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Archive for July, 2008

Tim VB put me onto this 9 week course about Gospel Centred Living which is freely available here.  It looks great.  They draw on material from World Harvest Mission – their Gospel Tranformation and Sonship courses.  To give you a flavour of these, here is the blurb about the Sonship course:

Sonship: Live the theology you believe!

Many of us understand the faith intellectually, but our hearts have not quite kept up with our heads. Sonship is designed to help you take some of the glorious theological truths of the gospel – truths that you may know in your head – and apply them to the nitty gritty reality of daily life.

You’ll find that as the gospel re-makes you, there is greater joy and desire to share the wonderful news of God’s lovingkindness with others.

I have to say I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen so far. 

One thing that struck me was this testimony found here in the Sonship course.  It illustrates brilliantly a truth I’ll remark on at the end: 

One day when I was very young, I saw my older sister hanging up my father’s white business shirts on the clothesline to dry. I was suddenly filled with the urge to hang up one of my daddy’s white shirts. He was my daddy too, and I was his daughter; I loved him in my childlike way and wanted to express it. I couldn’t reach the clothesline-it was too high, but I saw a wheel barrow in the yard and its handles were just the right height for me. I didn’t notice how rusty it was and I rather joyfully clothes pinned the wet shirt to the handles.

When my dad got home and saw the shirt on the wheelbarrow, he became very angry with me and punished me severely for ruining his shirt. I had not realized the impact that event and others like it had made on me. However, as I was repeatedly convicted during the Sonship conference for not believing God concerning his delight in me and in the gracious nature of my relationship with him, this memory returned to me. Now, you cannot hardly get through 24 hours of a Sonship conference without realizing that your own heart is as murderous as anyone else’s-so I wasn’t primarily focusing on only being the innocent victim of my father’s cruel anger.

As I remembered these scenes from the past, I saw that through the years I had not been believing that my Father in heaven was any different than my earthly father. I had not been listening when he described himself. In short, I hadn’t been believing the gospel, that by faith in Christ and his perfect atoning sacrifice, he now loves me, and is forever for me and delighted in me. In Christ, he has made me beautiful and pleasing to him forever.

So the next morning I told our counselor that I thought I was beginning to understand. I told him the memory and said that I guess if the Father saw me standing next to the wheelbarrow with the ruined shirt on it, he would forget the shirt and hug me. “You still don’t understand fully,” Jeff said. “God would not overlook the shirt, but take it, put it on, and wear it to work. And when someone commented on the rust marks, he would say, ‘Let me tell you about my little girl and how much she loves me.'” I was overwhelmed with that realization.

What a brilliant picture of the gospel!  Not just overlooking the shirt – wearing the shirt and celebrating his daughter!

Often we think of the gospel as God overlooking our sin, tolerating our presence and simply relenting from judgement.  We are left in the law court, the not-guilty verdict is passed and we’re just relieved to have avoided hell.  But can such a gospel change our hearts?  Somewhat, I’m sure.

But the good news is not that God allows us to live in the suburbs of His presence.  We are adopted, indwelt, sung over, glorified, rejoiced in.  Letting the Father love us in Christ is the kind of ‘overwhelming’ that truly changes.

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We’ve been considering the logic of the OT arguments for the true God.  The argument is not: Think about who the true God is – the true God is actually Yahweh.  The argument is: Think about Yahweh (encounter Him, see Him at work, trust Him) – Yahweh is the true God.

The former argument assumes we know who the true God is and then gets us to re-shape our view of Yahweh around that.  The latter argument invites us into relationship with the tribal deity of Israel and then makes us re-shape our views of the true God around Him. 

Of course the scandal of identifying Israel’s tribal deity as the true God is ratcheted up several million notches with the incarnation.  It’s not just that the God of Abraham is the living God, it’s that the Seed of Abraham is the living God!  Yahweh shows up among us as an itinerant Nazarene Rabbi.  He is not just God in a concrete relation, He is God as a concrete human.  Not only the God of Israel but an Israelite. Nonetheless His claim is not diminished – this Jewish man, born of Mary is the LORD of Israel.

And again His identity as the LORD is seen in His concrete work of redemption.

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM.” (John 8:28)

How is the true God known?  Look to this particular, historical event.  Look at this act of infinitely costly service for my people.  Look to my redemption.

Yet how often in evangelism do we do things the other way around?  We either assume that people know ‘God’ in the abstract or we actively try to prove to them some kind of ‘God’ in the abstract (the First Cause, the Moral Legislator, the Fine-Tuning Creator).  And then we try to say to them, “Jesus is actually this abstract ‘God’.”  To which people usually frown, cock their head and set about doing the mental gymnastics required to squish the Son of Man into this pre-fab abstract-deity mould.

How many testimonies run along the lines of, “I always knew God and then the preacher convinced me that Jesus fitted the bill of the God-I-had-always-known.”  When this happens both ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ are going to get majorly distorted.

Let’s instead resolve to tell people, “Whatever you thought God was like, allow the LORD of Israel, the Son of God, to recalibrate all God-thoughts.”

As Lord Byron once said, “If God isn’t like Jesus, He ought to be.”  That’s exactly right – that’s the logic of the bible: Jesus must shape all God-thoughts.  Our ‘God’ must be determined entirely by what we meet in the pre-incarnate LORD and the incarnate, crucified and risen Son of Man.

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Where is the decisive revelation of the name of Israel’s tribal deity?  Mount Sinai:

12 [The Angel of the LORD] said, “But I WILL BE with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” 13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”. And He said, “Say this to the people of Israel, “I WILL BE” has sent me to you.'” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exodus 3:12-15)

Some observations:

1. The name Yahweh is taken by many scholars to be the nominal form of the first person verb “I WILL BE”. (i.e. Yahweh is what we call Him, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE” is what He says about Himself).  Thus the burning bush represents His own unpacking of the name of Yahweh. 

