Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Grace and truth, always grace and truth...

I think it was Richard Baxter who said...

In essentials unity,
in non-essentials liberty,
in all things charity.

One exam to go. New Testament Greek.
They said Rome wasn't built in a day.
Thankfully they didn't say that Greek couldn't be learnt in a day.
Elpis is Greek for hope.

Monday, May 29, 2006

A gospel that works...

Despite the mind-numbing connotations one may, justly, associate with a day full of revision, I actually enjoyed today. I read Chuck Colson's book 'Justice that Restores' in prep for my 'Theology & Ethics' paper tomorrow morning, and it was a really encouraging read. Colson used to be an advisor in the White House, before facing a spell in prison after the Watergate scandal. Since then he's been part of a ground-breaking ministry in prisons, as well as being an ambassador across the world for principles of restorative justice.

Restorative justice is basically a method of justice that focuses on repairing harm caused by crime and reducing the likelihood of future harm. His book is based on the understanding that only with a Biblical worldview can we produce true justice, and that truth is evidenced with a lifetime of examples. Only a biblical worldview:

i) holds individuals responsible for their actions...
ii) ...under an objective rule of law (rooted in revelation)...
iii) the context of community
iv) ...and with the chance of transformation of the individual...
v) ...and healing of fractured relationshops and of the moral order.

Colson writes that when justice is not realized, then one of the above has been neglected or thrown out of balance. It's not a dreamy utopianism, for crime and sin will never be eliminated on this earth, but we should work for true justice. He dismisses a whole host of theories that have been thrust about in justice legislation and theory. He calls for the church to be the church: a community of the redeemed, living and practising Christian teachings.

It was exciting to read of Colson's experiences of the transforming power of the gospel in prisons across the world, but it was really powerful to benefit from his ability to see the world around him through gospel-goggles. Naturally, for the gospel always is, it was challenging too.

We must take the lead and present the gospel, transforming individuals and one-by-one reanimating the culture. We must bring Christian truth to bear in all aspects of our common lives. We must stress the importance of the family. We must encourages cultures that teach and expect virtue. We must teach responsibility for actions, and thus affirm human dignity. We must be real about who we are, and through Christ who we can be. We must love our neighbour with biblical love. We must trust what the Bible says about God, us, and God's world.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Keeping it brief

Yesterday I ate a bacon and honey sandwich. For lunch, 10GS enjoyed our first barbeque of the summer, with do-it-yourself Sangria. After SBR it was really cool to see Menaz again - it's been a while - I look forward to spending more time with the people I love as exams draw to a close.

Must work hard!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Bring on the summer...

The Bench, George St.

He is very kind...

God is very kind. In Jonah 1, His judgement upon Jonah's rebellion isn't also cast upon the pagan sailors. Instead the whole process has God's hand over it - the wind (4), the lots (7), the raging waves (11, 13), and instead of sinking the ship and all its inhabitors, the LORD keeps safe the sailors. In fact, they turn from crying out 'each to his god' (5), to fearing the LORD 'exceedingly' (16, ESV), and making a sincere sacrifice and vows to Him. The Creator's loving kindness!

This inner assurance of the grace of God is accompanied by outward indications such as gladly to hear, preach, praise, and to confess Christ, to do one's duty in the station in which God has placed us, to aid the needy, and to comfort the sorrowing. These are affidavits of the Holy Spirit testifying to our favourable standing with God.

If we could be fully persuaded that we are in the good grace of God, that our sins are forgiven, that we have the Spirit of Christ, that we are the beloved children of God, we would be ever so happy and grateful to God. But because we often fear and doubt we cannot come to that happy certainty.

Train your conscience to believe that God approves of you. Fight it without doubt. Gain assurance through the Word of God.
Martin Luther, from Commentary on Galatians

Friday, May 26, 2006

Humility is found at the cross

The ridiculous length of yesterday's post was made all the more superfluous by the absence in the Pauline section of this morning's New Testament exam of any question on justification or righteousness. Megadoh! Half way through now, with a hectic three-in-three-days gauntlet starting on Tuesday.

The boys and I carried on digging into Mark 14 last night. As the hour approaches and indeed arrives (v. 41) it's incredible to see just how in control Jesus is: he foretells Peter's denial and his own resurrection (28, 30), and his betrayal into the hands of sinners (41).

