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Friday, 19 April 2013

The Super-abundant Grace of God

Does the Gospel return us to Eden?
Because of Adam's sin, we inherit his guilt and therefore stand under God's judgement. And we become sinners and therefore die. Thrown out of God's presence we live our short lives, then die only to face the judgment of a righteous God.

But we know that in the mercy of God, Jesus was sent to restore us, praise his name!

But how far has he restored us, that's my question.

Does God through Jesus Christ merely return our condition to Adam's original condition? The hymn writer Isaac Watts who was also a great theologian says "no". In his hymn, "Jesus shall reign", he has two easily missed lines that run like this:

     In Him the tribes of Adam boast
     More blessings than their father lost

We have received from Christ more blessings than Adam lost, says Watts. We are richer than he was before the fall. If Adam lost us £100, Jesus has not merely returned the £100, he has made us super-millionaires!

But where is this in the Bible? In Romans 5, Paul lists the vast contrasts between Adam's damage and Jesus' blessings and ends with this:

"Where sin abounds, grace more abounds"

Paul uses a word for 'abound' in the first mention, to which he adds the word "hyper" in the second mention.Where sin abounds, grace super-abounds. That's the way God does things.

Where Adam has wreaked havoc in our lives, God pours in super-abundant grace!

Adam brought us sin, guilt, condemnation and the reign of death!

Jesus brings us righteousness, grace, justification, the reign of life! Heaven will be far more wonderful than the Garden of Eden!

The great principle to grasp: super-abundant grace
The great principle to grasp is the super-abundant nature of God's grace. God is not stingy, he is not a miser, he is not ham-fisted, he is unbelievably generous. There is no loss Adam has inflicted upon us that Christ will not much-more-than-match!

And since he has treated us like that, let us treat one another like that too. Giving generously, forgiving completely, as Christ has forgiven us.

And let us worship and more fully serve the God of Amazing and unspeakable grace.

Monday, 15 April 2013

The not-so-Surprising Spread of Evil

Eichmann and the Holocaust
Otto Adolf Eichmann was one of the major organisers of the holocaust. In a classic short book about his involvement and trial, Hannah Arendt says some remarkable things.

The thoughtlessness of evil
First, she says "It was sheer thoughtlessness that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of the period", meaning that he didn't think deeply enough, and didn't think critically enough, about the series of activities he was drawn into and which he then planned.  Thoughtlessness of course doesn't excuse anyone. In fact since God has given us a wonderful mind, it is an inexcusable abuse not to use it.

As an example - or a consequence - of this thoughtlessness, his mind contained all sorts of inconsistencies. So at his trial he claimed to be a Gottglaubiger - 'God-believing' but in Nazi-speak someone who was not a Christian and didn't believe in life after death. But in the next breaths he inconsistently said "After a short while, gentlemen, we shall meet again...." and "I shall not forget them..."

Arendt sums up the thoughtlessness of wickedness like this:

"It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us - the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil." (page 90)

Perhaps of course, his refusal to think was a guilty-conscience suppression mechanism for refusing to come to terms with his personal wickedness.

There is a lesson here: God expects us to use our minds. We are to love God with our minds and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. On the last day a man won't get away with the plea "I just didn't think about what I was doing", or "I stumbled into evil." 

The ordinariness of evil men
The second lesson from this account is the ordinariness of evil. We are not to think of two-horned creatures with shifty red eyes and pitchfork in hand - just ordinary human beings, like you and like me (hard as that is to believe, and harder for most people to accept).

"The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal." (page 103)

No disciple of Jesus is in the least surprised at this, for one of his apostles - Paul - taught that we are all sinners. None of can say "I wouldn't do that"; all must say "there but by the grace of God go I."

The spread of Evil
A third lesson from Arendt's study of his life and trial is the incredible spread of evil in a community. I didn't know this before, but slowly the idea of killing thousands spread like an oil slick on water right across whole swathes of German society. And more: the second world war demonstrated the "totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused in respectable European society" (page 73). And this is no more striking in this shocking sentence:

"Wherever Jews lived, there were recognised Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis." (page 72)

As  the extreme example of this cooperation, Jews were involved in building the gas chambers, working them and pulling gold teeth from the corpses (page 70), of course under the pain of death.

Evil spreads in a culture. Imperceptibly, perhaps initially with resistance, but then drip by drip, it becomes acceptable and accepted.

