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15 Steps

Love the song.  Love the animation (a finalist in a Radiohead competition)

 

 

.What verse springs to mind for you?  For me it’s the curses for disobedience in Leviticus 26:36-39:

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“`As for those of you who are left, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a wind-blown leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, and they will fall, even though no-one is pursuing them. They will stumble over one another as though fleeing from the sword, even though no-one is pursuing them. So you will not be able to stand before your enemies.  You will perish among the nations; the land of your enemies will devour you. Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their fathers’ sins they will waste away.  (Lev 26:36-39)

 

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I am not…

Here’s an example of how we shape our own “personality types” which then shape us.

I went to bible college saying very strongly both outwardly and inwardly “I’m not a linguist.” Why would I say such a thing? Well not on the basis of terrible school grades or any nightmare disputes with snooty French maitre d’s. When it boils down to it, my problem is this: language learning requires simple hard work – learning declensions and conjugations and endless vocab.  Basically I’d far rather invest my time finely tuning some doctrine essay than learn a list of irregular verbs. The pay-off simply seemed much greater. After all I’m a big-picture, artsy kind of guy. I’m not a linguist. (Note well the strong sense of a cultivated identity driving things).

So what happened? Well the indicative “I’m not a linguist” translated (as indicatives always do) to action. In this case: retreat from languages into other areas that I found naturally easier. So my efforts in languages were very ordinary. And guess what? So were my grades. So what did I conclude? “I’m not a linguist.” These things really do become self-fulfilling.

Surely I should have been telling myself: “I am a linguist.” The Lord has called me to be a teacher of His word and therefore He has equipped me to be the linguist I need to be. Whether I’ll wow people with my brilliance in the subject is an entirely different (and irrelevant!) matter. The fact is, when it comes to languages no-one gets away without hard work and no-one gets to play their ‘personality type’ as an excuse to retreat from it. From the indicative of ‘By the Lord’s strengthening I am a linguist’ ought to have flowed the imperative ‘Be the linguist He’s called you to be.’ Instead I retreated into my type.

I’m fighting a similar battle at the moment with an extremely deep-seated self-identification “I don’t do admin.” Is this some morally neutral, hard-wired fact of my ‘personality’? No, it’s a sinful pattern that I’ve fed for years. Any help gratefully received.
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Part of my ordination training involved doing the Myers-Briggs personality test.  Now I realise that this is not strictly mandated by the Pastoral Epistles, but on the other hand it was a good old giggle. (See mildly amusing prayers for the 16 personality types here.

I came out quite strongly as ENFP which means I’m an inveterate procrastinator, big-picture, no-detail, scatter-brained, last-minute, wing it with a smile and talk my way out of it later kind of guy.  At this point all the ISTJs (the opposite to me on all four spectrums) are waking up to why my blog really bugs them.  (Myers-Briggs did actually help me understand my bible college experience – the majority of Anglican ministers I trained with were ISTJs).

But already you’re probably sensing what everyone should know about these ‘personality types.’  They’re not neutral.  They describe real patterns alright – and extremely hard-wired patterns too.  But a lot of what they describe are patterns of sin.  A good part of each of the 16 ‘personality types’ simply identify chosen, self-protective schemes that enable us to navigate a cursed world along paths of least resistance.  Whether we buy into the ‘loud’ or the ‘shy’ persona, the ‘organized’ or ‘shambolic’, we’re basically doing the same thing – finding a way to make life work apart from Christ.  By some combination of retreating from the thorns and sewing our fig leaves we hit upon a style of relating that minimizes pain and maximizes self. 

Now we cluster together in different groups of sinners because there are natural contours to our make-up and unique events shaping our development.  And it’s important to say that those internal and external differences are not in themselves sinful.  The new creation will not be monochrome!  And different gifted-ness is not at all something to be ironed out in the name of Christian maturity.  Our goal is not the absence of difference but the harmony of God-given distinctives. 

But still, granting that there may be good and genuine reasons for some of the following, isn’t it a problem when we flinch from serving Jesus by making such claims as…

‘I’m just not an extrovert.’ 

‘I’m not a morning person.’ 

‘I need order/control.’

‘I’m not good with authority/structure.’

‘I’m not a people-person.’

‘I don’t really do organization.’

Others to add??

