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Posts Tagged ‘assurance’

A repost from  two years ago…

Today I had two very different meetings with a similar theme.

One person – a really great Christian – confessed to me that they’d prayed for God to enter their life many thousands of times but never got the answer they were looking for.  I could relate – this describes the entirety of my teenage years.  (See this talk for more)

The other meeting was with some Mormons who knocked on our door.   They both told me they became convinced Mormons when they prayed for an experience of the Holy Ghost.  This apparently confirmed to them the truth of the gospel as restored by Joseph Smith.  As the little leaflet they gave me says: “The Holy Ghost confirms the truth through feelings, thoughts and impressions.”  Both of them described this as a private experience of peace and joy.  It was unclear how this brief religious feeling related to the status of Joseph Smith as a prophet and priest, or the truth of the book of Mormon.

But apparently this is the way to become a Mormon.  As with Smith himself, pray James 1:5 and something will happen.  My leaflet tells me, “This knowledge can be miraculous and life changing [Smith met the Father and the Son personally!!] but it usually comes as a quiet assurance.”

Joseph Smith 1

Clearly the missionaries I met were at the ‘quiet assurance’ end of Holy Ghost experiences.  But it struck me after they left that they had found what my friend was after, and what I’d been seeking as a teenager.  I wanted a private religious experience – shining lights, weak knees, woozy stomach.  I wanted peace and joy as I perched on the end of my bed.  I wanted some kind of numinous glow, wordless ecstasy, love and groovy vibes.  Now that I think about it – I was very much into Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground at the time.  I think I basically wanted spiritual heroin.

But again the question would have to be asked – what exactly is the link between this spiritual experience and the truth that is supposedly being authenticated?  The Mormons had a spiritual high – but that doesn’t answer the question, ‘which spirit has produced it?’  A Mars bar could give me warm fuzzies, what’s that got to do with Jesus?

Perhaps this is another case where we need to reconsider faith in more biblical ways.  We commonly think of faith as our work (a feeling to be generated) and as something related to religion in general.  On this understanding, all kinds of people have ‘faith’ because they manage to work up generic religious sentiments.

In the bible, faith is simply our receiving Jesus.  Not our work but God’s.  And its content is not ‘religious feeling’ in general, but ‘Christ and Him crucified’ in particular.

And how is Christ received?  Not perched on the end of my bed.  He is received in word and sacrament.

Ever noticed how parallel Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 are?  Well look in particular at Eph 5:18-20 and Col 3:16-17.  Being filled with the Spirit is parallel with ‘letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly.’  Want to be filled with the Spirit?  Be filled with His words.  And these words are the words of Christ – He Himself is communicated in them.

So I don’t say to my friend that spiritual experiences are unimportant.  But neither do I advocate the Mormon route.  God is found in Christ and Christ is found in His word.  We ought never to stop short of a personal encounter with the living Christ.  But we should never seek such encounters apart from where He Himself is given.  And He is freely given in word and sacrament.

It’s just interesting to me that a cult founded in mistrusting the word and trusting personal experience can foster spiritual understandings that are so close to home.  Let’s give up on looking for the spiritual heroin.  Let’s instead receive fellowship with the living Christ, not because of our own quest for experience but on the basis of His prior and utter self-giving.  The encounter is already real and true in the gospel – He is yours.  “The Son of God loved you and gave Himself for you.” (Gal 2:20)   If you’ve believed this gospel truth, you have experienced the Holy Spirit’s assurance.  If you haven’t received that word, then you must know that you’ll receive Christ in no other way.  Continue to ask, seek and knock by all means.  But return continually to the place where He’s already freely offered.  Right there you already have Him.

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I preached Psalm 18:19  a while back.  And you know my first reaction as I was preparing?

Hmmm, tricky, how on earth should we understand this…?

I hope you’re all saying: But why Glen – it seems perfectly straightforward.

Well, there’s the slightly tricky part about how we take the verse on our own lips.  Clearly it’s Christ speaking of His Father.  But once we’re all happy to sing the Psalm in Christ then I hope you’re all saying to yourselves: Glen, it’s perfectly obvious.  The Lord saves us because He loves us. What could be difficult about that?

Ah, but you see I regularly fall into a foolish and horrible error – perhaps you’re the same.  I start thinking that Jesus died so that God could love me.  I imagine that God saves in order to love.  He cleans me up a bit and then gives me His grace.  His atonement leads to love, (rather than love leading to the atonement).  Do you see my error?

And so when Psalm 18 spoke of the Lord delighting in me and therefore rescuing me?  Well it seemed backwards.  And so I really had to let the word confront me again.

