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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.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Heaven is Christ

The value of homegroup Bible Study
Last week, the home group that meets in my home were studying 1 Peter chapter 1. We are going real slow, trying to meditate on every sentence and truth together.

What one person misses, another observes, and together we "teach and admonish one another" (Colossians 3:16).

This week one verses stood out:

    "Set your hope fully on the grace to be given to you when Jesus Christ is revealed." (1 Peter 1:13)

Place your hope on heaven
We are tempted and prone to set our hope on many things. Perhaps it's the answer to a particular prayer, perhaps it's the resolution of a family problem, perhaps it is the end of some kind of suffering, perhaps it's the prospect of a relationship to end loneliness - the list is endless.

All of these are understandable hopes, but Peter exhorts us to set our hope FULLY on heaven  - the grace that we will one day receive in the fullest measure in heaven.

That requires a real big dollop of mental effort and faith! To continually divert our natural tendency to hope in earthly things, up ten gears to heavenly things. 

Heaven is Christ
But what really struck me at our home group and has followed me around all week, is the next thing Peter writes. He says that heaven is when Christ is revealed. The joy of heaven, the reward of heaven, the centre of heaven is the revelation of Jesus Christ.

We, again, get things wrong so often. We imagine heaven to be about a perfect new powerful body, about perfect peace, about lack of suffering  - and all those things are true.

But supremely, heaven is a revelation of Jesus Christ in all his gracious glory, his love, his righteousness, his power, his sovereign rule.

This must be the hope that dominates our minds when we look the future. All other hopes must play second fiddle, all other visions subservient: heaven is Christ.

Face to face with Christ, my Saviour,
Face to face—what will it be,
When with rapture I behold Him,
Jesus Christ who died for me?

Face to face I shall behold Him,
Far beyond the starry sky;
Face to face in all His glory,
  I shall see Him by and by!

Only faintly now, I see Him,
With the darkling veil between,
But a blessed day is coming,
When His glory shall be seen.

What rejoicing in His presence,
When are banished grief and pain;
When the crooked ways are straightened,
And the dark things shall be plain.

Face to face! O blissful moment!
Face to face—to see and know;
Face to face with my Redeemer,
Jesus Christ who loves me so.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Prophetic Side of True Preaching

The Prophets of Old
Elijah faces down the false prophets
The prophets of old were called to expose the idols and idolatry of their age. Not the idols of a different age, but the particular Baals and Asthtoreths of their own day.

On mount Carmel, Elijah exposed 850 false prophets, Ezekiel was called to expose the false shepherds of Israel, who cared only for themselves and used the flock of God for their own selfish ends as "meat" and "wool."

The prophetic element in preaching
In all genuine Christian preaching there must be this prophetic - speaking to the issues of today - element: I guess that's what the "pr" in preaching stands for. Along with the comfort, the encouragement, the exhortation, the binding up of wounds, and the teaching, there must be a prophetic element or note. Pastors must address the idols of the culture around them, the darling sins of the Christian world in which they find themselves and the particular sins of their own hearts and the hearts of the folk they love and pastor.

    In this way they faithfully preach the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27).

Today's Idols
So what are the idols that modern, western pastors are called to address?

(i) The idol of pleasure. Western culture is given over the pursuit of pleasure and this idol is worshipped by many Christians, whether revealed in sport, hobbies, holidays, whatever. There is nothing wrong with a hobby, but when pleasure takes precedence over spiritual matters, it has become an idol.

(ii) The idol of education. What matters most in the eyes of many parents is the educational standard of their children. Christmas circulars are filled with the academic achievement of their children - often without any comment on the spiritual advance of those precious little ones. Christians boast of their qualifications - most notably church leaders. Instead of boasting in Christ and boasting of their weaknesses, they boast in their daft PhDs and MAs and what nots.

(iii) The idol of individualism. This it the deep seated western idea that we should do what we please irrespective of the effects on others. It is the exact opposite of a love for others, and it is a curse in the culture and the church.

(iv) The idol of ease. This is just the opposite of  "taking up our cross and following Christ". We avoid difficult choices, avoid costly choices and opt for the paths of least resistance and greatest comfort.

