When a few words of faith are not enough
Watching the FA cup final on Saturday (US readers, that's a sports game called association football that is the world's favourite game, but I understand if you've not heard ot it), I was delighted to see Fabrice Muamba in the crowd. He was also interviewed in this weekend's press. It's truly remarkable. The man should be dead. His heart stopped on the pitch for 78 minutes. Twice doctors threw in the towel on resuscitation. Yet here he is. He's forgetful. He'll never play again, I suspect. But he's alive. Like I said, I'm truly thankful.
His situation raises some interesting questions, not least the Christian veneer with which everything has been coated – headline in The Times, for example: "If God is with me, who can be against me? There is nothing to fear" Quite an amazing statement for the national press. His recovery, we read, is down to prayer. Sounds good, huh? Romans 8:28 and intercession all wrapped up together.
But the interview made me uncomfortable. Here is a man who lives with his girlfriend, with whom they have a child. He, according to the interview anyway, swears like a trooper. These are hardly the normal marks of a believer. Who am I to say? Well, quite. But isn't it interesting how quick the Christian population are to pick up on a few words of faith in order to be able to claim someone as our own?
I don't want to draw lessons about Fabrice. I am truly, truly glad he's alive and (if he has not already) I hope that he will soon come to a real and living faith in Christ. Rather, it makes me think of the local church. How quick we are to latch on to the words of someone in church and immediately claim them as a convert. I can think of several cases in my own ministry where that has proved to be patently unjustified. We are, of course, desperate for people to be saved. So a word here or a gesture there – well, of course, it gets our pulses racing. But perhaps we also need to be honest and say, a few words of 'faith' are not enough.
The problem is that we stop evangelising such people. They're 'in' aren't they! Job done. And then, something happens, time passes, and suddenly you realise they're gone and lost. Hebrews 6 is sobering here.
I sat through Mark Dever talking about the danger of unconverted members in our churches when I was in the US recently. At the time, I was thinking to myself, perhaps this is a particularly American problem. Now, I'm thinking again…. Our church life needs to move people along constantly in their walk with Christ. I hesitate to say 'journey' because it just sounds so, well, emerging. Nevertheless, a few words of faith are often not enough and we have to help people to start well, race well, and finish well – finish with real, lasting and effective faith.
Youthwork and legalism
This is a really useful article by Cameron Cole over at TGC on why youth work tends towards legalism. Read it if you're a youth worker or minister with youth work in your church, It's important.
Preachers loving history, with a few exceptions!
At this year's senior ministers' conference and being greatly challenged by John Dickson's sessions on history, evangelism and exegesis. Helpful stuff for preachers which will be online in next few weeks. When John told Dick what he was speaking on, Dick said, "how fresh." John wasn't sure whether to take this as a compliment or not! But here's a summary from day one:
History, argued John is critical. Why?
- Because Christianity is definitionally historical. Unlike many other religions it is fundamentally about events that happened in history
- We're always doing history whether we like it or not. When we read the Bible and understand Greek words, for example, we're basing this on history
But, said John, history has limitations too:
- History is random. We have less than 1% of NT documents and archeology. For example, no personal correspondence from Tiberius who ruled the world but we have a complaint from a junior tax collector about being beaten up at the gym from the same period.
- History is incapable of demonstrating some things that are essential to our faith, e.g. that Christ died for sins
- It is sometimes difficult to avoid bad history, e.g. 'there is more evidence for Jesus than Julius Caesar' which is simply not true.
- History can tempt the preacher to show off
- History can distance people from the text of Scripture. It can become like a secret knowledge.
- History is not an objective discipline. Some historians have stretched history to disprove the Bible and we can sometimes be guilty of the opposite.
But tonight, John is just getting going on why history is friendly to the preacher… so it's not all bad news.
Call me: we all have a blind spot
At least one, in fact.
I was reminded of this reading obituaries of Chuck Colson, who died last week. He was a great Christian, in many ways. His conversion was astounding and the work of prison ministry exceptional. His autobiography, Born Again, was one of the first Christian books I ever read (because a Christian friend had given my father a copy – he never read it). But he had an obvious (to me) blind spot: I could never understand his attachment to and promotion of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. (Along with, may I say, another hero of mine, JI Packer).
