I set off for home.
But this week, on a night when I needed to get home for babysitting duties, I was not quite in time and had to wait (it takes about 15 mins to go up and down). I was impressed by the adulation of the tourists – lots of oohing and aahing. Lots of cameras. Lots of selfies. Here was one of London’s most iconic shots – Tower Bridge OPEN! And yet, it just felt like an inconvenience to me. I’ve seen it so many times, it was just annoying – something to break my journey and put me under pressure.
That’s a strange reaction – truth be told – to something so romantic and eye-catching. I have (or had, at least) lost the wonder for a moment. And preachers can become similarly desensitised. We can lose the magic (if I’m permitted to use that phrase) of the wonder of God, the depths of his love, the delights of his salvation, the incredibleness of his indwelling. In ministry terms, preaching can become a chore, conversions a bit hum drum and sanctification taken for granted. Whereas, in fact, we ought to be in the front row with our camera phones taking photos.
Lord, never let me lose the wonder.
Hallowed be your translation
We’re preaching through the Sermon on the Mount at the moment at church and it struck me as we reached chapter 6 how many modern translations bottle the Lord’s prayer. There is one phrase which is an archaism. “Hallowed be your name” trips off the tongue, of course, because the prayer is so well known. But the language obscures the meaning and if most translators were true to their philosophy they would translate it differently.
The verb is hagiazo which appears frequently in the New Testament. But even in the most obvious place it is never elsewhere translated in this way (that’s probably 2 Tim 2:21), even in the King James Version. It is the language of setting apart as holy or showing to be holy. And that is how the KJV uses it in some places in the Old Testament (though never in the New). For example, “Then I will cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight” (1 Kings 9:7). There it is translating the Hebrew root qds, or hagiazo in the LXX.
So, compare how translations deal with this word:
- KJV 1 Kings 9.7: “hallowed”
- KJV Matthew 6.9: “hallowed”
- ESV 1 Kings 9.7: “consecrated”
- ESV Matthew 6.9: “hallowed”
- NIV 1 Kings 9.7: “consecrated”
- NIV Matthew 6.9: “hallowed”
- HCSB 1 Kings 9.7: “sanctified”
- HCSB Matthew 6.9: “honoured as holy”
In fairness to the ESV, it does explain the word in a footnote. And, arguably, “consecrated” is equally jargon. You might think this does not matter, but I did a quick unscientific survey the other day of various people, including some pastors, and most had no idea what the phrase in the Lord’s prayer really meant. Given the extraordinary nature of what Jesus calls us to pray for, that’s a remarkable thing, isn’t it?
Can you, will you pray today, “Lord, may your name be honoured as holy.” In me. In my church.
Sometimes, just one word in a Bible passage carries great weight. I’m not suggesting that we should just preach on that one word, but we have to let the word carry the weight in our sermons. This has struck me freshly whilst writing out Revelation as part of my morning devotions. Many of the letters to the churches (though not all), have the word alla in them – often translated ‘nevertheless’ or ‘yet’ or ‘but’.
It’s a word of contrast which carries great weight; It’s not simply this and that, a plain conjunction. Rather, this simple word emphasises a gulf or a gap between what is good in a church and what is worthy of discipline. And the word of contrast (as opposed to say, “also”) makes that which follows – in each case, the negative – stand out more. In technical terms, it’s adversative.
It’s got me thinking two things. One is about preaching. When preaching these letters, it would be easy, in very broad terms, to divide up the positives and negatives as two separate headings and simply move from one to the other. But the fact that they are connected together adversatively has to come through in a sermon. Expository preaching has to be driven by the way thoughts and ideas in the passage are constructed. We’re not cherry pickers. That probably means that in this kind of sermon the transition is as important as, say, the subsection heading.
But it also got me thinking personally. These are letters to churches, of course. But reflect on that word ‘nevertheless’ for a moment. What would Jesus’ letter to you say? “I know….” “Nevertheless….” Fill in the blanks.
Dan Brown exegesis
Jeffrey John, Dean of St Alban’s Cathedral, recently preached a sermon on the Centurion’s servant from Luke in Liverpool Cathedral, arguing that it proves that Jesus accepted gay relationships. It beggars belief. I won’t bother linking to the sermon, but Ian Paul has a characteristically clear response here, including a demolition of John’s exegesis. This is what I want to focus on. For we can, if clever enough, make the Bible say whatever we want it to say. This, says Paul, is the ‘Dan Brown approach to reading a text.
‘There is a secret meaning, which has not surfaced in the history of interpretation, but with some expert knowledge (which I have access to you and which you, the ordinary reader, cannot question), I will excavate the real meaning of this text which has been hidden from you (and is hidden even from Luke and Matthew themselves) which will prove my case beyond any doubt.’
What I value about Ian Paul’s response is not so much this particular demolition but the exegetical lessons he makes in passing. Even if, like me, you’re not (and are unlikely to be) persuaded by John’s Lukan exegesis and arguments, there is still much to appreciate and learn from in Paul’s response. Preaching is not just exegesis. But it is not less than exegesis. May God make us all faithful exegetes.
Do song words really matter that much?
Some Christians can get a bit hot under the collar about song words. I am often one of them, I confess. For, you see, I really believe that song words matter. This is primarily because singing to one another and with one another is a ministry of the word. “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit” (Col 3.16-17). It’s one of the reasons why I value a well-edited hymn book. Some of that hard work has been done for you.
But here’s a question, to which I don’t really have an answer, only a view. How far do we go with precision over song words? In order to protect artistic merit, is some latitude acceptable? Let’s take a working example. At the EMA, we sung Dustin Kensrue’s Grace Alone. I freely confess it’s not my favourite song (“head full of rocks”?). But here’s a theological question.
Are we orphans before we are saved? For that is how the song begins? “I was an orphan lost at the Fall.” There is a sense, surely, in which we were not. It was not that we were fatherless before our salvation. It’s that we had the wrong father! I wasn’t wandering around the spiritual orphanage, I was in my father’s house from where I needed to be rescued, my father being the Devil. The language of orphan actually downplays my status!
Now, you may say I am picking a fight where one does not need to be picked. Fair enough, I take the point. I am rather agnostic about this song (which has some excellent lines and is good in its Trinitarian approach). But if singing is a ministry of the word, we should care about such representations, shouldn’t we?
Yes? No? What do you think?