Posts Tagged ‘gospel’

siftedThese are stunning verses from the night before Jesus’ death:

‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ (Luke 22:31-32)

Notice these 10 contrasts:

  • Satan makes a fearful proposal. Jesus gives a fearful permission.
  • Satan treats Simon like an inanimate object. Jesus calls Simon by name – three times in one sentence.
  • Satan is ruthless with Simon. Jesus is personal.
  • Satan sifts Simon before the world. Jesus lifts Simon before the Father.
  • Satan is weaker than Jesus but Simon is weaker than Satan.
  • Simon thinks of himself as iron for Jesus (see v32). Jesus doesn’t call him Peter (‘Rock’), He considers Simon to be as ‘flaky’ as wheat.
  • Simon thinks his resolve will motivate his brothers (v32), Jesus knows it will be his weakness that strengthens his brothers (v31).
  • Jesus prays for Simon, but His support will include the need for Simon to turn back.
  • While Jesus prays for Simon’s faith not to fail. Simon fails big time.
  • It’s not Simon who “fail’s not”, it’s Jesus’ prayer.

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Book by Book 1
For the last two days we’ve been filming Book by Book’s study in Job. Here’s me with Richard Bewes and Paul Blackham – what a privilege to be involved! I think the DVD and Paul’s insanely good study guide (best resource you’ll find on Job!) will be available later in the year.

In the past I’ve blogged my way through Job on the King’s English:

The LORD gave and the LORD hath taken away

Miserable Comforters

Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward

Escaped by the skin of my teeth

I know that my Redeemer liveth

Gird up thy loins

Repent in dust and ashes

Old and full of days

…And given this sermon on the whole book…

But it was great to look in more depth at the book. Some new thoughts I’ve had as we’ve studied this more together:

1) So much of Job is about knowing Christ – the Mediator.  His mediatorial work comes up at key points – Job 9:32-35; Job 16:19-21; Job 19:23-27; Job 33:23-28; Job 42:7-9.  Whenever Job is doing well, he has his eyes on Christ. Whenever he’s doing badly, he has his eyes back on himself.

2) The great problem with the miserable comforters is a total ignorance of Christ. Eliphaz, the prosperity teacher, thinks you can get your best life now without Christ and His future. Bildad, the works righteousness preacher, thinks you can become just by your own efforts. Zophar thinks you can be spiritual, without Christ, just by your own devotional commitments. From their christlessness flows their terrible theology – in their various ways they basically believe ‘you get what you deserve.’  And from their terrible theology flows their terrible pastoral care.

3) The comforters don’t intend to be tormentors. They come in chapter 2:11 to sympathise with Job. They spend a week sitting in silence with him – what commitment!  It’s just that having miserable theology means – necessarily – giving miserable comfort.  Application: If you don’t know the gospel, don’t you dare do pastoral care!

4) Elihu is a good guy. Once you grasp this, it really helps you a) to take his own wisdom more seriously, but even more importantly, b) to reappraise Job as someone who errs as well as speaks rightly (cf 32:1-4). Job errs (especially from chapter 30 onwards) in continually justifying his own uprightness to the friends, and even to God. Job is certainly a believer and he hasn’t brought his suffering on himself through any particular sins. However, he ends up insisting on his innocence almost as much as the comforters insinuate his guilt.  In his better moments he forgets about either innocence or guilt and looks to Christ. But when he doesn’t, he invites the critique of Elihu (and then the LORD).

5) Job’s insistence on his innocent suffering – while correct on one level – tips him, at times, in the direction of a miserable-comforter-style theology of glory. Towards the end, he begins pitting ‘knowing God’ against ‘experiencing suffering’. He becomes nostalgic for times of intimacy with God. But he loses sight of the intimacy he can have in suffering.  This is a key truth Elihu brings.

6) I’d never really noticed them before but Elihu’s words in Job 36 are some of my favourite in the book:

“But those who suffer the LORD delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction. He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food.” (Job 36:15-16)


7) Job asks for answers throughout the book.  But he never gets them.  Instead he gets an experience of the LORD in suffering (Job 16:19-21; cf Job 38-41) and a promised hope after it (Job 19:23-27; cf Job 42).  It’s the same with us.  Who cares about answers?  We need the LORD Jesus Himself and the future He will bring.

8) When James looks back on Job, his take-home message is: “Job’s perseverance and… what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (James 5:11) Job’s ending is crucial.  It’s a happily ever after that pictures the good purposes Christ has for all our suffering.  When we read Job all the way through, our response should be: “Hallelujah, the Lord is so full of love and grace!”  If we’re not saying this, we haven’t understood the book (and we won’t cope with suffering as we should).

Book by Book 3

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lutherEmma’s just written a stonking post on combating the lies which threaten to overwhelm us. She quotes an example from Luther’s Galatians commentary:

“Sir Devil,” we may say, “I am not afraid of you. I have a Friend whose name is Jesus Christ, in whom I believe. He has abolished the Law, condemned sin, vanquished death, and destroyed hell for me. He is bigger than you, Satan. He has licked you, and holds you down. You cannot hurt me.” This is the faith that overcomes the devil’.

Here are some other brilliant moves from the same Kung-Fu Master – let’s learn how to comfort ourselves, and each other, with gospel hope:

You will readily grant that Christ gave Himself for the sins of Peter, Paul, and others who were worthy of such grace. But feeling low, you find it hard to believe that Christ gave Himself for your sins. Our feelings shy at a personal application of the pronoun “our,” and we refuse to have anything to do with God until we have made ourselves worthy by good deeds. (1:4)…

…Learn to believe that Christ was given, not for trifling and imaginary transgressions, but for  mountainous sins; not for one or two, but for all; not for sins that can be discarded, but for sins that are stubbornly ingrained. Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, particularly in the last hour, when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. Say with confidence: “Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. (1:4)…

…If he says, “Thou shalt be damned,” you tell him: “No, for I fly to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. In accusing me of being a damnable sinner, you are cutting your own throat, Satan. You are reminding me of God’s fatherly goodness toward me, that He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort me above measure.” With such heavenly cunning we are to meet the devil’s craft and put from us the memory of sin. (1:4)…

…When you see a person squirming in the clutches of the Law, say to him: “Brother, get things straight. You let the Law talk to your conscience. Make it talk to your flesh. Wake up, and believe in Jesus Christ, the Conqueror of Law and sin. Faith in Christ will lift you high above the Law into the heaven of grace. Though Law and sin remain, they no longer concern you, because you are dead to the Law and dead to sin.” Blessed is the person who knows how to use this truth in times of distress. He can talk. He can say: “Mr. Law, go ahead and accuse me as much as you like. I know I have committed many sins, and I continue to sin daily. But that does not bother me. You have got to shout louder, Mr. Law. I am deaf, you know. Talk as much as you like, I am dead to you. If you want to talk to me about my sins, go and talk to my flesh. Belabor that, but don’t talk to my conscience. My conscience is a lady and a queen, and has nothing to do with the likes of you, because my conscience lives to Christ under another law, a new and better law, the law of grace.” (2:17)…