2. This unpacking of His own name is not His handing over to us of some interpretive maxim by which we can understand Him.  Emphatically it is the LORD holding onto His own prerogative to self-disclose.  The possibility for knowing the LORD is not delivered over to man – He holds onto it forever.  He will always be the One to intepret Himself.  We must continually come to Him for knowledge of Him. 

3. The future tense is probably the better translation of what’s usually rendered “I AM” – it’s exactly the same Hebrew as v12 “I will be with you…”  It’s therefore not a static thing.  It’s not basically the claim to be self-existent, it’s something much more dynamic.

4. It’s ironic that people use the ‘I AM’ as itself a proof-text for presupposing their own classical attributes of God (like His aseity or whatever).  The whole point of this name is that He defines who He is in contrast to every human definition – even (and especially!) the most philosophically sophisticated.  “I will be Who I will be – not who you say I am.”

5. We must never forget the context of His self-identification – decisive historical action.  Involvement.  Redemption. Exodus.  He will be who He will be in salvation.  He drops His name into conversation first in verse 12 and it’s in the form of a promise:  “I will be with you.”   And He follows verse 14 with the reassurance that He, the LORD, is the God of your fathers – the tribal deity of Israel.

All in all, Yahweh’s declaration that He is the great I AM is not the same as Him claiming to be Unoriginate.  For some the “I AM” is equivalent to some divine attribute of self-existence, as though it’s the Hebrew form of “I am the Ground of all Being.”  It is not as though the philosopher who has thought of the unmoved Mover has thought of Yahweh.  Not at all.  The I AM is met only as the Redeemer of His particular people.  He is met in the context of promise, in the context of covenant.  He is met as the tribal deity of Israel – in this way He proves His unassailable right to define Himself.

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This week I was reading Jeremiah 10 on the difference between Yahweh and idols.  It struck me that the prophet doesn’t argue the way we often do.  We usually say ‘There are idols that are tribal deities of the nations, but the living God is not like that.  The living God is the uncreated Creator.  (Oh and the uncreated Creator happens to be Yahweh).’  

Jeremiah does something different.  He certainly plays up the worthlessness of the foreign idols (v1-9). But then he says:

But Yahweh is the true God; He is the living God, the eternal King.

Note that his argument is not “the true God is Yahweh.”  Rather he argues “Yahweh is the true God.”  In other words he doesn’t assume some notion of deity and then says Yahweh fits the bill.  Instead he says, in effect, “You know the tribal deity of Israel?  The One from the burning bush?  He’s the true God.” 

He does it again in verse 16.  After continuing the worthlessness-of-idols theme, Jeremiah says:

He who is the Portion of Jacob is not like these, for He is the Maker of all things, including Israel, the tribe of His inheritance–the LORD Almighty (Yahweh Sebaoth) is His name.

Note the particularity of this statement.  The tribe of Jacob will inherit their God called Yahweh Sebaoth, and He in turn will inherit them.  This tribal deity who is strongly (and it seems exclusively!) linked to his particular people – He is the Maker of all things.  Interesting!

Think of how He definitively reveals His name to Moses at Sinai.  The Angel says to Moses “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. At this Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.” (Ex 3:6).  If we were writing Exodus 3 we’d have Moses hiding his face because the LORD says, “I am God the Unoriginate, the Infinite, the Transcendent and Immense.   But no, the LORD says “I am your people’s God, your dad’s God, the God of that guy Abraham and his family.”  The living God is made known as the tribal deity of Israel.  He is revealed in His covenant approaches towards particular people in concrete historical situations.  And from within that particular frame – as Jacob’s Portion – He reveals Himself to be the true and living God.

So often we conceive of the direction of argument as this:

“You know God ??  Well that tribal deity Yahweh is actually God.” 

Instead it’s:

“You know that tribal deity Yahweh?  Well He’s God.” 

The former argument forces Yahweh into a procrustean bed.  The latter argument makes us reconfigure everything we thought we knew about ‘God’ since we’ve met Him as the covenant-LORD.

I’ll look at some implications of this next time…

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Rest of series:

Part two

Part three

Jesus is LORD, not Son of LORD

Some clarifications

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I was once in a preaching seminar with 15 other young guns.  We were being taught by someone you might call a living legend.  One session I remember was on how to preach Romans 3:21-30.  The point came when the living legend asked us what we thought the application should be.  Now aside from my various misgivings about application I reasoned to myself that if an application was there in the passage it was probably worth flagging that up.  I looked down and sure enough I saw what I thought was a pretty clear “”application”” of Paul’s teaching:

Where then is boasting?  It is excluded. (v27)

So I stuck up my hand and suggested that the application might be humility.  More particularly it seemed that, since Christ had taken the work of salvation entirely into His own hands (and out of ours), we ought gladly to shut up about ourselves, our morality, etc etc. 

“Wrong!” said the preacher.  “The application should be ‘Repent!'”

“Oh”, I said. “Why?”

I immediately regretted asking ‘why.’  Dagnammit we’re evangelicals, we’re supposed to preach repentance, it’s union rules.  Besides, I don’t want to appear soft in front of the 15 other young guns and this living legend!  The living legend was more than a little irked by my question and replied: “Because, dear boy, verse 23 says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Sin is the problem, therefore I would have thought that repentance would be a very good idea!!”

Those who know me may be surprised to learn that I didn’t answer back to this one.  Oh I wanted to.  How I did want to!  But judging by the alarm in the preacher’s voice and the mood of the room it felt wise not to imperil my standing any further among such sound folk.

But sometimes I fantasize about what would have happened if I’d said what I really thought.  The fantasy goes something like this:

I stand slowly, deliberately, with all the solemnity of the lone, faithful prophet.  All eyes are upon me as I bellow with righteous ardour:

“Sin is not the problem!   S i n   i s   n o t   t h e   p r o b l e m !!!

