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Archive for February, 2008

Worthy is the Lamb

I’m preaching on Revelation 5 on Sunday.  Really looking forward to it.  I’ve taken the opportunity to read Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon on Christ as the Lion and the Lamb: “The Excellency of Christ.”  In it his thesis is that the Lion-ness and Lamb-ness of Jesus represent…

“…an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ.”

I enjoyed much of the sermon.

I was also dis-heartened by much of it.

Why? 

Well Edwards does not crudely assign all Lamb-ness to Christ’s human nature and all Lion-ness to His divine nature. But that’s often the flavour of things.  And so he says things like this:

In the person of Christ do meet together infinite glory and lowest humility. Infinite glory, and the virtue of humility, meet in no other person but Christ. They meet in no created person, for no created person has infinite glory, and they meet in no other divine person but Christ. For though the divine nature be infinitely abhorrent to pride, yet humility is not properly predicable of God the Father, and the Holy Ghost, that exists only in the divine nature, because it is a proper excellency only of a created nature. For it consists radically in a sense of a comparative lowness and littleness before God, or the great distance between God and the subject of this virtue. But it would be a contradiction to suppose any such thing in God.

Do you see how straight away Edwards has a pre-formed conception of what humanity and divinity are like – a conception that sits ill with the Glorious-Humble God-Man!  The essence of glory and humility are decided in advance of considering the Lamb at the centre of the throne.  (Ironic given that this is a sermon on Revelation 5!).  If Edwards was determined to have Christ define glory and humility, the direction of the argument would be very different.

Now if Edwards’ logic is followed (humility is only proper to creatures) then what we have is a divine nature for which humility is impossible.  How then can Edwards see Christ as humble?  Well it must be only according to his human nature.  To ask whether the Person of Christ is humble would receive the answer – according to His human nature yes, but according to His divine nature, no.  This opens up two problems.

  1. Christ’s humanity and divinity are conceived in completely contradictory ways. (Nestorianism)
  2. Christ is not really humble.  2 Corinthians 8:9 ought to read: “You know the grace of our LORD Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, He opened up another bank account with no money in it at all… so that we through His (only apparent) poverty might become rich.” 

Edwards’ next point is this …

In the person of Christ do meet together infinite majesty and transcendent meekness. These again are two qualifications that meet together in no other person but Christ. Meekness, properly so called, is a virtue proper only to the creature. We scarcely ever find meekness mentioned as a divine attribute in Scripture, at least not in the New Testament.

Now it’s very telling Edwards should want the New Testament to speak of the divine attribute of meekness.  Surely the decisive argument against his position – the argument against which he must guard – is that, pre-incarnation, the LORD is spoken of as meek.  And the truth is, He is spoken of as meek – 2 Sam 22:36; Ps 18:35; Ps 45:4. What’s strange is that Edwards goes on to quote Psalm 45 to prove Christ’s majesty (v4), failing conspicuously to spot His meekness proclaimed in the very same verse! Now here is an OT description of the God Messiah – and He is majestic and meek. It is not His humanity per se that makes Christ meek. In His pre-incarnate Person He is already meek.  In this way we see that the incarnation is a revelation not a concealment.

Let’s look at one last quote:

In Christ do meet together self-sufficiency, and an entire trust and reliance on God, which is another conjunction peculiar to the person of Christ. As he is a divine person, he is self-sufficient, standing in need of nothing. All creatures are dependent on him, but he is dependent on none, but is absolutely independent. His proceeding from the Father, in his eternal generation or filiation, argues no proper dependence on the will of the Father. For that proceeding was natural and necessary, and not arbitrary. But yet Christ entirely trusted in God…

Now where does Edwards get the idea that the Son (at any point) relied on Himself? (From Calvin yes, but where in Scripture!) There is perhaps no statement about His own identity that Christ makes more frequently than that He depends on His Father. Are we to believe that this is a new state of affairs (again the incarnation concealing rather than revealing)? Do we imagine that the One eternally in the bosom of the Father was eternally self-sufficient?

Edwards echoes the distinction Athanasius made between begotten and made – that His begotten-ness was a matter of nature, it was not a matter of will (which would imply ‘making’). But saying the eternal generation was natural and necessary does not get Edwards off the hook regarding the Son’s dependence. He is still, as the creeds say ‘God from God’? Is that not genuine and on-going dependence? Does He not receive His life and being from the Father? And does not the Father depend on the Son to be Father? Etc etc.