Even as we think of these deep-seated statements of identity it should be clear that they’re not just descriptive.  They are also very strongly aspirational.  I got that sense even as I took the Myers-Briggs test.  So many of the answers I gave were actually the answers that I thought the artsy, laid-back Glen should give.  In fact it was almost exactly like doing the Star Wars personality test where I tried my hardest to come out as Han Solo (but ended up as Princess Leia.  My wife was the Emporer – but that’s another post).  The point is our reactions to events are partly innate but also strongly determined by the persona we’d like to hide in.

So who’s identity are we hiding in and why?

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.  (Col 3:1-4)

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Rest of series:

I am not…

Tearing down the idol of my personality

Conclusions

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Wordled Bloggage

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Could you be the next apprentice at my church – All Souls, Eastbourne?  We can offer training through the South Coast Ministerial Training Course and plenty of hands-on experience. Great church, great people  – join us!  (btw we’re looking to hire more than one).

Send me an email if you’re interested.

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Ok, let’s continue with this issue of the NT’s handling of the Old.

If we take the reformation cry of sola Scriptura at all seriously we must allow the Bible to interpret the Bible. Historical-grammatical hermeneutics, archaeology, even the most careful exegesis conducted by the best scholarship must all bow to God’s own word.  He determines His meaning.  He is the only fit witness to Himself.

Yet, in contemporary Biblical studies it is commonly said of New Testament writers that they re-interpret the meaning of Old Testament Scripture.  Thus, it is asserted that an Old Testament passage can be shown conclusively to mean one thing via a thorough application of historical-grammatical hermeneutics, and then when Jesus or an Apostle quote from it they invest it with a new Christological meaning.  Diligent exegesis yields one reading, the New Testament gives another.  Yet rather than bow to the Apostles and re-think their methods of exegesis, these Bible students assert without any New Testament support that these two meanings co-exist in the text.  Thus it is routinely suggested that Jesus and the Apostles did not faithfully exegete the Hebrew Scriptures (defined by contemporary models) but rather, with special license from the Holy Spirit, made Christological assertions that are not derived from exegesis itself.  Their treatment of the Old Testament is therefore not to be emulated.  What we primarily learn from their handling is the audacious apostolic authority invested in them.

But what if we were to take Jesus and the Apostles as our models in the Christian life? (radical thought!).  If we do that we’ll see that the New Testament does not model a two-level exegesis of the kind: ‘David said ‘X’, but now we can re-read this through Christian eyes as ‘Y”.  The New Testament simply says Abraham met Christ (John 8:56).  It states boldly that Isaiah saw Jesus (John 12:41).  It asserts that David looked ahead to the resurrection and spoke explicitly of Christ (Acts 2:31).  It declares that Christ saved the people out of Egypt and accompanied them in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:4,9; Heb 11:26; Jude 5).  The New Testament does not say ‘Abraham had an experience which we can now re-interpret as ‘meeting Christ”.  It does not say ‘Isaiah saw a vision which Christian eyes know to be Jesus’.  It does not say, ‘David looked to types of Christ later fulfilled in His Person’. It does not say, ‘retrospectively we can see signs and types of Jesus of which the Israelites were unaware but which manifested a Christ-like presence in their midst.’  Yet how often is the OT handles in this way?

If you continue, I’ve listed a number of New Testament texts which handle the Old Testament.  Just see the way New Testament writers read the Old.  Only the Bible can teach us to handle the Bible.  If we do not read the Old Testament the way these men did – we are wrong.  We must change.  Let these examples challenge our own reading of the Scriptures.

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These are thoughts that I’ve been sharing over at Between Two Worlds on a post called Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammed?

My answer?  Of course not.  Here are some points in no particular order:

1) Let’s let Allah define himself:

“He does not beget nor is he begotten.” (Sura 112)

The Quran defines the god of Islam explicitly as not the God of the Bible. Let’s respect Muslims enough to let them define who their god is. He is not the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We honour their faith by speaking of Allah as another god – that is how Allah defines himself. From our perspective we cannot speak of Allah as anything other than an idol – anything else fails to take Muslim faith on its own terms.

2) Can anyone really imagine the prophets addressing the Edomites, Philistines etc saying ‘Yahweh is very much like Baal/Molech/Asherah’??! Never!

The question for the nations is not ‘Do you believe in God?’ But ‘What god do you believe in?’ Whether you’re evangelizing in north Africa or north America “God” cannot be assumed.  In fact “God” is the least obvious word in our evangelistic encounters.  How on earth do we get to a position where people make it the point of commonality!