All hell breaks loose.  Outrage.  Pained howls.  Torn garments.  Hurled stones.  I am immovable in the midst of the storm.

“… Sin is not the problem… God’s wrath at sin is the problem!  No… better… God’s wrath at us in our sin – that’s the problem!” 

At once they are felled by Truth as by lightning.  Cut to the heart, the stones drop to the floor first, then the men.  One by one they slump to the ground, the hand of the LORD heavy upon them.  In breathless awe they ask: “Brave herald, what is this teaching you bring us?  It resounds from the very heights of Zion against our presumption and folly.”

Sporting a fresh cut across my chiselled jawline, I am otherwise unruffled.  Ever magnanimous I continue:

“Dear friends” (the dust in the air has now leant a husky tone to my rich, commanding voice). “Dear friends, let us not define our predicament so anthropocentrically.”

I leave this dread word hanging in the air.  The mere mention of ‘anthropocentric’ elicits groans from the already contrite gathering.  Here was their shibboleth used against them.  It stung.  Yet they could not deny that they were indeed guilty of this greatest of liberalisms.

“I commend you friends…”  They look up nervously – could there yet be grace for them?  “…While many have merely scratched the itch of the modern age, you have refused to pander to felt needs. You have proclaimed the problem of sin and for this I commend you.”  I pause.  “And yet… and yet… you have defined the problem so poorly, so slightly.  You have defined the problem from below.  If we define the problem as something lying in our hands then aren’t we at least suggesting that the solution is in our hands?  But in fact the problem is above us – just as the solution is.  The problem is not fundamentally our sin, the problem is the Lord’s wrath upon us.”

“What’s the difference?!” cries out one of the younger preachers, “Our sin, God’s wrath, it’s all the same…”  He is hushed by the living legend who slowly shakes his head.  It is clear now how wrong he has been. 

He stands, still shaking his head, unable to look at me or the others.  Eventually he speaks, “Glen’s right. He’s always been right!”  The living legend looks like he’s been hung from the ceiling on meat hooks.  As though in great pain he exclaims, “You must understand…  We faced such terrible dangers in preaching.  We still face such dangers.  I wanted, we all wanted, to resist the me-centred pulpit.  I was so sick of hearing about ‘filling the Jesus-shaped hole in your life’.  I couldn’t stand the invitations to ‘let Jesus into the passenger seat of your life’.  I wanted people to turn.  I still want people to turn.” 

I put a re-assuring hand on his shoulder. He meets my eye for the first time and continues.  “I just thought, if we can show them that ‘fulfilment’ isn’t the issue – that sin is the issue, well then maybe they’d come to their senses.  Maybe they’d see their errors and turn from them.”  I give a look to the living legend, he nods, “I know, I know, that’s the problem.”

“What’s the problem?” asks one of the young guns.

The living legend sighs deeply and turns to the others.  “It puts the focus on us.  If we just preach sin and repentance the whole focus is on us.”

“It’s anthropocentric” mutters a young gun, latching onto his favourite word.  He looks around to see if anyone else has noticed his firm grasp of the issues.

“I don’t get it” pipes up another, “I thought sin and repentance was God-centred preaching?  Isn’t that what you taught us??”

The living legend is speechless.  I break the silence.  Crouching down to their level, I ask, “If we simply preach sin and repentance how exactly is God at the centre?  He may well be over and above our conceptions of sin and repentance – but how is He in the middle?  In such a sermon isn’t God actually on the periphery?  He’s hardly the principal Actor!”  At this stage the one who muttered ‘anthropocentric’ is nodding in the way failed quiz show contestants nod when they’re told the right answer.

I go on, “It’s like our passage from Romans 3.  Sin is certainly there!  Sin is certainly a problem.  I mean we’ve been told from verse 9 that all are under sin.  And we’ve been told in verse 20 that observing the law will never get us out from under this condition.  But given that this is the case, wouldn’t it be strange if Paul then told us that ‘repentance’ was this new work that was better than the old Mosaic works?  Actually Paul doesn’t mention any of our works in this passage, not our obedience, not our repentance.  No, what does Paul point us to?  Verse 25, the blood of Jesus – a propitiation for our sins.  Now we all know what propitiation means right?”

Young noddy blurts out “A sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath!!”  I gesture with my hands, trying to calm his wild-eyed enthusiasm.

“Ok, yes. Well done.  It turns away God’s wrath.  Because that’s the real problem.  The problem is, chapter 1 verse 18, the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against us.  It will culminate in, chapter 2 verse 5, a day of wrath.  And Paul is at pains to say we all deserve it, we are all unrighteous and there’s nothing moral and nothing religious we can do to turn aside this wrath.  We are helpless.  BUT, a righteousness beyond us has come.  And He is the sacrifice who turns away God’s wrath.  Through His redemption we are justified freely.  That’s the gospel.  That’s what we preach.  And who is at the centre of this story?  Not us.  Him.”

“So we shouldn’t preach sin and repentance?” asks another.

“Of course we should.  But those are comprehended within a much more profound perspective.  Wrath and redemption are the deeper truths.  You know I’ll bet that all the sermons you hear are about committed sin and sanctification?  You know the kind.  ‘God says: Don’t do X, we all do it, let’s ask His help to stop.’  Where are the sermons that major on original sin and justification?  Why don’t we plunge them to the depths and then take them to the heights?  Why all this middle of the road stuff that puts us at the centre?”

A couple of young guns knowingly mouthe ‘anthropocentric’ to one another. 

I continue “Take Islam.  It’s a classic religion of repentance.  God remains far above, it’s down to us to clean up our act.  In fact all human religion is man justifying man before a watching god.  But the Gospel is God justifying God before a watching humanity.  He takes centre-stage and we need to move off into the audience to watch Him work salvation for us.  Christianity is not a religion of repentance, it’s a religion of redemption.  And that’s quite a difference don’t you see?”

