Tuesday, 27 April 2010

some thoughts on the UK election: part 4

This is a reposting of a blog I did about a year ago but this distinction between crime and sin is an important one as we consider the choice of a government. Governments are not required to be holy but they are required to be righteous. We shall need to see the distinction between morals and crime if we are going to make a sober choice of parliamentary candidates.

It was a song from the 1940's and included the lines...
if it's something you enjoy you can be certain that
it's illegal, it's immoral or it makes you fat.
The singer's lament is that whatever they really wanted to do always seemed to fall into one of these three categories. It was perceptive in that it recognised that 'legal' and 'moral' are distinct categories but less perceptive in that it presumed that 'fun' would inevitably be in either one of these categories or another; it reality these categories often overlap.

It is because of the overlap that there is such anger among British folks as I write. Some Members of Parliament have been 'playing the system' or maybe even 'milking' it. It seems that very few will actually have done anything illegal but there is a gathering sense that what they have done is certainly immoral. Few will have broken the law in their far reaching expenses claims but many have breached a hidden law of the conscience that we call morality. Illegal actions should be punished by the state but what about immoral actions?

Polygraph machines, or lie-detectors as they are sometimes called work on a principle that when someone tells a lie the body sets off a kind of moral smoke-alarm. Stresses are created in the inner man that are seen in changes in blood pressure or heart rates. It seems that something in our deepest psyche knows that something is wrong and "sets off the smoke-alarm". Something in the behaviour of our British MPs has set off the smoke-alarm in the public at large. There may be no 'law' that has been broken but we are a 'law unto ourselves', 'the work of law is written in our hearts'. Rom 2:14,15. It has serious implications and not just for the Members of Parliament.

In this same passage in Romans Paul says that 'whoever judges another passes sentence on himself'. Rom 2:1 Some profess to have no conscience and are free from all law but it is a self-deception. If I know that something is wrong when someone steals from me, I also know that something is wrong if I steal from someone else. I cannot assess another's behaviour without acknowledging that in my own behaviour there are things which deserve judgment and justice.

The atheist may say he doesn't believe in God but the real problem is that God doesn't believe in atheists. He knows that he has not left himself without a witness and in some secret part of the consciousness men and women know they are accountable for the way they live. They may make their bold professions of 'freedom from law' but that annoying smoke-alarm keeps going off!

Monday, 26 April 2010

some thoughts on the UK election: part 3

Let's have a look at some Biblical precedents.

There are at least three OT characters who seem to have played quite a part in the government of non-Israelite nations. I am thinking of Joseph, Daniel (and his three friends) and Mordecai. It is helpful to see the way that these men functioned; they were all men who were 'in the wrong place'. By that I simply mean they were not where they would have chosen to be or where they might have expected to be; they were all 'out of place'.

They were all senior advisors to pagan monarchs and their service of these monarchs is really instructive. None of them actually 'sought office'. None of them tried to convert their kings nor did they attempt to 'Christianize' (or Israelitize) the governments that they served. Their personal integrity and faith brought them at times into conflict with their kings and their faith had a considerable impact upon their masters, but they had no 'mission'; they simply served their masters. They lived in their worlds as witnesses not legislators.

What I am trying to say is that they did not impose their faith or its implications on the nations in which they served. They served God faithfully and they served their kings faithfully. They were exemplary examples of the phrase 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's'... and they never mixed these two things up. They did not hide their faith but only when their loyalty to God and their loyalty to men came into conflict do their different worlds collide.

The place of the Christian in society will always be a delicate balance. Should Christians avoid public office or responsibility? Not on the basis of these Biblical examples. Should Christians take on public office in order to shape the nation in which they serve? Not on the basis of these Biblical examples. So just what is our role in our complex modern world, are we to be the world's legislators or its conscience?

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

some thoughts on the election: part 2

Let me draw some things to your attention that you may have not noticed or perhaps forgotten.