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At this point a commenter replied that the ‘Baal’ analogies do not work because Allah is thought to be ‘the transcendent Creator’ and not simply a power within the world.  He claimed that a Muslim convert would have to repent of many beliefs but not his belief in ‘God as infinite transcendent Creator.’

To this I replied… 

3) We don’t say “Baal is called ‘Lord’ and receives worship therefore no convert from Baalism needs to repent of their notions of Lorship or worship.”  Of course they will have to repent of all of this.  So then why would anyone claim that a belief in the ‘infinite transcendent Creator’ is of a different order?  Fundamentally I see this as committing two errors.  It is to say…

A) ‘Transcendent Creator’ is more foundational to God’s being than His triunity.

B) The Muslim means roughly the same as the Christian when speaking of the ‘Transcendent Creator’

I strongly disagree with both.

A) i) If God is transcendent Creator you’ve made Him dependent on creation.

A) ii) It is a position that leads to Arianism. Athanasius complained that Arius’ error was to conceive of God as Unoriginate and then to consider trinity. On this trajectory he could never affirm the homo-ousios of One whose being was ‘ek tes ousia tw patri‘ (out of the being of the Father). Similarly if your conversation with a Muslim begins with some ‘bedrock’ notion of transcendence before introducing them to Jesus it will necessarily mean introducing them to one who is less than the transcendent one. You’ll have shot yourself in the foot from the very beginning. Let’s not define Jesus out of full deity before we’ve even begun. We therefore must not begin on the Arian trajectory of affirming transcendent Creator first – Jesus will not come out very well from such a starting point!

B) Only the God who exists as Himself in relations of otherness can actually have a relationship with creation in which we can know Him as transcendent. ‘Transcendent Creator’ is dependent on trinity (not the other way around). The Muslim account of transcendence is completely confused (as is every unitarian account). Allah is a prisoner of his ‘transcendence’ – by definition cut off from any relationship with it (whether transcendent or immanent).

‘Transcendent Creator’ is neither the foundational nor a shared understanding of the living God. And it’s not desirable that it should be.

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At this point my interlocutor (rightly) suspected I was denying the possiblity of true philosophical reflection on divinity apart from Christian revelation.  He claimed I was being overly Barthian ;-)   I replied with these points…

4) In terms of theological method, “Christ alone” is not a Barthian novelty!  It’s difficult to think of a more crucial verse in the history of the church for theological method than Matthew 11:27: “No-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.”

To this let’s add John 1:18; 14:6 and Colossians 1:15. To this let’s add the continual Scriptural witness that we are blind, dead, enemies of God unable to know Him apart from His Word to us.  (e.g. Ps 14:2; 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:21).  These plain and central truths cannot be evaded by crying ‘Barthian’!

5) Nicea’s “The Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” was a deliberate and crucial choice of order. Triunity precedes creation. Of course it does – unless we want to define God as dependent upon creation.

6) Even Jews who have the Scriptures do not know the Father if they reject the Son. (cf ALL OF JOHN’S GOSPEL!)

7) To go over a previous point – there are tremendous Arian dangers of considering ‘Creator’ more foundational than trinity. Once you have assured your Muslim friend that she really does know God and that the God she knows is definitionally the infinite, transcendent Creator, do you really think you’ve helped her towards faith in Jesus of Nazareth?? Have you not just given her every reason to reject divine honours (thus defined) being attributed to Christ. Won’t she simply thank you for confirming her own doctrine of God which by definition precludes Jesus from being anything more than a prophet??

Athanasius rightly said ‘the only system of thought into which Jesus Christ will fit is the one in which He is the starting point.’

The Rock upon which we build is nothing and no-one else but Christ.  Let’s be clearer on this whether we’re evangelizing Muslims or our friends in the pub.  They do not know God and besides – why would we want to confirm for them a sterile, non-relational doctrine of God in the first place??  Let’s tell them, ‘The god you had thought existed was not God – let me tell you about the living God who is unlike anything you’ve imagined.  His name is Jesus and He blows your god out of the water!’