I still see clear water between the two groups. That's not to say I've not met godly Catholics. But it seems to me that they are so in spite of the system, rather than because of it. This clear water is an issue that Michael Horton tackles in the latest issue of Modern Reformation:
In five hundred years, what has changed?… There are indeed remnants of truly Orthodox with genuinely biblical faith and practice in the Roman Catholic Church, but as a total structure the flaws go right to the foundation. In terms of authority, Rome teaches that Scripture and tradition are two. That's why the Magisterium – the teaching office of the church – can invent sacraments, forms of worship and even dogmas that it acknowledges aren't in the Bible.
He goes on to show how the Church fights strongly against the imputation of Christ's righteousness while teaching that Mary's righteousness can be imputed! It's not a blind spot that I am at all comfortable with – even though, I realise, it may make me sound rather like an old-fashioned Protestant. But the fact is, I've got something to protest against. So be it.
That's hardly my point for writing though. You may, or may not, agree with me on this. But what else? I'm sure we've all got a blind spot. I'm personally very, very good at spotting other people's. Call me if you need help. But when it comes to my own……
The Gospel as Center
This is a US book. You can tell that from the misspelt (UK readers)/correctly spelt (US readers) title. But there is just about where any US/UK divide happens. Some books are so rooted in their immediate context that they just don't work over the pond. There are US titles which are addressing peculiarly US issues, and UK titles similarly hampered. This is not one of them. So, the book is The Gospel as Center, the subtitle is "renewing our faith and reforming our ministry practices" and what you have, under the careful editorship of Carson and Keller, is a concise set of essays on the important and defining elements of The Gospel Coalition's beliefs.
So – don't be shocked – on one level this is an entirely uncontroversial, safe book. You know where it's coming from before it begins and you can have a pretty good guess at each of the conclusions reached. Such is our constituency. Ordinarily, this safeness might have made it rather dull and useless. But that's simply not the case. Instead, there are a collection of useful essays from the pens of quite different writers. Some are more useful than others, of course – but the dual-authored chapter on baptism and the Lord's Supper by Thabiti Anyabwile (a baptist) and Lig Duncan (a presbyterian) is worth, as they say, the admission price alone. It really helped me think clearly about how and why we celebrate these sacraments in church life.
Here are the chapters:
- Gospel Centered Ministry – Carson & Keller
- Can we know the truth – Richard D Phillips
- The Gospel and Scripture – Mike Bullmore
- Creation – Andrew Davis
- Sin and the fall – Reddit Andrews III
- The Plan – Colin Smith (hoorah for the Brits!)
- What is the gospel? – Bryan Chapell
- Christ's Redemption – Sandy Wilson
- Justification – Philip Ryken
- The Holy Spirit – Kevin DeYoung
- The Kingdom of God – Stephen Um
- The Church – God's new people – Tim Savage
- Baptism and the Lord's Supper – Thabiti Anybwile and Lig Duncan
- The Restoration of all things – Sam Storms
If you're going to read it on your own then it's a book for reinforcement – and there's nothing wrong with that. If you're going to read it with others (e.g. a leadership team – and that's where there's real value), then it's a book for learning and growing. Both are worthy causes.
It's a nice hardback, 300pp. Come along to the EMA and there'll be a very nice price, signficantly under list of £14.
The root idea of marriage
I've hesitated to wade in with my size 9s on the whole marriage thing, not because I don't have strong views (oh, I do) but because I don't particularly want to preach to the choir. But here's a thought – do we need to recover the root idea of marriage? When we're arguing for marriage in the marketplace, we tend not to use theological arguments. I sort of understand that. We need to interact with people at a level they will understand and a dialogue they will engage with. It puts us at an immediate disadvantage because so many of the theological arguments are too complex for a sound-bite media world. So, praise God for those, like the Christian Institute, who make a cogent case for traditional marriage on our behalf.