All this is a playing out of a non-trinitarian concept of aseity that’s defining Edwards’ concept of ‘divine nature.’ Here are some problems:

  1. Jesus is not defining the divine nature. Rather a divine nature different to what is revealed in Jesus is pre-supposed.
  2. Jesus is not defining human nature. Rather a human nature that excludes the glory of the exalted Priest/King/Prophet is assumed.
  3. This divine nature is defined not in relational terms but in terms of aseity (i.e. self-sufficiency)
  4. Jesus therefore fits poorly into the pre-fab mould of divinity – the bits left over are ascribed to ‘His humanity’.
  5. What we see in the Man Jesus is not properly thought of as divine!
  6. There are extra ‘bits’ to Jesus when considered from above and below. From below, we look at the Man Jesus, yet this is not all of Jesus. There’s an extra bit of divinity that is not like the human Jesus we see. From above, God is one with Jesus except for an extra bit of humanity that is not like the God He’s revealing.

Now it’s ironic that all of this is based on thoughts from Revelation 5. Because here we read

“You are worthy… for you were slain.” (Rev 5:9,12)

It’s the death of Christ that causes His worship. It’s His very Lambness that we will praise into all eternity. Revelation 5 tells us to accord all divine honours to Jesus not in spite of but because of His death as a human sacrifice. The deity of Christ does not exist apart from His Lambness but is most brightly manifested in it.

Therefore there are no extra bits to Jesus.  His divinity is precisely in His being as the Lamb (and the act this implies).  His humanity is not locked off from His being as God.  There is not 6 feet of insulation between Jesus of Nazareth and divine life.  Jesus is divine.  Even as He is Jesus in all His Lamb-ness.

And He is, in all His Lamb-ness the revelation of the Father.  Our notions of God should not lie behind glass in pristine majesty.  They are laid bare at the rugged cross. 

So, yes, Christ’s excellency does indeed consist in an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.  But these excellencies are true to the very depths of His Person, true to the depths of eternity, true to the very depths of God.

Worthy is the Lamb

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I’ve been very blessed by stumbling across the sermons of Victor Shepherd on the web.

Here’s a thought of his prompted by Revelation 5:5:

Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.”

Here’s what Shepherd says:

I think that what a pastor must have above everything else is a conviction concerning Christ’s victory; a conviction so deep in him that it goes all the way down to his DNA, and he exhales it upon his people both explicitly and implicitly even as it seeps out of every pore. A pastor has to be convinced unshakeably of Christ’s victory if he’s profoundly to support and sustain his people.

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My sermon on Romans 3:21-26 is here.  Audio is here.

I preached on ‘Why the Cross?’ on Sunday.  Thanks to all who gave help to this sermon.

In the end I guess I did a version of an old style law-gospel talk.  Basically it ran – sin is very serious, thank Christ for atonement.

Now I’m aware that such a shape to preaching has both a long pedigree and a number of dangers.  The dangers of this kind of preaching seem to me to be:

  • Sin tends to be defined merely as transgression and almost never considered christologically
  • It can sound like there’s something called ‘Justice’ which forces God to punish sin
  • It can sound quite impersonal (even if you accept Christ it can be more ‘Whoopee I have a pardon’ rather than ‘Hallelujah I have the Son!’) 
  • All in all, it can be, ironically, less than christocentric

But bearing in mind these pit-falls, there is much to commend such an approach.  And I had a go!

Check it out here if you like.

Do you think my fears of law-gospel preaching are unfounded/insurmountable/irrelevant? 

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Heh heh

Two funnies that have made me chuckle this week:

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Hilariously tragically true:

Blogging 

http://xkcd.com/386/   H/T: Missy

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Now read all about St Simon the Fool.  Beautifully silly

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Door to Door?

A friend of mine recently posed this statement for discussion

“Five sessions of 5 pairs spending two hours door-knocking is better spent having 5 pairs having neighbours round five times in a season” Discuss.

Some responses:

  • Good thought!  See especially here where Rory Shiner discusses Gospel intentionality as a good ‘third way’ between cold-contact and friendship evangelism.  He (like my friend) has been very impressed by the Crowded House churches.
  • The personal investment involved in such hospitality is often far greater than the fear factor involved in door-to-door.  In this sense door-knocking, though appearing to be the more impressive, can often be more of a cop-out.
  • A deep sharing of life is surely a far superior context for sharing the faith!