There are two contrasting covenants referred to in the Bible. The Sinai or Old Covenant is very conscious of territory and nation and state. In fact that covenant served as a kind of tenancy agreement for the ancient people of Israel. Keep the tenancy and you keep the land; break the tenancy agreement and you will be evicted. That covenant created what is known as a theocracy; the state and the religion of the people were inseparable. It was God's people and God's land. The religion of the what we call the Old Testament is, in the main, intensely territorial. Anyone who touched God's people or his land came under summary judgement. There was no distinction between crime and sin for all the laws were God's laws. The nation and the state and 'the church' were one.

And then there is another Covenant, usually called the New Covenant and its key document is the New Testament. This Covenant has, apparently, no interest at all in territory. A man or woman might be accused of being a Christian and found guilty but there was a distinction between crime and sin. It was no sin to become a Christian but for some it was a crime. In the New Testament there are no nation-states because its background is the Roman empire of which all were subjects in one way or another. There are ethnic groups but no nations in the modern sense of the word.

The way the New Testament looks at the state and our involvement in it is very different from the Old Testament perspective. In the Old Testament men and women were required, as part of their covenant to be an integral part of the whole social and political life of the nation. In the New Testament the underlying metaphor is of the stranger and the pilgrim. "This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through"; no Israelite could have sung that song but it has been the marching song of the Christian for two millennia.

Where shall we get our patterns and principles?

Monday, 19 April 2010

some thoughts on the election: part 1

The Christian has dual citizenship: of heaven (Philippians 3:20); and of an earthly nation (usually that in which he was born).
This is a quotation from a document called Election Briefing 2010. For folks in the UK just now it is a 'must read' item but is the quote accurate or helpful? The statement is often used to justify a believer's commitment to politics, patriotism, war and a whole bunch of other things. What basis do we have for saying that a 'Christian has dual citizenship'? How would that work out? Dual citizenship is a 'two-edged sword', it can mean that you end up with the duties of both nations and the protection of neither.

Is there another view? There is but it is a little old fashioned now. Some of the early Christian Brethren based their non-involvement in the the political process with another phrase 'believers are not called to tame the wild beasts of Daniel 7 but to call out a people for Christ'. This one will need a bit of an explanation! Daniel 7 predicts a succession of world empires from the days of Daniel's own time to the end times. Some of those early Christian Brethren believed that as this succession of empires had already been prophesied the Christian should not waste their times trying to 'change the course of history'.

How do you react to these two views? Give them some thought and we'll try to think through the implications of living as Christians on earth.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

by grace through faith: part 10

Let’s think a little about ‘justifying faith’. This is the language often used to describe the kind of faith that results in justification. Most in Calvinism see this is a unique kind of faith being the unique consequence of regeneration. The understanding, as we have already said, is that faith is the consequence of regeneration, regeneration being the trigger to everything else. In this understanding conviction, repentance, conversion and justifying faith are all the consequence of regeneration. This doctrine usually separates ‘justifying faith’ from subsequent experiences of faith. I want to question this assumption in today's blog. Is ‘justifying faith’ different in essence from any other experience of faith? Clearly the faith that results in justification is different in its effect from the faith that receives physical healing, but is it different in essence? If it is true that men ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ cannot ‘hear’ God what are we to make of God’s commandments? What is the point of God giving any commandment to anyone who is not ‘regenerate’. Do you see my dilemma?

If ‘justifying faith’ is really a special application of faith how would we expect this to work out? Hebrews 11 has a long list of the ‘heroes of faith’ which specifically points to justification as being the result of faith. Heb 11:7 (hover your cursor over the reference) Noah believed and became an heir of the righteousness that is ‘by faith’. That declares that Noah was ‘justified by faith’. But what did Noah believe in order to be ‘justified by faith’? How many aspects of ‘the gospel’ did he have to believe before he was ‘justified by faith’. Did he believe in the work of the cross, or in the resurrection or in the coming of the Spirit? We have no reason to believe any of these things was revealed to him and yet ‘by faith’ he became an heir of the ‘righteousness’ that is the result of ‘justifying faith’. So how did his faith work? and how did Abraham’s faith work? What did Abraham know of incarnation and Christ’s atoning work and his resurrection? If we work our way through the list of Hebrews 11 we shall see a very wide variety of ‘revelation’ that the heroes responded to. Is it ever possible then to make a list of essential beliefs that are precursors to ‘justifying faith’? I hope I have said enough to show how complicated this is going to become if we pursue this particular logic.