His fulfilment of Zechariah 13.7 shows the significance of Jesus' death: he is the shepherd going ahead and bringing in the kingdom. His prayer in Gethsemane is out of this world. And we see just how far we fall short.

Peter's response (29, 31) is probably nothing short of what mine would have been: 'I will turn over a new leaf for you this week Jesus', 'I will conquer this sin from now on'. It's echoed first in the contrast between Jesus and the disciples as he commands them to pray but they patheticly fall asleep, and then in the actions of Judas.

I'm not clear what Jesus means by 'the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak' (38) - is he just highlighting the impossibility in our fallen nature of being able to follow Jesus?

It was striking to look again upon the uniqueness of Jesus - it was striking to see the importance of prayer, as we are humbled before God. By ourselves we are very, very helpless. Yet we still think we can do it; we want to read this and think we can leave this place and give him what is his due.

Not 'I can' or 'I will', but through Jesus - be humbled, be little, be driven to the cross.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Justification, Faith, and the law...

These are some revision notes for my exam tomorrow on Pauline theology, very heavily indebted to Stephen Westerholm's essay, which can be found here. Apologies if I've messed up his argument! My bad.

Romans 3.28 reads 'For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.'

Recent debate about this verse, and Galatians 2.16, has revolved around whether here Paul is answering the question 'How can a sinner find a gracious God?' (Luther, Augustine), or whether he is answering 'On what terms can Gentiles gain entrance to the people of God?' (Stendahl, Sanders, Dunn, Wright). In other words, the Lutheran position is that Paul is explaining how the individual can be righteous in God's sight, whilst the New Perspective position holds that Paul is explaining on what grounds can Gentiles participate in the people of God in the last days.

The New Perspective position therefore argues that works of the law (WOTL) means, for Paul, the likes of circumcision, food use, festival laws, and thus Paul is showing how these distinctively Jewish practices need not be observed by Gentiles in order for them to be part of the people of God. In other words this position is infering that Paul is not making a statement about how humans can come without condemnation before their maker. WOTL, according to Dunn, are not the acts like those of first-century Pelagian heretics who believed they could earn their salvation, but rather distinctive practices that distinguished Jews from Gentiles. Thus, to affirm justification by WOTL would be to affirm justification is for Jews only.

This New Perspective position has gained much support in recent times, but is it a correct understanding of Paul? Has it done what it achieved, 'to put Paul back into his first-century Judaism context'? Have Augustine, Luther, and conservative Christian theologians 'modernized Paul'? Or was his point that sinners are declared righteous by faith alone, apart from righteous deeds that the law requires?

The Evidence of the disputed Pauline Epistles (Eph 2.8-9; Titus 3.3-7; 2 Tim 1.9)
Eph 2.8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; 9it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Titus3.3For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

2 Tim 1.9who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,

Whatever the authorship of these three letters, there is no doubt that they choose to reformulate the justification texts found in Paul's undisputed letters, particularly Romans. They show a God who justifies (Tit 3.7; Rom 3.26,30; 4.5), by his grace (Eph 2.8; 2 Tim 1.9; Titus 3.7; Rom 3.24) through faith (Eph 2.8; Rom 3.22, 28; 4.5), not through works (Eph 2.9; 2 Tim 1.9; Tit 3.5; Rom 3.20, 28; 4.2,6), thus eliminating any grounds for boasting (Eph 2.9; Rom 3.27; 4.2). In Ephesians and the Pastorals, the 'works' repeatedly rejected as playing a role in salvation are good 'works' in general; deeds done 'in righteousness' as Titus 3 puts it. Those saved/justified are sinners: slaves of sin and otherwise destined for divine judgement, that is not Gentiles enquiring about entrance requirements.

The undisputed Pauline justification texts have been invoked for the purpose of addressing sinners facing God's wrath, of insisting that God offers sinners salvation in Jesus Christ by grace, through faith, apart from demand for righteous deeds. If this is modernizing Paul, then modernity must occur prior to the completion of Ephesians.