As I speak, the young guns have been picking themselves off the floor one by one.  The room has been won to the side of Truth.  I look upon them with fatherly benevolence.

“So now friends – now that you know these things: What would be a good application of Romans 3?”

In unison they reply “Humility!”  And for a moment all is right with the world.

Until, that is, the harmony is shattered.  One of the young guns, no doubt provoked by my impossible smugness, speaks up:

“Hey, if humility is so important, how come you’re so proud?” 

The mood of the room takes a decisive turn.  Another piles in “And how come you’ve been dreaming us up for the last 10 minutes to feed your ego.”  Here’s where the fantasy turns pretty nasty.

“What kind of egotist spends his time winning theological debates in his head??”

“Yeah, debates he never actually won in the real world!”

Another pipes up: “I think I know ‘Where then is boasting?’ – he’s rstanding in the middle of the room!!”

At this point the fantasy is basically unsalvagable.  So then, I hate to do it, but sometimes you just have to pull rank. 

“Quiet all of you!  This is my fantasy.  Either you submit adoringly to my theological genius or you can get out now.” 

Faced with those options they instantly choose non-existence.  One by one they vanish, though somehow their looks of betrayal and disgust seem to linger on.

“You’ll be back” I say to the departed phantasms.  “Pretty soon I’ll need to feel right about something else and you’ll be right back in my imagination, bowing to my unquestioned brilliance.

“Ha!” I say.  The laughter echoes around my empty head.

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The means of grace (things like preaching and sacraments) are meant to be just that.  Means by which the grace of God reaches down to us.  I’ve been reflecting recently that often we try to absolutize the means of grace so that they become not means but ends in themselves, and not grace (i.e. His initiative) but works (i.e. ours!).

And then we divide over whatever our chosen ‘means of grace’ might be.

So the danger for the catholic is to see the eucharist not as a means of God’s encounter with man but rather the moment in which they make God manifest (ex opere operato – by doing it, it is done). When the ritual is performed well/reverently/at all, Christ’s presence is enjoyed. Christ is not present through the sacrament but rather the performance of the mass is Christ’s presence. The mass becomes the point.

The danger for the charismatic is to view the singing of spiritual songs in the midst of the congregation not as a means of grace but as the time when ‘God’s in the house’. When the band are playing well, God shows up – ex opere operato. In that case God is not present in and through ‘worship’ but ‘worship’ is equated with the divine presence.  Worship becomes the point.

The danger for the evangelical is to see preaching not as a means of grace but as the action we perform whereby we guarantee a divine speech act.  The Proclamation Trust states ‘When the bible is taught, God himself speaks.’  Now I want to draw the strongest possible link between preaching and God’s speaking (see long paper here) but let’s get the order right.  He graciously speaks through our preaching, we cannot bring Him down through our correct exposition.   The danger is that simple exposition of a biblical passage or theme is itself the encounter with God – ex opere operato.  Preaching becomes the point.

Yet surely, Christ is the point. And the Lord’s supper and worship and preaching are ways that Jesus can and does make Himself known to us, among us and in us.  Yet He will not be brought down by our performance of these acts. They are His means (note means) of grace (note: grace!). He always remains free in His self-giving – in the bread and wine, in our corporate life, in His word.

That’s why it’s often great to hear a catholic preaching well, or an evangelical leading ‘worship’ or a charismatic presiding at the Lord’s table.  For then, they are less tempted to see the simple operation of this act as the point but as a means of making Christ known – He is the point.

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If you ever say Amen it’s usually a response to what someone else has said or prayed, right?

And it’s usually after what they’ve said, right?

And only if it’s really good do you repeat it: ‘Amen, Amen!’, right?

So it’s an affirmation that someone else has just spoken truth (Amen is straight from the Hebrew for truth).

But when Jesus comes along, what does He do?  He gives Amens to His own sayings: 30 times in Matthew alone!  And in John’s Gospel He gives a double-Amen to 25 of His own teachings!

e.g. Amen, Amen I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life (John 5:24)

What’s Jesus doing by prefacing His teaching with ‘Amen, Amen’?  Well let me put words to what this means.  Jesus is basically saying:

“You don’t stand in judgement on my word.  I won’t even wait for your Amen.  Your Amen could only ever be the faint echo of my own Amen!  You do not and cannot stand in judgement on my word.  Before you’ve even heard a syllable of it, I tell you on my own authority that this is truth.  This is the only authentication or approval these words ever could or should have – my own.  This is true because I say it, not because you have some vantage point from which to assess these words.  Let my Amen recalibrate everything you consider to be truth.  You must simply accept my words as the gold standard of truth because it is I who speak them.  In short: It doesn’t matter what you think – this is the truth, deal with it!”

Who speaks like this?  Only God’s Faithful and True Amen (Rev 3:14).

Imagine if our bible reading, our theology, our apologetics, our Christian obedience was shaped not by whether we thought, in all good conscience, we could give our Amen to Christ?  What if we stopped trying to assess Christ’s word with our Amens and instead simply received His Amen in glad submission?

May we hear His word in the Spirit in which it was spoken – as truth itself. (John 17:17)

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This is the last in our series looking at various doctrines through the lens of the David and Goliath story. (The other four stones were: preachinggrace, faith and election)

Here we consider why it is that the concept of reward is not counter to the doctrines of Christ alone, grace alone and faith alone.

So let’s ask: Why do people consider the concept of reward to be a potential threat to the doctrines of grace?  Well, often the argument runs something like this:

  • Grace means that everything is a gift
  • If everything’s a gift then there’s no room for merit (you can’t earn gifts)
  • Reward is based on merit (otherwise it’s not reward it’s just random)
  • Therefore, grace means there’s no room for reward.

