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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:


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.

Doctrine of Omnipresence

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

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?


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.


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!

‘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).


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.


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.


Human advice

In the realm of guidance

Human aptitude

In the realm of gifts


In the realm of evangelism


In the realm of Kingdom-work

Oratory skill

In the realm of preaching


Grammatical-historical method.

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


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.


  • 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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