The Evidence of non-Pauline Epistles

James 2.24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
One, James' formulation, that one is 'justified by works and not by faith alone', must ultimately be based on the justification texts of Paul, for it was Paul who introduced this language. Two, whomever James is refuting, the position that he dismisses is that God approves sinners because of their faith, regardless whether or not it leads to righteous behaviour. Three, we can assume Paul would not have held for the position that James is refuting (Gal 6.7; 5.6,19-21).

Yet it is clear from James and Paul that some held to this antinomianism (Rom 6). The terms of Gentile inclusion are not an issue for James, but it is an issue as to whether people can be justified by faith apart from any accompanying works. Works in question here are not circumcision, food, festival laws, but, as we see in 1.27, good deeds like clothing the naked, and feeding the hungry. Is James a modernizer of Paul?

The Evidence of undisputed Pauline Epistles

There is no trace of justification or WOTL in 1 Thessalonians, are the two linked? The message of 1 Thessalonians would have been something like 'How can I, a sinner facing divine judgement, find a gracious God?'. It seems the answer is in turning from idols (1.9-10) to God, placing faith in his Son Jesus, who would deliver from the wrath to come (1.10). Paul tells the church to 'belong to the day' as they are not destined for wrath but to obtain salvation through Jesus Christ (5.9-10). Yet, if Paul's core thinking was about how Gentiles were to be included in God's purposes, then this letter would not have informed them. In fact it seems here that Paul is answering a question that, so the New Perspective assumes, the Thessalonians were not at the right time, nor in the right place, to ask. It seems that there is a danger in modernizing Paul, but part of this danger includes the danger that one displaces sin, faith, judgement and salvation from Paul's message, all of which were present here in the Epistle to Thessalonica.

Moving onto Corinthians, Paul makes it clear his goal is to do whatever it takes to 'save' those who hear his message (1 Cor 9). In Thessalonians salvation meant deliverance from God's wrath and judgement - its seems it means exactly the same here in Corinthians. The world (1 Cor 11.32) faces condemnation and its people are 'the perishing' (1.18; 2 Cor 2.15; 4.3). Why? Because their deeds merit perdition (1 Cor 6.9; 2 Cor 6.14). So to the perishing Paul brings a gospel of salvation from sin, and its condemnation, for all who 'believe' the gospel message (1 Cor 1.18, 21; 15.1-2; 2 Cor 2.15-16; 6.1-2).

The language of righteousness and justification may be absent from 1 Thessalonians, but it is certainly present in thought if not prominence in 1 & 2 Corinthains. Paul cannot judge himself, so cannot justify himself. To be righteous is to have lived as one should have, to be unrighteous is to not have (1 Cor 6.9-10). Thus the world is full of unrighteous people, who cannot hope to survive divine judgement. The gospel offers the righteous a means by which they may extroadinarily be declared 'righteous' or 'justified'. Gentiles and WOTL are not an issue in Corinth, nor is how Gentiles can be made equally acceptable before God as the Jews (for the Jews still need to be saved - 1 Cor 9.20-23; 1.18-25). Corinthians makes it clear that Christ Jesus is our righteousness (1 Cor 1.30) - the means by which people, themselves unrighteous, can be found righteous by God.

It is clear from 1 Cor 6.11 that justification here has to do with removal of sins that would otherwise condemn the unrighteous. Similarly in 2 Cor 3 Paul explains the new covenant as a ministry of righteousness, for Moses' covenant was a ministry of death and condemnation as it blesses those who obeyed (Rom 10.5; Gal 3.12) but curses those who transgress (Gal 3.10). It can only be a covenant of condemnation if all subjects are sinners who transgress its prescriptions - this seems to be Paul's conviction (Rom 8.7,8). In Adam all die (1 Cor 15.22), and the law only pronounces this condemnation. The New Covenant involves bringing a message of righteousness (or justification) and life to those who are otherwise condemned by the law.

Thus, the Corinthian epistles are crucial in this argument for their link righteousness and justification to the message that the Corinthian and Thessalonian epistles identify as the central concern of Paul's mission: how sinners can be saved from merited judgement. Justification represents Paul's answer to the question inevitably provoked by a message of pending eschatalogical doom. This is not a new question - Job 4.17! - but the perennial concern of the religiously alert.

