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Friday, 12 January 2018

The Joy of a Forgiving Heart

The Peril of an Unforgiving Heart
Let's start with the opposite. According to Scripture, it is possible to possess a "bitter root" - a heart in which bitterness of some kind or another has taken hold.

Just as a plant's roots take hold in soil - bindweed, the gardeners curse, for example - so some past bitterness can infect the human heart - and be the cause of much trouble..........

"See to it that no-one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many." (Hebrews 12:15)

That bitterness may be against God - perhaps we feel he let us down in the past - or it may be against some human being. Whichever, this root has never been dealt with, never purged, never dug up and cast into the fire, this offense never forgiven.

And the result is that it causes trouble and spreads to many other people, "defiles many."

An unforgiving heart not only affects the person, but spreads its defilement wherever it goes. By gossip or slander against God or man, the embittered soul pours out their sour story of woe to all who will listen.

What is the cure to an embittered heart? 

The cure to a bitter heart
The Scriptures provide us with many resources to help us cultivate a forgiving heart. In the first place, we must tell God that we forgive those (which may include God!) who we feel have sinned against us in our daily prayers (Matthew 6).

Secondly, we must realise the mountain of our own sin, and how the Lord has forgiven us billions and by contrast contemplate the pennies others have sinned against us by comparison and extend forgiveness for those tiny sins (Matthew 18).

Thirdly, we decide to leave all revenge to God, and free ourselves from the awful burden of being the Judge (Romans 12).

Fourthly, we remember that one of the very properties of divine love is that "it keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Corinthians 13). God himself has put away our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103) - an astounding feat for Holy Omniscience.

The Joy of a Forgiving Heart
Nothing pollutes a heart more than unforgiveness - in essence it is the polar opposite to the Gospel. And few things bring joy to a heart more than forgiveness and forgiving-ness.

Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.
(Romans 4:8)

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Uncontrollable Mystery on the Bestial Floor

William Yeats
The poet William Yeats wrote a strange enigmatic and unusual short poem called "The Magi" which ends with this well-known line, "The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor." He was referring to the incarnation - the uncontrollable mystery -  the baby who was born among the beasts in a humble stable. I am not sure what Yeats meant by "uncontrollable" and the word "unfathomable" would be better.

With the glitz of Christmas over, it may be time to ponder this remarkable mystery - God made flesh.

The greatest miracle?
Of all God's many acts of power and wonder, the Incarnation must rank as the first. When it comes to mysteries, the Trinity comes first - the union in One of three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But the Trinity was Something that always was, whereas the Incarnation was an act of God whereby the Son of God took on human flesh at one point in time and space - surely the greatest of all God's many mighty acts of power.

Let's ponder this miracle and worship......

The Son of God became a real man
The Son of God did not become a "sort of human being", he became a true human being like you and me. While his father was not Joseph, his true mother was Mary. The power of God overshadowed Mary and the Holy Spirit performed a miracle in her womb, but Jesus Christ was a true man, who came, as Paul puts it in Romans 8:3, in "the likeness of sinful man." That is, Jesus was as close to us as it was possible to be  but without sin.

As a man Jesus could get tired, become ill, injure himself and be tempted as we are but always without sin.

The Son of God continued to be God
Although at the point of his conception the Son of God became a true man, yet he continued to be God. The angel Gabriel made it clear that the one to be born would be called the Son of God - his divine title.

The Son of God was One Person with Two Natures
And so this is where the mystery runs deepest. In One Person, the Son of God combined two natures. He was at one and the same time, true man and true God. These natures did not mix so that a third nature arose, but were combined in One Person, with One Will and One I, forever! Who can ever begin to understand such a thing? How can Someone be both all-knowing and limited in knowledge? How can Someone be both limited to one point in space and time in his human nature and yet be omnipresent in his divine nature?

All kinds of errors have arisen over time in regard to this point of doctrine. Some have said that Jesus was only part God and part man. Some have said he became a new nature - a mix of human and divine. Some have said he wasn't really man or that he wasn't really divine. But Scripture - and orthodox tradition going back to Chalcedon - teach that Jesus Christ was both true God and true Man in one Person.

"He became what he was not (a man) and continued to be what he always was (God)."