…True Christian righteousness is the righteousness of Christ who lives in us. We must look away from our own person. Christ and my conscience must become one, so that I can see nothing else but Christ crucified and raised from the dead for me. If I keep on looking at myself, I am gone. If we lose sight of Christ and begin to consider our past, we simply go to pieces. We must turn our eyes to the brazen serpent, Christ crucified, and believe with all our heart that He is our righteousness and our life. For Christ, on whom our eyes are fixed, in whom we live, who lives in us, is Lord over Law, sin, death, and all evil. (2:20)…

…When we look at ourselves we find plenty of sin. But when we look at Christ, we have no sin. Whenever we separate the person of Christ from our own person, we live under the Law and not in Christ; we are condemned by the Law, dead before God. Faith connects you so intimately with Christ, that He and you become as it were one person. As such you may boldly say: “I am now one with Christ. Therefore Christ’s righteousness, victory, and life are mine.” On the other hand, Christ may say: “I am that big sinner. His sins and his death are mine, because he is joined to me, and I to him.” (2:20)…

…Read the words “me” and “for me” [in Galatians 2:20] with great emphasis. Print this “me” with capital letters in your heart, and do not ever doubt that you belong to the number of those who are meant by this “me.” Christ did not only love Peter and Paul. The same love He felt for them He feels for us. If we cannot deny that we are sinners, we cannot deny that Christ died for our sins. (2:20…)

…We comfort the afflicted sinner in this manner: Brother, you can never be perfect in this life, but you can be holy. He will say: “How can I be holy when I feel my sins?” I answer: You feel sin? That is a good sign. To realize that one is ill is a step, and a very necessary step, toward recovery. “But how will I get rid of my sin?” he will ask.  I answer: See the heavenly Physician, Christ, who heals the broken-hearted. Do not consult that Quackdoctor, Reason. Believe in Christ and your sins will be pardoned. His righteousness will become your righteousness, and your sins will become His sins. (3:6)…

…Let us become expert in the art of transferring our sins, our death, and every evil from ourselves to Christ; and Christ’s righteousness and blessing from Christ to ourselves. (3:14)…

…We ought to feel sure that we stand in the grace of God, not in view of our own worthiness, but through the good services of Christ. As certain as we are that Christ pleases God, so sure ought we to be that we also please God, because Christ is in us. And although we daily offend God by our sins, yet as often as we sin, God’s mercy bends over us. Therefore sin cannot get us to doubt the grace of God. Our certainty is of Christ, that mighty Hero who overcame the Law, sin, death, and all evils. So long as He sits at the right hand of God to intercede for us, we have nothing to fear from the anger of God. (4:5)…

…Train your conscience to believe that God approves of you. Fight it out with doubt. Gain assurance through the Word of God. Say: “I am all right with God. I have the Holy Ghost. Christ, in whom I do believe, makes me worthy. I gladly hear, read, sing, and write of Him. I would like nothing better than that Christ’s Gospel be known throughout the world and that many, many be brought to faith in Him.” (4:5)…

…This is sweet comfort for us (5:5) . And we are to make use of it in comforting the afflicted. We are to say to them: “Brother, you would like to feel God’s favor as you feel your sin. But you are asking too much. Your righteousness rests on something much better than feelings. Wait and hope until it will be revealed to you in the Lord’s own time. Don’t go by your feelings, but go by the doctrine of faith, which pledges Christ to you.” (5:5)…

…Defy Satan in times of despair. Say: “O cursed Satan, you choose a nice time to talk to me about doing and working when you know very well that I am in trouble over my sins. I will not listen to you. I will listen to Christ, who says that He came into the world to save sinners.  This is the true Christ and there is none other. I can find plenty of examples for a holy life in Abraham, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Paul, and other saints. But they cannot forgive my sins. They cannot save me. They cannot procure for me everlasting life. Therefore I will not have you for my teacher, O Satan.” (5:8)…

…When I was a monk I thought I was lost forever whenever I felt an evil emotion, carnal lust, wrath, hatred, or envy. I tried to quiet my conscience in many ways, but it did not work, because lust would always come back and give me no rest. I told myself: “You have permitted this and that sin, envy, impatience, and the like. Your joining this holy order has been in vain, and all your good works are good for nothing.” If at that time I had understood this passage, “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh,” I could have spared myself many a day of self-torment. I would have said to myself: “Martin, you will never be without sin, for you have flesh. Despair not, but resist the flesh.” (5:17)…

…When the flesh begins to cut up the only remedy is to take the sword of the Spirit, the word of salvation, and fight against the flesh. If you set the Word out of sight, you are helpless against the flesh. I know this to be a fact. I have been assailed by many violent passions, but as soon as I took hold of some Scripture passage, my temptations left me. Without the Word I could not have helped myself against the flesh. (5:18)

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Dali CrossContinued from here.

Christ’s Work

“But now in Christ, you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13)

As we speak about intimacy with God we must never forget the way into divine fellowship. Ever since humanity rejected the LORD Christ and trusted Satan instead, the way back to fellowship has been blocked by fiery judgement (Genesis 3:24).  This fallen flesh and blood cannot participate in the life of God (1 Cor 15:50).  Only ‘the Man out of the Heavens’ could ever belong in the inner circle of God’s life (1 Cor 15:15:47-49).

Yet, with infinite grace and condescension, this Man came out of the heavens.  He took the very flesh and blood of our humanity and He redeemed it.  Where we had failed, He succeeded, where we had sinned, He obeyed, where we had fled, He stood tall, where we had hated, He loved, where we had erred, He taught, where we were enslaved, He set free, where we were ashamed, He gave dignity, where we grasped at glory, He gave freely, where we clung to life, He poured it out.

On the cross, God’s Man took on Himself all the sin, guilt and shame of this fallen humanity.  He endured the divine fury at sin, passing through that fiery judgement which bars the way into God.  And now, in His glorious resurrection body, Christ, the True Man, sits at the Father’s right hand.  He is beyond death and judgement.  Our Brother is now in the inner circle of the life of God.  We, in ourselves, would be swept away by God’s righteous anger at sin.  Yet Christ is the Way to the Father and in Him, Who “quenched the wrath of hostile heaven”, we have obtained access.

Why do I recount these gospel truths? A) Because they are glorious!  B) Because sometimes people (and I’m sure I’m guilty of this too), manage to speak of  “union with Christ”  as a warm ‘n’ fuzzy truth. Often the Fatherhood of God, adoption into His family, one-ness with Jesus can be articulated without the blood and fire of the Bible’s presentation.  But we desperately need the grit and grime – the sweat and tears – of Christ’s atonement if we’re going to experience true intimacy with God.  A toothless, bloodless message about a heavenly Father-figure doesn’t connect with people who live in the midst of suffering and sin.  It can’t connect, because the only real point of connection is a Bleeding Sacrifice choking to death on a cross.  But He’s who we really need if we want intimacy with God.  Because He actually meets us in the godforsakeness of life as we know it.

If all our talk of intimacy with God is not dripping in the blood of Christ we’re just holding out “a nice idea” to people who are burdened by shame and guilt and who will never connect with our words of “divine participation” – no matter how warm or inviting we sound.  More than this, if our talk of divine intimacy is not utterly cross-shaped then people will play off “taking up our cross” against enjoying life in God. Which would be absurd – yet it happens all the time!  But no, triune glory is cruciform glory. Therefore participating in God means participating in the cross. The way to God is through Christ and Him crucified.