But having said that

  • The context for sharing my faith is, fundamentally, not my friendships down here (though clearly that is ideal).  More fundamentally though, the context for sharing the faith is resurrection, pentecost and second coming. Christ is risen – this is my authority to speak of Christ.  The Spirit has been poured out – this is the power to do so.  He is coming – this is the urgency.  I realise my friend would not wish to disagree with this but it’s still good to remember what is at root my authorisation for my speaking.
  • There are millions in this country alone who don’t have Christian friends (at least Christian friends who are willing to share their faith).  Friendship evangelism will not reach them.  (Rory’s proposal linked above speaks to this – gospel intentionality seeks to reach a wider network of people than those we already know).
  • If it’s a question of ‘effectiveness’ – stranger evangelism ‘works’. I will post figures from Bridge Builders when I have them confirmed.  But I know also from personal experience that people are converted through these efforts – this is precisely what we expect given the point above regarding resurrection, pentecost and second coming. 
  • Think of the beginnings of the Salvation Army or David Wilkerson (Cross and Switchblade) – there was no bridge upon which they built their ministry apart from the declaration of the word.  Now they committed themselves to those who responded and very meaningful relationships blossomed (along with ministries that often lost their confidence with the power of the word proclaimed plainly!).  But the footing on which those relationships were placed was the proclamation of the gospel to strangers.  (But again perhaps this is closer to the ‘gospel intentionality’ model than to ‘stranger evangelism’)
  • Jesus did both – He did blow into town and speak to strangers.  And He also went to dinner parties and built into very significant relationships.
  • We are to sow on all the soils (Mark 4).

In all I think I agree with the statement in terms of priorities.  I’d want to make sure that those we invite are not simply our friends (Luke 14:12-14) and that we target those who are not only beyond the walls of the church but beyond our friendship groups and comfort zones.  Door to door is never to be an end in itself but the basis on which a relationship will ensue.  It should never be “Gospel apart from relationship.”  But if it were ever a choice between “Gospel => relationship” or “Relationship => Gospel” then there should certainly be no theologically decisive preference for the latter!

 Therefore I would certainly not want to abandon door-to-door but seek for all evangelism to involve relationship building. In short, let’s sow on all the soils.

What say you?

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Apologetics? Nein!

Some nice moments from Barth against apologetics

“Knowledge of revelation… begins with certitude. Either God has spoken or He has not spoken. If He has spoken, He has done so in such a manner that it is impossible not to heed Him. Among others, the question of His existence and nature are then decided and can be answered only a posteriori. Doubt and despair, human unbelief, and even a sea of uncertainties on our part, will not be able to change the certitude of His presence. Revelation is this divine presence.” (God in Action, p8)

“And we are certainly not ministers of the Word if we feel ourselves called to be benevolent protectors, or big-hearted friends or representatives of whom the Word of God has need.” (God in Action, p67)

“What God speaks is never known or true anywhere in abstraction from God Himself. It is known and true for no other reason than that He Himself says it, that He in person is in and accompanies what is said by Him.” (I/1, 155)

The great danger of apologetics is “the domesticating of revelation… the process of making the Gospel respectable. When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it and peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it inoccuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control.” (II/1, p141)

“For we know nothing of our created state from our created state, but only through the Word of God, from which we can derive no independent, generally true items of knowledge, different from the Word of God and therefore leading up to it.” (I/1, p148)

When people say ‘God’ “far too often what is meant by it is… the unsubstantial, unprofitable and fundamentally very tedious magnitude known as transcendence, not as a genuine counterpart, nor a true other, nor a real outside and beyond, but as an illusory reflection of human freedom, as its projection into the vacuum of utter abstraction.” (III/4, 479)

 “If grace is alongside nature, however high above it may be put, it is obviously no longer the grace of God, but the grace which man ascribes to himself. If God’s revelation is alongside a knowledge of God proper to man as such, even though it may never be advanced except as a prolegomenon, it is obviously no longer the revelation of God, but a new expression (borrowed or even stolen) for the revelation which encounters man in his own reflection.” (II/1, p139)

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Faith is not a thing

A while back Matt Jenson wrote a brilliant short essay entitled: Faith is nothing at all.  Do read it if you haven’t already, it won’t take long.

We must constantly remind ourselves that faith is not a thing.  It is not a possession by which we make claim to salvation.  Faith is the absence of a thing – it is the confession of a complete lack.  To even ask ‘Am I having faith?’ is already an unbelieving question for faith is looking away to Christ.