Because in the Bible God loves the world and so sends the Son to save (John 3:16-17).  In the Bible it’s ‘because of His great love for us that God makes us alive’, even when we were dead in sins (Eph 2:4).  In the Bible God demonstrates His own love for us in that Christ died for powerless, ungodly, sinful enemies (Rom 5:6-11).

Do you see what these verses are saying?  God loves and so He saves.  It does not say – God saves and so He loves.

Why’s that important?  Well for one thing it means that Christ loves me – SINNER THAT I AM. It’s not a case of Christ loving the saved me (though of course He does).  But it’s the radical gospel truth that Christ has loved me at my putrid worst.  He doesn’t clean me up in order to love me.  He loves me and so cleanses me through His atoning death.

Which means when I ask myself, ‘Does God love me?’ – I can look to the cross alone.  I don’t have to check my own saved status.  I don’t have to worry whether the cleansing has taken sufficient effect to allow me entrance into His affections.  I can simply look at Christ crucified and say – God loves me.  There is His demonstration – a love for sinners at war with Him.  He has not fixed His love on me at my best.  He has fixed His love on me at my worst.

My salvation – won through His blood alone – proves His love for me.  His love is not a bonus for the godly but is specifically aimed at enemies.  Such love is the very ground of all He does. If I’m looking at the Son lifted up on the cross then I’m seeing God’s love for me because there I’m seeing my salvation.  This salvation in Christ is infallible proof of God’s immovable, inexhaustible and unfathomable love for me.

He rescued me because He delighted in me. (Ps 18:19)

Christian, God speaks that word to you right now.  Believe it.

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In 1738 John Wesley returned from the mission field convinced of one thing: He was not a Christian.  He wrote in his journal, “I am fallen short of the glory of God… my heart is altogether corrupt and abominable… alienated as I am from the life of God I am a child of wrath and heir of hell.”  (Arnold Dallimore, George Whitfield, vol 1, p179)

He was certain at this point that the only way of salvation was “by faith” – whatever that meant.  He knew he needed “faith” and he also knew he didn’t have it.

“I was strongly convinced [he wrote] that the cause of my uneasiness was unbelief, and that gaining a true, living faith was the ‘one thing needful’ for me.” (p181)

At this point the Moravians made a lasting impact on both John and Charles.  Yet the “faith” which they preached was oftentimes an internal religious experience rather than an outward-looking reliance on Christ.  This was the kind of “faith” which the Wesleys sought.

Arnold Dallimore comments “The views to which the Wesleys were led by these means became of historic importance, for these views influenced the beliefs they held throughout life.  They both spoke of ‘seeking Christ’, yet as one analyses the pertinent passages in their Journals it becomes evident that they were actuallly seeking faith more than they were Christ. Faith had become the great desideratum in their thinking, insomuch that they began to look upon it as an entity in itself.  Under [the Moravian] Bohler’s instructions they had forsaken their trust in personal endeavours and works, but faith had become a kind of new endeavour which they substituted for their former endeavours and a work which took the place of their former good works.  They had still learned nothing about receiving Christ in the fullness of His person and the completeness of His saving work, but were concerned about faith itself and what measure of it might be necessary for salvation.  Charles expected that the coming of this faith might be associated with some visible presence of Christ, and John looked for an experience which would be accompanied by an emotional response.  ‘I well saw’, he wrote, ‘that no-one could, in the nature of things, have such a sense of forgiveness and not feel it.  But I felt it not.'”  (p181-2)

They both embarked upon a tortuous spiritual path in order to discover this faith.  On the 24th May 1738, at a religious society meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, John heard someone reading Luther’s preface to Romans.  As Wesley described it, Luther’s writing was a “description of the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ.”  That in itself is an interesting take on Luther’s concern!  But, understood in this way, Wesley found himself responding to these truths.  He famously wrote in his Journal:

I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

This is considered by many to be John’s conversion.  Yet other factors cast doubt on it.

Within a week Wesley was, in his own words, ‘thrown into perplexity’ when a friend asserted that faith must be fully assured or it is no faith at all.  He took a trip to Herrnhut, home of the Moravians, to enquire about ‘the assurance of faith.’

But this gave no clarity.  As Dallimore writes, “since the Moravians formulated their beliefs to a considerable degree on personal experience, their answers to Wesley’s enquiry were many and vaious.  One preacher said that ‘the full assurance’ was a blessing received at the same time as justification, but another asserted that it was a separate experience to be entered into after conversion.  Another stated that it was the coming of the Holy Spirit subsequent to conversion… and still another claimed that it was no more than a rich Christian maturity and was attained simply by steady Christian growth.”