Christ’s Priesthood

Our Great High Priest, Jesus, does not simply bring God’s life down to us. He also offers our life up to God. He is not just God-for-us, He is also Man-for-God.  Thus, from Christ’s representative humanity (for us) there is a presentation to the Father.  This is Christ’s Priestly work – again a work done for us.

By the Spirit, Christ has made the perfect offering to the Father:

‘Christ, through the eternal Spirit… offered Himself unblemished to God.’ (Hebrews 9:14)

Christ’s worship constitutes the fullness of all acceptable worship to God.  Without participation in His perfect obedience, His perfect sacrifice and His perfect Priesthood, there is no worship worthy of the name.  To offer true sacrifice to the Father we must be in Christ.  Only then do we have a share in acceptable worship.  Yet, in Him, we are pure, spotless and holy – as acceptable as Christ Himself (Colossians 1:22).

What place does our worship have?

If Christ is our Great High Priest, where does my worship fit in?

Worship is the gracious invitation which the LORD makes to us to share in His own worshipping life.  Just as Christ is the Righteous One (for us) and yet invites us to share in His holy life, just as Christ is the Great Sufferer (for us) and yet allows us to share in His sufferings, so we, His people are to share in His worship.

Hebrews 8:2 calls Christ our Leitourgos – ‘the leader of our worship’. Calvin, following Psalm 22:22, called Christ ‘the great choirmaster’, tuning our hearts to sing the Father’s praises.  Worship is the participation in Christ’s perfect worship.  As James Torrance says,

“Whatever else our worship is, it is our liturgical amen to the worship of Christ.” 

Every act of worship or devotion that we perform is grounded in and surrounded by Christ’s prior and perfect offering.  Thus we do not worship as those attempting to gain intimacy with God, but as those who have been gifted it. And the ‘direction’ of the activity is the gracious movement of God coming to us in Christ.  Any ‘upward’ movement is that done by Christ and we participate by faith.  Thus, the focus of all worship must be on the LORD Jesus.  In other words:

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no-one comes to the Father except by me. (John 14:6)

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6 minute extract:


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(55 mins!)

Statements people make about faith:

“I wish I had your faith”

“As you know I could never share your faith”

“Faith is believing something you know isn’t real.”

“You just got to have faith.”

John 1:10-13 – Faith is recognizing and receiving

John 2:11 – Faith is responding to the glory of Jesus

Dutiful Derek

Derek’s Father says: “We’re going to visit the Grand Canyon and you’ll be awestruck!”

Derek says: “Do I have to be awestruck??”

Derek’s Father says: “One day you’ll meet a girl and you’ll fall in love?”

Derek says: “Do I have to fall in love?”

Derek’s Father says: We’re going to church to hear about the glory of Jesus and we’ll believe in Jesus.

Derek says: “Do I have to believe in Jesus?”

That’s a funny question isn’t it?

Faith is like being awestruck or falling in love – it must happen if you’re recognizing the glory of Christ!

John 3:13-16 – Faith is looking away from self to Jesus (cf Brazen Serpent)

John 20:24-31 – Faith is meeting the risen Jesus

The Christian life is a life of continuing faith

Through the Bible.

Faith is not something in me that I need to drum up

Faith is not a leap into the dark – it’s stepping into the light

In fact it’s being in the dark and having someone switch the light on

Faith is not a hoop you have to jump through to get something else: salvation

Galatians 2:17-3:5

Faith is receiving Jesus – it’s a life-long love affair.

Galatians 5:6

It begins by being passive with God and bears fruit in love for others

1 Samuel 17       

Faithless, fearful Israel are saved by their Faithful, Fearless King.

Their unbelief turns to faith when they see His victory: they shout and advance

Every day we need to same: to look to our Champion, to shout and advance.

The life of faith is a continual looking to Christ.

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grow-upThis is a re-post reflecting on a couple of things. First, Luther’s saying: “God doesn’t need your good works.  Your neighbour does.”

Second, Dave K’s observation that, post-resurrection, no-one summarizes the law with “love God and love neighbour” but only with “love neighbour” – read it, it’s very stimulating.


A friend recently told me of some “higher life” Christians he met who would chant together:

“I refuse, I refuse, I refuse to come down from heaven to deal with earthly realities.”

They were horrible people to be around.  Their marriages were a mess.  And it was impossible to get at their sins because they were supposedly “hidden” from it all at God’s right hand.

Well you do have to admire their sense of unbreakable union with Christ.  I will give them that.

But you’ve also got to question the kind of Christ they feel united to.

Isn’t the true Jesus exactly the kind of Person who does come down from heaven to deal with earthly realities?  Isn’t that His eternal glory?  And therefore, doesn’t Paul constantly take us from that secure union and then into those battles with the flesh?

Never for the sake of our union. But always from that union and in the power of it.  How can union with this Christ mean anything else?

Jesus said: “For their sake I sanctify myself.”  (John 17:19).

Our response should not be “And likewise, Lord, for your sake I sanctify myself.”  No.  There can be no payback here.

But there is a response to Christ’s work.  And it does involve our sanctification.  It means receiving Christ’s setting-apart-of-us, and passing it on in costly ways – just as Jesus passed it on to us in the most costly way.

We do engage with the mess, not for God’s sake but for our neighbour’s.  Jesus doesn’t need my sanctification, but my wife does.  Desperately.  And the way I glorify the other-centred Christ is not to pay Him back with godliness but to pass it on in sacrificial love.  “Hidden in Christ” does not mean hidden from the battle.  Christ leads me into the battle because He’s adopted me into His kind of other-centred life.

So, for God’s sake, don’t grow up for God’s sake
But, for God’s sake, do grow up for your neighbour’s sake.


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EvangelismWhat do you associate with the phrase “man-centred evangelism”?  What would self-centred evangelism look like?

I have a tract in front of me. A fairly innocuous cover – it could be about anything.

Open it up and straight away you’re confronted with death and judgement. When we die we will open our eyes either in a state of supreme happiness or unbelievable anguish. There is no annihilation, no re-incarnation, no escape.

The next page tells us How to be sure of heaven. There follow nine numbered points. These include (among other things) ‘repenting’, ‘coming’ to Jesus, ‘trusting in’ Jesus, ‘looking to’ Jesus, ‘receiving’ Jesus, ‘confessing ‘ Jesus, and ‘reading your Bible and praying every day’. These are all separately listed under the heading ‘How to be sure of heaven.’  The work of Jesus is mentioned in the midst of a couple of these points – His death on “Calvary” is instrumental in your forgiveness and something you must realise and trust in.

It concludes with a sinners’ prayer.

Now… let me say I love first contact evangelism, I love tracts.  I use them often. I’ve just been out door-knocking our parish and found it a very fruitful time. I don’t fault anyone for a sense of gospel urgency and a desire to reach out.  So let’s not get hung up on the particular example, but let’s talk about the theology behind it.

The theology fueling this is not confined to tracts. Some folks seem to reverse engineer their gospel from the throne of judgement.  And they bring it all back to here and now and me.  The logic goes like this:

In the future there will be a judgement.

Today you can prepare for that ‘great assize’ by making some changes.

By the way, in the past Jesus did some things that open up the possibility for your salvation today.

