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Thursday, 30 May 2013

Simul Iustus et Peccator

Luther didn't get it all right
"The Destruction of the European Jews" by Paul Hilberg is a solemn reminder of how potent words are. Martin Luther, the reformer, wrote a book, "About the Jews and Their Lies" which expressed and repeated views about the Jews (common in his time) which contributed to a bad attitude towards Jews in German culture leading into the second world war.

Basically, Luther says that Jews want to rule the world, they are archcrimnal killers of Christ - and all Christendom, and frankly they are a plague. Not a very Christ-like attitude, you will agree.

Perhaps Luther's view of the Jews shocks you, it shouldn't: only One Man is worthy of our devotion. I am not in the least surprised that Martin Luther was plain wrong on the Jews, as well as on subject B, C, D (there are probably not enough letters in the alphabet).....

On Justification by faith he got it right
And yet Martin Luther remains an important figure in the story of the church because he insisted (or re-insisted, shall we say) on the radical and wonderful message of the Gospel, which in summary form is about a God who justifies the wicked (Romans 4:5). We are not saved by our works, we are saved by mere faith in Christ, plus nothing. And even that faith comes form God (Ephesians 2:8-9), so we are saved by God from first to last; we contribute nothing to our salvation (except perhaps our sins). 

This glorious Gospel gives hope to the worst of sinners:  they can come into his glorious kingdom by faith in Christ. And it gives hope to failing believers; their 'performance' does not affect their standing with God - he still loves them and they are still dressed in the robes of his righteousness. This is in part what motivates a believer in the great task of sanctification - they are amazed at the eternal unchanging steadfast love and grace of God to sinners and want to respond in loving obedience.

       Simul Iustus et Peccator
       Simultaneously Justified and a Sinner

In this life I am always a sinner, but by the grace of God, at the same time, by faith in Christ I am a justified sinner.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Triumph of the Academy: Porterbrook goes West

We are all looking for recognition
Secretly, and sometimes not so secretly, we are all looking for recognition: I don't mean recognition in God's eyes, the longing to hear his "well done", but earthly recognition; recognition before the present living church.

Of course we might deny this like mad, but that doesn't alter the truth that ugly selfish, self-serving, self-exalting pride rests in all of our hearts. We want others to know, don't we? We are not prepared to serve unnoticed all our days, before an audience of only One. We want recognition here and now. That's probably half the reason I write this blog. The other reasons I kid myself into believing are: (1) I am trying to help others, (2) I am trying to get personal clarity on an issue - writing helps to clarify an issue that is cloudy in the brain. But I don't have a clue as to my real motives, for all I know 99% may be for personal glory (that's how little I - and you - know our own hearts).

Varieties of recognition
How recognition is expressed, of course varies. In a criminal culture, you get a bachelor's degree  if you are even distantly connected to someone who's done time, a master's degree if it was a friend, and a PhD if the criminal was your brother, or if you did the deed.

Recognition in middle class culture works in the same way, but this time it is not proximity to a crime, but proximity to the academy. How close are you to some academic institution? So at the very very top of western recognition is the Professor who works straight out of the University. If you can call yourself "Professor Brian Cox" or what-not, you've reached the top of your game (though you may be unbelievably ignorant about the most important things in life and the universe). And to get there you must list all your 'research interests', papers, publications, blah, blah, blah.

The church aping the world
Tragically the western evangelical middle-class world works in exactly the same way. It is not enough to be known as humble pastor John Smith, you must declare, if you want recognition, how many articles and books you have written, where you have studied and what your present "research interests" are: seriously.

Porterbrook goes West
And so when a church-planting-training network recently announced they would be teaming up with an evangelical academic institution, I saw it as the ultimate triumph of this secular-cum-christian desire for worldly recognition. And then when I also discovered that ordinary folk in ordinary churches like mine can no longer use the material in a flexible way - because the academy want you to do it in a certain way - I realised that even evangelicals on the cutting edge of church planting in the Western world bow to the recognition that only the academy can give.

Marry the academy and you have (finally) arrived.

How different the world of Jesus Christ
How very different the world of Jesus Christ and his apostles. Jesus lays aside his majesty and is prepared to serve as a zero, and in the end is exalted to the highest place. Paul regards all of his previous achievements - including academic ones - as "dung" and again is prepared to be an insulted and misunderstood servant of Jesus Christ.

The lost cause
We have a lost world to win - and so many of them are working class folk, who could not understand the words, let alone the ideas of the academy. That's the most tragic outcome of Porterbrook going WEST. What we need is not more high-faluten study material and connections but more down to earth Gospel training that a Peter or a John can grasp and turn the world upside down with.

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Problem with Religion is Sin

Religion = 'following rules'

The word "religion" is used in many ways. A common definition runs something like this, "religion is a set of rules or guidelines or pathways that connect human beings to God." Every "world religion" has a different set of those rules/guidelines/pathways - but all religions share this: to get to God you must follow those rules: religion, boiled down, is about following rules.

Religion is so popular because it answers one of life's Big Questions and does so in a typically human way. How do we connect to God? Religion says: "We can do it, we can connect: just follow the rules."