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In thinking of Substitutes for the Spirit I was surprised at how many I came up with.  But then again, we all know what the Scripture says is the antithesis to the Spirit. Therefore we know that susbtitutes for the Spirit can be summed up in one word – flesh.  Thus we know

  1. These substitutes will be with us from cradle to grave
  2. They will stick to us like skin to our bones
  3. They will pervade every area of life
  4. They will be selfish alternatives to everything the Spirit is trying to lead us to
  5. They will seem far more natural than the Spirit-led path
  6. They will appear as a counterfeit Spirit-led path – (not every spirit is from God!)

In fact they will appear as the seemingly harmless desire to serve myself – whether in moral or immoral ways.  And so they are at war with my soul. (1 Pet 2:11).  It’s often occured to me that maturity in the Christian life consists largely of identifying these desires of the flesh as precisely that. 

We can identify Spirit-led passions.  They will be:

  • Christ-centred
  • Word-based
  • other-focussed
  • cross-shaped

 How are we to identify fleshly thinking?  Ephesians 4:22 is interesting:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires

Three questions occur to me regarding the ‘old self’ / flesh:

  1. What are the desires of your flesh?  What exactly is the ‘old self’ telling you about what you need / what you should pursue?
  2. How is this old self deceiving you?  Phrase the desire as a blatant lie: e.g. “Your identity/worth/righteousness lies in people thinking you’re funny/attractive/clever/’helpful’.”
  3. How has this fleshly existence corrupted you?  Think how ugly it has made you.

Always, though, the underlying pursuit/lie/corruption of the flesh is my attempt to establish a righteousness of my own. (Phil 3:1-11).  Ultimately the flesh tells me to be justified before heaven and earth on my own account.  Therefore the power which alone is able to mortify my flesh is the gospel.  Because the gospel tells me ‘Before and apart from any works, I am clothed in Christ.  My whole identity, status, reputation, past, present and future is taken out of my hands and hidden entirely in Christ.’ 

I was crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:20)

 To live by this gospel word is to live by the Spirit.  And it is to crucify the flesh.

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We have endless substitutes for the actual, dynamic, personal presence of the Spirit in our thinking.  Here’s a sketch of just a few off the top of my head.

Of course, many or all of these are means by which the Spirit works.  Yet if they are cut off from the Source they have no life in them:

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Doctrine of Omnipotence

An a-topic, abstract power is assigned to God, equivalent to a similarly ill-defined notion called ‘sovereignty’. This is all rather than the active and immanent Person who is God’s Power – the Spirit of Christ.
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Doctrine of Omnipresence

‘God is everywhere’ becomes a substitute for the indwelling personal presence of the Spirit
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Doctrine of Omniscience

This happens, for instance, when the living nature of the Spirit-breathed Word is replaced by a doctrine of God’s omniscience in the original authorship of the Bible.  What is side-lined is a doctrine of the Spirit as the Dei loquentis persona (God speaking in person).  Instead the spotlight falls on God’s omniscience in inspiring the text thousands of years ago such that it would speak to every generation.  A fossilization of the living word?

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Assurance found in moral performance.

Romans 8:16 says ‘the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.’ Few preachers I hear teach that we should seek our assurance in the fellowship we have with the Spirit.  Usually we’re encouraged to look to our works.

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Fellowship of believers

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Cor 13:4) is not a Spirit-generated church-fellowship! Yet so many take it in this way. No, just as the love of God is an enjoyment of God in His love and just as the grace of Christ is an enjoyment of Christ in His grace, so the fellowship of the Holy Spirit is fellowship with the Spirit!
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‘Now but not yet’. 

We often speak of this age (truly) in terms of absence and in-between-ness. We live in between the comings of Christ. This is all absolutely correct and vitally important. But let’s not forget the presence! This is the age of the Spirit. The Spirit’s presence is the ‘now’ in the ‘now-and-not-yet’.  Let’s remember Jesus said ‘It is for your good I am going away… if I go I will send Him to you’! (John 16:7).

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Fruit of the Spirit

At one time I was praying through the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5 and using these nine characteristics as a moral checklist.  I confessed my lack of fruit and prayed for more.  One day I was doing this and got a picture in my mind of the Holy Spirit coming to my door laden with a big basket of fruit and me saying to Him ‘Thanks Spirit, just leave the fruit and I’ll see you later.’  I was praying for fruit when I should really have been praying for the Spirit Himself.  These fruit grow organically from a relationship with Him.  Let’s desire Him and not simply His gifts.