But is this really the definition of grace with which we want to begin?  The whole burden of this series has been to show that Christ – our David, our anointed Champion – needs to be at the heart of our thinking.  And so we saw that preaching is not simply lifting our eyes to some general divine battle plan but focussing us on the King who wins the battle for us.  Grace is not basically God’s empowering of our work but something completely outside ourselves – the victory of our Champion.  Grace is, at heart, Christ’s work for us, to which we contribute nothing. Grace alone is effectively just another way of saying ‘Christ alone.’ It is the affirmation that the victory is secured by Christ without us having lifted a finger to help.

Now with this definition of grace – is there room for reward?  Well yes.  Think of how the Israelites plundered the Philistines

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran.  Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines to the entrance of Gath and to the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the Shaaraim road to Gath and Ekron. When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp. (1 Sam 17:51-53)

On the basis of David’s victory they plunder the Philistines.  Without the victory they would all have died.  In victory none of them could claim credit for securing it.  But in response to it, some will have chased hard, killed many and brought back much plunder.  At the same time it’s conceivable (though we’re not told and I don’t think this happend) that some may simply have gawped in wonder at the victory of David and barely moved an inch.  Both kinds of soldiers win the day.  Some participate in the victory more fully.  That’s really the very simple point I want to make with this post.

Again it emphasises that faith is not synonymous with inactivity!  We get these strange ideas about faith since we’re used to playing off faith against works all the time.  We say things like ‘I’m not saved by my works, I’m saved by my faith’ – which is a really unhelpful way of framing things.  It makes it sound like faith is the one meritorious work (an internal mental act) that I summon up to earn salvation.  The message becomes – “Don’t do works (external physical acts), do faith (internal, mental acts)!”  And then we get our knickers in a twist worrying that any external, physical acts are necessarily worksy.  But no. 

Think about Numbers 13.  The spies come back from the promised land with grapes like basketballs.  Caleb and Joshua say “We should go up and take possession of the land” and the people stay put.  A distinct lack of physical activity. Perhaps they were worried about earning the promised land!  Was this a rejection of works and an instance of faith?  No it is utter faithlessness through and through.  Not going up is faithless in Numbers 13 and going up is faithless in Numbers 14.  Why?  Because of the LORD’s promise.  He promises success in the first instance and failure in the second.  Their response to the promise is what constitutes the faith/works divide.  Inactivity can be utter unbelief.  Tremendous striving can be pure faith. 

Faith is receiving the promise appropriately.  In Anders Nygren’s phrase, faith is being conquered by the gospel.  In 1 Samuel 17 terms, faith is looking at the giant fall and understanding who it is who’s won – your brother and king.  From faith – which is simply looking away from self to the Victorious King – may flow all kinds of things like cheering (emotions) and plundering (good works).  And if you’ve really seen the victory it’s pretty hard to see why you wouldn’t cheer and why you wouldn’t plunder.  But cheering and plundering doesn’t win the battle – the king does.  “Faith” is just another way of directing our attention away from ourselves (even away from our joyous response to salvation) and fixing it solely on the Saviour.  The fruit of this faith will come forth in all manner of affections and works which are the organic outflow of the work of Christ alone.  In 1 Samuel 17 terms the plunder comes from:

  • the victory of the king alone
  • is empowered by the bread of David (v17ff)
  • and is the natural overflow of praise which necessarily attends seeing the victory aright.

Now Christ expects us to go hard after reward.  Otherwise, why dangle it in front of us??  (e.g. Luke 19:17!!)  But just as we’re expected to rejoice, so too with pursuing reward, we simply do not have the resources in ourselves.  Nor is it an abstract providence that grants us divine energies to rejoice and to plunder.  Rather it is a focus again on the Champion, our Brother, that will produce both the shout and the charge into enemy territory.

So having looked again at our triumphant King… Go in war to love and serve the Lord.

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Recently I was reading John 1:1-18 with some international students who knew next to nothing about Christianity.  I was bracing myself for all sorts of questions about the trinity and the incarnation.  Actually they understood these quite easily. (After all how difficult is the sentence “God is a loving relationship of three Persons” or “the Word became flesh” – these concepts are only difficult if you’re committed to a whole other raft of theistic suppositions!).  Here is what they really struggled with:

The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it

Now one issue is the translation of the word for “understood”.  katelaben could be translated ‘lay hold of’, ‘take possession of’ or in the cognitive sense of “understand” as the NIV has it.  Perhaps the English word “grasp” straddles these meanings nicely?  “The darkness has not grasped the light.”

But however you translate it, you have this conceptual riddle: if light shines how come there’s darkness?? 

Well there might be some reasonable explanations like, maybe the Light is not very strong.  Well no, the Light is Jesus Christ – the Light of the cosmos! (v9-10). 

Ok, well perhaps the Light is not shining in the right place?  No – the Light shines directly in the darkness, the darkness that is humanity in its unbelief  (v4-5). 

Hmm, well maybe the Light only shines on some but not on others, leaving the darkness unenlightened?  No, “the true Light gives light to every man.” (v9). 

This is the riddle:  the Light really shines and shines directly into the darkness.  John even says the Light enlightens every man.  Yet the darkness remains.  Somehow the darkness does not receive the omnipotent Light of the cosmos.

These international students were stumped.  And actually so was I.  This should have struck me many times, but it took their fresh pairs of eyes to see what is really a very great question:  How can omnipotent Light shine and darkness remain?

If this doesn’t strike us, it really should.  And we must resist the urge to smoothe the problem away.  The text does not let us off the hook – either saying “He doesn’t really shine” or “It’s not real darkness.”  No, He really shines and there’s really darkness.

In fact this has been a riddle from day one.  Literally. 

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day”, and the darkness He called “night”. And there was evening, and there was morning–the first day.

Though verse 2 told us of ‘darkness’ and ‘the deep’ (abyss), the Word of God brings a triumphant light.  Yet this light does not extinguish the darkness.  Instead there is a separation of light and darkness.  How strange!  We think of light swallowing up darkness – illuminating it, removing it.  Yet what we see is two realms separated.  The light is clearly superior but the darkness is not obliterated.