But, at the very least, when we're talking amongst ourselves, we must make sure we use the full force of theological argument. I was thinking about this because I listened to the Bishop of Buckingham's response to some of The Times correspondence, making a case for gay marriage. This is what he said, word for word:
…a partnership between two people who covenant a faithful relationship to one another based on the love they have for one another and seek it as a sacramental blessing – in other words that they receive the love of God partly through the love that binds them together as a couple in a partnership – this is the root idea of marriage.
Really? First of all, I'm not exactly sure what he is saying. It's just a bit too wishy-washy for me. But, more fundamentally, that is not the root idea of marriage.
The ultimate thing we can say about marriage is that it exists for God's glory. That is, it exists to display God….Marriage is patterned after Christ's covenant relationship to his redeemed people, the church. And therefore the highest meaning and the most ultimate purpose of marriage is to put the covenant relationship of Christ and his church on display. That is why marriage exists. If you are married, that is why you are married. If you hope to be, that should be your dream. John Piper, This Momentary Marriage, p25.
This gets to the root of marriage and explains, from first principles, why sexual immorality of any kind is wrong. Of course, there are commands a-plenty, but if sexual union is at the heart of marriage and reflecting the mystery that is Christ and the church, then accepting sex outside of marriage implies you can be the bride of Christ without being married to him (pluralism). Masturbation (solo sex) is saying "I don't need Christ." Sleeping with a prostitute (1 Cor 6.15) is saying that there is salvation outside of Christ. Ditto gay sex and marriage. Let's make sure, then, that we keep the root idea before us.
Come praise and glorify our God
Just been thinking about EMA music. When I was at T4G, I greatly enjoyed singing Tim Chester's words based on Ephesians 1 – Come praise and glorify our God. At least, I assume Tim wrote the words and Bob Kauflin the music – but perhaps it was the other way around…..?
Anyhows, it's got good content and a rousing tune. You could sing it with minimal accompaniment if that is your thing, or full band if that is yours. Here are the words:
The music is here for free and you can watch a full band full on version on you tube below if that is your thing. We're going to learn it at church this Sunday.
On how Bible studies could make you Catholic
Just been reading the latest issue of Modern Reformation which contains a series of devastating interviews with those who have left mainstream evangelicalism for Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Emerging church, liberal Anglicanism and cultural atheism. It's sobering reading. This one particular comment caught my eye. It's in the interview with someone who has left for the Roman Catholic church and has a side swipe as he goes about Biblical interpretation, particularly in small group studies.
I'm sure there are a lot of good Bible studies out there, and a lot of well intentioned people, so I don't want to go overboard. But it's not only my opinion [that evangelicalism tends to be self-help rather than Christ-centred]. There have been some recent academic studies by anthropologists who have examined evangelical Bible studies. They report that people don't pay too much attention to what the text actually says. People search around in their heads, their memories, and their feelings for something that seems to connect to the text. And then, they conclude "Oh yeah, that makes me fee like.." or "What I think is that…." or "In my opinion, what it means is…" Usually the text is serving as a pretext to affirm something they already believe, rather than as an authoritative text to challenge what they already believe. There's no other way to put it. There's a lot of sharing of ignorance.
Hmm. It's what we've been saying for years of course. And thankfully, many of us will have worked hard to get away from precisely this kind of Bible study. And, to be fair, it's one of only 95 (!) steps that led Christian Smith away from the evangelical faith. But it shouldn't even register as one. For the answer to these kind of Bible studies (though they cannot really claim that title) is not to move to Catholicism, but to have better Bible studies. How often do you get around your small groups to hear what's going on?
Why I am a procrastinator
This is a hard book review to write. Why? Because in the review I am about to give I will reveal something of my heart and a lot of my sin. That's unavoidable. As soon as I tell you that this was a book for me, I've let the cat out of the bag. So here goes – Pleasing People by Lou Priolo. This was a book for me. There, said it. Why write a review then, if it is all so heart-revealing? For the simple reason that being a people pleaser is a common sin in many pastors and preachers. We tend not to be, on the whole, those who err by thinking nothing of others. We're soft hearted towards others – and so we tend to err by being overly sensitive to others – and very, very often this means overly sensitive when it comes to what others think about us. That's why Keller's little book that I recommended yesterday was such a good starting point. Here's the big brother to that little volume.