Ephesians, the Pastoral Epistles, and James all read Paul's justification texts as Augustine or Luther would do, and 1 Thessalonians and 1&2 Corinthians shows the central question of Paul's mission is precisely the question that Paul's justification language, on their understanding, is designed to satisfy. And in Corinthians Paul clearly uses justification language for precisely that purpose.

So, on to the texts in question:
a) Galatians

In Galatians 2.16 we come across the first use of the formula, and also the first time in Paul's letters that he debates re: Gentiles and circumcision. Our question must be 'what is the link?'.
Presumably Paul's history at Galatia had little difference to Thessalonica and Corinth - he presented Christ as God's answer to the dilemma faced by sinners otherwise condemned by divine wrath (1.4). This deliverance must at least include, if not be equated with, deliverance from judgement hanging over the 'evil age'. Presumably he didn't raise the WOTL issue.

So, how was circumcision ever made to be a convincing demand on the Gentiles? The bigger picture shows that it was a sign of the covenant, and part of the law - to become one of God's people you would start by getting circumcised. The Jews who had understood Jesus to be their Messiah had no reason to abandon the Jewish way of life, that is the way of life under the Mosaic covenant and laws, for the only difference was they had faith that Jesus was their Messiah. This must have been the framework for those teachers of Galatia, the framework in which God's people were to live remained that of the Mosaic law and covenant.

Paul's opposition to this position is summed up in 'a person is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Christ Jesus' - but what part of the position does he oppose? Is he only denying that Gentiles be circumcised and submit to the distinctively Jewish laws of the Mosaic covenant, thus justification by faith being the answer to the question of whether Gentile believers in Christ should adopt a Jewish way of life?

Or is it that circumcision is not to be required of Gentiles, not because this is still part of a valid Mosaic economy but is inapplicable for Gentiles, but that because the Mosaic economy has lost its validity?

Paul's writings suggest that at the best of times righteousness was not achieavable, but that all were cursed and enslaved. The law had an important but temperal role - Jesus' death is the sole way by which Jews and Gentiles can find righteousness, for otherwise Jews would have been embracing life under a covenant that could only condemn.

1. For Paul 'justification' was how sinners can be counted righteous, if Jews like Peter & Paul sought justification in Christ, then they too proved to be sinners. As Paul writes, if there was another means for justification then Christ need not have died. His death represents the only way a sinner, everyone, could be justified (2.21; 3.22-24). If righteousness is only possible through the death of Christ, then it is not possible by means of the Mosaic law (2.21; 3.21-22). The principle of the law was that life was given by living by it (3.12), and Paul sees no need to dispute this further.
A humanity, the desperation of whose sinfulness is illumined by the death of Christ, cannot possibly meet the measure of obedience required by the Mosaic covenant (Lev 18.5; Deut 10.12-13; 11.26-28). Sure, he is denying that Gentiles (2.16) ought to be circumcised, but the reason why is that God's favour cannot be enjoyed by sinners under a covenant that demands compliance with its laws as its condition for blessing. 'By' the law (2.16) and 'through' the law (2.21) is the same - this is not a rejection of justification by certain parts of the law, but by the law itself (3.11-12; 5.4).

2. The problem of the law is not simply its inability to give life (3.21-24) but that it curses all who transgress (3.10). All are cursed, imprisoned, and deliverance is only in Christ's death.

3. Paul underlines this with the examples of Hagar and Sarah (Gal 4); two covenants. Hagar's child was in slavery, and is of Mount Sinai, the 'present Jerusalem'. Paul clearly sees the subjects imprisoned under sin and curse, whereas Isaac is the free offspring of Sarah.

4. But why a law that can only curse? This is what Paul answers in 3.19, and surely a Paul who feels the need to explain the law, can only be a Paul who has denied the law serves the function others attribute to it. In effect, it supervises the imprisonment of people who would later be set free (3.24): its hegemony was temporary.

Thus the Mosaic economy and its laws no longer provide the framework with which God's people are to live, and was never the means by which they were justified. In 1.13-2.24 Paul portrays Judaism, the devotion to ancestral law and the pursuit of righteousness based on certain observances, as a temporary stage in history: it is clear that it belongs to his past.