If you make faith into a thing you run into problems.  Either you have to make it an imputed substance which God grants arbitrarily (in order to uphold sovereign grace).  Or you make it a legitimate factor contributing to our salvation. Sounds quite like many Calvinist-Arminian debates right? In many (certainly not all, but in many) of these debates you can see both sides making this mistake: they begin by considering faith to be a thing.  And from this premise, one side is in danger of making salvation a matter of divine caprice unrelated to Christ.  The other side begins from the same premise and makes salvation a matter of self-effort (and again Christ’s position is diminished).  But both have begun down the wrong track.  They’ve thought of faith as a thing and then they’ve got into trouble figuring out how a gracious salvation can be ‘by’ this thing.  We must remember though: Faith is not a thing.  

Alan Torrance is fond of pointing out that reformers like John Knox spoke very little about ‘salvation by faith alone.’ Instead he spoke of salvation ‘by the blood of Christ alone.’  Why?  Because he didn’t want anyone thinking that faith was the ‘thing’ that saved.  ‘Faith alone’ makes sense only in the context of ‘Christ alone.’  ‘Faith alone’ is the subjective correlate of the objective salvation in Christ alone – it cannot be considered apart from it.  To do so is to risk seeing faith as a thing.

Similarly Mike Reeves points out that Martin Luther’s favourite phrase for declaring our gracious salvation was not salvation ‘by faith alone’ but salvation ‘by God’s Word’ alone.  Again, faith is not the ‘thing’ that saves and ‘faith alone’ is not possession of the single savingly significant substance.  (I suspect Luther would have trouble saying this phrase – especially after his fifth Wittenberg ale!).

Faith is, in Anders Nygren’s memorable phrase, ‘being conquered by the gospel.’  Note how passive this image is.  Faith is a description of what has happened to the person who’s been overwhelmed by Christ in His word.  It is not a thing.

Anyway, check out Matt Jenson’s article.

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Any help?

I’m preaching on Sunday with the title Why the Cross?  (I think the whole ‘Why can’t God just forgive?’ question is behind the choice of topic).  What should I say?

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After He had dismissed them, He went up on a mountainside by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone, 24 but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 25 During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw Him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” He said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out His hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” He said, “why did you doubt?” 32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshipped Him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  (Matthew 14:23-33)

Here Jesus walks on water – He treads on the abyss. But Peter walks as Jesus walks (cf 1 John 2:6). How?

Notice he doesn’t just step out. He asks for Jesus to command him. He’s been in a storm with Jesus before (Matt 8:23-27).  Peter knows the power of Jesus’ word – His word is obeyed! So Peter wants a word from Jesus to command him. And the word is powerful to enable that which it commands (Jesus’ word is like that). Peter does the impossible because Jesus commands it.

Of course he sinks (looking at the waves and not looking at Christ). But in His grace, Peter only ‘begins’ to sink.  This is not gravity acting on Peter or he’d sink like a stone. How slowly Jesus lets him down!  But when Peter calls out, ‘immediately’ Jesus saves.

His words of rebuke tell us how we can walk like Jesus: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’  Now what is Jesus referring to here?

Peter did not doubt that Jesus could walk on water.  And it wasn’t self-belief that Jesus was recommending (Peter has no ability to walk on water!).  Peter’s problem was that he doubted Jesus’ word to him.  He doubted the word which both commands and enables what it commands. Peter doubted that he truly had been made into the person Jesus said He had – one who walks like He walks.  That was Peter’s problem.

When Christ speaks a word to us then trusting Him involves trusting that we are the people Christ says we’ve become.  Jesus says to you:

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)

So, don’t look at the wind and waves.  Don’t look at your heart and your abilities.  Trust the word that Jesus has spoken to you.  His word is powerful to make you who He says you are.  You can’t make yourself into this person, but neither can anyone or anything else prevent you from being it.  The word of the LORD is supreme, you can trust Him.  You will not be condemned.  You have crossed over from death to life.  And now, you can walk as He walked.

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Gospel intentionality

Here Rory Shiner explains a third way between stranger evangelism and friendship evangelism.  I’ve plenty of time for both these but his description of ‘Gospel intentionality’ (borrowed from Steve Timmis) is excellent.  Check it out.

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Islam and the cross

You want a very quick way of distinguishing Islam from Christianity?  Think of the cross.  The Muslim account of the cross exactly reverses the gracious work of Christ.