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Application in preaching

So much preaching advice assumes that it’s the preacher’s job to bridge the gap between text and congregation.  Surely it is the Spirit’s work to drive home the Word to our hearts!  How often preaching is thought to really live when the preacher ‘applies’ the text to Monday morning and the ‘nitty-gritty’ of life.  Yet the Spirit, in living power, makes the Word alive and applies it to our lives in ways more nuanced, powerful and incisive than any preacher could.

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Human advice

In the realm of guidance
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Human aptitude

In the realm of gifts
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Apologetics

In the realm of evangelism
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Strategy

In the realm of Kingdom-work
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Oratory skill

In the realm of preaching

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Grammatical-historical method.

Text critical tools give the meaning of the Bible, not the Author Himself

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Any more we can add to the list?

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Any help?

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

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Blog mouth

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

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

Lessons?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!  No, no, no, a thousand times no!

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

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

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

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

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There’s often a point in the crime drama where the bad guy tells the cop ‘You and me, we’re not so different really.’  Well there are two baddies in the history of trinitarian theology who really aren’t that different: Arius and Sabellius.  Arius was the sub-ordinationist.  He defined the One God such that Jesus could not fit in.  Instead Jesus had to take His place under the One God.  Sabellius was the modalist.  He defined the One God such that Jesus was absorbed in, losing everything that made Him distinctly Jesus.  Instead Jesus was just the mask that the One God wore occasionally.  But you know – Arius and Sabellius weren’t so different.  They both had a doctrine of the One God that couldn’t cope with Jesus.

It was Jurgen Moltmann who really nailed this in my thinking. Check out this quote from The Trinity and the Kingdom of God:

A pre-conceived doctrine of the One God means “Christ must either recede into the series of the prophets, giving way to the One God, or he must disappear into the One God as one of his manifestations.” (p131)

Here are the errors of Arius and Sabellius – and Jesus gets either squashed down or squished in.  The distinct Person of Christ will always lose out when ‘the One God’ is defined without Him.  Arius will allow Him to be Jesus and not God, Sabellius will allow Him to be God and not Jesus.  But fundamentally these errors are not so different because both prefer a pre-conceived ‘One God’ to Jesus. 

This leaves us no option but to begin with a doctrine of God that expressly includes the mutual relations of Father and Son.  Nothing else will allow Jesus to be Jesus and God.  Moltmann helped me to see what was at stake in this.  To begin with a definition of God that doesn’t already include the distinct Personhood of the Son means either Arius’s or Sabellius’s error.  And, at the end of the day, they’re not so different.

This is why Moltmann says:

…the doctrine of the Trinity is not only the deification of Christ; it is even more the Christianization of the concept of God. God cannot be comprehended without Christ, and Christ cannot be understood without God. If we are to perceive this, we not only have to reject the Arian heresy; the Sabellian heresy must be dismissed with equal emphasis.” (p131-132)

Christ will never fit into a ‘God’ defined without Him.  We must begin with Him or else we will never honour Him properly.  The errors of subordinationism and modalism are simply the result of falling off either side of the wrong horse.  We must begin with Christ.

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Ok, so the last post put forward church life as an analogy of trinitarian life.  More specifically:

‘Differently gifted members of one priesthood’ is analagous to ‘Differently gifted Persons in one Godhead.’

Once this is seen, then we can all breathe a sigh of relief and just let Jesus be Jesus. 

What do I mean by that?  Well let me ask a few questions.  When you read the Gospels, do you ever wonder:

  • Why doesn’t Jesus just say ‘I am God’?  Why all this ‘I am sent…’ stuff?
  • Why does Jesus keep saying things like: ‘I can do nothing by myself’? (e.g John 5:19,30)
  • How come Jesus sleeps?
  • How come Jesus doesn’t know when He’s returning?

Do we get worried when we see that Jesus is ‘differently gifted‘ to the One He calls Father??

Well we needn’t be.  It is a revelation of His divine nature (and not a concealment) that we see in Jesus such dependence on the Father.  When He says ‘I am sent’ it reveals His divine nature as the eternal Son of the Father.  When He says ‘I can do nothing’ it reveals His divine nature as the eternal Servant of the LORD.  When He sleeps it reveals His divine nature as One dependent upon the ever-wakeful Father.  When He says He doesn’t know when He’s returning He reveals His divine nature as One sent from God.  He waits on the Father’s command and does not initiate His first or second coming.