But anyway, back to today.  Back to you.  Here are the nine things you need to do

There are numerous problems here, but let me name some of them…

The entire presentation is not an announcement of good news. It is an ultimatum.

It’s not about Christ and what He has done, it’s about you and what you must do.

Your problem, in these presentations, is not really Christlessness.  It’s the future flames which you want to avoid if you know what’s good for you.

God’s solution – salvation – is not knowing God through Jesus (John 17:3), it’s escaping hell. Meaning…

There is no obvious connection between believing in Jesus and being saved (apart from Jesus’ atonement being instrumental somehow).  Therefore…

Trusting Jesus becomes about trusting a mechanism of atonement, not a Mediator who atones.  Furthermore…

Faith in Jesus is blatantly a means to another end: escaping hell.  Which means…

No love for Christ is being encouraged, only love for self.  Thus…

True faith is not being elicited here.  You can tell this because…

Christ in His word is not creating faith (He and His work are barely mentioned), the evangelist is commanding faith.  But…

Faith is not a response to commands, it’s a response to promises.  Similarly…

Faith is not a contribution we make to our salvation (along with 8 other steps we need to take), it is the gift of God that comes as Christ, in His gospel, takes hold of us.

That’s what evangelism is then – placarding Christ.  And yes, talk about judgement – but talk about the condemnation that is our Christlessness, now and eternally (John 3:18). Talk about salvation, but talk about Christ as our salvation.  And talk about repentance and faith, but talk about it in the context of Christ offered to you.  Don’t make it your offering to Him.

If we fail to be thoroughly Christ-centred in evangelism we will be man-centred, no matter how much we quote the King James Bible, no matter how fundamentalist we sound, no matter how proud we are of ‘preaching the hard truths.’  Without Christ it always comes back to me.  Only Christ-centredness is true God-centredness.

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cartmanThis follows on from my series “Why be good?

Kath has been writing about obedience and asking what’s helpful in seeking to love an obedient life.  It’s a good question, because people in the Bible seem pretty thrilled by the idea. The Psalmist sees the law as eminently loveable (Psalm 119:97), Paul calls it “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Jude, Peter, James and Paul all introduce themselves as “Slaves of Christ” in their letters.  They love obedience!  They have seen an awesomely attractive vision of life and they’ve submitted themselves to it with joyful abandon.

We don’t like obedience – as a rule. (If it were a suggestion, we’d be much more amenable).

Why don’t we like it?

  1. We’re not any good at it. I’m always inclined to hate something I’m bad at. (I’m afraid there’s no real solution to this one – we’ll always be really bad at obedience.  All of us.  Until we die. But it’s we who are bad, not the law).
  2. Obedience feels like it’s taking us away from the good life. We imagine that God has set up an arbitrary set of hoops for us to jump through. We imagine he’s not really interested in goodness, in justice, in flourishing, in cosmic shalom.  We fear that he just sets little tests for the world in order to sort out the pious wheat from the irreligious chaff.  It rarely occurs to us that God has laid out “The Good Life” for us.  We consider it to be merely “The Hard Life.”
  3. Law sounds like the opposite of love. Somehow someone convinced us that law and love are on opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm.  They must have had their bibles firmly shut at that point because law and love go together everywhere you look in Scripture. But, according to the caricature, over there are law people obsessing over irrelevant duties, but over here, we’re just liberated lovers, leading with our big, warm hearts. In this world, the word obedience definitely belongs over there. But notice too – in this world, both sides of the supposed chasm are far from self-forgetful gospel faith.
  4. Works seem like the opposite of faith (rather than the fruit). In our minds, we set up the difference between gospel faith and legalistic religion like this: YOU are faithlessly busy.  I am trustingly inactive.  God prefers my internal “faith” to your external “works”.  Notice though, that this understanding is actually Christless – it makes me the Saviour, through my cognitive contribution.  But the gospel is that we’re saved in spite of our inactivity and in spite of our busyness – we’re saved by Christ. It’s not really our faith that saves us (as though God prefers internal mental assent to external physical acts!) It’s Christ who saves us and sets us on our feet as children of the same heavenly Father.  Now that we’re in the family, how could obedience be a dirty word?  All of a sudden obedience makes sense.
  5. Obeying God seems besides the point, perhaps even Pharasaical. If, in the gospel, my goodness is irrelevant to my standing with God, we very quickly ask the question “Why be good?”  We rarely round on the question and ask an equally incredulous: “Why on earth be bad??” (We don’t react that way because we’ve bought into lie no. 2 – we think that badness is a kind of delightful naughtiness). Positively speaking, it rarely occurs to us to answer the “Why be good?” question with an emphatic: “Because goodness is good!”  Or “Because Father knows best”.  Or “Because the life of Christ works through us!”  Or “Because there’s a world out there to bless!”

Once the incentive of heavenly reward is absent we seem to lose whatever interest in obedience we might have had.  But that’s not a sign that we’re too focused on the gospel.  The very opposite – it’s a sign that we haven’t allowed the gospel to properly re-calibrate our thinking.

It’s the legalist who sees obedience as an arbitrary set of hoops to jump through.  Legalists are like the older brother of Luke 15 – happy to prove themselves by jumping through the hoops. The licentious are like the younger brother of Luke 15 – happy to find themselves by casting such burdens away.  But both of them completely misunderstand obedience.  We should think of obedience as one way – a beautifully attractive way – of characterizing ‘the father’s house.’  Yes it is a place of love, blessing, security, celebration, joy, mercy, peace, etc, etc.  But it’s also a place where the beautiful will of the Father is done.

On this understanding, legalists are like the older son, self-righteous in the field. The licentious are like the younger son, lost in the far-country. The true position is to be a sinner robed, in the father’s household.  But just imagine that younger son, the morning after the feast.  With what eagerness he will serve his father now!  He’ll get it wrong.  He’ll have to learn. But obedience in the father’s house is not a dirty word, it’s the very atmosphere of home.

It’s true that there is a slavery on the near side of sonship and that is spiritual death.  But there’s a slavery on the far side of sonship and it is life and peace.

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you shouldnt have[A repost from the early days of the King’s English]

On the King’s English I’ve been thinking about a triune creation.

In the beginning

Let there be light

Let us make man in our image

Be fruitful and multiply

Behold, it was very good

God rested

The Breath of Life

It’s really striking me how profligate is the triune God of grace.  The Father, Son and Spirit bubble over in love.  A unitarian god needs creation.  And all relations between such a creator and its creature are quid pro quo arrangements.  The triune God does nothing about of necessity.  It’s all about gift and free overflow.

We can genuinely say “You really didn’t have to.”  And the Lord will reply, “I know, but I wanted to.”

So my friend, whoever you are.  Know in your heart: You are entirely unnecessary.  Entirely.  Unnecessary.  You are a profligate extravagance, a superfluous addendum, a needless flourish.  The Lord, His universe, His church, His kindgom purposes could so easily do without you.  You are completely surplus to requirements.

And you say “I need to be needed!  If my children don’t need me, I’ll fall apart.  If my church doesn’t need me, I’ll crumble.  If my work doesn’t need me, who am I?”

But you don’t need to be needed.  You only think you need to be needed because you’ve forgotten you’re loved.  So let me remind you…

You are wanted.  You are desired.  And not for anything ‘you offer.’  You are surplus to requirements.  But our God doesn’t deal in requirements, He enjoys the surplus.  He delights in you.