Dallimore lists the effects of this confused spiritual counsel on a perplexed Wesley:

First, it influenced him towards combining Scripture and experience in formulating doctrinal beliefs.  Secondly, it increased in him that introspective tendency.  Thirdly, it caused him to believe that the Moravians possessed something which he did not have, and therefore that (as some of them intimated) a second Christian experience was possible – an experience, he believed, which would accomplish in him that larger victory in which the experience at Aldersgate Street had failed.  By the time he returned to England, Wesley had become something of a Moravian himself.”  (p194)

And what was the result for Wesley personally?  Well in the short term he continued to be greatly perplexed about his spiritual state.  So much so that eight months after his Aldersgate Street experience, John wrote this in his Journal:

“My friends affirm that I am mad because I said I was not a Christian a year ago.  I affirm I am not a Christian now.  Indeed, what I might have been I know not, had I been faithful to the grace then given, when, expecting nothing less, I received such a sense of forgiveness of sins as till I then never knew.  But that I am not a Christian at this day I as assuredly know as that Jesus is the Christ.” (p196)

What an astonishing thing to say!  Completely assured that Jesus is the Christ.  Completely convinced he’s not a Christian.

What do we learn from this?  Class?

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Sermon Audio

Do you ever worry that you’re not a proper Christian?  Do you fear you might not be a child of God after all?

Do you ever struggle to pray?

Do you worry about friends who are caught in certain sins?

Do you wonder what to do about those who once said they were Christians and now they’re speaking against Christ?

Do you ever find your heart wandering from Christ, and falling for other things?

John is going to address all these questions as he concludes his letter.  And his answer to all these questions is to bring us back to Jesus.  If Jesus is at the heart of our thinking then we’ll be able to handle these question.

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Audio Powerpoint

A few days ago I was strolling along the beach with my wife.  We bought some amazing tropical fruit from a roadside vendor, I went for a swim and then lay down on a deckchair sipping a cold beer.  I said to Emma “This is the life.”

When have you said that phrase?  “This is the life”?  You might not like hot holidays. Maybe you’d rather go skiing with friends and then sit down by a roaring fire with a big hot chocolate, extra cream.  “This is the life.”

Or you go out and celebrate some success at your favourite restaurant with your favourite people. “This is the life” we say.

It’s funny how rarely we use that saying isn’t it?  We live for awfully long stretches of time without saying “this is the life”.  Apparently most of life isn’t “the life”.  Evidently only very rarely is life THE LIFE.  We have to stop doing everything we have been doing and fly halfway around the world before our life starts to be THE LIFE.  Is that right?  Is it the case that most of our lives aren’t really “the life”?  That would be a real shame wouldn’t it?

Because 36 hours after I said: “this is the life”, we were locked outside our house in the freezing rain, rummaging through our suitcases before concluding our house-keys were somewhere on the continent of Australia. Was this “the life”?  “The life” seemed far away at that point.

But I wonder whether for most of us “the life” seems out of reach.

But John, the author of this letter, thinks very differently about “the life.”  For John “the life” is not a time or a place.  “The life” is a person – a person who was there in the beginning.  A person with whom we now have fellowship.  Look at the first few verses of the letter:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

This is the life.  Not a time or a place.  A person.  This is the life: Jesus.  He was there in the beginning.  There with the Father.  He came in the middle to live out “THE LIFE” on full display to the world.  John had seen THE LIFE.  He’d walked the dusty roads of Israel with THE LIFE.  When he saw Jesus saying and doing His thing, John said to Himself “THIS is the life.”  Jesus is the life.  And so John wants to tell the whole world about THE LIFE.  Verse 3:

3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

It’s John’s greatest joy to pass on THE LIFE to us.  So that you and I can enjoy THE LIFE, not just when we’re sunbathing by the pool or having drinks with friends, but when we’re locked out of the house in the freezing rain, when we lose our jobs and our health and our friends, our family, even our own lives.  We can lose everything in life and still have THE LIFE.  Because we have Jesus: the Author of Life, the Word of Life, the Meaning of Life.

In all of life we can have THE LIFE.

But it’s a different kind of life to “THE LIFE” we enjoy sitting by the pool.  THE LIFE we seek is usually pretty self-indulgent.  THE LIFE that Jesus gives is self-giving.  THE LIFE we pursue is about sitting back and relaxing.  THE LIFE of Jesus is an outgoing life.

Did you notice in these opening verses: Jesus goes out from the Father into the world.  He “appears” to the disciples who receive THE LIFE and then they go out and tell others.

THE LIFE is Jesus and it’s not a self-indulgent, sitting-back kind of life.  It’s a self-giving, out-going kind of life.

And with that as background, come now to a crucial verse in our passage – chapter 3, verse 16:

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14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder. 20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

As a teenager I approached a minister, full of doubts and struggles and a thousand misunderstandings.  My question was, Why doesn’t God seem to accept me?  I’ve prayed the prayer a thousand times, why does heaven seem to be silent?