(v) The idol of family. We are called to love our flesh and blood, but we are also called to put Christ first. Many prefer to love their families first and love Christ and his people second.

Prophets in trouble
But, and here is the rub for all genuine pastors, addressing the idols of any age will bring severe opposition, because you are touching what people love the most.  As a result, many pastors ignore this part of their duty. They studiously avoid the idols that fill their congregations lest they get into trouble!

True prophets will always get in trouble!

Big, big trouble!

Think of all the OT prophets, think of Christ the Great Prophet, think of the Apostles, the Magesterial Reformers, and even more the Anabaptist Reformers! Preach the truth and beware.

But God will protect his chosen ones, and that should encourage all true and faithful preachers.

Support your Pastor-Prophet
With this in mind, pray for your pastor in his prophetic role. When he addresses an idol in your culture or your heart, thank God.  When he preaches a difficult sermon, thank God you have a man who is prepared to preach faithfully - something increasingly rare in our day of men-pleasers.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Date Night with my Wonderful Wife

Molvolio at the RSC
Date Night
Readers of this blog  may be surprised to read this particular post.

Yesterday I made a special deal of my wife's birthday!

I must add, immediately, that it was not a "special" birthday, numerically, speaking, if you know what I mean.

The reason readers will be surprised is because I don't do birthdays very much.

Why? For very good biblical reasons.

In our easy-going western church Christians will sadly miss a prayer meeting or a Bible study or serving in some vital ministry to celebrate a birthday. Instead of moving the birthday to another evening, if it's in our power to do so, or saying "I'm sorry I have a very important prior commitment", Christians in our laid-back culture miss fellowship and prayer meetings far too easily.

Our love for Christ and our love for his people is so small these days. 

Missing fellowship is not good for us, and it discourages others in the group.

Can we really imagine the first Christians emailing the home group leader "Sorry, I can't make fellowship evening, it's my brothers birthday today." Somehow I don't think so. The Anabaptists set one historical example which we can compare ourselves to and encouraged each other to meet 4-5 times a week.

And we read in Acts 2:46, "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts." The Bible is our benchmark, not contemporary culture.

So for these very good sound biblical reasons, I tend to pay very little attention to birthdays. Someone has to move in the opposite direction to drag the pendulum away from one side.

After saying all of that, this little "rule" is mine and mine alone. No-one else has to follow it, for in Christ we are totally free from man-made rules, and I am sure that one day I will break this rule for the sake of love. 

Twelfth Night 
But last night I took my wife to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon to watch Twelfth Night together. We enjoyed a lovely meal at Wetherspoons beforehand (The Golden Bee, if you are nosy) and settled in for a 2 hour 20 minute performance.

Having been brought up without TV or films, I struggle to catch everything in plays or films, and when the language is KJV I find it even more difficult, but I loved the character Molvolio, played superbly by Adrian Edmondson (his debut at the RSC). The play is worth watching to see him alone act, in my humble opinion.

Molvolio is set up to believe that a particular woman is in love with him. He finds a letter written in letters that seem to come from her hand instructing him to dress up in certain (deliberately strange) ways and act in certain ways if he loves her and wants to woo her. It's all a brilliant set-up!

Well he follows the letter to a T, makes his appearance before the woman and a series of very funny scenes unfold, superbly acted by the cast. We had some good laughs together!  His hopes are of course dashed and his strange behaviour  rewarded with derision and prison. The cruel joke is eventually exposed.... No more spoilers.

Husbands and wives need time out
But seriously, Christian husbands and wives need to spend time together and a "date night" is one way to do that. Go somewhere different, see something unusual, talk about something extraordinary. And on the way, in the car, you can pray! 

Yvonne and I have been married for 29 years, and she is, after salvation, God's greatest and most precious gift to me, and I thank God for her.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Is God calling you?

The call of Elisha
The call of Elisha into the role of a full-time prophet sets a pattern for how God calls men and women into ministry. Here are five characteristics of a true call....

A true call comes from God
It was God who told Elijah to appoint Elisha (1 Kings 19:16). God must appoint you, you must know this in the clearest terms possible, in your heart, and for sure. If you know God has called you, then you will be able to persevere through all the trials of full-time ministry.