Because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved.  (Eph 2:4-5)

You are entirely unnecessary, but utterly loved.

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define-good3If we’re freely forgiven in Christ – apart from any goodness of our own – why be good?

Everyone asks the question.  All the time.  And evangelicals aren’t always brilliant at answering it – at least, not without undermining the whole ‘free forgiveness’ thing.  So what can be said?

First we thought about the nature of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not a “Get out of hell free card”.  Jesus is forgiveness.  To receive Him freely is not to receive a licence to sin.  Rather we’ve been redeemed from sin and delivered into the realm of God’s Beloved Son.  Here we have free forgiveness, but we have so much more.  We have Christ Himself, unbreakably and unconditionally. This ought to transform the way we think about salvation and sin.

Then we thought about the assumptions going on behind the question.  To think that grace removes any motivation towards goodness is to admit to something very perverse indeed.  If our motives for goodness are only about avoiding punishment and attaining reward, those motives are not good!  Whatever “goodness” is  ruled out by the gospel was never good – it was only the “filthy rags” of our own righteousness.  The gospel kills such “goodness” but it also establishes the possibility of true goodness.  Now, without any carrots or sticks, I am free to love you, and to do it for your sake, not mine.

Yesterday  we explored Isaiah’s teaching on this. Apart from Christ, our goodness is a filthy covering which cuts us off from our neighbours, gives us a false “holier than thou” status and focuses us on strengthening our imagined bond with God.  In Christ, we are judged for our goodness, but then raised with Him to spread His righteousness to the ends of the earth.  The good news makes goodness truly good.  It turns us out to the needy to participate in Christ’s self-giving love.

Finally, today we’ll see how Jesus transforms our views of God, the world and ourselves (and yes, that does sound uncannily like 321, but I promise I had no intention of crowbarring that in. It just happened ok?)  When we focus on our goodness it always ends badly.  When we get the big picture, genuine goodness results.

So first – Jesus reveals the real God.

The God of Jesus is not like Allah.  He is not administrating a cosmic experiment in delayed gratification. He’s not interested in moving you closer or further from “paradise” according to your performance.  He’s a Father who has deposited you, once and for all, into the radiant Kingdom of Jesus, His Beloved Son (Colossians 1:13f).  Now you inhabit a realm of freedom, love and unconditional mercy.

When sinners hear this, they might ask: “Wow, so what kind of behaviour can we get away with now?”  But that’s not usually our response to those who love us unconditionally.  Usually when a person loves you unconditionally you treat them better because of it, not worse!  Therefore, if I’ve understood Christ’s redemption, my real question will be: “Wow, so what kind of God is this??”  The answer is, He’s a Father, who counts me as His unrejectable child and who loves me with all His almighty Paternal love.  This is the God revealed by Jesus.

Second – Jesus reveals the real world

I can’t overstate how crucial this is.  These days we’re tempted to think that the real world consists of scientific and practical certainties.  You know, like the four laws of thermodynamics and GPs’ surgeries and mortgages and Newsnight.  That’s the real world and the Jesus stuff is a very important past-time that sends us back into the real world with some other-worldly hope and courage.  Hopefully.  And when we encounter moral choices in the real world we weigh up, on the one hand, the brute facts of the matter and, on the other, the spiritual teachings of Jesus.  And if we’re very moral we’ll allow the spiritual teachings of Jesus to outweigh real considerations.  How very Christian!  Except that it’s not.

What is Christian is to insist that Jesus defines reality.  This really is His world.  Like, really.  And if it’s His world then a life of down-scaling, cheek-turning, rights-yielding, self-giving love is The Way. And not just “the way” for religious types.  It’s literally THE WAY.  It’s how, properly, to correspond to the universe.  Because it’s Christ’s universe.

Third – Jesus reveals the real me

Paul says: “I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” (Romans 7:18)  When Paul looks for goodness, he realises he cannot ‘search for the hero inside himself’.  There is no such hero within.  But that’s less than half the story about ‘the real Paul.’  It’s vital that he understands his birth in Adam and that inherited nature – it means he won’t try to dress up “the old man” in “filthy rags”. But the real Paul lies beyond himself.  The real Paul is hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:1-4).

This means that his desire to do good – implanted by the Spirit of Christ – will never be fulfilled by drawing on his own resources. If he wants to do good he will have to constantly turn from self and turn towards Christ (i.e. it’s the life of faith).  The real me is the me that forgets me and trusts Jesus instead.  Or to put it the way Jesus said it: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)  Whenever we’re tempted to indulge the sinful nature we imagine that we’re being true to ourself.  Jesus begs to differ.  We are true to our real self when we lose our old self.

So Jesus reveals the real God, the real world and the real you.  How does that free us into goodness?

Worked example: Many times in the last few months Emma and I have sat in a fertility specialist’s office and insisted – against all his objections and scoffing laughter – that we want no part in treatments that lead to “embryo wastage” [shudder].  By law he has to follow our wishes but he’s making us insist on it at every point.  If we weren’t alert to the issues and adamant about our chosen path, we would have easily been led into a procedure that involves the “wasting” of about 8 “embryos” per cycle of IVF.  A chilling thought.

Now, why ‘be good’ here? Why not cave in to the specialist who, for goodness sakes, knows about the real world of fertility facts and figures. Why not go for options that will increase our chances of pregnancy many times over?  God knows we want kids.  Why be good?

Honestly, it’s not a hard decision.  Not having kids is hard, sure.  But life is hard – there simply are no options that can sidestep the curse.  Childlessness is hard but saying ‘No’ to children-at-all-costs is not hard.  Because this doctor is not God, neither are the odds of pregnancy, neither is the estate of parenthood.  We have a Father who is very, very good and who has given us all we need in the kingdom of His Beloved.

What’s more, the real world is not the world of utilitarian calculations.  It really is Jesus’ world.  And however medics want to speak of it: “embryos”, “zygotes”, “blastocysts” – Jesus names reality.  And once you call life “life” you gotta admit, the ethics of the whole thing resolve pretty starkly, wouldn’t you say?

More than that, if this is Jesus’ world, He’s not a coach who’s trained us hard, given us advice and is now yelling from the sidelines.  He’s the One in whom every atom and act coheres.  We’re not shutting our eyes to the real world to follow our spiritual advisor, we’re going with the grain of the universe – His universe.

Finally, the real me is not found in indulging my desires (no matter the cost).  The real me is in Jesus.  Which means He is never taking me away from real life and real fulfilment.  Never.  Because He’s it!  There are some burdensome yokes out there – millions of ’em.  But Jesus’ yoke is not – it’s the one easy yoke.  That’s what He said.  His life is the only easy life.  I promise you – He said that.  Seriously, look it up.

Some preachers manage to make Christianity sound like the second worst experience in all existence – second only to hell (but at least it’s not hell so it’s the clever option).  But no, life in Christ is a life connected to the real God, the real world, the real you.  All other yokes fit badly – they burden you. But His yoke is easy, His burden is light.

So why be good?  Because forgiveness is not a blank cheque, it’s Jesus.  He’s put to death our point-scoring moralism and raised us up into His self-giving life.  He shows us the real God, the real world and our real selves.  In Jesus, the Good Life is simply given to us.  And now, instead of using or spoiling or avoiding goodness, we’re free to live it!