It is fair to say that he is answering the question of whether Gentiles should be circumcised, but justification why they shouldn't, and a justification that is still the extroadinary means by which God declares sinners righteous. Paul clearly sees it important to articulate the gospel wherever he goes, and the language of this in Romans is summed up in language of justification or righteousness (Rom 1.14-17). The formula of Gal 2.16 is repeated in Rom 3.20, and the importance of faith in Rom 4. Again, it is justification language that is the answer to the human dilemma already apparent in 1 Thessalonians, and the end of the law is repeated (10.4), for there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile (10.11,12). He once pursued righteousness by the law (Phil 3.8,9), but this did not allow him to stand before God.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The student and the church...

The New Testament's thinking on 'church' is something I really want to dig deep into in the future - I've heard Graham Beynon has a great little book out on exactly that. In the meantime here are a collection of bits and bobs about 'church' that my friend TB asked me to dig out...

Firstly here are some words we wrote to encourage Freshers at our home church to get stuck into a church where they were at University (with much credit to UCCF's 'fresh' pack)...

It’s very important to be part of a church; this is for your own discipleship, but also to encourage other Christians.

It may seem like for the amount of weeks you’re at Uni it’s almost not worth getting stuck into church – however don’t underestimate the way God works in power through His church (Eph 3:10). It’s also valuable to part of a Christian body that isn’t exclusively students.

Have a think about what you feel is important for a church, and also what ways you could contribute. Don’t be afraid to ask a church leader what his church is about, and how he’d be willing for you to get involved.

Most students do ‘church-hopping’ for the first few weeks at a new Uni before settling down at the one they found most suitable. Certainly pray about it!

- Is the church faithful to the good news of Jesus Christ, and proclaiming it, and does it teach the Bible, and do the church leaders submit themselves to God’s word (Titus 1:7-9)?

- Is there a genuine concern to spur one another on in faith (Hebrews 10:24-25)?

- Is the church obviously a Christian community where people love one another (1 John 3:11-18)?

- Can I imagine feeling at home here and getting involved in the life of the church (1 Cor 12:24-27)?

I've heard a number of guys talk recently about how our consumer culture has spread into our thinking about church - maybe our intention in going to church has morphed into something along the lines of getting our 'fix' of worship? Surely our view of church needs to encorporate servanthood a whole lot more. To say we go to church to worship must be a bit like saying we go to work to breathe - the point is that we're always meant to be breathing. I think some of the best ways we can worship God as part of a church family are by exercising gifts to build one another up, devoting ourselves to listening to God's word, encouraging one another to obey it...

I was encouraged to think through the following situation by a church leader...
You are moving to a new area and are told by a friend "St Mary's is good for teaching but St Martha's is good for worship". What is the primary way you should decide which church to attend? Why?

How practically can we work at spurring one another on when we meet together? What steps can we take to listen well to God's word when it is preached?
The whole topic of the role of Christian Unions and local churches is frequently visited. My friend James Barbour has some wise words to say on the matter, with church leadership being something CU's obviously lack.

Praise God for his church, his bride whom Christ gave himself up for, for each local gathering of believers! May he make his manifold wisdom known to the world through us, for his glory alone!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

"The world has many religions; it has but one gospel." (George Owen)

After our bible-study on Daniel 4 (see yesterday's post), and after looking at Nebuchadnezzar's (and Daniel's) response to Daniel's interpretation of his dream, I have been thinking about what we present and live by as the gospel, and whether or not it is the gospel...
Firstly, I think we need to examine our own attitudes...
"If you believe what you like in the gospel, and reject what you don't like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself."
St. Augustine

"The gospel begins and ends with what God is, not what we want or think we need." Tom Houston

"A gospel that elevates man and dethrones God is not the gospel."
Will Metzger
That's very hard. I shudder to think of the reaction of my friends. I wince when someone mentions judgement/sin/hell. I shy away from its relevance outside of my Christian bubble. I would rather speak of today's news than of the glorious riches of Christ to the gasman.

Yet for myself, and my neighbour, the gospel is what matters.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
Colossians 2.6-7

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."
Romans 1.16-17

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Blessed be His name on the road marked with suffering...

