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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.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Fishermans Press - why we need a new Christian Publisher

Many good Publishers
There are many good Christian publishers out there, catering for different needs, but there is a niche in the market, and we prayerfully hope that Fishermans Press will meet that need.

Here are the gaps:

(1) Very cheap. We plan all publications from Fishermans Press to be at the lowest possible prices - what many people do not realise is that printing books is very cheap these days.

(2) Very Simple. Some Christian books are too complicated for the ordinary Christian. All books we publish will be aimed at "the man in the street" - in other words the biblical church category of "not many noble, not many wise."

(3) Easy to translate. We mean, not only in language style, but permission wise. Since we ain't interested in making money, we won't tie up poor Christians in poor countries with "legalese" which will prevent them translating our materials. We hope these materials will be translated and go all around the world, should it please the Lord. 

(4) Written by real church people.  In our day, too many Christian books are being written by self-styled experts, rather than by ordinary Christians with a writing gift. All books published by Fishermans Press must be written by people with the following real Bible titles or credentials, "saint", "pastor", "deacon", "evangelist"  "slave", or "servant."

If an author wants to boast about their earthly achievements we will happily use biblical categories such as "suffered at the hands of", "despised and rejected, "shipwrecked" or "beaten three times."

But all worldly personal titles or achievements such as "Dr", "Professor", "Director", "Founder of" and anyone wanting to be known by these worthless passing titles will be banned from Fishermans Press.

(Of course if someone happens to have such titles, is godly, and possesses a writing gift, we would be glad to include them as an author - providing they leave the worldly titles behind.)

Sounds radical? Only if we are wired to our secular culture rather than the world of the Bible.

We pray that God will use this new humble press in the years to come, to encourage the church all over the world.

If you want to write for Fishermans Press please let me know....