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Archive for July, 2008

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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