Recently 2 Corinthians 5 has come up on two blogs I read regularly – Baxter’s Ongoing Thoughts and Halden’s Inhabitatio Dei.  In particular the emphasis has been on the fact that “God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ.” (2 Cor 5:19).   I heartily agree.  But I took issue with what I see to be the loss of any category for ongoing darkness/alienation/separation.  Paul goes on in the next verse to explain his ministry of reconciliation – he urges people “Be reconciled to God.”  Paul goes around this (in one sense) reconciled world and urges people (with a passive imperative – interesting grammar no?!) to be reconciled.  Why?  Because the light shines but (somehow!) darkness remains.

And this makes the darkness not less outrageous but more.  The sin of those in the dark is not that they haven’t had the light or not pilgrimmaged towards it.  Their sin is that they are being enlightened minute by minute and yet walk in darkness.  Think of Paul in the Areopagus – he tells the Athenians that they live and move and have their being in God – He is not far from them at all!!! (v27-28).  And yet they must repent (v30-31) because judgement is coming.  This is the great problem – not that they have sinned against a ‘god over there.’  Rather, they have rejected the God in Whom is their very life.  The light is shining, they are (in one sense) living in God.  And yet this makes their darkness all the more appalling.

How can we be godless, given how God has lifted the whole creation to Himself in Christ?  How can we shout our ‘No’ to God given His omnipotent ‘Yes’ in Christ?  This is an outrageous conceptual problem.  But it is, even more, an outrageous moral problem.  It must not be rationalized or wished away.  God really was reconciling the world to Himself on the cross.  He really has said Yes to all creation. The true Light really does enlighten everyone.  Yet somehow humans remain godless, they shout their defiant ‘no’, they love and remain in and perpetuate the darkness.

Sin is insanity. There simply is nothing reasonable about it.  We must remember this as we go about our ministry of reconciliation.  (2 Cor 5:18-20).  At the most fundamental level, there’s nothing credible about unbelief.  Let’s not conduct our evangelism as though there is.

We are to urge the people of this reconciled world to be reconciled. How can they not be!?  That should be the flavour of our evangelism.  How can you not be enlightened by Him who is shining with Almighty power??  That urgency and incredulity and insistence and even moral outrage should characterize our ministry.  Christ shines – how can you not be enlightened??  Christ is given to you – how can you not receive Him??  Christ has reconciled the world – how can you not be reconciled??

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For an example of what preaching like this might sound like – here’s an evangelistic Christmas carol talk on Isaiah 9. The concluding challenge in particular is shaped by these kinds of thoughts.

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What is church like?

Is it a jacuzzi? 

Cosy? Relaxing?  A chance for you and your nearest and dearest to recharge the batteries?

Or is it…

A waterfall?

 

 

 Scary?  Exciting?  Expansive?  Never safe?

Or is it… and here’s my new word for the week…

A jacuzzerfall

Here we see the blessings of our close fellowship in Christ flowing out and blessing the whole world.

9But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.  (1 Peter 2:9-12)

This is what church is like – a jacuzzerfall.  (Now go and use the word this week)

And here’s a sermon I preached on Sunday on the subject.

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Now that’s funny

Ok so you’ve probably all seen this a million times but I’ve only just stumbled across it.  And oh how I did laugh…

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Plenty more hilarity from Adam Buxton here

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I was reflecting today that in the last fortnight I’ve received four pearls of wisdom from four Anglican bishops.  That’s right, I said Anglican bishops.

The first pearl came from retired Bishop John Taylor who spoke at our ordination retreat.  He told the story of a pastoral visit to a very ill woman in hospital.  It represents brilliantly what I think pastoral practice (and good evangelism) boils down to.  Here’s how I remember his re-telling:

I told her God’s grace was for her – even for her.

She said “No, it couldn’t be, you don’t know what I’ve done.”

I told her “Christ said ‘The healthy don’t need a doctor, the sick do.  I’ve not come to call the righteous but sinner.’ It really is for you.”

She said “No.”

I said “Yes!”… 

…Eventually she received Christ.

 

Brilliant!  The word from beyond comes, contradicts and finally comforts.  It perfectly encapsulates my understanding of ministry.

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The next pearl comes from my Bishop of Chichester in his charge to us priests prior to ordination.   He spoke about public worship:

It is fundamental for biblical faith that God is the subject and not the object of the liturgy.  In [OT] Temple worship, it is God who reveals himself, his presence, his name, his will.  The cultus was not a kind of magical conjuring up of a compliant deity but the place at which by thankful remembrance of what God has done in the past God himself has the opening to disclose himself again, here and now, to renew faith and secure its transmission to the next generation… it is something which lies in God’s own hands…

…Let me finish by trying to draw together a few scattered strands of this charge.  First, I would like you to remember always that true worship is not something we do, but a moment in which God discloses himself to us.  Second, I would like you to remember that both praise of God and thanksgiving for his actual gifts are central to authentic worship and third, I would like you to remember that worship has an important role in reconvincing people of his concrete, actual, historical acts of mercy so that they can become effective witnesses to those who do not believe.  And finally, I would like you to remember that if our worship is genuine, it can be a powerful witness to both those who believe and those who do not yet believe, that God is real and has been among his people.

We do not pull God down (through our faithful preaching, our good music or our sacramental practice).  These things, in God’s good pleasure, are a means of His grace.  The direction of the arrow is DOWN.

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Next pearl was from my area Bishop, Wallace Benn who preached at my ordination.  His passage was John 21:1-19.  He spoke of the importance of feeding the sheep (v15-17) and of the sure expectation of suffering in ministry (v18-19).  But first and foremost he drummed into us the vital importance of ‘maintaining your love relationship with the Lord’ (v15-17).