In Islam, the sinful man (Judas) is substituted for the righteous one (Jesus).  The Quran says it only appeared to be Jesus on the cross, another was substituted in His place.  The Hadith (Muslim writings that interpret the Quran) claim that the one substituted was Judas.  All this happened because justice demands the death of the bad man, not the good one.  It was necessary for the unjust to be punished and the just to escape.  This is the judgement of human religion.

Yet the truth is the exact opposite of this very human sentiment.  Instead, the righteous One (JESUS) was substituted for sinful man.  He swapped in for the guilty and died in their place.  He determined to be the Just One punished so that the unjust may escape.

He who knew no sin became sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:21)

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1) The sermon of creation is not a minimal thing – it’s maximal.  Romans 1:19 ‘what may be known about God… God has made plain.’  Colossians 1:23 ‘the gospel… has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.’  Psalm 19:2 ‘Day after day they pour forth speech.’

2) Our blindness/deafness to this sermon is not minimal either – it is maximal. Note that in Psalm 19 David trusts that the creation daily pours forth speech in intentional evangelism.  In Ecclesiastes 1 his son sees the exact same heavens.  Yet even with all his wisdom, the ‘teacher’ of Ecclesiastes finds it utterly meaningless.  The circuit of the sun which was such a vivid portrait of the Bridegroom Champion in Psalm 19 becomes, in the eyes of the ‘teacher’, a futile and meaningless cycle.

Humanity is blind to the things of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:21). We cannot judge what the sermon of creation is saying by what we see. We naturally only see what we want to see.

3) The sermon of creation is not a static thing, it’s dynamic, it’s about movement and action and inter-relation. Literally Ps 19:2 says “Day unto day is a pouring forth of speech; night unto night is a displaying of knowledge.” The sequence of day and night and day and night is itself a display of knowledge.  This proclamation involes ‘sun, moon and stars in their courses above.’  The sermon of creation is expressed in dynamic action, it does not simply speak to us in static snap-shots of beauty.

So often people simply characterise the sermon of creation as something like “Look at a snow-capped mountain range, doesn’t it fill you with awe. Well, now you should direct that awe to the God who is big enough and clever enough to have made it.” That is certainly an element to what creation is saying, but it’s not what David is drawing our attention to.

Psalm 19 highlights the progression of day and night, the movement of the sun across the sky, the heavens in their courses.   The dynamic sermon of creation tells far better of the Glory of God who is not a static, unmoved deity simply waiting for people to give Him glory. The Living God acts and moves and relates.  And His Glory, according to the Bible, is His Son acting, moving and relating. The theist will think of the sermon of creation in static terms because her god is static. The Christian knows the sermon is dynamic – just like our God.

4) The sermon of creation is ‘the word of Christ.’  It is not about abstract qualities of power or wisdom but about the Son.  Of course this is so since Jesus is eternally the image of God (Col 1:15).  There is no revelation that is not in Him.

In Romans 10 Paul asks if any have not heard the word of Christ (v17)?  He answers, of course not and quotes Psalm 19!  The sermon of creation is the word of Christ.  When we examine Psalm 19 we see this to be so.  His example of the sun is a dead giveaway.  This sun is like a Bridegroom Champion who moves from east to west (like the journey the high priest makes from altar to ark) as the light of the world. (Ps 19:4-6; cf Ps 45). Here is a sermon regarding Christ.

Think also of John 12. When Jesus picks up a seed He doesn’t say “How pretty and how intelligently designed” – He says “This seed proclaims my death and resurrection and, though this, the life of the world.”  The sermon of creation is a gospel word concerning Christ.

5) Finally, the sermon of creation is seen only through the spectacles of the Scriptures (Calvin’s famous image).  Ps 19 continues ‘The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving/converting the soul.’ (v7)  That which left even Ecclesiastes’ ‘teacher’ looking into the meaningless cycle of life and death is that which, through the spectacles of Scripture, becomes the dynamic proclamation of Christ and His gospel.

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How He has loved us

Bobby’s just commented on a brilliant Richard Sibbes quotation re participation in the trinitarian communion of love.  Go read it. 

It got me thinking about the upper room, before Jesus died.  Here Jesus gives us three pictures of how we are loved.  The waterfall, promotion, God’s compass.  They all deserve reflection as we immerse ourselves in how we have been loved by the triune God.

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First, the waterfall:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” (John 15:9)

Here the love of the Father for His Son cascades over to us.  We stand in a beginningless, limitless torrent of love.  Think about it.  Take the word ‘as’ with utmost seriousness.