Our church family meeting tonight was awesome! We were looking at the Bible's teaching on God's sovereignty, especially in relation to suffering. It's such a real topic. In fact, to call it a topic is to stray dangerously close to something we tried to get away from tonight: neat, theological, mathematical answers. Instead, suffering is part and parcel of our life on this earth and the fact is that some people will suffer horrendously more than others with no clear reason.

But despite this, the Bible has some really awesome, and I mean awesome, things to say about suffering and where God is in the midst of it...
  • It is very amazing that God is sovereign over His world, and thus over all evil and suffering - in Acts 4 His hand is at work, and His plan working out, even in the evil and sinful acts of Herod and Pilate...
  • In Luke 13 Jesus presents suffering (both tragedy and murder) as signs of His coming judgement, and as loving calls to urgent repentance. His very wanting us to repent is his mercy, his kindness, his love - does that just make you go 'Woah!'?
  • Throughout the life of Jesus we see Him knowing firsthand the agony of personal pain: weeping with indignation at Lazarus' death, and the unimaginable pain in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14.32...). Peter writes that the cross (1 Peter 2.19...) should be our example in our suffering, that we'd entrust ourselves to Him who judges justly.
  • And this last one's good news too: God has acted to save us, promising a new creation with no more suffering or death. I think John puts it better:

21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

Revelation 21.1-4

There is a promise telling of an end to suffering, by a God who keeps his promises, with the cross and the Spirit as guarantee.

And we know that for those who love God ALL THINGS work together for GOOD [God's good, which is the best kind of good incidentally], for those who are called according to HIS purpose [again, the best kind of purpose].

Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 8 verse 27.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Da Vinci Code: a bad mullet, a few twists, and a handful of lies about Jesus...

I was fortunate (I think that's the right word) to be given a ticket to see The Da Vinci Code last night, and after an evening of digesting here are some thoughts...

I have to admit, I was going into this movie with at least one eye on how as a Christian, someone set free by the Truth, I was to respond to it. In a clever opening scene Robert Langdon (Hanks) asks a packed lecture-hall, 'How do we sift truth from belief? Tonight this will be our task'. It's a question that sure-enough plots the course of the movie, as the notions of truth, belief, and history are pitted against each other.

If you've read the book then you'll realise what all the fuss is about. Simply put, if the book didn't orientate around the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, they had a kid, and that the bloodline continues today, then it wouldn't be half as popular as it has been. But that is exactly what the book does 'claim', and as the movie continues 'fact' after 'fact' is thrown at us as Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellan) unveils 'the greatest cover-up in history'.

There's enough places on the net that explain why the evidence given isn't evidence at all (see my previous post for resources) and if you saw Tony Robinson's repeated documentary on Channel 4 you'll understand why. An extremely fanciful use of the gnostic gospel of Philip, a generally twisted use of history, especially when it comes to the canonisation of Scripture and Constantine's role (although the brief flashback scene of the Council of Nicea is worth a watch for its hilarity) is Dan Brown's not-quite-original way of creating a rather exciting plotline.

There's debate as to how the Christian is to respond to this film. Surely, there's no point getting worked up about it, after all it's only a film? That view would be easier to hold to if there weren't reports that it is changing people's minds. The crowd I saw the film with didn't seem particularly interested in whether or not it was true. Instead they turned to discuss the variations the film has from the book (...sadly the book of the Da Vinci Code, not The Book).

I feel like it is my responsibility to point people to the Truth, and to do that I need to be ready to defend and present the gospel, and thus the gospels. Some have pointed to the 'disappointment' of the church's 'bandwagon boarding' response to Gibson's 'Passion' of 2004, but things like Paul's willingness to react with the cultures around him in Acts makes me think that we can't be ignorant of the contexts in which we seek to proclaim the message of the cross.

Aside from the predictable questions about the reliability and authority of the New Testament, it's also worth bearing in mind the horrific self-flagellation scenes in which Silas, Paul Bettany's monk, attempts to atone for his sins. Although the Opus Dei bishop (Alfred Molina) points out this is a different practice to that of "cafeteria catholics", it's also miles away from biblical Christianity. Your friend knows that you don't wrap a cilice around your thigh, but they probably haven't thought through the understanding that only Christ's death is sufficient to atone for sin.