The only thing that changed when the Son of God took on human flesh is that he laid aside the trappings of his divine majesty and humbled himself. Once risen and ascended into heaven he regained the glory he once had with his Father.

The Reasons for the Incarnation
The Son of God took on human flesh to save us. To pay for the sins of men he had to become a man, but to pay for all of our sins, he had to be God. To become the mediator between God and man, he had to be a man to represent us and he had to be God to represent Himself. All for love's sake he became man! What a wonder and what love!

The Son of God took on human flesh so that God could understand our plight. God knows from the inside what pain, sorrow, bereavement and loss are all about because in heaven, at this very moment, stands a true human being, who is our advocate. The claim, "God does not understand my situation" is now and forevermore a lie!

The Son of God became a man to set an example of self-giving for the sake of others. That is the meaning of the beautiful poem in Philippians chapter 2. Paul introduces the highest doctrine imaginable to sort out the most mundane problem  - Christians seeking their own will. What did Jesus do? He gave up what he wanted for the sake of others.

When we pray, let us remember that in heaven there is a man who understands our lot as men and women living in a broken world. He understands all the trials and temptations of this passing world, yet without sin.

Meekness and majesty,
Manhood and Deity,
In perfect harmony,
The Man who is God.
Lord of eternity
Dwells in humanity,
Kneels in humility
And washes our feet.

O what a mystery,
Meekness and majesty.
Bow down and worship
For this is your God,
This is your God.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Christmas Letter with a Difference

It's that time again....
Every year at this time I dread the Christmas family letters - most especially, strange as it may seem, the ones from Christian friends.


For one thing, as a general rule, Christian annual letters gloss over all the difficult stuff in the last year and like Facebook, portray the past year as one long season of bliss.

(It's why so many people who live off social media are depressed. They read about the lives of their friends who have air-brushed out the ordinary disappointments of life and they become unhappy by the contrast with their own troublesome lives.)

Another reason I despair of those annual letters - and this is the most tragic reason - is this: they are generally full of earthly achievements and devoid of any spiritual ones.

Parents boast about their kids like yea:

   "John passed Grade 7 Oboe"

   "Susan got a new job as a manager"

   "Fred graduated with a 2:1 degree in XYZ"

When these earthly achievements are mentioned without any reference to the child's spiritual condition or spiritual growth we must be truly saddened.

Should not a Christian parent write something more like this?

   "My middle son has grown in grace this past year and is serving Christ in his local church with the gifts the Lord has given to him."

  "My third daughter gave us great joy in 2017 by being baptised in the spring, giving witness to the faith she has in the Lord Jesus."

   "Please pray for my youngest son who remains backslidden."

Someone needs to say OUTLOUD that what grade John has achieved in Oboe, what high-faluten job Susan may have found, what degree Fred graduated with - all of these are totally and utterly insignificant compared with the spiritual condition of the child.

In the world to come these worldly "achievements" won't matter one single half hoot and will be completely unknown.

So I dread reading the Christmas letters, and rarely do I come away from that annual sitting without a sense of profound sadness at our upside down priorities.

A Christmas Letter with a Difference
This year, however, we received one Christmas letter which cheered our hearts. Here's what one member of this family said:

"This year will go down in my books as a year of the Lord drawing near to me. Through some special times of prayer and worship, I have felt God increasing my faith and courage to serve him in some challenging situations. I am discovering anew that the real Blessing in life is More of Jesus."

This believer was honest about "challenging situations" in life. And this believer made their personal contribution to the letter all about knowing God better.

What we speak - and what we write therefore - reveals the true state of our hearts, and our true priorities for both ourselves and our families.

What really matters to you, to me, to us? Temporary, passing matters, or spiritual and eternal ones?

This unusual Christmas Circular Letter ended with the following Bible verse:

"I say to the Lord, 'You are my Lord; I have no good thing apart form you.'" (Psalm 16:2) 

Friday, 15 December 2017

What shall we make of Christmas?

Every year I - an evangelical Bible-believing Christian - struggle to know what to make of Christmas, what to do with Christmas, why I should bother about Christmas. I know that this sounds so unsentimental especially since there are some genuinely good aspects to this season of the year.