A true call of God is confirmed by others
But that internal call, must be accompanied by an external call - the confirmation of your church leaders. Elijah confirmed the appointment of Elisha, as did Moses the appointment of Joshua (Numbers 27:18-23). So did the 50 prophets from Jericho recognise the appointment of Elisha. There is no such thing as someone who is self-appointed to ministry.

A true call comes to busy people!
Elisha is working in his father's fields when he is called, Peter, Andrew, James and John are fishing, Matthew is at the collecting booth. The ministry is not for people who can't hack it in the real world, but for believers who are doing well in the real world. As Tozer put it, "If a donkey wiggles his ears in America, he will wiggle them in Africa." Work that one out yourself.

A true call is confirmed by a willingness to leave everything behind
Elisha left his family and his career, the disciples did the same. This is in the very essence of a true call - you are willing to leave familiar and easy surroundings for difficult ones.

A true call is confirmed by a teachable spirit and a servant-hearted attitude
For a number of years, Elisha became Elijah's servant, even humbly pouring water over his hands. This radical servant-heartedness is just the opposite of that rebellious spirit that says "I will serve when it suits me", "I will serve if I can serve in my way". Humble servanthood is the heart of a Christ-like spirit. Jesus came not to be served but to serve. He did and spoke only what his Father told him. Humble servanthood is the name of the game in all Christian ministry.

Not paper qualifications, not years spent at a Bible College, but Christlikeness.

If we feel God is calling us - do we match up to the above?

On saying goodbye to the biased BBC

The most secular corporation on earth?
Today I have switched my browser home page from the BBC. There was no particular straw that broke the camel's back, just a growing sense of disillusionment...

I have grown to question the BBC news coverage for the following reasons:

(1) Totally biased. On almost every issue, they take the view of secular humanists or the liberal community. Their radical support for the Democratic party in the recent US elections and their contempt for the Republicans,  had nothing to do with the qualities of the two respective leaders (neither of whom one could endorse) - but had everything to do with the fact that one side supported liberal values and the other side didn't.

(2) Anti-Christian. On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the only related item of news I heard from the BBC was on Eddy Mair's "PM" news programme on BBC 4. It was a wholesale rubbishing of "Thought for the Day" - the only "religious" part of its morning sister show, "Today." I too find "Thought for the Day" unbearable most of the time (I often hit the off button for those three minutes), that wasn't the point. The point is that no time whatsoever is given to anything truly Christian. Our voice is completely silenced. (The BBC loves religion - choirs, smoke, bells, colour, robes buildings, etc - TV is a visual media; it's just true Christianity they hate).

(3) Much of what it calls "news" is not news. Much that passes for "news" on the BBC is nothing more than random events designed to propagate their PC agenda. Irrelevant stories and politically correct news gets far more coverage than  is due, by democratic numbers alone. I want to hear about serious important world stories, not tittle tattle. For example, the BBC might scour India for transgender communities which make up perhaps 0.000000001% of that population and present this as front page news to bolster their own transgender agenda. What is happening in the 99.99999999% of the ordinary lives of Indians is irrelevant. The impression they want to leave (a false impression) is that transgender is commonplace in India. One reason the BBC is so biased is that it employs, according to the Christian Institute, 6 times more LGBT employees than there are in the general population. The problem is that PC news is so tedious and boring - you could write tomorrow's articles today and simply get a secretary to do a "find" and "replace" on the names. The BBC should more accurately be called the PCBC.

See: BBC Employees

(4) Morally insensitive. Items of news which I do not want my children to hear are broadcast in the middle of the day. For that matter, I don't want to hear about the antics of a Weinstein or a Spacey. There is no moral sense or propriety whatsoever at the BBC, that a certain decorum should cloak certain items of news. Some news items can and should wait for the 10.00pm news. 

For these main reasons and many more, BBC is no longer my home page.

I am replacing it for a month with ITV, then I'll try Al Jazeera and then some of the American news companies and I will report on my findings in a later blog.

As a follower of Jesus I am committed to hearing the truth, not a version of lies propagated by a secular organisation.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

It's Reformation Day! HURRAY! HURRAY! HURRAY!

Much to celebrate!
Today is the anniversary of one of the most important days in the history of the church - and the history of Western Civilisation!