He told me that I shouldn’t worry about whether I was accepted, I just needed to get on and really live the Christian life.

So I went off and tried that (or at least what I imagined the Christian life to be).  And I failed even by my own standards.  And, despondently, I slinked off from Christian things for a good few years.

What kind of faith did I have at that time?  I’d have probably articulated the gospel as something like:  God’s big.  You’re small.  Behave.

I didn’t have gospel faith.  I had demon faith (v19).  I believed God was one.  I believed Jesus was God’s Son.  But little more.

Now what would James counsel at this point?  Is James chapter 2 the encouragement to add good works to such rudimentary faith?  Is he exhorting those with demon faith to top up their merit levels until they hit salvific proportions?

No.  James is discussing the kind of faith that saves .  In v14 the word “such” (or “that” in ESV) is important.  James is not making a calculation: Demon faith plus good deeds equals salvation!  Instead this is about discerning what kind of faith is true saving faith.

And the answer is – true saving faith is the kind of faith that’s always being fulfilled in active service.  In other words, saving faith (Genesis 15 style) always leads to obedience (Genesis 22 style).

So what should that minister have said to me?  I wish he’d said this:

“Glen, I don’t think you really know the gospel.  I don’t think you could have the slightest understanding of Christ for you while harbouring these doubts.  I don’t think the kind of faith you have is really the active, life-giving, always-leading-to-loving-service kind of faith.  So let me tell you the gospel again, and drive it home to you until assured, authentic, vital faith is birthed in you.  Let me preach the gospel of faith alone to you once more, knowing that the faith that saves will never be alone.  Let me overwhelm you with the promise (Genesis 15) and then you’ll bear fruit in obedience (Genesis 22).”

I think that’s the approach to a dead faith: preach faith alone.  And I think it’s completely mandated by James chapter 2.

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If “grace” is held out as a state of affairs – God saves believers apart from their works – then faith becomes an appreciation of a doctrine – I trust that God saves people through faith not works.

What then is assurance?  It becomes something like – God has saved me because I have trusted the doctrine of grace. Where then is my confidence?  It lies in that phrase “I have trusted.”  I’m having faith in my own faith.

But what if grace was specifically the Person of Jesus freely held out in the gospel?  Well then faith is a receiving of Him.  And if I have Him my confidence does not come from me at all.  I don’t trust my faith, I trust Jesus.  And in Him I have full assurance.

In the impersonal state of affairs I build my assurance on having ‘true faith’.  But where will I find ‘true faith’?  In me?

When I know Jesus as my salvation then my assurance is based on having Him.  How do I verify this?  I look away to Christ clothed in the gospel – “Come to me and I will give you rest.”  My assurance therefore depends on His faithfulness (not on my flimsy faith).

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A sermon on Hebrews 5:11-6:20.  Audio here

What do we make of Christians, who belong to our churches, serve in remarkable way, can speak of great Christian experiences.  They’ve heard the gospel, maybe they’ve even themselves taught the gospel to others.  They’ve been involved in ministry and have spoken personally of God’s goodness.  Maybe they’ve even helped you in Christian life and been a real example and mentor to you – and NOW, they are nowhere spiritually.  They don’t call themselves Christians anymore.  They feel like they’ve out-grown it.  They’ve consigned it to the past.  What about Christians who fall away?

Well it seems to me there can only really be two answers.

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Hebrews 10:26 can be a scary verse.  One woman I know has been crippled by the fear that she is damned because of ongoing sin.  Whenever I declared the gospel to her and held out the grace of Jesus she would always come back to these verses:

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.  (Heb 10:26-27)

Whatever happens we don’t want to be found to be ones who “deliberately keep on sinning.”  So what does it mean?

Different things can be said, but let me just take up one line of inquiry.  Verse 26 uses ‘sin’ in two senses – first as a verb, then as a noun.  It’s interesting to note that Hebrews only uses ‘sin’ as a verb twice.  But ‘sin’ as a noun is everywhere.  Here are all its uses:

Sin as a noun:

is purified – 1:3

is atoned for – 2:17

is not remembered anymore – 8:12; 10:17

is put away once and for all – 9:26

is borne by Jesus once and for all – 9:28

Christ is sacrificed for it once for all time – 10:12

Christ is without it – 4:15

is dealt with in shadowy way by High Priest / old covenant – 5:1,3; 7:27; 10:2,3,4,6,8,11,18,26; 13:11

hardens and deceives – 3:13

gives fleeting pleasures – 11:25

easily entangles – 12:1

causes struggle – 12:4

Sin as a verb is only mentioned twice:

Israelites ‘sinned’ and their bodies fell in the wilderness – 3:17

Deliberately sinning – no sacrifice for sins remains – 10:26

Sin (noun) – has been purified, atoned for, put away and borne in the sacrifice of sinless Jesus once and for all.  It is therefore remembered no more.  This is precisely what the old covenant promised through its shadows but never effected itself.  Sin remains a reality for the Christian – it offers fleeting pleasures.  But it deceives and hardens, it easily entangles and causes painful struggle.