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Finally, Douglas Milmine – former Bishop of Paraguay – was at my ordination.  He’s been ordained since 1947, been a bishop for 35 years and absolutely brim full of the joy of the Lord.  Just minutes before the ordination service he said to us in the vestry: 

I’ve only one regret in my ministry – that I didn’t save more souls.  That’s the only reason we’re here – saving souls.

 

Go bishops!

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Bobby’s Back!

One of my very favourite blogs from one of my very favourite bloggers.  Back after a break with some thought provoking stuff, especially considering our discussions of faith and election here.

Go say hello.

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Wordled Bloggage

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Israel did not elect David.  Not even his nearest and dearest wanted David as king.

In 1 Samuel 16 we see the choosing of this king.  Yet it is not man’s choice but God’s. 

The LORD said… “I have chosen one of [Jesse’s] sons to be king…”

Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD.” But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”…

Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The LORD has not chosen these.”…

Then the LORD said, “Rise and anoint [David]; he is the one.” So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power.

Here is the LORD’s election.  Not the firstborn Eliab, whose name (My God is Father) was clearly very well suited to the post of Christ!  The LORD rejects what man chooses.

His choice always confounds human wisdom.  We choose the rich and powerful.  He chooses the lowly and lifts them up.  This is just what we have been taught by Hannah’s prayer at the beginning of the book:

e.g. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; He seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honour. (1 Sam 2:8)

How does this work out?  Hannah goes on…

“It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the LORD will be shattered. He will thunder against them from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth. “He will give strength to His King and exalt the horn of His Anointed.” (1 Sam 2:10)

The LORD chooses His Anointed – His Messiah or Christ – and strengthens Him in order to shatter the proud and powerful.  And Chapter 16 has shown us that even this choice has been counter to human intuitions.  The Israelite electorate did not choose David, the greatest Israelite kingmaker, Samuel, did not choose David, his brothers did not choose David.  The LORD chose David.  And He anointed him “in the presence of his brothers.”

This is both a judgement and a comfort for David’s brothers.  It is a judgement – they are not the chosen ones.  They have been passed over by the LORD. He has searched their hearts and found them wanting.  This must have been a bitter disappointment to them.  But, at the same time, there is great comfort.  Immediately these brothers have been made royalty!  Though in themselves they are not chosen, in their brother they belong to the royal household.  This election has thrust them down and brought them back up.

Now if chapter 16 was the LORD’s choice of David, chapter 17 shows David choosing himself for his people.  In chapter 17 David comes to the front lines but already his brothers have forgotten or dismissed his identity.  They were there when he was anointed and they must have known Hannah’s song – the anointed one would shatter the enemy (1 Sam 2:10).  But again, David is not man’s choice.  He is not even the choice of his own brothers. (1 Sam 17:28)

In the end David takes matters into his own hands.  On the basis of the LORD’s election, David basically chooses himself for Israel.  He convinces Saul to let him fight (v33ff) and effectively goes in Saul’s place (Saul being the Israelite’s giant (1 Sam 9:10) and the natural human choice for Champion).

The chosen king chooses himself to the post of Champion, no thanks to any human support.  He even rejects the armour of Saul and single handedly defeats the enemy.  No Israelite could say on that day ‘I knew David could do it!’  Not even his own brothers could say ‘I cheered him on.’  His own arm worked salvation for him.  And it was not even for a willing people.  He went into battle for those who had rejected him.

The victors on that day in the valley of Elah were not those who had previously backed the right champion.  They couldn’t even claim to have voted for David.  They were simply those who found themselves, contrary to all their previous doubts and denunciations, caught up in the victory of another.  Dismay had turned to praise as they saw the LORD’s chosen king who had chosen himself for them.  The stone the builders had rejected had become the capstone and – suddenly, unexpectedly – it was marvellous in their eyes (Ps 118:22).

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Previous posts in this series have looked through the lens of David & Goliath to consider preaching, grace and faith.  In each case we have seen the temptation to approach these subjects without the Anointed King at the centre.  In such a vision, the battle scene simply boils down to an anaemic vision of the sovereignty of God and the eventual victory of His people.  But without an explicit Christ-centred-ness, what are we left with? 

Well, preaching becomes simply the rallying cry to soldier on.  Grace becomes simply God’s sovereign empowerment for battle.  Faith becomes our work in trusting this sovereign God against all odds.  But all of this (ironically since this vision usually seeks to be “”God-centred””) focuses on ourselves.  For where do we look in this version of preaching?  To ourselves and our soldiering abilities – Are we faithful to His military briefings?  Where do we look in this version of grace?  To the (sovereignly empowered) works that God has wrought through us.  And so evidences of grace are found where?  In us.  And where do we look in this version of faith?  We test our own believing state, looking for this internal mental act within.   Without Christ-centred-ness at the heart of it, even “”God-centred-ness”” will turn us in on ourselves.

And this is also true in the realm of election.  Just as preaching, grace and faith should be turning us away from ourselves and explicitly to Christ, so election must be focused on Him.  I do not find grace or faith in me – I find it in Christ.  Similarly I do not find election in myself, I find it in Christ.

Election is God’s choice of Christ (and His choice to fight for us) in spite of our doubts and denunciations.  Election is the gospel for Christ is the Elect One. 

Election is the Father’s choosing of Christ contra to all our rejection of Him (Is 28:16; 42:1; 1 Pet 1:20).  If I ask myself whether I am choice in God’s eyes the answer can only be a resounding No.  In myself I am repugnant, reprehensible, reprobate.  But in Christ I share His chosen status – I share His royal name, I share His family relations, I share His victory.  Election focuses us on Christ and only on ourselves when considered in Him.