He really can’t do anything by Himself.  He really does sleep (He really does die even!)  He really doesn’t know when He’s returning.  But for all that He is no less divine.   For He belongs to the other Members and in union with their ‘giftings’ He is a full participant in the communion that is God.

We don’t need to assign these differences in Jesus to some ‘human nature’ locked off from a special sphere of uncorrupted deity.  Jesus’ deity is not insulated from these differences, it includes them.  It is the human Jesus who says ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.’  It is the human Jesus who says ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  In His differences, even in His complete humanity, He is the living God.  So let’s let Him be who He is in the Gospels.  Let’s not fit Him into some pre-conceived notions of divinity.  Let’s let Jesus be Jesus.

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From Genesis 1, the way of the LORD has always been forming, then filling.

The filled-out reality is there by anticipation even in the forming. The intention for filling is included in the forming. But still the order is ‘form, then fill.’:

  • In Gen 1:2 – a formless and empty creation is then formed (days 1-3) and filled (days 4-6) as the Word of God is revealed (Gen 1:3ff).
  • (This is similar to both the tabernacle and the temple where first it is formed, then filled by the Glory of the LORD).
  • Adam is formed (from dust) and then filled (by the breath of the LORD God).
  • Humanity as male and female is first formed in Adam and then filled out in Eve’s creation and their consummation.
  • The first Adam is filled by the Last.
  • The people of Israel as the seed of Abraham are filled by Christ, the Seed of Abraham.
  • The law is the form of the covenant and is filled by the gospel events.

In all this we remember that the intention for filling is already anticipated in the forming. The very forming reveals a long-intended desire to fill. The forming sets everything on a trajectory towards something beyond itself.

Is it too much to suggest on this basis alone the supralapsarian tendencies of the Living God? I’ll do it anyway!

Eden is not the point. Adam is not the point. Adamic humanity is not the point. Israel and its worship is not the point. All these things are forms, intended to be filled-out by realities to which the forms themselves point but which they do not themselves contain. The intention is always to move through Eden and beyond to the New Jerusalem; through Adam and beyond to the Heavenly Man; through Israel (and its worship) and beyond to the Church of Jesus Christ.

Tellingly, this movement goes through death and out the other side to resurrection.  Thus…

  • The day is not always bright (as it will be in the new creation). Instead it goes from darkness into light.
  • The tree is not first, first comes the seed (John 12:24; 1 Cor 15:37)
  • There are not blessings and curses for Israel as alternative present tense realities but rather the blessings come after the curse. (see Deut 4:23-31; Deut 28-29 culminating in 30:1ff).
  • The cross comes first and then resurrection.
  • The LORD makes the old covenant and then the covenant renewed. (though the new covenant reality is grasped by faith long before both old and new covenants purchased).
  • The LORD makes the old earth and then the earth renewed.
  • First comes my body of flesh and then my spiritual body. (1 Cor 15:44)

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The Christian therefore knows two incontrovertible facts:

1. All things are forward-looking. The best is yet to come (let’s never yearn for Adam, for Eden, for Israel, for old covenant).

2. The path to better things is through suffering: the road to resurrection blessing always goes through the cross.

Psalm 30:5 For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Psalm 126:6 He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

1 Peter 5:6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

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When discussing the priesthood of all believers I tried to highlight the corporate nature of our priestliness.  I only find my priestliness in union with Christ and in union with others.  Both are essential.

The priesthood of all believers is not a priestliness that is the private possession of each believer.  If we argue like this then the very basis for the doctrine is undermined.  If I claim priestliness in myself then I can be priestly without you.  And if this is admitted then my different gifted-ness and the distinct exercise of my priestly gifts will easily appear as a different order of priestliness to yours.  And once we say that we’re a hop, skip and a jump from a priesthood of the few.

No – the priesthood of all believers upholds that, while having different gifts to you and while exercising them in different ways, I cannot be priestly without you.  Yet with you I am both priestly and I have your gifts – for you in your giftedness belong to me, and I to you (Rom 12:5ff).

In thinking this through the connections with trinitarian theology suggest themselves pretty readily.  In John 17, Christ prays for a priestly church unity.  That is, He prays that the church be united as witness to the world. (see v18, 21, 23).  In v21 and 23, Christ makes clear the proto-type for such priestly unity: the Father-Son union.  So in thinking about Church and gifts, there seem to be some fruitful lines of enquiry into Trinity and attributes. 

In this post I’ll consider things from Trinity => church.  In my next post I’ll think of church =>Trinity.