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Then there’s promotion to Jesus’ side:

The Father Himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. (John 16:27)

Here, in loving Christ we are raised shoulder to shoulder with the Son.  Think how highly we have been raised.  Anointed ones alongside the Anointed One.  Sons and daughters alongside the Son.  Receiving the same love from the Father that Jesus does.  Promoted into the Godhead!

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Then there’s God’s compass placed within us: 

…in order that the love You [Father] have for Me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. (John 17:26)

The Father’s own ‘true north’ of love for His Son is placed within the Christian.  Now we have the Father’s love for His Son in us.  The Christian loves the Son with the love the Father has placed within us.  That beginningless, limitless waterfall is not only something we receive, it’s something that now flows from within us (John 7:38f).

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How He has loved us!  How He has caught us up in His love!  Meditate on these things

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Blog mouth

A few months ago I commented on a blog about Christian kids songs.  I mentioned speaking to an author about the lyrics of one of his better known songs.  Since this conversation happened 7 years ago, my memory of it was very sketchy (I even mistook his name for someone else’s when it was mentioned).  But it didn’t stop me blogging with abandon on his theology as represented by the placing of a single comma (I kid not!).  How lame am I? 

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the said author found my comments and a) can’t remember ever speaking to me, b) meant the opposite of how I’d represented him on the blog.

Lessons?  

  • Blogs are public!  They will be read by people who know, or people who know the people who know.
  • “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.”  (James 3:5a)  Boasting was at the heart of this:  “I once spoke to a song-writer – and I knew better”  Pathetic.
  • The verse goes on “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” (James 3:5b).  The author in question was very good about it, but the potential for hurt is so huge.

So, all us smart-alec, proud, young male bloggers – let’s think before we blog. 

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When times are tough – what is your comfort?  When comforting others, where do you point them?

In the circles in which I move the encouragements of choice involve variations on the theme of ‘God’s got a plan.’  Many’s the time when a well-meaning brother (usually a brother) has said ‘I guess at moments like this, all you can do is cling onto God’s sovereignty.’  Often I’ve heard friends say that only sovereignty has enabled them to get through the hard times. 

Something’s gone wrong here.   1.5 billion Muslims navigate through life clinging onto ‘insh’Allah‘ (God willing).  800 million Hindus believe that karma will work everything out.  And how many westerners, even in the face of terrible suffering, will still believe ‘everything happens for a reason.’ 

This was really brought home to me about 5 years ago.  I was praying with a new convert from Islam.  We were worried about his visa application, but I was amazed at how he was ‘trusting God’s sovereignty’.  In fact he was using language that I usually associate with the most mature of reformed Christians.  I told him I was very impressed, he shrugged his shoulders and said ‘In Pakistan we have a saying: ‘God willing’ – it means that whatever God wills will happen.’  Insh’Allah had simply been translated to a Christian environment.  Yet surely a Christian account of sovereignty involves more than simply transfering deterministic agency from Allah to the Father!  Surely there’s got to be a gospel-shape, a Christ-focus, a trinitarian dynamic to Christian sovereignty.  Yet what was so striking about my friend’s translated insh’Allah was that it sounded so completely like the Christian pastoral wisdom sketched out above.

Two years ago I went to northern Nigeria and the difference between Muslim and Christian accounts of sovereignty struck me again.  When I wanted something done by Tuesday, the Muslim would tell me ‘It will be ready, insh’Allah‘.  The Christian would tell me, ‘It will be ready, if Jesus tarries.’  Hallelujah!!  Isn’t that brilliant??  (King James’ English lives on in Nigeria!).  But isn’t there all the difference in the world between a future determined by an inscrutible divine will and a future opened up in the gospel-patience of Jesus?  I’ve tried to get people using ‘If Jesus tarries’ over here, but it hasn’t taken.  Yet.

Now I’m not denying for a second the sovereign rule of the Father through the Son and by the Spirit.  And perhaps in future posts I’ll outline some thoughts on what a truly gospel-shaped, Christ-focused, dynamically-trinitarian account of sovereignty might look like.  But for now I will simply question the pastoral wisdom of referring the suffering Christian to the sovereignty of God as though ‘God’s in charge’ was the sum and substance of the Christian hope.

All too often this amounts to a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ comfort.   How much better to encourage a person that Christ joins them in the tunnel.

I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings.  (Philippians 3:10)

Christ is with us in suffering.  He is especially near to the broken-hearted.  As Spurgeon used to say, He never throws His children in the fire without joining them in it (cf Dan. 3; Isaiah 43:2).  In suffering we get to know the Suffering Servant with greater depth and intimacy than ever before.   To simply point to the God over and above us in suffering is deficient.  We must also point to the God beside and within us.