OPTION 1: Opt Out Completely?
I have a good Christian friend who has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas. He sends no cards and gives no presents. On Christmas day he stays at home on his own. His reasoning is two-fold: that Christmas is nowhere commanded in Scripture and secondly he does not wish to be associated with the excesses of  "Christmas" as it is celebrated in the world.

We must say that this is a valid Christian option and no-one can or should judge a believer who deliberately opts out of Christmas. It's not only the heretical JWs who opt out of Christmas, true and genuine believers can also - with a clear conscience - give Christmas a miss.

(I have yet another Christian friend who opts out of Christmas because he has no earthly family and since in the media Christmas hype is all about "great family times" he feels he can have nothing to do with it).

The problem with opting out completely is that it can be read wrong by our non-Christian friends.

OPTION 2: Act just like the World?
The second option is to "do Christmas" like the world does. Christmas means different things to different people in the world, but there are two widespread attitudes that pervade our culture's approach: Christmas is an opportunity for excess (in every area of life) and Christmas is the time to spend / waste great sums of money. Yes, mixed in with these two attitudes are better elements, such as spending time with family, giving to charities and attending the annual  Carol Service, but those ingredients don't sweeten secular Christmas enough to warrant this as a Christian option. 

OPTION 3: A Sober Annual Assessment
The third option is a sober assessment of Christmas in the light of Scripture and conscience year by year. Here are some questions that may help us on our way...

Do we really need to spend/waste so much money on presents?
Do we need to buy and eat so much food?
How does self-control, one of the fruits of the Spirit, shape our attitude to Christmas?
How can we spend time blessing the lonely?
How can we bless family members who are not believers?
How can we use the time evangelistically?
How can we use the time to build ourselves up spiritually?
Could we not spend some of the extra time we have knowing Christ better?

There is no single Christian approach to Christmas. Within the church we should expect to find many shades of opinion and none should judge the other:

"Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat and drinking, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon Celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of things that were to come; the reality, however is found in Christ." (Col 2:16)

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Noble Tim Farron

Image result for tim farronThat red face
Some of us will remember the pain of Tim Farron before he resigned as leader of the Liberal Party. He was hounded by the press to say the sentence which the western press insist you say if you are to be regarded as one of the "in crowd", the sentence, which if you refuse to say, makes you roadkill.

Here is the litmus-test sentence, by which everyone is judged today - if you agree with this sentence you are "in", if you disagree, you are clearly and obviously wicked: 

        "Homosexual practise is not a sin."

Those of us who love Christ and want to be faithful to him are not ashamed to say that homosexual practise is a sin. The Bible calls it a sin both in it's radical affirmation of heterosexuality and in its condemnation of homosexual practise.

The Apostle Paul calls homosexual practise unnatural, indecent and a perversion (Romans 1).

All sin is wrong, so we who love Christ do not put ourselves one wit above anyone else, nor do we condemn practising homosexuals, for the love of God has even reached even us and all who repent of their sin and turn to Christ find hope and new life.

We remember the embarrassment  of Tim Farron, as relentlessly hounded by one journalist and then by another, he was forced to say on TV the modern day equivalent of "Caesar is Lord."

The retraction
Tim Farron has now written a long article which in effect is his retraction, and also a spirited attack on the illiberal society we now live in.

If you think we live in a culture of free speech, think again - and read Farron.

Well done, Tim, well done our brother in Christ. 

It's worth reading in full:

Tim Farron's Lecture

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Demands of Making Disciples in the Western World

The Need for Reformation
The need for reforming the church never goes away, and the problem is always the same: the church becomes like the world in its thinking and its practices.

This lame aping of the world becomes more problematic the further our western culture drifts away from its Christian moorings. The need for reformation becomes more urgent as time passes.

And one of the ways the church needs to reform its ways is in its vision of discipleship.

Matthew 16:21–28, Jesus walks with His disciples
Jesus spent long hours with the Twelve
The central task of the church
The task of the church is to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28). It is not to fill the heads of converts with dry academic doctrine, but to turn them, by the grace of God, into fully signed up followers of Jesus Christ - in character and life.

If we were to ask any one of the 11 disciples what Jesus meant when he said "make disciples of all nations", they would have said "do for the world, what I have just done for you."

Here are some of the characteristics of New Testament discipleship:

(1) Lots and lots of time. Jesus did not ask the Twelve to show up for a talk twice a week, but spent many, many long hours with his disciples. There is probably a certain number of hours per week, below which no real effective discipleship will ever take place. I don't know what that number is, but it is more than two.