So what did these people believe? The answer is easier that you might imagine. The answer is not a ‘what’ but a ‘who’. Abraham’s faith, as recorded in Genesis 15, becomes the archetypical example of faith, and especially ‘justifying faith’.
And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness. Gen 15:6
or as Paul quotes it...”Abraham believed God...” Rom 4:3, Gal 3:6

Faith, at its heart is faith in a person not in an idea. The Wesley brothers were a classic example of those who believed ‘truth’ before they believed ‘God’. What is usually described as their ‘intellectual conversion’ took place some weeks before they experienced ‘justifying faith’. They were already preaching ‘evangelical truth’ although they had not personally experienced it. It is when our faith finds its resting place in the person of God himself that the miracle become clear. Here is an excerpt from John Wesley’s journal for May 24, 1738.
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for 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.
The moment of faith can be identified here ‘...I felt I did trust in Christ alone for 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.’ John Wesley’s faith came to rest, not in a Biblical truth, but in the person of Jesus Christ. Paul does not promise ‘justification by faith’ to those who believe in ‘justification by faith’ but to those who ‘...believe in Jesus... Rom 3:26.

Of course the Jesus we believe in must be the Jesus of the Bible and not some phantom of our own creation, but genuine faith is an I-thou’ encounter; we rest our faith in the person of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

by grace through faith: part 9

Let’s take another look at synergy in action. 1Chron 28 & 29 tell the story of transition from the rule of David to that of Solomon. If you are unfamiliar with this story I do recommend that you read it before you read this! 1Chron 29:1-5 is David’s personal testimony to what he has done. This is followed by the response of the leaders of Israel in 1Chron 29:6-9 and then we have the record of David’s prayer in 1 Chron 29:10-17 and finally David’s exhortation to the people to “bless the LORD your God” and their response in 1Chron 29:20-25. It is an exciting passage and one easy to see in the imagination. It was the culminating act of David’s reign. Let’s work our way through these sections...

1Chron 29:1-5 is David’s personal testimony to what he has done. The focus of this passage is on David’s own effort and contribution. They had been collecting resources for the building of the temple and all is now ready. In addition to the official funds David added an enormous contribution from his own personal funds; 1Chron 29:3. That contribution alone is mind-blowing. In gold alone he contributed almost 4000 tons; 1Chron 29:4. (many years ago in the 1970s I commented on this in a meeting which included a gold bullion dealer. He whipped out his calculator and announced that David’s contribution exceeded the gold reserves of Germany; the richest european country at that time.) David is not shy to list his own decisions in this; “I have prepared with all my might”, “I have set my affection to the house of my God”, “I have given to the house of my God”. This is David’s personal contribution to the building of the Temple.

1Chron 29:6-9 is the response of the leaders of Israel. The leaders responded in the same spirit as David and gave lavishly to the work; “Then the people rejoiced, for they had offered willingly, because with a loyal heart they had offered willingly to the LORD; and King David also rejoiced greatly.” 1Chron 29:9.

1Chron 29:10-17 is David’s prayer. The mood of this passage is very different. He gives all the glory to God. Both the materials and the willingness of the offerers is ascribed to God’s hand. It contains the classic sentence “But who am I, and who are my people, That we should be able to offer so willingly as this? For all things come from You, And of Your own we have given You.” 1Chron 29:13. and furthermore...”"O LORD our God, all this abundance that we have prepared to build You a house for Your holy name is from Your hand, and is all Your own.” 1Chron 29:16. That all sounds like a clear conversion to monergism but we need to read on...