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I started writing this for an all-age talk, but I think it might not be simple enough for that. What do you think?

He climbed up the hill, the cross on His back.
He breathed His last breath and the sky turned black.
But death could not hold Him, He rose up in might
And showed us the Dawn that’s beyond the Night

It was Country walks and heart-warming talks,
Mind-blowing preaches and breakfast on beaches.
Hope reignited, friends reunited,
Feasting and family and grace
And Jesus our battle-scarred Brother,
Speaking His peace to us face to face.

The hill we must climb, it stretches ahead
The footsteps of Jesus, His people must tread.
As night closes in we ask “Is there a Dawn?”
The risen Lord Jesus says “Think Easter Morn”

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holier than thouYesterday we mentioned Isaiah’s take on “goodness”.  Perhaps no other biblical author plumbs the depths of the problem like Isaiah.  Let’s look a bit deeper at his teaching.

He begins his book with a withering attack on the Israelites’ “meaningless offerings”, their “trampling of my courts.” The “blood of goats and bulls” in which He finds “no pleasure.”  “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?!” asks the LORD. (Isaiah 1:10-17)

Oh.  But LORD, I thought… didn’t you want… I assumed you were into this whole…?

…No, not like this, says the LORD.

And so we see God’s prophet dispensing woe after woe upon the world (chapter 2-5). The nations, but Israel too.  Israel especially, in fact.  The flagrantly wicked are exposed but then – chapter 6 – in the Holy of Holies, the One who is ‘Holy, Holy, Holy elicits the only proper response from Isaiah: “Woe is me, I am unclean.”  Isaiah was the best of the best – God’s prophet, a model Israelite.  But in the presence of the LORD Christ (cf John 12:41) – in the presence of superlative holiness – Isaiah is completely undone.

Human goodness is condemned – even the best of the best.  And yet, from the altar, fiery forgiveness flies to Isaiah. Guilt is taken away, sin is atoned for (Isaiah 6:6-7).  And from this redeemed prophet a message will sound forth.

What’s the message?  Be good and God will save you?  Be religious and He’ll save Israel?  No, the message is one of utter doom and destruction (Isaiah 6:9-13).  Cities, houses, fields will be ruined, the people will be sent away, the land will be forsaken.  The whole tree is coming down.  But beyond this destruction, the Seed will sprout – the Holy One (Isaiah 6:13).

In chapter 7 He’s called Immanuel.  In chapter 9 He’s the Divine Son given to those walking in darkness. In chapter 11 He’s the Spirit Anointed Shoot from the stump of Jesse.  He will save the world.  He will bring righteousness (v4-5).  He will restore the cosmos (v6-11).

Christ is the only hope for the world.  He’s the only hope for God’s people.  No amount of goodness can save Israel – judgement will fall.  Their only hope is the one Righteous Branch – He would begin something else, something beyond mere human goodness and religion.

Christ’s righteousness is a spreading goodness – an outward-looking, overflowing generosity to the ends of the earth.  He comes for the needy and poor of the earth (Isaiah 11:4); the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks (Isaiah 42:3); the weary and those in darkness (Isaiah 50:4,10); the sinful, suffering, straying sheep (Isaiah 53);  the poor, the brokenhearted, the bound, the despairing.  To those who have nothing, Christ will be their everything.  But to those who consider themselves somebodies…

There is fierce condemnation for those who imagine themselves to have something to offer.  We’ve seen Isaiah’s assault on the “filthy rags”  of our “righteousness” in chapter 64.  Perhaps even more famous is His attack in the following chapter.  The LORD sees these folk “standing by themselves” saying:

“Come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.”  (Isaiah 65:5, KJV)

Don’t you just despise that attitude?  Not as much as the LORD does.  The verse continues…

These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day.

The “holiness” of these religionists keeps them “standing by themselves” and it helps them to rank themselves above their neighbours.  Is this true holiness?  We know it’s not.  Isaiah has shown us the Holy One of Israel flying to sinners to atone for their guilt (Isaiah 6:5) and constantly moving towards the suffering and straying.  The LORD’s holiness is a radiant goodness that enters the darkness to transform it.  But the “holier than thou” keep themselves to themselves, attempting, through religion, to strengthen whatever bond they imagine exists between themselves and the divine.

These were the kinds of people who were fasting in chapter 58.  Intent on strengthening the bond between themselves and God, they are indignant when God seems not to notice their spiritual displays:

‘Why have we fasted and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ (Isaiah 58:3)

Just like those “trampling God’s courts” in chapter 1, these “do-gooders for God” are seeking to strengthen their vertical relationship with God.  And they expect God to be impressed.  He is mightily unimpressed:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?  (Isaiah 58:5)

What an image: bowing one’s head like a reed.  Is that what a “good person” looks like?  Religious folk the world over will tell you it is.  They “stand by themselves” in order to “come before God” and affect humility by bearing the burden of being good.  Jesus spoke of those who actually disfigured their faces so everyone would know they are fasting (Matthew 6:16).  It’s a pathetic charade.  To them the LORD says:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?  Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.  (Isaiah 58:6-9)

The religious wanted to strengthen the bond between themselves and God.  The LORD says, True godliness is releasing the bonds of others.  The LORD’s idea of goodness is the complete reverse of His people’s!  The LORD does not treat us as good (or potentially good) religious try-ers who need to strengthen our bond with Him.  We are wicked sinners, who need to be released from our guilt and set free.  Now what does godliness look like?  It looks like what our God looks like.  It looks like joining Him in His liberating mission to the world.

True goodness begins with knowing we’re not.  It begins with “Woe is me.”  But instantly Christ flies to that sinner, atones for their guilt, sets them on their feet and says “Pass it on.”  There is a radically horizontal aspect to true goodness.  Nothing is now done to strengthen our bond with God.  We receive our relationship with God in Christ.  He is our covenant with God (Isaiah 42:6).  The vertical is taken care of.

Does that mean there’s no doing in the Christian life?   By no means!  Before God, I simply receive, but before the world there is everything to be done.  To be sure, none of my actions can ever strengthen or loosen my connection with God – I am in Christ and as close to the Father as He is.  But there’s much that I can do to release my neighbours from their imprisoning chains.  Having received from God, there is a fullness to share.

In this other-centred mission, “righteousness goes before us and the glory of the LORD is our rear guard.”  All holier-than-thou attitudes are swept away in the LORD’s outgoing flood.  No longer do we “stand by ourselves”, no longer do we consider goodness to be a rank that elevates us.  It’s a gift that propels us onwards and downwards towards the needy.

Why be good?  It is not an act (or even a habit) by which we’re raised up to God.  Instead it’s a life, joined to Christ’s life, in which we reach out to the world.

More to follow…

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FilthyRagsYesterday we began thinking about the gospel and being good.  If we’re forgiven already why try?

This question is asked all the time.  By non-Christians trying to get their head around the good news, and by Christians – pretty much every time you preach the gospel.  It’s hugely, hugely common.  Which is revealing, isn’t it?  Because the question is founded on a very troubling assumption.  People assume that, as soon as you remove the threat of hellish punishment or the reward of heavenly blessings, there’s no reason left to be good.  And that goes to show that our basic motivation towards goodness is not good.  Our basic motivation is to avoid pain and accumulate praise.