So it has happened in Western Culture many times. Slavery became acceptable. Now abortion has become acceptable. And so has homosexual practice. What was thought of as 'beyond the pale' by another generation drip by drip becomes acceptable in culture at large.

And so, even in the church. If sin is not recognized, repented of or disciplined it will spread. We should not be shocked at the presence of wicked behaviour in the church at Pergamum or Thyatira for example (Revelation 2). If sin is allowed to exist and grow sooner or later it will become established. This is simply a fact - and only prayerful vigilance on the part of leaders will prevent it.

We are seeing this in the Church of England. For many years it has refused to discipline openly homosexual people in its midst and now some of them are vociferous in propagating this sin in their own community and in our society.

Leaders let us "watch our own lives and doctrine" closely, lest we put up with sins in our own lives, which then will spread to other. May the Lord guard and protect his church. 

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Knowledge and Love

The Peril of Knowledge is Pride
It might seem a very strange thing for a Christian pastor to warn against knowledge, but in a society that worships knowledge (and its mother education) the warning must be given.

The central peril of knowledge is pride: "Pride puffeth up". The guy with a degree in history will not listen to someone without a degree in history talk about the second world war: he despises him. The woman with a degree in physics can't stand listening to a biologist rattle on about the second-law: she despises him. You really have to experience it to believe the levels of pride that plague the academy and those trained within her walls.

In the church pride continues to be a plague. The pastor with degrees in what-not or the bible-college trained Christian too easily despises his fellow Christian sharing some deep mystery of the faith because they're amateurs.

Of course this worldly  foolish one-up-manship is just plain absurd. It is very likely that an outsider with the ability to think 'outside the box' will have insights that are simply impossible to the insider because the insider  is blinded by prejudice or paradigm. Remember all education imposes blindness and sight in about equal measure. There is no good reason whatsoever why a chemist couldn't write a far more interesting - and accurate - book on the second world war than any historian trained in his sacred art.

Knowledge in the church 
The grave danger of knowlegde in the church, in addition to pride, is three-fold. I am thinking here of the pure and naked quest to know stuff, whether Scripture, doctrine or church history.

First, it creates an hierarchy or priesthood, between those who know and those who don't. Imagine the home-group where someone knows but the rest don't. Instead of all one in Christ, you have a priesthood of insiders and then the outsiders. In point of fact we all have the Spirit who teaches us (1 John 2:27) and Paul says to the Christians he writes his most sophisticated Gospel to, that they were already "complete in knowledge" (Romans 15:14).

Second, the impression that we must know A, B and C, prevents people from becoming disciples. If the impression is given that knowing stuff is what counts, those who don't know will be discouraged from the start. When in fact what does matter is growing to know Christ better day by day, learning to love him and obey him and learning to love my fellow man. Not attaining some academic knowledge which I could spew out in a test, but personal knowledge of Christ which is often forged in the mines of suffering, not the classrooms of any academy. 

Third, knowledge, I return to the peril, used unwisely is just plain dangerous. There is a saying among brethren circles that goes something like this: "Doctrine in the hand of a fool is like a sword in the hand of a drunk." Someone who knows stuff but does not have the wisdom to know how to use it will be a catastrophe to everyone around them, cutting them up and destroying them.

Unless our knowledge is used in humility and with the purpose of building one another up - and it takes time to learn how to wield the sword of truth wisely - it's not only in vain it is perilous.

What does love-with-knowledge look like? Often it looks like silence: you do not have to correct every wrong saying, comment, statement. Sometimes it looks like a one-to-one chat: an open correction rarely accomplishes any good. It may result in a blog which warns against the peril of knowledge not clothed in edification or love.

Or a quote from an ancient warning about knowledge without experience:

"Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity?... I would rather feel contrition than be able to define it. If you knew the whole Bible off by heart, and all the teachings of the philosophers, how would this help you without the grace and love of God?" (Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, chapter 1)

I know what I am talking about. As a young man I spent a few years growing in knowledge without growing in grace and as a result I was a walking disaster wherever I went. (Of course back then I thought I was a walking apostle.) What that now-bitter experience has taught me is an awareness of the peril of knowledge without love or humility in the church of Jesus Christ which so often plagues the western church.

"Like a thorn bush in a drunkard's hand is a proverb in the mouth of a fool." (Proverbs 26:9)