As the film draws to a close Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), the supposed great, great, great (x 100?) daughter of Jesus and MM, is left with the dilemma of exposing Christianity as a lie or not. Hanks' character leans over and whispers the apparently reassuring words 'The only thing that matters is what you believe.' For a film that's been plugged with the tagline 'Seek the Truth', it does seem a bit of a cop-out to come to this conclusion. But the real irony is that what you believe does matter, and it's of eternal significance.
'Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life. but the wrath of God remains on him.'

Jesus, The Gospel according to John, Chapter 3, Verse 36.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Ryle on Counting the Cost

"For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? ... So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple." Jesus Christ, Luke 14.28-33.
i) it will cost him his self-righteousness ... He must be willing to give up all trust in his own morality, respectability, praying, Bible-reading, church-going, and sacrament-recieving, and to trust in nothing but Jesus Christ.

ii) it will cost him sins ... There must be no separate truce with any special sins which he loves. He must count all sin as his deadly enemies and hate every false way. Whether little or great, whether open or secret, all his sins must be thoroughly renounced ... He must keep up a perpetual war with his sins ... Our sins are often as dear to us as our children: we love them, hug them, cleave them, and delight in them. To part with them is as hard as cutting off a right hand... but it must be done.

iii) it will cost a man his love of ease ... He must daily watch and stand on his guard like a soldier on enemy's ground. He must be careful over his time, his tongue, his temper, his thoughts, his imagination, his motives, his conduct in every relation in life ... This also sounds hard... Anything that requires exertion and labour is entirely against the grain of our hearts. But the soul can have 'no gains without pains'.

iv) it will cost a man the favour of the world ... "Remember the word that I said to you: The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also." (John 15.20)

I grant it costs much to be a true Christian. But who in his sound senses can doubt that it is worth any cost to have the soul saved? When the ship is in danger of sinking, the crew think nothing of casting overboard the precious cargo... Surely a Christian should be willing to give up anything which stands between him and heaven. A religion that costs nothing is worth nothing! A cheap Christianity, without a cross, will prove in the end a useless Christianity, without a crown...

Do not present only one side of Christianity. Do not keep back 'the cross' of self-denial that must be carried, when you speak of the cross on which Christ died for our redemption. Explain fully what Christianity entails. Entreat men and women to repent and come to Christ; but bid them at the same time to 'count the cost'...

The time is very short. A few more years of watching and praying, a few more tossings on the sea of this world, a few more deaths and changes, a few more winters and summers, and all will be over. We shall have fought our last battle, and shall need to fight no more. The presence and company of Christ will make amends for all we suffer here below... We shall marvel that we could ever doubt on which side the balance of profit lay.
Let us take courage. We are not far from home.
It may cost much to be a true Christian and a consistent believer; but it pays.

J. C. Ryle, Holiness (chapter 5.)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Responding to Jesus: the woman with the alabaster jar...

So Jesus is at dinner at your mate's house in Bethany, and you're just chatting post-grub. And then this woman comes along with an alabaster jar filled with a year's wages worth of permume, and she breaks it and pours it all over Jesus' head. The guy next to you exclaims, 'Why was the ointment wasted like that?' (v. 4)

What's your reaction? I can imagine myself folding my arms and muttering exactly the same words. 'What a lunatic. So over the top. She is just an embarssment.'

But Jesus? Well...
"Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her." (7-9)

Can you imagine it? That's immense. He commends her beyond measure. Her radical extravagance has in some way recognised the fact that Jesus wasn't gonna be around forever. He brings it straight down to earth: 'You will not always have me... she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.' He is going to die. Her action, her hugely 'over-the-top' reaction, has recognised who Jesus is. And in fact she's probably the first person up to this point in Mark who's rightly responded to Jesus' death. Certainly the chief priests (14.1-2), the disciples (14.10-11, 18-19), and I didn't.

Nothing is too precious for Him! His blood has been poured out for many, confirming the new covenant (v. 24), by which we are cleansed and recieve the Spirit so that we may be moved to obey (Ez. 36.34-27). We have new hearts!

As Sinclair Ferguson said, 'The determining factor of my existence is no longer my past. It is Christ's past.' Praise Him! He is worthy!

This is priceless comedy...

By all means read the article, but you have to watch the video!