To sin (verb) – is a decisive and deadly rejection of the Lord.  The Israelites “sinned” in the wilderness and so they died (3:17).  This is the verdict upon 40 years of their constantly wayward hearts.  They did not want the Lord and His future and so He swore that they would not enter His rest.  People today ‘deliberately sin’ when they reject Jesus, their one Sacrifice for sins and Forerunner to glory.  If they forsake Him, no sacrifice for sins remains. (10:26)

I wonder therefore whether the slight overtranslation of 10:26 in most versions (“Deliberately keep on sinning …”) spotlights the wrong thing.  The unforgiveable nature of this kind of sinning is not really its ongoingness – though it is an ongoing attitude.  The unforgiveableness of this sin is that it is a rejection of the very One in Whom forgiveness is offered.  The author is not telling us: “a spot of occasional sinning is alright but ongoing sinning is damnable.”  He’s saying that sin is put away by Christ once and for all, but the person who rejects Christ deliberately has nowhere else to turn.

Hebrews is written to a people always tempted to trust the shadows and not the Substance.  They look to angels and Moses and temple and priests and goats and bulls and everything but Jesus.  But Jesus is the One we are to See and Fix our thoughts upon, etc, etc.  If we have seen HIM and then turn away again to worthless sin-bearers – no sacrifice for sins remains.  We’ve rejected the one Life-raft.

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Karl Barth died 41 years ago today.

Here are a few of my favourite quotes from him:

On his own theology:

My whole theology, you see, is fundamentally a theology for parsons. It grew out of my own situation when I had to teach and preach and counsel a little. (From a radio broadcast made shortly before Barth’s death. Quoted from William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, Abingdon Press, 2006.)

On the reason for theology:

The normal and central fact with which dogmatics has to do is, very simply, the Church’s Sunday sermon of yesterday and to-morrow, and so it will continue to be.” (Church Dogmatics I/1, p91)

On theological method

Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.  (Article 1 of the Barmen Declaration)


On the bible:

“The Bible says all sorts of things, certainly; but in all this multiplicity and variety, it says in truth only one thing – just this: the name of Jesus Christ… The Bible becomes clear when it is clear that is says this one thing… The Bible remains dark to us if we do not hear in it this sovereign name… Interpretation stands in the service of the clarity which the Bible as God’s Word makes for itself; and we can properly interpret the Bible, in whole or part, only when we perceive and show that what it says is said from the point of view of that… name of Jesus Christ.”  (Church Dogmatics I/2, p720)

At bottom, the Church is in the world only with a book in its hands. We have no other possibility to bear witness except to explain this book.” (God in Action, p107-8)

On creation and covenant

Creation is the outward basis of the covenant and the covenant is the inward basis of creation.  (Church Dogmatics III/1, ch41)

On church:

The essence of the Church is proclamation.  (Homiletics, p40)

On the Christian life:

“Ye shall be witnesses unto me” (Acts 1:8) – this is enough for the one to whom Christ speaks and who has heard Him. Whether strong or weak, willing or unwilling, successful or unsuccessful, the Christian is a witness, irrespective of whether the miracle occurs, or whether it occurs visibly or invisibly. In all circumstances and with the whole of his existence he is a responsible witness of the Word of God. He is called to be this. As such he is set at the side of God in the world, and therefore set over against the world.’ (Church Dogmatics IV/3, p609)

On proofs for God:

Note well: in the whole Bible of the Old and New Testaments not the slightest attempt is ever made to prove God. This attempt has always been made only outside the biblical view of God, and only where it has been forgotten with whom we have to do, when we speak of God. What sort of attempts were they, after all, where the attempt was make to prove a perfect Being alongside imperfect ones? Or from the existence of the world to prove the ordering Power? Or the moral proof of God from the face of man’s conscience? I will not enter into these proofs of God. I don’t know whether you can at once see the humour and the fragility of these proofs. These proofs may avail for the alleged gods; if it were my task to make you acquainted with these allegedly supreme beings, I would occupy myself with the five famous proofs of God. In the Bible there is no such argumentation; the Bible simply speaks of God simply as of One who needs no proof. It speaks of a God who proves Himself on every hand: Here I am, and since I am and live and act it is superfluous that I should be proved. On the basis of this divine self-proof the prophets and apostles speak. In the Christian Church there can be no speaking about God in any other way. God has not the slightest need for our proofs. (Dogmatics in Outline, 38)

On apologetics:

The great danger of apologetics is “the domesticating of revelation… the process of making the Gospel respectable. When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it and peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it inoccuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control.” (Church Dogmatics II/1, p141)

On assurance (this is perhaps my favourite Barth quote):

“We might imagine the conversation…  The man to whom [the Word of grace is spoken] thinks and says that he is not this new, peaceful, joyful man living in fellowship. He asks leave honestly to admit that he does not know this man, or at least himself as this man.