Right on the heels of this absolute recognition that God has made all this possible we have one of David’s profound insights; “I know also, my God, that You test the heart and have pleasure in uprightness. As for me, in the uprightness of my heart I have willingly offered all these things; and now with joy I have seen Your people, who are present here to offer willingly to You.” 1Chron 29:17. That is a priceless insight. Although he recognises that all has been made possible by God he sees that he is personally accountable for the stewardship of what God has entrusted to him. God puts the hearts of men to the test.

We shall not be judged on what we received but on what we did with what we received. It is God’s gift put into men’s hands. David is absolutely clear as to the enabling source of all he has but he is equally clear that he will be held accountable for what he has received. It will be the grace of God and the faith of David expressed in active response that see the Temple built; this is synergy.

Friday, 2 April 2010

by grace through faith: part 8

The conflict between authentic Calvinism and all other attempts to systematise revelation truth can be expressed in the simple formula... monergism vs synergism. These words deserve a brief explanation. The idea of synergy is used in science and business and theology in very different ways but theologically speaking ‘synergism is the teaching that the human will cooperates with the Holy Spirit in the work of regeneration’ while ‘monergism is the teaching that the Holy Spirit acts independently of the human will in the work of regeneration’. Synergy is a word with a biblical history. It is the verb translated ‘work together’ in Rom 8:28. You can see how the word is defined and used here in the BlueLetterBible. See how the Bible uses this concept. It is the word ‘syn’ meaning ‘together’ and the word ‘ergeO’ which means ‘to work’. It would not be amiss to say it speaks of partnership. Whereas ‘syn’ implies ‘togetherness’ ‘mono’ implies ‘aloneness’ and this is the thrust of these two words. Is the work of salvation the result of a partnership between God and man or is it a sovereign and independent act of God? Is God the prime and initiating agent in salvation or is he the sole agent in salvation?

Let’s take a look at a well known verse from Isaiah; "Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, "Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool." Isaiah 1:18 Let’s take the first two phrases and examine them.

1. Come now. The invitation or command originates in God. We cannot come unless the Lord draws us. We cannot believe if he has not spoken and we cannot obey if he has not commanded. So there ought to be no confusion here. Salvation belongs to the Lord and is in his gift alone. The phrase implies that some kind of movement is necessary; to get from there to here you must ‘come’ and it is I who must do the coming. The promise was that if the Father lifted up the Son he would draw all men to himself. John 12:32. The cross was the first part of that process and we may be sure that God is at work ‘drawing’ men and women to himself. But ‘drawing’ and ‘coming’ implies response. God has on occasion used the method of ‘beaming’ an individual from one place to another but not in the context of salvation. The command or invitation to ‘come now’ is a clear indication that the person who hears these words must take some responsibility in moving from one place to another.

2. and let us reason together... This is one of the most profound statements in the Bible. Take note of that tiny word ‘us’ and think about the implications. To use the pronouns ‘we’ or ‘us’ implies that at least two people have something in common. When we contrast ‘us’ and ‘them’ we imply that ‘we’ have some common ground that is not shared by ‘them’.

The earlier verses of this chapter describe the human condition in a graphic way; “...The whole head is sick, And the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, There is no soundness in it, But wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; They have not been closed or bound up, Or soothed with ointment.” Isaiah 1:5-6. That’s as dramatic a description of man in his congenital sin as we will find anywhere in the Book. There is nothing to commend this creature to God. He is helpless and hopeless. Man is a bundle of corruption. I trust we have said enough to make it plain that this creature is totally corrupted... there is no soundness in him.

It is all the more remarkable then that God addresses such a creature with an invitation to come and a plea to ‘let us reason together’. Let the significance of that ‘us’ settle upon your spirit. In spite of the description we have been given it is still possible for God to use the embracing pronoun ‘us’ in this phrase. At some level, in spite of all appearances, God and this wreck of humanity have something ‘in common’; otherwise he could not use the pronoun.