The gospel is not the truth that, while I may be buried in muck, God remains untouched in pristine glory and one day I’ll be there with Him.  The gospel is that God joins us in the muck.  The gospel is that He stoops, sympathises and suffers alongside us.  And that He raises us with Him to the throne.   But if the gospel is not that God remains in heaven and we battle on till glory, why does so much of our pastoral exhortation betray exactly such a ‘gospel.’

Why do we so often point people to God’s sovereignty and so rarely point them to God’s Son?  Why is the focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and so little on the One who joins us in the darkness?  The one kind of exhortation produces tight-lipped soldiers, the other produces broken-hearted lovers.  Let’s aim for the latter!

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Sometimes, when I’m sharing with Christians about tough times, I ask them: ‘Why do you think God is breaking you down like this?’

Almost without fail they say something like, ‘I know, I know, it’s to make me stronger.’

No!  No, no, no, a thousand times no!

He’s breaking you down to make you broken.  Don’t, whatever you do, toughen up!

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps 51:17)

The LORD is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Ps 34:18)

Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed. (Luke 20:18)

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For Barth the three-fold Word – Christ, Scripture and Proclamation – means that preaching should always be Scriptural and always witness to Christ.   Here he makes it clear that christo-centrism is not something the preacher (or the biblical theologian) bestows on the Bible.  Rather, the Bible is already and inherently witness to Christ:

“The Bible says all sorts of things, certainly; but in all this multiplicity and variety, it says in truth only one thing – just this: the name of Jesus Christ… The Bible becomes clear when it is clear that is says this one thing… The Bible remains dark to us if we do not hear in it this sovereign name… Interpretation stands in the service of the clarity which the Bible as God’s Word makes for itself; and we can properly interpret the Bible, in whole or part, only when we perceive and show that what it says is said from the point of view of that… name of Jesus Christ.” (I/2, p720)

What about the Old Testament?  For Barth…

“the Old Testament is witness to Christ, before Christ but not without Christ… As a wholly Jewish book, the Old Testament is a pointer to Christ.” (Homiletics, p80)

Barth does not consider the christo-centric meaning to be a sensus plenior in addition to the literal sense. 

“the natural sense is the issue… [we do not] give the passage a second sense… This passage in its immanence points beyond itself… The Old Testament points forward, the New Testament points backward, and both point to Christ.” Homiletics, p80-81.

As for the New Testament, Barth insists that christocentric preaching is no less important here.

“One can never say of a single part of the narrative, doctrine and proclamation of the New Testament, that in itself it is original or important or the object of the witness intended. Neither the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount nor the eschatology of Mk 13 and parallels, nor the healing of the blind, lame and possessed, nor the battle with the Pharisees and the Cleansing of the Temple, nor the statements of the Pauline and Johannine metaphysics and mysticism (so far as there are any), nor love to God nor love to neighbour, nor the passion and death of Christ, nor the miraculous raising from the dead – nothing of all that has any value, inner importance or abstract significance of its own in the New Testament, apart from Jesus Christ being the subject of it all. His is the name in which it is all true and real, living and moving, by which, therefore, everything must be attested.” I/2, p10-11

This is a helpful reminder.  We usually hear from the Old Testament sermon some “bridge to Christ” (however tenuous!).  Yet what does it say when the same preacher can manage to preach Christlessly from the New?  

Do preachers really believe that the Scriptures are already Christ-focused?  Or is it our job to add a second layer of Christ-centredness?  If a preacher breathes a sigh of relief once they’re in New Testament waters, and if they then fail to witness to Christ while there – what does it say about their view of the Old and New Testaments?

Barth is really helpful here.  Scripture exists within the perichoresis of the three-fold Word.  It exists to be preached.  And it exists (every part of it) as witness to Christ.  It is not the preacher’s job to make it into a witness to Christ.  If we find our Old Testament sermons involve some weird change of gears in order to ‘get to Christ’, we’ve not understood the bible properly.  If we find that our New Testament sermons fail to point people to Christ, we’ve not understood the bible properly.   These issues might be a sign you’ve bought into the wrong biblical theology. 

Just a thought.

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         Here’s my length paper on Barth and Preaching.