Christianity is anti-religious

Defined that way, Christianity is emphatically non-religious and even anti-religious. (That's not true of Christianity-gone-to-seed. There are many groups and churches which go by the name "Christian" which are in the end nothing more than religion - over  the years they have lost the true essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ and have reverted back to religion - the default mode of human beings, when it comes to God.) True Christianity is about God reaching down to us, not us reaching up to God.

Christianity is non-religious because it answers Life's Big Question in a totally different way to religion. It says that you can't connect to God, you can't do anything. Positive follows Negative: the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaims that God has done everything necessary for us to be restored to God. We can't lift a finger, but God has done everything for us! Through his Son he has reached down to us.

The Gospel teaches that in this reconnection, a new relationship with God is restored. God does not remain aloof and distant, he becomes our Father in heaven and we become his children. But it is God who does it all, not us.

          Religion is spelt DO and Christianity is spelt DONE.

          Religion is spelt RULES and Christianity is spelt RELATIONSHIP.

What's the real problem with religion?

Sin. The reason we can't either get right or stay right with God is because of our sin. The reason rules don't work is that no-one can keep them. This is the essential problem of mankind - our sin. If we could perform, if we could be good, religion might work, but we can't. And this is why God has to take both the initiative - and the continuing care.

The Gospel of God

According to the Gospel of Jesus Christ a sinner is declared righteous the moment they believe in Jesus Christ! That righteousness does not come through our obedience. It comes through Christ's earthly obedience reckoned to our account and our sins imputed to his account - and paid for on the cross. Instantly we are justified by God, through faith. Once converted we are then sanctified. Again, God is at work in us to sanctify us by Word and Spirit (though in sanctification we must work with him, in fear and trembling).

The problem with religion is our sin which makes us completely unable to 'perform' spiritually. The Gospel is God's solution to that problem of sin - it's a Gospel of grace, God's initiative and ongoing activity towards undeserving sinners to do what we cannot do ourselves. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Wisdom and Love - or 'cosmic child abuse'?

Richard's been reading Steve Chalke
Recently I saw a clip of Richard Dawkins in which he berated the Christian teaching that due to one man's sin (Adam) all humanity became sinners which then required God to sacrifice his Son to redeem us. (Dawkins has clearly been reading too much Steve Chalke, or is it the other way round?). What an immoral doctrine, he raved. Why couldn't God just forgive? Why did he have to put Jesus through such torment?

Immoral or loving and wise?
From the outside, from a position of ignorance, I guess the cross may look strange. But a little unpacking reveals wisdom. Consider the following:

(1) Isn't it unfair that we are 'blamed' for and infected by something the one man Adam did? (No, because we also benefit from what one Other Man did.)
Adam eats the fruit ('scrumping' in Dawkins' speak) and all mankind suffers. How come? Scripture explains that God deals with mankind on the 'federal head' principle. One person represents many others. It's not an unfamiliar system. One president or prime minister declares war and everyone in that country is at war.

Perhaps we object to such a representative system because we westerners are so individualistic. We forget that all mankind is entwined at many levels. This is not theory but simple fact: a rogue nation far away acquires nuclear weapons and every nation in the world feels fear; atrocities in one country evoke both anger and sympathy across the world. Whether we like it or not or agree with it or not, mankind is a connected entity.

But back to Adam, "Isn't it unfair that something he did back then affects us all today?" "Isn't the federal head principle unjust?" Well, the principal can work for us as much as against us. Suppose you are a Japanese citizen in WW2 fearful that your city is the next one to be nuked - Hiroshima and Nagasaki have already been destroyed. Your only hope is that your federal head, Emperor Hirohito and his generals sue for peace. You personally as an individual have no power or authority in the face of  such an enemy, but he does.You are very grateful for the 'federal head' principle.

In the same way, God employed the same principle to our great advantage when he sent his Son to rescue us from Adam's sin and our sin. One man suffered, many were saved. This now looks like wisdom rather than folly.

(2) But couldn't God just forgive our sins? (No, because he is just as well as loving.)
Why did he have to sacrifice his Son? Again, there are good reasons. God cannot just forgive sin; for he is a Just God as well as a loving and merciful one. Imagine every human court in history after every guilty verdict has been served saying to every criminal "you are forgiven, you are free." Human justice would be outraged, not to mention the righteous justice of the victims. Something even within us understands that evil should be punished. Yes this justice is sometimes mixed with unholy vengeance, but when you distill the vengeance out, a pure sense of justice remains. And this is rooted in an understanding of right and wrong and the ability of human beings to know the difference and an amount of free will to not murder, steal and destroy: a sense of justice is part of what it means to be human.

Ramped up a billion times, God, the Judge of the Universe cannot overlook evil. To do so would make him unjust, and that he cannot do. It's against his nature. To do so would make him a capricious God able to do just whatever, and God cannot do whatever, he has to be true to his nature: justice flows out of his character.

This is where love comes in. Since God has to serve justice, he could have served it in us, and then we would be doomed! But in his mercy and love he sent his Son - who willingly came out of love - to die in our place.

All of this makes eminent sense, but it is a wisdom from on high, which is probably foolishness to the world. Christians frankly cannot expect the world to understand or accept these things. They are foolishness to those without the Spirit of God, but the wisdom and power of God to those who believe.

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" ( 1 Corinthians 1:18)