But there is NO mention of it on the BBC homepage and no mention of it on the 6.00pm news! And the best Google can do is to celebrate Halloween with a childish logo.

On the 31st October 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 talking points to the door of a church in Wittenberg. He was proper mad at the latest indulgence preached by the Catholic church - a moneymaking idea to rebuild St Peter's Basilica in Rome! John Tetzel and his crew had been pushing these indulgences like crazy to fill up the coffers of the Catholic church and Luther was cross about how these indulgences were perverting the Gospel. In simple terms, an indulgence was a way of getting some of your sins (or the sins of someone you loved) forgiven! Pay some money and get some sins forgiven! Ridiculous! Only Jesus forgives sins!

Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and many others had the colossal task of cleaning off centuries of grime from the pure Gospel! And under God, salvation by faith alone through Christ alone, by the grace of God alone was restored!

Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!

But let us remember, the Gospel will ALWAYS be under attack...

The Pure Gospel
What is the Gospel? In five simple steps, the simple Gospel is:

(1) Everyone knows there is a God - from the witness of creation (Romans 1:20)

(2) Everyone has turned from this God to idols - exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worshipping created things (money, hobbies, sex, sports, culture...)  rather than the Creator (Romans 1:22-25)

(3) As a result of this deliberate walking out on God, everyone stands under the righteous judgement of God (Romans 6:23)

(4) But God in his great love and mercy sent his beloved Son into the world to pay for our sin  (1 Peter 3:18)

(5) God calls everyone to repent and to believe the Good News - (Acts 2:38, 17:30, John 3:16)

And the moment ANYONE responds to the Gospel in faith and obedience they receive the gift of God's righteousness, the blessing of his Holy Spirit and the Hope of eternal life!

This Gospel will always be under attack! In Luther's day the satanic attack was to obscure, to cover up the Gospel with heaps of man-made traditions! That isn't our problem today...

Satan's attack today -make us "ashamed of the Gospel" (Romans 1:16-17)
...our problem is that we could so easily be ashamed of the Gospel, or at least aspects of it. Here is how Satan would love us to dilute the Gospel today...

We could easily become ashamed of the simplicity of the Gospel 
Men like Tom Wright have infiltrated the evangelical church with a complicated gospel so that we can gain intellectual respectability in a scientific age. At root, he says that you need a PhD in first century Judaism to understand Jesus. If you don't  have one, well at least you need a guide with a PhD (now, I wonder, who that might be..........) Utter Nonsense! Anyone can understand the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1:18), including a child.

We could easily be ashamed of the uniqueness of the Gospel
In a postmodern pluralistic age, the idea that there is only ONE WAY to God is regarded as folly. But indeed there is no other name under heaven whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12)

We could easily be ashamed of preaching the punishment announced by the Gospel
Rob Bell is embarrassed by the words of the New Testament when it talks about hell. Paul isn't, for he says that evildoers will "be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord." (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

We could be fearful of preaching the repentance demanded by the Gospel
I am thinking in particular of those sins which through PC have become virtues and which we may shy away from mentioning, but if not repented of will banish is from the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

We could become fearful of the suffering that may come through the preaching of the Gospel
Perhaps we will keep silent because we fear that in preaching the Gospel we might lose our jobs, honour, houses, wife, children, freedom.

This is Satan's attack upon the Gospel today - not to obscure it - but to make Christians fearful of preaching it!

And yet we should not be ashamed - we must not be ashamed - because this pure Gospel is the divine means, the divine power, for the salvation of all who believe (Romans 1:16-17).

Monday, 23 October 2017

Ashamed of the Reformation?

Recent BBC TV Programmes
I have recently commended the BBC for a fine documentary about the Reformation in England, highlighting the three books that were forefront of the Reformation here: Tyndale's New Testament, Foxe's Book of Martyrs and Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. Available on iPlayer for a while this programme is well worth watching. (There was another BBC documentary by David Starkey, which did not get my applause because its title encouraged the viewer to liken aspects of the Reformation to ISIS type terror, "Reformation: Europe's Holy War.")

But we need to commend the BBC when it does things well.

I sense, however, that some church people are sort of embarrassed by the Reformation and very reluctant to "celebrate" it. Why should that be so?