The Word of grace replies: ‘All honour to your honesty, but my truth transcends it. Allow yourself, therefore, to be told in all truth and on the most solid grounds what you do not know, namely, that you are this man in spite of what you think.’

Man: ‘ You think that I can and should become this man in the course of time? But I do not have sufficient confidence in myself to believe this. Knowing myself, I shall never become this man.’

The Word of grace: ‘You do well not to have confidence in yourself. But the point is not that you can and should become this man. What I am telling you is that, as I know you, you already are.’

Man: ‘I understand that you mean this eschatologically. You are referring to the man I perhaps will be one day in some not very clearly known transfiguration in a distant eternity. If only I had attained to this! And if only I could be certain that even then I should be this new man!’

The Word of grace: ‘You need to understand both yourself and me better than you do. I am not inviting you to speculate about your being in eternity, but to receive and ponder the news that here and now you begin to be the new man, and are already that which you will be eternally.’

Man: ‘How can I accept this news? On what guarantee can I make bold to take is seriously?’

The Word of grace: ‘I, Jesus Christ, am the One who speaks to you. You are what you are in Me, as I will to be in you. Hold fast to Me. I am your guarantee. My boldness is yours. With this boldness dare to be what you are?’

Man: ‘I certainly hear the message, but…’

In this perplexed and startled ‘but’ we see the attack, and who it is that is attacked.” (Church Dogmatics, V/2, p250)

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Do you have a favourite Barth quote?  Why not leave it in comments.

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“My whole theology, you see, is fundamentally a theology for parsons.  It grew out of my own situation when I had to teach and preach and counsel a little.

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Imagine you’re in a conversation with someone of another religion.  At some point you might ask them: “Are you sure of heaven/Valhalla/getting beamed to the mother ship?”  (delete as appropriate).

This is a good question because no other god actually saves.  They might talk a big game but they can’t be counted on to do the business.  And so the follower of this other religion will be forced back on themselves.  They’ll either openly confess ‘No’ or they’ll be full of bravado and demonstrable good works but the most they can say is, “I hope so.” And when they confess their lack of assurance it’s enough to bring you to tears.  What wicked demon has ensnared you that you may even kill yourself in its service yet have no hope of its favour!?

Well don’t we see the same thing with the carbon-cutting gospel?  I receive emails from an old university friend (I’ll bet many of you get the same ones – his global advocacy group has become massive).  But for all the candlelit vigils, the millions strong petitions, the vast sums raised and ambitious goals – the lack of assurance is palpable.  Every email ends “with hope.”  But you just wonder don’t you.

It seems to me that even the most committed activist working to tax carbon into oblivion doesn’t really think their gospel will deliver.  The most optimistic talk of the climate campaigner sounds so much like the devout Mormon who ‘hopes’ they’ll make it.  Maybe I’m reading things in here, but I get the distinct impression that deep down their whole fear-driven carbon-cutting works both hide the fact and spring from the fact that they don’t think it’s going to happen.  Not deep down.

Oh they hope so!  And they hope it enough to wear themselves out in anxious labour.  But there’s no assurance.

So how do we preach to the climate campaigner?  Let me suggest not by agreeing with their apocalyptic, pseudo-messianic gospel and then adding in a few Jesus extras to get the job done.  (You’re correct in your assessment of the planet’s destiny and true rulers, but let me add in Jesus who helps us to be the saviours!)

No, that’s not the way.  But not because we have no compassion.  We do.  It is desperate to see them so harassed and helpless like sheep without a Shepherd.  And so the way forwards is to teach them (Mark 6:34).  And perhaps especially we might paint for them a cosmic picture of the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness.  Not just a reduction in the number of hurricanes, but a crystal sea like glass!  Not just preventing the displacement of people groups but their planting in the land!  Not just the protection of the trees but their joyful worship!  Not the maintenance of adequate food supplies but the richest of meats and wine dripping from the hills!  Not alleviation of drought but the Lamb shepherding us to streams of Living Water!  Not simply the preservation of lions and lambs but their reconciliation!   And a little Child will lead them.  We introduce them to this Child and He will calm all fears.  Because He is able to deliver on this future.  He guarantees it.

