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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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