First, the age in which we live, militates against talk of boundaries and differences. Every fascinating mountain peak must be reduced to form one single boring plain.  There is a war taking place against the biological fact of there being two very different sexes (let us obliterate that difference). There is a war against there being only one kind of upright sexuality (let every sexuality be normal). There is a war against any notion of differing roles in marriage (let men and women be the bland same), and so it goes on. Twisted and completely confused notions of "equality" have resulted in a culture that is against any notions of "differences". So a Christian is reluctant in our environment to say anything spiky, such as, "I am a Protestant not a Catholic."

Second, we live in a culture so blind to its own faults that it dares to judge all other cultures by its own norms. So, a typical modern westerner would decry the terrible violence of a present day tin-pot political regime and denounce the sins of slavery and religious war, but completely overlook the barbaric murder in his own country. Around 200,000 defenceless children were murdered last year in Wales and England before they had the chance to live one single day. In the one place where a child ought to be most protected, the most secure, the most loved, the most protected, 200,000 lives were savagely cut down last year.

That is over 500 human beings were murdered in England Wales every single day last year! 

Yet our culture has the absolute Pharisaical cheek to complain about the atrocities of a Mugabe or a Kim Jong-il.

The result of this culture blindness is that any movement that is connected to war or death is automatically written off, automatically embarrassing: without recognising that every culture, including our own, has terrible, terrible blind spots. The greatest blind spot of late medieval days was the inability to disconnect church and state - and from that fatal error flowed some wars of religion (far less severe - it must be added quickly - than the wars caused by atheistic Communism in the last century).

Wary of all human Reformers....
We ought rightly to be wary of blindly following any human reformer. Luther, Zwingli and Calvin were men of their times, prone to all the human weaknesses that we all fall prey to. The greatest of he reformers saw something of their weaknesses and dissuaded people from following them. Luther said:

"The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans but Christians. What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone. How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?”

We should not call ourselves "Lutherans", "Calvinists" or "Zwingli-ites" (if there is such a thing), because these men were all flawed like the rest of us. We follow Jesus, and Jesus alone.

....but proud of the Reformation
But a Bible-believing Christian ought to be proud of the Reformation. Proud of the remarkable recovery of the Gospel the Holy Spirit was pleased to lead the flawed reformers to understand, preach and die for.

Monday, 16 October 2017

How to Get the Best out of Preaching

The Practise of Listening to Preaching
Listening to preaching does not come naturally for at least three reasons:

First, we live in an age of infinite distractions. I am thinking here the Internet. The bored human mind can flit anywhere it chooses, and quickly moves to a more engaging site. This lazy habit of mind applied to the things of God is counterproductive, because listening to God's word needs both concentration and mental effort: it's called loving God with all our minds (Luke 10:27).

Secondly, Satan hates God's Word. He must know that the Word is the "sword of the Spirit", so he will do anything he possibly can to keep us from it. And boy has he had a field day in the modern church. Sermons are kept as short as possible and passages not politically correct (kind of like most of the Bible these days?) are avoided like the plague. Satan will keep us from hearing God's Word.

Thirdly, our old rebel natures hate the Word. Although we have been renewed in our inner man, we carry around with us our old fallen husk until the day we die. And this part of us does not want to submit to God's Holy Law.

For these reasons - and no doubt more - listening to preaching does not come naturally.

How then should I prepare?
First and foremost, pray. "Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law." (Psalm 119:18). Before we listen to preaching, we ought to pray for God to do what we can never do, to open our eyes to the glories of his Word, by the power of his Holy Spirit.

Second, humble ourselves before God. It is impossible to eat without opening our mouths, without being receptive, and it is impossible to hear God's Word without humbling ourselves before God's mighty Word, "Open your mouth wide and I will fill it." (Psalm 81:10). Many people do not hear because they are too proud to hear: they know better than God. 

Love the preacher. The pharisees learnt absolutely nothing at all from Jesus Christ, the Son of God, because they hated him. No-one will hear a word from God if they hate the man God has appointed. Pastors are to be loved and honoured as servants of  Christ, "Hold them in the highest regard because of their work." (1 Thess 5:13).  Love your pastor, and part of loving your pastor is to pray for him in his great task of feeding the sheep - and then you will profit from God's Word through him. 