And notice too, wonder of wonders, that God insists that He himself and this ruined creature must do something ‘together’. The consequence of this ‘synergy’ will be deep and radical cleansing; “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool.” Could God ‘impose’ cleansing upon this creature? Theoretically he could. Theoretically the father could have dragged the wayward son out of the far country and brought him home hostage, but he didn’t and he doesn’t. He will not impose saving grace but he makes it wonderfully available.

This is the mystery of synergy. God’s grace is 100% his responsibility and I cannot make 1% contribution to it, but faith, ie responding to what God has said in promise or command, is 100% man’s response. Responsibility is found to be ‘my response to his ability’ but in the ‘my’ and ‘his’ of that sentence there is a wonderful and necessary synergy; by grace we are saved, through faith.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

by grace through faith: part 7

For many years I was deeply puzzled by the Matthew interpretation of the parable of the Sower. When his disciples asked him why he was using parables Christ quoted Isaiah 6:9-10. (remember that if you hover your cursor over that reference you will get the NKJV version) It seemed as though God were blocking their understanding in response to their dullness of hearing. Matthew’s account of Christ's exposition of the parable added to my puzzlement. The response of the earth to the sown seed begins with the seed sown on the downtrodden wayside. “When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside.” Matt 13:19. There’s that reference to ‘understanding’ again. It is because the hearer did not ‘understand’ the word of the kingdom that the sown seed is unproductive and quickly stolen by the birds. The theme continues in the account of the good ground; “But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty." Matt 13:23 and we find here another reference to ‘understanding’. Does salvation depend on our ability to understand? Apparently it does but that is not the whole story and ‘understanding’ in not the same as having a certain inherent intelligence; this is not salvation by IQ.

My puzzlement lasted a long time until I came across another part of the prophecy of Isaiah. God promised spectacular signs which would capture the attention of his people and then Isaiah declares the purpose of these eye-catching signs; Isaiah 41:20. I am going to do my own translation here “so that they may see and recognize and consider and understand in a unity that the hand of the LORD has done this”. Let’s observe the order here...

1 That they may see; God would take care to ensure that men and women would be drawn to what he was doing. This is one of the purposes of miracles. They serve as burning bushes which cause us to ‘turn aside’ from our daily activities to pay attention to something out of the ordinary. God would ensure that they were alerted to the fact that something extraordinary happening in their midst.

2 ...and recognize; by some inner intuition they would discern that the phenomena which had drawn their attention was something of significance. They would recognize ‘the hand of God’ or ‘the voice of God’ in that moment. Their consciences would bear witness to the truth they were experiencing.
...so far these are involuntary stages of a process. They ‘happen’ without any action on the part of the one who sees and recognizes, but then there is a change...
3 ...and consider; this is the process when the mind begins to engage with what has been witnessed. We are no longer a passive witness but we begin to consider the meaning of the event. This stage requires action on the part of the witness. We are to take hold of the truth which has fleetingly flashed across our consciousness and we are to think through its implications. I think it was D L Moody who used to say that he had ‘more hope of a murderer than of a lazy man’. Here is a really obscure verse for your consideration; “The lazy man does not roast what he took in hunting, But diligence is man's precious possession.” Prov 12:27. What a folly, to never profit from the thing that you have held in your hand. When truth ‘comes to us’ we are required to ‘do something’ with that truth otherwise we will lose it. “For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” Matt 13:12. That verse is from the same passage in Matthew.

4 ...and understand; and now see what will inevitable follow the man who has seen and recognized and considered. He will understand. This is not the understanding of a superior intellect but the blessing of God upon the man who has taken ‘revelation’ seriously. Now we see that God is right to hold a man accountable for ‘not understanding’ for that man has slighted the miracle of revelation and thereby chosen to remain in his voluntary darkness. From such will be taken even the little that he had. God will hold men accountable for what they do with revelation.