(2) Spend organic time with. Jesus did not merely spend "classroom" time with his disciples, he did "life" with them. They were with him in all sorts of circumstances, not merely in teaching settings.

(3) Formal and informal teaching. Jesus sometimes had a set "body" of teaching he had to deliver, (for example, the sermon on the mount), at other times he responded to something around him or something going on in the lives of his disciples. If the disciples were proud or prayerless or faithless he would address that issue there and then: informal teaching burns into the mind and heart.

(4) Constant counter-teaching. Jesus is always teaching against the background of the false teachers of his day. In other words, his teaching had a very large corrective element in it. "You have heard it said.... but I say.." Jesus was the first and greatest reformer. 

There are many pressures against this kind of true discipleship taking place today. The powerful current of traditional meet-twice-a-week religion is one. The love of pleasure is another - because the demands of this kind of discipleship on our time will mean many personal and family sacrifices will have to be made. The desire for large numbers which often makes the one-to-twelve discipleship process much less likely to happen is a third.

In the end it is only the power of God's Spirit that can make true disciples, but followers of Christ are called to be co-workers in this great task.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

The Great Reformers Had Great Flaws

Great Reformers
The Great Reformers of the 1500s - and indeed in every age - had equally great flaws. We rightly thank God for the Luthers, Zwinglis, Bucers and Calvins. Through them the Gospel was restored to the church, having been lost for a thousand years under the rubble of human tradition and satanic error.

To then add that they had great flaws is not to be judgemental. A judgemental spirit is a spirit that puts onself above the reformers, and since we are all sinners saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, alone, none of us has  the right to judge another.

No, to acknowledge their faults is to glorify the God who is pleased to work through flawed people for his great glory.

Some of the great church Reformers
One Example - their argumentative nature
The Reformers of the 1500s lived in a brutal age and this spilled over into language. To be honest, we live by contrast in a namby-pamby culture of washed out greys, so we should not over-judge them for their loud language.

Unfortunately, it was their argumentative spirit which ill-served them.

Erasmus, the "humanist"
Erasmus was the most famous "humanist" of his age. That word does not refer to what we think as "humanism" - life lived without God. The humanists of the 1500s were deeply religious men who wanted to live a morally upright life.

But Erasmus would not join the reformation because the reformers were so argumentative - interestingly enough, no tragically! - over secondary matters, such as baptism.

On the 11th November, 1527 Erasmus wrote to Martin Bucer, the Strasbourg Reformer, and gave him three reasons why he would not join the Reformation:

(1) "My conscience has held me back." He was juts not convinced that the movement came from God, he says. He is completely mistaken in this view, we are sure.

(2) Lack of fruit. What worried Erasmus was that "there are a number of people in your camp who are completely unknown to Evangelical Truth." He meant that some of the folk who had joined the Reformation band-wagon were not living out godly lives "As far as human judgement will allow, it seems to me that many of them have become worse and none have improved." He goes on, "The Gospel would have looked good to everyone if the husband had found it made his wife nicer, id the teacher saw his student more obedient, if the magistrate had seen better-behaved citizens, if the employer found his employees more honest, if the buyer saw the merchant less deceitful. But, as things are now, the conduct of some people has thrown cold water on the enthusiasm of those who initially supported the movement."  So he did not see the changed lives he expected to see.

(3) The third reason is the saddest of them all: Erasmus was fed-up with their argumentative spirit. "The third thing which has held me back is the constant in-fighting between the leaders." He goes on to say, "In actual fact, if you were what you brag of being, they would have set an example of goldy and patient conduct which would have made the Gospel widely accepted."

Now, we do not judge the Reformation by a "humanist" but we can learn from his comments.

Two Lessons
Two lessons to draw from Erasmus' letter are these:

God is pleased to use "earthen vessels" in his kingdom. Great flaws do not prevent us from being greatly used in God's kingdom. This is an encouragement to God's people, when Satan points out our weaknesses.

Secondly, don't follow men, follow Jesus! If we follow men, at some point or another, they will disappoint us, but if we set our eyes on Christ Jesus, he, the perfect, sinless Son of God, will never disapoint us.