Maybe we need to be saying to our climate believer friends “After all this effort, are you sure the planet’s going to be ok?  Cos I am.”

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By the way, Paul Huxley speaks much sense on the reasons for scepticism here.

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A good and busy Sunday.  I’ll get around to answering comments and emails soon.  Just wanted to blog this while it’s still fresh.

This afternoon I had two very different meetings with a similar theme.

One person – a really great Christian – confessed to me that they’d prayed for God to enter their life many thousands of times but never got the answer they were looking for.  I could relate – this describes the entirety of my teenage years.  (See this talk for more)

The other meeting was with some Mormons who knocked on our door.   They both told me they became convinced Mormons when they prayed for an experience of the Holy Ghost.  This apparently confirmed to them the truth of the gospel as restored by Joseph Smith.  As the little leaflet they gave me says: “The Holy Ghost confirms the truth through feelings, thoughts and impressions.”  Both of them described this as a private experience of peace and joy.  It was unclear how this brief religious feeling related to the status of Joseph Smith as a prophet and priest, or the truth of the book of Mormon.

But apparently this is the way to become a Mormon.  As with Smith himself, pray James 1:5 and something will happen.  My leaflet tells me, “This knowledge can be miraculous and life changing [Smith met the Father and the Son personally!!] but it usually comes as a quiet assurance.”

Joseph Smith 1

Clearly the missionaries I met were at the ‘quiet assurance’ end of Holy Ghost experiences.  But it struck me after they left that they had found what my friend was after, and what I’d been seeking as a teenager.  I wanted a private religious experience – shining lights, weak knees, woozy stomach.  I wanted peace and joy as I perched on the end of my bed.  I wanted some kind of numinous glow, wordless ecstasy, love and groovy vibes.  Now that I think about it – I was very much into Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground at the time.  I think I basically wanted spiritual heroin.

But again the question would have to be asked – what exactly is the link between this spiritual experience and the truth that is supposedly being authenticated?  The Mormons had a spiritual high – but that doesn’t answer the question, ‘which spirit has produced it?’  A Mars bar could give me warm fuzzies, what’s that got to do with Jesus?

Perhaps this is another case where we need to reconsider faith in more biblical ways.  We commonly think of faith as our work (a feeling to be generated) and as something related to religion in general.  On this understanding, all kinds of people have ‘faith’ because they manage to work up generic religious sentiments.

In the bible, faith is simply our receiving Jesus.  Not our work but God’s.  And its content is not ‘religious feeling’ in general, but ‘Christ and Him crucified’ in particular.

And how is Christ received?  Not perched on the end of my bed.  He is received in word and sacrament.

Ever noticed how parallel Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 are?  Well look in particular at Eph 5:18-20 and Col 3:16-17.  Being filled with the Spirit is parallel with ‘letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly.’  Want to be filled with the Spirit?  Be filled with His words.  And these words are the words of Christ – He Himself is communicated in them.

So I don’t say to my friend that spiritual experiences are unimportant.  But neither do I advocate the Mormon route.  God is found in Christ and Christ is found in His word.  We ought never to stop short of a personal encounter with the living Christ.  But we should never seek such encounters apart from where He Himself is given.  And He is freely given in word and sacrament.

It’s just interesting to me that a cult founded in mistrusting the word and trusting personal experience can foster spiritual understandings that are so close to home.  Let’s give up on looking for the spiritual heroin – it’s such a sordid, selfish and unsatisfying fix.  Let’s instead receive fellowship with the living Christ, not because of our own quest for experience but on the basis of His prior and utter self-giving.  The encounter is already real and true in the gospel – He is yours.  “The Son of God loved you and gave Himself for you.” (Gal 2:20)   If you’ve believed that sentence, you have experienced the Holy Spirit’s assurance.  If you haven’t received that word, then you must know that you’ll receive Christ in no other way.  Continue to ask, seek and knock by all means.  But return continually to the place where He’s already freely offered.  Right there you already have Him.

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In Mike Reeves’ excellent talks on the reformation he speaks of Luther’s great spiritual struggle.

Luther’s perennial struggle was to believe that he had a gracious God.

In pondering that phrase this morning it occurred to me that we, in our settings, tend to frame our struggles in different language.  We wonder whether we are saved.  Luther wondered whether he had a gracious God.

I think the difference might be important.

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After He had dismissed them, He went up on a mountainside by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone, 24 but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 25 During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw Him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” He said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out His hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” He said, “why did you doubt?” 32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshipped Him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  (Matthew 14:23-33)

Here Jesus walks on water – He treads on the abyss. But Peter walks as Jesus walks (cf 1 John 2:6). How?