Fourthly, concentrate - take notes if possible. No preacher should be boring; a boring preacher may simply be one who does not have the gift of preaching. But when we hear God's Word, it is not novelty we seek, but truth. So we need to concentrate. Some people find it easier to concentrate by taking notes.

Finally, obey the Word. This is the ultimate way of hearing the Word aright. "Blessed are those who keep his statutes" (Ps. 119:2). If we go every week listening but not obeying the Word, soon we will no longer hear the voice of God and our hearts will grow hard and cold.

What an awesome privilege we have listening to God's Word. Still, in the West, our sermons are not monitored by the state. We can listen in freedom and respond in joyful obedience. May we not take such an awesome privilege for granted: it is likely one day to be gone.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Was the apostle Paul a Misogynist?

XYZ University
What did Paul look like?
I had the enlightened misfortune of studying Biblical Studies at XYZ university. Enlightened because I became aware of how unbelievers interpret the Bible. Although we are not called to judge the heart, most of my teachers were probably not believers because they had little respect for the authority of the Bible. I choose my words carefully. They had respect for the Bible as a literary composition (and indeed they should: Hebrew narrative, for example, is remarkable for its skillful composition, as boffins like Robert Alter have explained) but they had no respect for the divine authority behind Scripture. The Bible for many of them had no more  binding authority than Uncle Tom's Cabin.

What was most interesting during my years there was the particular loathing many lecturers had for the apostle Paul. John was cuddly, Peter OK, James a bit thick, but Paul - he was beyond the pale.

Apostle to the Gentile world
Understanding why he was loathed begins with a recognition of  Paul's specific role as "apostle to the Gentiles"(Romans 11:13). While cuddly John and Peter worked largely among Jewish circles, Paul's very specific task was to explain the Gospel of God's remarkable Grace to the Gentile (pagan) world.

There can be no greater message of love than the Gospel, which offers free pardon to undeserving sinners, so whence the loathing?

John and Peter did not have to say much about gender or sexuality, because in a Jewish culture that was assumed: there is a divine order between the male and female and any sexual behaviour beyond heterosexual marriage was sin.

Paul preached in a radically different environment, one where the ethics were unshaped by the Bible and where "anything goes" was the order of the day.

So it fell on Paul's shoulders to outline God's universal creation ethics to a pagan world ignorant of how God made men and women.

So when Paul says things like, homosexual practise is shameful, indecent and unnatural (Romans 1:26-27), or, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man" (1 Timothy 2:12) or, "Wives submit to your husbands" (Ephesians 5:22), he is simply bringing the newly converted Gentile Christians into line with the ethics of God's unending created order.

Because these ethical standards and codes are so different from those of the world, Paul is hated above all the apostles!

But we must hold onto the authority of the apostle Paul, for, as an apostle of Christ, when Paul writes we hear Christ speak.

What is astounding is that no New Testament writer so exalts or cares for women like Paul:
  • Men and women are equal in salvation - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:28)
  • Men and women both may serve Christ in the church - Paul's list of Gospel helpers in Romans 16 is filled with the names of sisters in Christ
  • Paul extols the caring role of a mother, "we were gentle among you, like  a mother caring for  her little children" (1 Thess 2:7)
  • Paul orders special provision to be made for widows (1 Timothy 5)
  • Most dramatically of all, Paul's insistence that Christian husbands love their wives in a sacrificial way (Ephesians 5)
The charge of misogyny against Paul is radically unjust, and you wonder therefore why it sticks.

Here's the reason: Satan hates the order God has wired into the created world and so he hates anyone who upholds that order.  He hates the Gospel and so he hates those who preach that Gospel and it's life-fruits. Above all Satan hates Christ and so he hates the apostles of Christ.

Anyone who preaches the Gospel faithfully today will also be called a misogynist
Any preacher who decides to be faithful to the Gospel message and its ethical outworkings  in the home and church  will alos be called a misogynist - and that is very costly. It explains why so many preachers are running away from Paul - in the end they don't want the reproach of Christ.

But Christ will honour those who are faithful to Him, even though they are despised in this passing world.