If the carrot and stick are removed and we can see no further reason for goodness we’re only confessing that our “goodness” has nothing to do with the good that we do. Our goodness is merely a strategy to negotiate the rewards and punishments due to ourselves.

Isaiah was always saying things like this.  See for example chapter 64:6 where he proclaims that all our righteous acts are filthy rags.  Notice he says our righteous acts are filthy.  Obviously our unrighteous acts are filthy.  It’s one kind of window onto human depravity when you see naked evil.  But Isaiah says, when you see someone clothing their nakedness in the fig-leaves of human religion and morality you are witnessing an even deeper evil. Those fig-leaves are filth because they hide the human problem not under the blood of Christ but under our own ‘righteousness.’

Isaiah is making a point that religious people always resist.  In our own day religious folk commonly deride the findings of evolutionary psychology.  Certainly such findings can be overly reductionistic.  But when a scientist claims that “altruism” is really a strategy for propagating our “selfish genes” they are naming a deep truth.  They’re thousands of years late to the party, and they’re not diagnosing the issue with anything like the depth of Isaiah, but the observation is correct.  Naturally speaking, when I’m good, it’s not for God (who provides His own covering for sin) and it’s not for my neighbour (who is merely the occasion for my “altruism” not the object of it).  I’m good for my sake.  Which is not good.

So is that it? Do we just abandon goodness?

Well yes.  Obviously.  We abandon all ‘goodness’ that is in any way threatened by the gospel.  Whatever ‘goodness’ is ruled out by the free forgiveness of Jesus was never good in the first place.  It was a filthy covering and we must be happy to see such ‘goodness’ nailed to the cross of Christ.

But after death, there’s resurrection.  Having condemned our goodness, we see how Jesus rises up to offer us the gift of true goodness.  Isaiah again:

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation     and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.  (Isaiah 61:10-11)

All our righteousness is like filthy rags. But His righteousness is a royal robe. Or, to switch the picture, it’s a priestly crown.  Or – he switches it again – it’s a bride’s jewelry.  Or – one more change of analogy – it’s like a fruitful crop springing up all over the globe.  This goodness from above first clothes us and then, organically, it grows through us and reaches the world.

Suddenly I – a filthy sinner – am clothed.  I’m royalty.  I’m holy.  I’m married.  And when Isaiah pulls back to the wide-angled shot, he sees this righteousness bearing immense fruitfulness, the world over.

Does Isaiah want us to give up on goodness?  Our own goodness, yes.  But there is a righteousness from God: He is the Bridegroom-Priest-Firstfruits.  He is the Anointed Saviour speaking from the beginning of the chapter – the One who binds up, frees, comforts and clothes the filthy to make them “oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of His splendour” (v3).  He is Jesus: the end of our goodness and the beginning of true goodness.

In Him there is simply no need to buy off God, or cover my sins, or establish my moral standing, or reassure my own heart, or put you in my debt.  Every motivation for selfish goodness is taken away in Jesus.  And now, from a fullness in Him, I have something to share.  God may not need my goodness (in order to love me), and I don’t need my goodness (in order to justify me) – but there’s someone who does need my goodness.  You do.  And now – for the very first time – I can actually serve you.  I’m free to be good.

The gospel does not end goodness, it establishes it.  Without the free forgiveness of Jesus you can’t be good.  Now you can.

In other words:

19 We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin…

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe… 

28 We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.  (Romans 3:19-31)

To be continued…

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hellIn March I had a fascinating discussion with three Muslims at Plymouth University.  Having just given a talk, my microphone was still on and I have the whole 40 minutes recorded.  Twice in the course of our conversation a Muslim man admitted to me that, if there was no fear of punishment, he would ‘get drunk and commit fornication all day.’

Rather than using this as proof of the perversity of the human heart, they used it as proof of the perversity of the cross.  As far as they could see, this was the only logical response to a belief in Christ’s atonement. If you knew you were forgiven once and for all, you would enjoy an over-realised Islamic eschatology right?  You’d embrace ‘paradise now’ – rivers of wine, never-ending sex. That’s the life, isn’t it?  It’s just that Allah has ordained this life as a test. If you can forego such pleasures now, you’ll be proved worthy of them later.

To me this sounds like those emotional intelligence tests where a child is told to resist eating a marshmallow for 10 minutes. If they pass the test, they get two for proving their patience.  Is this how God operates?  What would this mean about the character of God?  What would it mean about the character of ‘this life’?  What would it mean about the character of goodness?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’ve heard many Christians essentially ask the same question as the Muslims: Why be good?  I mean really.  If Jesus has really atoned for all my sins – past, present and future – why not get drunk and commit fornication all day?

At this point various answers are given that sound very close to:

“You’re forgiven, but not that forgiven.”

“You’re provisionally forgiven, but you can lose those privileges.”

“If you commit sins graded “delta” and above you prove that you were probably never forgiven in the first place.”

“You’re only forgiven if you’re really repentant (and by that we mean ‘you’ve been a decent chap(pette) all your life‘, none of those ‘death-bed conversion’ schemes).”

In other words, we don’t really believe the gospel.  We turn the promise of forgiveness into a status to be earned, and why?  Well, because our fear is basically the same fear as the Muslims I spoke to.  We imagine that declaring the free forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ alone will lead to an exodus from the church and into the strip-club. Millions of Christians will rush into sin brandishing their ‘get out of hell free’ cards in the face of all naysayers – whether from earth or heaven.

Except that we won’t. Because there’s no such thing as a ‘get out of hell free’ card.  There’s only Jesus.  He is our forgiveness, our free forgiveness.  But Jesus is the One in whom these realities exist:

The Father has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.  (Colossians 1:13-14)

We are not given diplomatic immunity and then set loose into enemy territory.  We are rescued from enemy territory and delivered into a kingdom iridescent with the Father’s love.  We are now in Jesus, and He is the inescapable environment of our lives. Forgiveness is not a ‘wiped slate’, or even a ‘Teflon slate’.  Forgiveness is a realm into which we’ve been brought in Jesus – a realm of sonship; of freedom; of fellowship with the Beloved.

Why not get drunk?  Ephesians 5:18 says the Spirit of this sonship is better. Why not ‘commit fornication’? Paul writes to Corinthians visiting brothels and what does he say? Does he say, “Stop it, Jesus remains outside the brothel, arms-folded waiting for a very good display of contrition before He’ll even consider forgiving this“?  No, he says to the Corinthians “Stop it, you’re taking Jesus into the brothel with you!” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)  And you say, “How horrible!”  Well exactly.  So don’t do it.  But don’t give up fornicating because Jesus isn’t with you all the way.  Stop it because He is.

Paul doesn’t say to sinners caught in the act: “Now you have less than forgiveness”, he says “You have more.”  We have so much more – we have Christ Himself.

Why be good?  Not to avoid punishment. If you’re “good” in order to avoid punishment or to gain some other reward, then that aint “good”!  That’s self-interest.  Be good because Jesus is yours and you are His.  He has redeemed you, brought you out of the slavery of sin and opened your eyes to the real God and the real world.  More on this tomorrow…

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Here’s the good news:  You and I are sinking in quicksand.  Jesus appears to say “Don’t worry, I’m here to save you.” He promptly dives in and sinks like a stone before us. When Jesus dies it looks like hope itself dies: our Rescuer perishes!  It’s strange news, but this is the way Christ rescues – through perishing.