Notice he doesn’t just step out. He asks for Jesus to command him. He’s been in a storm with Jesus before (Matt 8:23-27).  Peter knows the power of Jesus’ word – His word is obeyed! So Peter wants a word from Jesus to command him. And the word is powerful to enable that which it commands (Jesus’ word is like that). Peter does the impossible because Jesus commands it.

Of course he sinks (looking at the waves and not looking at Christ). But in His grace, Peter only ‘begins’ to sink.  This is not gravity acting on Peter or he’d sink like a stone. How slowly Jesus lets him down!  But when Peter calls out, ‘immediately’ Jesus saves.

His words of rebuke tell us how we can walk like Jesus: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’  Now what is Jesus referring to here?

Peter did not doubt that Jesus could walk on water.  And it wasn’t self-belief that Jesus was recommending (Peter has no ability to walk on water!).  Peter’s problem was that he doubted Jesus’ word to him.  He doubted the word which both commands and enables what it commands. Peter doubted that he truly had been made into the person Jesus said He had – one who walks like He walks.  That was Peter’s problem.

When Christ speaks a word to us then trusting Him involves trusting that we are the people Christ says we’ve become.  Jesus says to you:

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)

So, don’t look at the wind and waves.  Don’t look at your heart and your abilities.  Trust the word that Jesus has spoken to you.  His word is powerful to make you who He says you are.  You can’t make yourself into this person, but neither can anyone or anything else prevent you from being it.  The word of the LORD is supreme, you can trust Him.  You will not be condemned.  You have crossed over from death to life.  And now, you can walk as He walked.

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Over at White to Harvest there are some very stimulating discussions of election and assurance going on – see here and the comments here.   But just to stick up for the reformed tradition, here are (very selective!) quotations from three of the greats.  Not to say that these are consistently followed by each theologian or their tradition but here are some good bits nonetheless:

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John Calvin

Faith: “is a firm and sure knowledge, of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit” (Institutes, 3.21.2.)

“Christ, when he illumines us into faith by the power of his Spirit, at the same time so engrafts us into his body that we become partakers of every good.” (Institutes, III.2.35)

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C.H. Spurgeon

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

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Karl Barth

“If we would know who God is, and what is the meaning and purpose of His election, and in what respect he is the electing God, then we must look away from all others, and excluding all side-glances or secondary thoughts, we must look only upon and to the name of Jesus Christ, and the existence and history of the people of God enclosed in Him” (Church Dogmatics, II/2, p54).

“We must not ask concerning any other but Him. In no depth of the Godhead shall we encounter any other but Him… There is no such thing as a decretum absolutum. There is no such thing as a will of God apart from the will of Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ reveals to us our election as an election which is made by Him, by His will which is also the will of God. He tells us that He Himself is the One who elects us… As we believe in Him and hear His Word and hold fast by His decision, we can know with a certainty which nothing can ever shake that we are the elect of God” (II/2, p115).

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Here is my favourite from Barth:

“We might imagine the conversation to which it gives rise and some of the forms which it necessarily takes. The man to whom it is said thinks and says that he is not this new, peaceful, joyful man living in fellowship. He asks leave honestly to admit that he does not know this man, or at least himself as this man. 

The Word of grace replies: ‘All honour to your honesty, but my truth transcends it. Allow yourself, therefore, to be told in all truth and on the most solid grounds what you do not know, namely, that you are this man in spite of what you think.’

Man: ‘ You think that I can and should become this man in the course of time? But I do not have sufficient confidence in myself to believe this. Knowing myself, I shall never become this man.’

The Word of grace: ‘You do well not to have confidence in yourself. But the point is not that you can and should become this man. What I am telling you is that, as I know you, you already are.’

Man: ‘I understand that you mean this eschatologically. You are referring to the man I perhaps will be one day in some not very clearly known transfiguration in a distant eternity. If only I had attained to this! And if only I could be certain that even then I should be this new man!’

The Word of grace: ‘You need to understand both yourself and me better than you do. I am not inviting you to speculate about your being in eternity, but to receive and ponder the news that here and now you begin to be the new man, and are already that which you will be eternally.’

Man: ‘How can I accept this news? On what guarantee can I make bold to take is seriously?’

The Word of grace: ‘I, Jesus Christ, am the One who speaks to you. You are what you are in Me, as I will to be in you. Hold fast to Me. I am your guarantee. My boldness is yours. With this boldness dare to be what you are?’

Man: ‘I certainly hear the message, but…’

In this perplexed and startled ‘but’ we see the attack, and who it is that is attacked.” (V/2, p250)

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