In so many words it's the kind of book I don't really enjoy reading – lots of numbered lists. It's not quite a seven-step-to-success program but at times, because each chapter is often a collection of points, 1., 2., 3. and so on, it does feel like that. But, in one sense, it's very puritan-like – and that's not surprising because Priolo draws heavily on Timothy Dwight, Hugh Blair, Jeremiah Burroughs (hoorah, East End boy!) and, especially, Richard Baxter. That means what you get is warm, biblical wisdom suffused with pastoral punch. I got beyond the lists to the heart of what Lou was saying: and very often I found those lists describing me from lots of different angles.
To be frank, this is the pastoral punch many of us need. OK, let's not beat around the bush. It's pastoral punch that I need. So here, for example, are ten characteristics of an approval junkie:
- he fears the displeasure of man more than the displeasure of God
- he desires the praise of man more than the praise of God
- he studies what it takes to please man as much (if not more than) what it means to please God
- his speech is designed to entice and flatter others into thinking well of him
- he is a respecter of persons
- he is oversensitive to correction, reproof, and other allusions of dissatisfaction or disapproval on the part of others
- he outwardly renders eye service to man rather than inwardly rendering sincere (from the heart) ministry to the Lord
- he selfishly uses the wisdom, abilities and gifts that have been given him for God's glory and the benefit of others for his own glory and personal benefit
- he invests more of his personal resources in establishing his own honour than he does in establishing God's honour
- he is discontented with the condition and proportion that God has appointed for him
Sound familiar? Oh, and the people-pleaser is also often a procrastinator. Did I mention that? You'll have to read the book to find out why. This book was good for my soul. It's the kind of book that I won't lend to you. I'd lend you most of the books in my library should you ask nicely, but not this one. I need to read it regularly, I think. Plus, you don't want to see my scribbled comments and highlights (or rather, I don't want you to see them. I don't think that's just because I'm a people pleaser (!!) but there are some things that are better not shared).
As well as being suffused with the wisdom of the puritans, it's also highly biblical (no surprise that the two go together). If I had a criticism, it would be that there is almost too much Scripture (e.g. on humility, p168-170) which can mean running the risk of taking some texts out of context. But this is a minor niggle. Overall, the tone is gentle, persuasive and focused. And – this is possibly my highest praise – the book is very God-centred: Christ-centred, even. Again, using the puritans makes this less than surprising, but time and time again I found myself thinking less of myself and more of him. That's got to be good, right? And in so doing, my motives and thoughts are laid bare – this quote from Jeremiah Burroughs is typical:
I urge you to consider that God does not deal with you as you deal with him. If God were to put the worst interpretation on all your ways towards him as you put on his towards you, it would be very bad for you.
So, buy, read and keep. Our friends at ten of those have got it for £8.50, almost £3 less than amazon.
[And please keep my sin to yourself!]
Oh, and it's got a neat cover.
The freedom of self-forgetfulness
I spent a profitable hour yesterday reading Tim Keller's little book The freedom of self-forgetfulness. It's essentially a sermon on 1 Corinthians 3.21-4.7. As such, its 46 pages tackle one main theme – what we think of ourselves. What can I say? It's immensely helpful. Who doesn't some of the time (at least) if not all of the time worry about what others think? No one I know. Certainly not me. And the answer, says Keller, is not in the modern philosophy that everything can be blamed on low self esteem. In fact, historically, everything has been based on too high a self-esteem. No, the answer is in forgetting who we are except who we are in Christ. In other words, it's about identity.
What would Paul say to those who tell him to set his own standards? He would say it is a trap. A trap he will not fall into. You see, it is a trap to say that we should not worry about everyone else's standards, just set our own. That's not an answer. Boosting our self esteem by living up to our own standards or someone else's sounds like a great solution. But it does not deliver. It cannot deliver. (p27)
This is a book I will take home and read again, more slowly. You should too. £2.99 in print version of 99p as an ebook. Here's what Sir Christopher said about it:
In this helpful little book, Dr Keller paints a compelling picture of a truly gospel-humble person who is so taken up with his Lord that he is freed from the constant need to think about himself. We were challenged by it; we pray that you will be too.
And if you're booked in to the EMA, there'll be a great deal on it…..