Election (like grace or faith) becomes a dark truth whenever we turn our eyes to ourselves.  How quickly faith evaporates when we examine it – for faith is essentially looking away to Christ.  Election is the same.  Election is neither hidden in myself, nor is it merely hidden in an inscrutible divine will – election is hidden (and therefore revealed) in Jesus.  Notice that phrase from 1 Samuel 16:13 – ‘Samuel anointed David in the presence of his brothers.’ Election does not simply occur in the divine counsels of eternity.  Election is disclosed as it really is in Jesus Christ.  The electing Father declares His eternal choice to all as He points us to the One who tabernacled among us:

“Here is My Servant, Whom I uphold, My Chosen One in Whom I delight; I will put My Spirit on Him and He will bring justice to the nations.”  (Is 42:1)

Election is laid bare whenever we look to Jesus.  The eternal choice of God is on view in Christ.  To lay hold of this Elect One is to lay hold infallibly and eternally upon the election of God.  It lies outside ourselves, but precisely because of this it lies in the safest place for us. 

So where do we fit in all this?  Well where did we fit in with ‘grace’ or ‘faith’?  Simply put, we found ourselves the happy recipients of them.  We found ourselves rejoicing in the victory of Christ when we saw Him.  It’s no different with election.  At one time we doubted and denounced Him, now we trust and exalt Him and find ourselves (like David’s brothers) benefiting from His chosen status.  And so all those who look away from self, who look to Jesus and say a belated but grateful ‘yes’ to God’s choice of king, they find themselves participating in the chosenness of their Champion.  Their choice has done nothing.  His choice has done everything.  They do not look to themselves to understand their election since it really doesn’t reside there.  It resides in Christ – the Elect One of God.

It’s been a lengthy post already but I don’t think I can do better than to quote Spurgeon once again.  This is perhaps my favourite quotation on the whole topic:

“Many persons want to know their election before they look to Christ, but they cannot learn it thus, it is only to be discovered by ‘looking unto Jesus.’ If you desire to ascertain your own election; after the following manner shall you assure your heart before God.  Do you feel yourself to be a lost, guilty sinner? Go straightway to the cross of Christ and tell Jesus so, and tell Him that you have read in the Bible, ‘Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.’  Tell Him that He has said, ‘This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’  Look to Jesus and believe on Him, and you shall make proof of your election directly, for so surely as thou believest, thou art elect.  If you will give yourself wholly up to Christ and trust Him, then you are one of God’s chosen ones; but if you stop and say, ‘I want to know first whether I am elect’, you ask what you do not know. Go to Jesus, be you never so guilty, just as you are.  Leave all curious inquiry about election alone.  Go straight to Christ and hide in His wounds, and you shall know your election.  The assurance of the Holy Spirit shall be given to you, so that you shall be able to say, ‘I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him.’  Christ was at the everlasting council: He can tell you whether you were chosen or not; but you cannot find it out any other way.  Go and put your trust in Him and His answer will be – ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn thee.’  There will be no doubt about His having chosen you, when you have chosen Him.”  (‘Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.’ Morning and Evening, July 17.  1 Thess 1:4.)

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Tom Wright on GAFCON

This is pause for thought…

 

Central to these questions is the puzzle about the new proposed structure. I am sure the GAFCON organisers are as horrified as I am to see today’s headlines about ‘a new church’. That doesn’t seem to be what they intended. But for that reason it is all the more strange to reflect on what the proposed ‘Primates’ Council’ is all about. What authority will it have, and how will that work? Who is to ‘police’ the boundaries of this new body – not least to declare which Anglicans are ‘upholding orthodox faith and practice’ (Article 11 of the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’), and who have denied it (Article 13)? Who will be able to decide (as in Article 12) which matters are ‘secondary’ and which are primary, and by what means? (What, for instance, about Eucharistic vestments and practices? What about women priests and bishops?) Who will elucidate the relationship between the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer, on the one hand, and the 14 Articles of GAFCON on the other, and by what means? It is precisely questions like these, within the larger Anglican world, which have proved so problematic in the last five years, and the ‘Declaration’ is actually a strange document which doesn’t help us address them. Many at GAFCON may think the answers will be obvious; in some clear-cut cases they may be. But there will be many other cases where they will not. It is precisely because I share the officially stated aims of GAFCON that I am extremely concerned about these proposals, and urge all those who likewise share that concern to concentrate their prayers and their work on addressing the issues in the way which, remarkably, GAFCON never mentioned, namely, the development of the Anglican Covenant and the fulfilment of the recommendations of the Windsor Report. I am delighted that many of the bishops who were at GAFCON are also coming to Lambeth, where their help in pursuing these goals will be invaluable.

In particular, though, there is something very odd about the proposal to form a ‘Council’ and then to ask such a body to ‘authenticate and recognise confessing Anglican jurisdictions, clergy and congregations’ – and then, as an addition, ‘to encourage all Anglicans to promote the gospel and defend the faith’. Many Anglicans around the world intend to do that in any case, and will not understand why they need to be ‘recognised’ or ‘authenticated’ by a new, self-selected and non-representative body to which they were not invited and which will not itself, it seems be accountable to anyone else. Of course, within the larger global context, not least in North America, I can understand the perceived need for something like this. I know how warmly the proposals have already been welcomed by many in America whose situation has been truly dire. But I also know from my own situation the dangerous ambiguities that will result from the suggestion that there should be a new ‘territorial jurisdiction for provinces and dioceses of the Anglican Communion, in those areas where churches and leaders are denying the orthodox faith or are preventing its spread.’ Sadly, as I suspect many at GAFCON simply didn’t realise, that kind of language has been used, in my personal experience, to attempt to justify various kinds of high-handed activity. It offers a blank cheque to anyone who wants to defy a bishop for whatever reasons, even if the bishop in question is scrupulously orthodox, and then to claim the right to alternative jurisdictional oversight. This cannot be the way forward; nor do I think most of those at GAFCON intended such a thing. That, of course, is the risk when documents are drafted at speed.

Read the whole thing here

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