Friday, 6 October 2017

The Incarnation of the Son of God - and Social Media

Someone needs to write a short play
Talking to a friend of mine who is studying theatre the other day, we realised the potential for a (short?) play to illustrate the limits of all social media - and the relevance of the incarnation of the Son of God to this modern problem.

During the very same conversation we met a friend who has teenage children: he bemoaned the distraction of his children by social media; social media's boast to connect peopled together was in fact causing anxiety and distress.

The blessings of social media
No-one can doubt that social media has brought benefits. We are able to "keep in touch" with friends and family near and far in the same way that letters, telegrams and the telephone did in a bygone age. The problems with social media are when it is used as a substitute for human contact, and here is why.

Three Big Problems 
(1) Social Media can easily be misunderstood. Electronic means of communication, and most especially short sections of text can be easily read wrong. There is simply not enough information for the reader to get a full picture. This is the central fault with every form of social media, all the way up to and including Skype/Facetime.

(2) Social Media is too intrusive. We can find ourselves at the mercy of anyone who wants to contact us, rather than having control over when we have the resources, the time and the energy to talk.

(3) Social Media is open to deception and manipulation. Since the information content is so limited, anyone can deceive. A family in chaos could give the impression to the world that everything was at peace through selective posts - and consequently give the impression to those that read the post that their own family life was poor by comparison.

The Incarnation of the Son of God
A Christian once wrote, "God has yet more light to bring forth from His Word", by which they meant that God's Word contains untold gems for the whole history of mankind, which would be unearthed at the appropriate time. A sentence here or a truth there, which we can simply not see the value of today, suddenly shines in a new world setting. This is one reason God's Word is timeless and eternally relevant.

It contained all the seeds for the destruction of slavery for example so that in the fullness of time, Wilberforce and others could see clearly the abhorrence of the new world slavery of their day.

Here is another example: on first reading, Paul seems pedantic - "But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." (1 Cor 7:2). Why the "each man" and "each woman." Why didn't Paul say, "But since there is so much immorality each one should have a partner" and assume people would read husband/wife from the rest of the chapter and Bible? Because Paul was writing for all time, and for our time when homosexual behaviour is not seen for the wickedness that it is. He is being as pedantically specific as it is possible to be - no misunderstanding of that text whatsoever: a man for a woman and a woman for a man, not ever a woman for a woman or a man for a man! He wrote for our times.

The Word of God is eternal. "Your word, LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens." (Psalm 119:89)

The doctrine we need to restore for Social Media is the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh, and here is why:

(1) Speaking through words is good
God has spoken through the Scriptures, and words are good. 

(2) Speaking through other people (ambassadors/ prophets) is better
God used his prophets - real people -  to communicate his message. Rather than a purely written word, God sent real men who by their lives, words and often their actions added to the "bald" word. Ezekiel, for example, symbolised the siege of Jerusalem in a little play (chapter 4) involving a clay tablet and an iron pan.

(3) Speaking through yourself is best
As good as words and messengers are, the very best way to communicate is by yourself, your own, visible, bodily presence. A letter or an ambassador are secondrate to the presence of a king. God sent his Son in human flesh to communicate most effectively to us:

"In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son." (Hebrews 1:1-2)

In the incarnation of the Son of God lies the greatest theological and philosophical resource mankind has to advocate face to face communication. Jesus spent three years with his disciples. He didn't write letters to them or ask them to attend talks, he lived with them day by day. This is what discipleship entails and requires - deep meaningful communication with others. 

Back to Social Media
No form of social media - including Skype - can contain the amount of information required for effective communication. God has given us faces and body language which communicate emotions to add to  pure words which can only communicate  propositional statements of fact or information. 

Texts can be misunderstood and used to manipulate because I can say in a text "I am feeling rotten" whereas in fact if you were in the room with me you could see I was fine from my face, my body language and my circumstances.

Physical body to physical body is the only way to communicate effectively: that is what the incarnation of the Son of God teaches us.

We all know that the only proper way to talk is face to face, but Christian doctrine provides the reason: God used face to face when he spoke to us. And heaven is wonderful, not merely because there will be no mourning or death, but primarily for this reason:

"Now the dwelling of God will be with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God." (Rev 21:3)

 That short play must be written, and when it is, it will be a Gospel play.