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That’s what Heinrich Bullinger asserted in the Second Helvetic Confession.  And he’s not alone.  Check out Luther:

“Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ’s word and forgiveness… For the office is not the pastor’s or preacher’s but God’s; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor’s and preacher’s but God’s.” (Quoted from CD I/1, p107)

Or Calvin:

“When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.” (Sermon XXII on 1 Tim 3:2 “apt to teach”, quoted in THL Parker, Calvin’s Preaching, Westminster/ John Knox, 1992, p24)

Or, more to the point, check out the Bible!

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thes 2:13)

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands for ever.”  And this is the word that was evangelized to you. (1 Pet 1:23-25)

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. (Heb 13:7)

So do we agree that ‘Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God’?  Or would we rather Bullinger had maintained a more modest: ‘Preaching of the Word of God explains and applies the Word of God’?  Can we seriously maintain the word ‘is’ in that statement?

Karl Barth did.  Emphatically.  If you want to read more, go here to a very lengthy essay on Barth and preaching.  Here I’ll sketch out the argument in point form:

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1) The Word of God is a three-fold Word.  That is, Christ, the Bible and preaching are all called ‘the Word’ in the Bible.  And yet there are not three competing words or revelations but One Word of God (Christ) who comes to us in the Spirit-mediated modes of Scripture and proclamation.  Thus we have one Word in three modes.  This is Barth’s primary analogy of the trinity.

2) Just as in the trinity we have distinct Persons who, nonetheless, are one, so with the Word we have distinct modes which nonetheless have a perichoretic unity.   The Son is one with the Father in His mediation of the Father.  He is no less God for being a witness of God.  But He is also no less distinct from the Father in this oneness.  In the same way preaching is no less the Word for being a witness (a Scriptural witness) to Christ. But simultaneously it is no less distinct from Christ (and Scripture) for being one with it. We need a perichoretic ontology not only for God but for the Word also.

 3) There is divinity and humanity to all three forms of the Word.  Yet, for all that, we must avoid the danger of Nestorianiam – that is, we must not conceive of the humanity as a separate existence from the divinity.  Barth is adamant that you cannot get around the worldliness of the Word – whether of Christ, Scripture or preaching.  In fact, it is not at all desirable that you should get around it.  For the Word as grace meets us where we are.  Christ the Man says ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.’  Christ the Man says ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  The humanity of Christ in no way jeopardizes divine revelation or salvation.  Equally, the humanity of the apostles and prophets and the humanity of the preacher does not prevent the Word from being still a divine Word.  

Just as the eternal Word did not come in a man but as a man, so on Sunday morning, God’s Word does not come contained somewhere within the preaching but it comes as this human preacher in this situation witnesses to Christ.

4) We must remember the divine initiative in all this.  It is not a question of ‘Can we hear God’s Word in the preacher?’ Rather the question is: ‘Is it Christ Himself who encounters us in the preacher?’  It’s not a case of pulling Christ down through correct exegesis.  If we think like this we’re basically falling for an ex opere operato of the pulpit.   That is, we’re imagining that our correct priestly exercises ensure a divine encounter.  We must resist this – we must begin from above.  Revelation is grace.  It is Christ who chooses to condescend in Scripture and Proclamation (not we who bring Him down).  But in this divine condescension it is Christ Himself who encounters us. 

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Let’s take all these points together.  Preaching is a mode of the Word of God.  It is distinct from Scripture and Christ but inextricably linked to it.  And in relation to Christ and Scripture – that is, as Christ is proclaimed Scripturally – it is itself the Word of God.  Not a competing revelation to the Bible but rather a ‘Word from Word’ (parallel to Christ’s divinity as ‘God from God’).   The humanity of the preacher is not a barrier to divine revelation but instead is the very worldiness in which the Word must meet us.  Thus the congregation on a Sunday morning is not confronted with explanation and application of the Word.  They are confronted with Christ Himself. 

Think of a preacher who challenges the congregation to confess Christ as ‘My Lord and My God.’ (John 20:28)  If the hearer does not trust Christ, is it only the preacher they’ve disobeyed? Have they not more fundamentally disobeyed Christ?  Isn’t it Christ Himself who confronts them in this preaching?  It is a daunting prospect for preachers, but such is the humbling authority of ‘the keys of the kingdom’ (Matt 16:19; John 20:23).)

[Preaching is] “the speaking of God himself through the lips of the minister.” (Karl Barth, Homiletics, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991, p67.)

“…in what Church preaching says of God, God Himself speaks for Himself.” (Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, vol. 1, part 2, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956, p800)

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           This post contains reworking from my comments at Faith and Theology

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