As we consider things from Trinity => church. It seems like the major trinitarian heresies are easily seen in our understandings of church.

tritheism: a ‘trinity’ of separable Persons becomes, in church practice, separable priests – lone-ranger, hit and run  evangelists divorced from the corporate life of the church.

modalism: a one-ness in which the Persons lose their distinctiveness becomes, in church practice, a forcing of church members into the same mould.  Everyone must exercise every gift.  Training in mission = making everyone do street-evangelism.  That kind of thing.

subordinationism (Arianism): The ontological subordination of Son and Spirit becomes, in church practice, the suborination of the non-full-time Christian workers.  It’s the old two-tier way of life first espoused by Eusebius but replicated today.  The ‘perfect’ are the priests (nowadays the ‘full-time Christian workers’), the ‘permitted’ are the regular folk (nowadays those whose tithes support the ‘full-time Christian workers’). 

The antidote must be to go back to the trinity and understand again how the many are one.  Not competitively, not identically, not merely apparently.  Rather the one-ness (of God and of church) is a unity of distinct Persons whose belongingness to one another makes them who they are.  

I am – in all my differentness to you, in all my distinct gifting and role – one with you in the mission that constitutes both me and the church.  Without you I have no mission, in fact I have no ecclesial being – that is, I am not a Christian.  I have my life and being and we have our mission to the world only because we belong together at the very deepest level.

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  (John 17:20-23)

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Rest of series:

Part two

Part three – Let Jesus be Jesus

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I’m no expert on the historical use of this phrase but surely there are some unhelpful ways of spinning this evangelical touchstone.  Here’s what I think the phrase must protect:

  • The church as a whole is the only earthly priesthood the NT recognizes.  (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 5:10) 
  • Every Christian has equally entered this priesthood. 
  • None is more priestly than another. 

To this should be added the indispensibile prior truth: Christ is our one and only, all-sufficient Priest.  (How easy it is to trumpet the priesthood of us against catholic understandings.  How much better to lead with the priesthood of Christ.  But that’s for another time!)

So this is what we are protecting by the phrase.  BUT surely what we can’t mean is:  Every individual is equally a priest in themselves.  Here is the great danger of misunderstanding the phrase – I may start to look for my priestliness in myself.  That is, I may say ‘the priesthood is all believers; I’m a believer; therefore I, on my own, am a priest.’  To think like this is to completely invert the intention of the doctrine.  My priestliness is found only in union with Christ and with the corporate priesthood that is His body.  And I must look for priesthood in both those places – first in Christ and second in His body.  But never in me!  I, on my lonesome, am not a priest. I, on my lonesome, cannot begin to bring God to world or world to God.

Why is this important?  Well, let’s just think of the implications for evangelism:

1. Upon trusting Christ I have joined a priestly body and therefore my whole existence is now caught up in priestly work – i.e. mediating God to world and world to God.  But…

2. It is a priestly body and so I must never do this in isolation.  The self-funded, self-governed, one-man evangelist is not godly evangelism.

3. Because there are many parts but one body (1 Cor 12:20) we can honour the different parts without forcing ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ to be lips!   In other words we shouldn’t force non-speaking-gifted Christians into speaking roles.  But…

4.  We do have to encourage speakers and servers (1 Pet 4:10f) together to utilise their complementary gifts in mission.

That seems fairly straightforward.  And yet. 

  • How much of a church’s evangelistic strategy simply involves bringing the non-Christian to the pulpit?
  • How much of evangelism training simply equips individuals for solo-witness? 
  • How much of it simply equips individuals for their verbal ‘answer’? 
  • What does the average church-goer think of when they think of evangelism – corporate or individual?  The ‘answer’ or more than that? 
  • How many of the church’s exhortations to evangelism are straight-forward challenges for ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ to be ‘lips’?
  • How little do we encourage members of the body to come together organically and complement one another in mission? 
  • How do Christians feel who aren’t gifted speakers – do they feel that they are just as missionary, just as priestly?

I think much of these problems come from an individualizing of the ‘the priesthood of all believers’?  We have turned something inherently corporate into a private possession of each member.  As soon as this happens then I can be an evangelist without you.  The ‘lips’ get on without the ‘hands’ and we quickly revert to a ‘priesthood of the few’ – just via another route. 

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Anyway, these thoughts have come out of preparation for this sermon on 1 Peter.

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