So the quicksand scenario continues… After Jesus sinks without trace we feel a tug on our legs.  Jesus drags us under with Him.  He binds us to Himself in His death.

At this point you think the good news is really bonkers.  And it is – it’s utterly right-side-up.  Jesus dies and put us to death in His death.  He takes us down into His judgement for us.  Then He bursts up out of the quicksand into new life – and He takes us with Him.  That’s the meaning of Easter Sunday.


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What does John 20:21-23 mean?

Messiah mints

Don’t worry, when Jesus breathes on you, it’s always minty fresh

Many will be preaching on John 20 over the next two Sundays.  Often the question comes: “What does Jesus mean in John 20:23?”  Let me give you the context.

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said,“Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”  (John 20:19-21)

How do we understand this?  Can Christ’s followers run out into the street and address passers-by: “Forgiven… forgiven… UNFORGIVEN… forgiven”?  Is Jesus promising a heavenly underwriting of any and every act of forgiveness?

No.  Verse 21 interprets verse 23: the disciples will forgive just as Christ has forgiven.  How has Christ forgiven?  On the basis of His death and to be received by faith.  How should the disciples forgive?  On the basis of Christ’s death and to be received by faith. So as the disciples declare Christ and His forgiveness in the power of the Spirit, the world’s response to their message will be its response to Christ (which, in turn, is its response to the Father).

Jesus has already taught them this in John 14.  When Judas (not Iscariot) asks why Jesus will only appear to the disciples, Jesus essentially answers: “I don’t need to appear to the world.  I don’t need to go on a resurrection roadshow to the nations.  You need to go on the roadshow and take my teaching with you. The world’s response to my teaching will be its response to me. So go in the power of the Spirit and take my words with you…”

23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:23-26)

Even before His death, Jesus has taught His disciples how it’s going to unfold.  So in John 20, when He comes and breathes His Spirit on them, He’s saying: “Now’s the time.  Go and testify. And as you go with my message, my forgiveness goes with you.”

So does this verse endorse the willy-nilly preaching of an abstract forgiveness, divorced from the Forgiver?  No. But it does give us great confidence as we share the words of Jesus.  As we offer the apostolic gospel in the Spirit of Christ we are offering divine mercy.

This verse should not so much produce confessionals as confessors of Christ.  But those confessors of Christ (which I hope is all of us) ought to know the power and privilege of offering Jesus.  To confessing Christians and to seeking non-Christian we hold out the Christ in whom is all forgiveness (Col 1:13f).  We don’t just speak about forgiveness, we speak forgiveness itself, because, by the Spirit, the Forgiver Himself is given through the gospel.

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[A re-worked post from a couple of years ago]

“Finding your identity in Jesus” is very popular right now.  It’s the topical sermon series of choice, the convention title, the women’s breakfast talk.  Is it just me, or is this subject wheeled out at “women’s events” much more than men’s?

I see it a lot in Christian bookshops. Flicking through the women’s devotionals I commonly witness a good cop, bad cop approach.  One day you should really get your act together and become a woman of substance/ humility/ excellence/ gentleness/ boldness/ baking, etc.  The next, while you’re still reeling, you’re reminded how your identity is independent of your achievements, you’re a princess and you really must learn to rest in that.

Now here’s something weird, ‘learning how to rest in my Christian identity‘ is almost always experienced as more burdensome than admonishments to ‘godliness’.  Why?  Well, here’s a guess – because whether your devotional is on a carrot day or a stick day it’s basically about you!  Can you look within and find enough strength to be godly or enough peace to be content?  Answer: No, but no-one wants to let the side down, so we march on.

And in the absence of serious reflection upon Christ the reader of such devotionals has to use their imaginations to appreciate their Christian identity and how it all applies to them.  Verses are deployed in order to spur you on or prop you up, but not to show Christ off.  It’s about grabbing a sweet verse from Psalms today to help yesterday’s medicine from Proverbs 31 go down.

So what’s wrong with all this.

Well, first of all, when this search for identity becomes the goal rather than the fruit of our union with Christ, it’s using Jesus to feel better about me.  So that’s a bit off.  Think of it this way, you might like the way your spouse makes you feel, and that’s a nice fringe benefit of the relationship.  But if your goal in marriage is to get that feeling, you’re an emotional gold-digger.  And seeking that security (rather than trusting it) always back-fires.  The assurance: “Of course I love you” is less and less convincing the more you’ve had to ask for it.

You see it just doesn’t work.  Maybe I’m wrong – contradict me in the comments.  But have you ever met someone who’s found a rock-solid, contented sense of Christian identity by searching for “identity”?  I haven’t.  And I think it’s because it’s psychologically impossible.

It’s unconvincing when you repeat human affirmations to yourself “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and doggonnit, people like you.”  But, psychologically speaking, it’s rarely any more re-assuring when you mentally sign God’s name to the bottom of them.

Why?  Many reasons, but perhaps mainly because we imagine God’s basically like us anyway.  And without really opening up the word of Christ we’re never going to dethrone the God of our imaginations who – surprise, surprise – thinks of us just like we think of ourselves.  So signing His name to the bottom of some lovely sentiments only adds to the sense that this is basically wish-fulfillment.

Want a good sense of self?  Forget self.  That is precisely Jesus’ teaching on the matter:

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:39)

The search for yourself can never work.  Because finding a lost person is never any help.  Lost people don’t need to find themselves. If they do, they’ll only find that they’re lost.  Which is no great find.

If you’re lost you need to find home. The good news of Jesus is that He’s come from Home to find us (Luke 19:10).  It’s as we’re swept up into His life – like a sheep hoisted onto the shepherd’s shoulders – that we’ll find ourselves.  When we’re completely knocked off our feet by Jesus – then we are found.  And none of it happens through our own grand quest.  Only through His.

You want to know the Shepherd hoisting you onto His strong shoulders?  Keep looking at the Shepherd. Keep looking at how He seeks and saves. Allow yourself to be told of His coming, His doing and dying.  The Spirit applies the word of Christ to you as you look to Him.

As the Issues Etc motto goes: “It’s not about you, it’s about Jesus for you.

Now notice this crucial point: this isn’t your cue to play the noble martyr.  You’re not abandoning self-regard because Jesus is so self-centred and you need to get on board with His ego-trip.  (Well done you!)  No, you’re abandoning your self-image because you’re no good at it. Entrust it to Jesus, because He really is for you.  And the more you see His self-giving love, the less you’ll need your self-accomplished identity.

So often I’m tempted to complain: “I know I’m meant to feel God’s love, but I just don’t”. But right there I’m casting myself as a victim. I’ve tried ever so hard but God’s love just hasn’t made contact with me, poor me!  This is a lie and a great affront to the One who’s loved me to death.  The problem is not that I’ve failed to appreciate my belovedness, I have failed to appreciate His mighty, blood-earnest love.

Knowing your belovedness is not the point. Knowing His lovingness – His cross – is.  Aim at Christ and you’ll get your identity. Aim at your identity and you’ll get neither Christ nor identity.

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