Credit to Dan for the link!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Return of Uno

One exam down, five more to go! The DSS paper wasn't too bad, and whilst the 'Doh! I could have written that' feeling unsurprisingly emerged chatting to friends afterwards, I felt I managed to make some relevant points. Managed to get in my lecturer's opening remarks to his lecture series : "The Dead Sea Scrolls are the haunts of crackpots and nutters". All my DSS notes have now been banished to The Bookshelf-Of-No-Return, and I even turned the iTunes up and had a little dance to celebrate.

I'd forgotten what continual writing for three hours felt like, but Elmo's supply of Kendal Mint Cake kept energy levels high. It was great to have a revision-free evening, and play Uno with the housemates as Arsenal's Champions League dream came to a sticky end.

Something to thing about...
"Forgiveness without the restoration of a relationship is not the gospel."
John Piper

Da Vinci Code Resources

There's tons of stuff popping up all over the net in the form of Christian responses to Dan Brown's book, but here are a few sites that AC from my church back home sieved out and are worth stopping by at:

The Da Vinci Code Truth - a site designed especially for those asking questions.

A range of Christianity Today articles and responses to the film

Another well-equipped site offering a huge amount of different articles

There's heaps of books out on the shelves of Christian bookshelves too - the only one I've read and can recommend is Garry Williams' brief but substantial 'The Da Vinci Code', published by Christian Focus - it retails for about £1.99.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The World and The Mould...

Thinking practically, thinking in reality, about how the world squeezes us into its mould - a brilliant bit of applying of Romans 12.

The King And I...

"Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego... there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way." (Dan 3.28-29).

Nebuchadnezzar was right of course, Daniel's God, the God of the Bible, our Heavenly Father, was and is perfectly capable of bringing about his glory in all the world. Even through the lips of the most powerful pagan king in the world.

We're studying Daniel 3 tonight. One of the things that clearly stands out is the description of Nebuchadnezzar's Golden Image as 'the image Nebuchadnezzar had set up' (e.g. 3. 3,5,7,12). Daniel clearly wants to get across the sheer craziness of what's going on... it's an idol that man has set up... it's lower than man, and yet everyone's being ordered to bow down and worship it by the authorities.

Absolute madness... a million miles away from twenty-first century civilisation, right? Hmm. The idea of identifying idols by the way humans have set them up shows how much man-made worship there is going on. Am I really like S, M, and A? In Nebuchadnezzar's decree at the end of the chapter (post-fiery-furnace-rescue) he points our that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were trusting servants of God, and had 'set aside the king's command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.' (v. 28).

Or am I more like Nebuchadnezzar? Acknowledging God's authority, yet showing no sign of personal submittal ('...therefore I make a decree...', '...shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins...' v. 29). Has he still missed the point? It seems he's still ruling without asking God for wisdom, and with a tyrranical mindset.

Any god except my own God? Any?! Would I rather yield up my body rather than serve and worship any god except my own? Or are we still bowing down to things we've set up?

long for milk...

Monday, May 15, 2006

Remember Him?

"Do you not find yourselves forgetful of Jesus? Some creature steals away your heart, and you are unmindful of him upon whom your affection ought to be set. Some earthly business engrosses your attention when you should have your eye steadily fixed upon the cross. It is the incessant round of world, world, world; the constant din of earth, earth, earth, that takes away the soul from Christ. Oh! my friends, is it not too sadly true that we can recollect anything but Christ, and forget nothing so easy as him whom we ought to remember? While memory will preserve a poisoned weed, it suffereth the Rose of Sharon to wither."
C.H. Spurgeon

Are you rapture ready?

This woman was...


Currently up to my neck in Pharisees, Sadducees, and the good old Essenes...

That's the reward you get for choosing to do a module on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Don't get me wrong, it is actually interesting to compare, for example, what Josephus, Philo, and the New Testament say about these three groups, and then try to establish what evidence there is for the group at Qumran to have been of Sadducaic/Pharisaic/Essene origin. In fact, this gentle stroll into the life and times of the Qumran guys and girls is strangely relaxing.

Sure, getting buried in this sect's teaching and interpretation of various OT passages has the potential to undermine the NT's view on how the OT should be interpreted, but at the same time it makes a change from the normal teaching that can go so directly against what the Bible teaches (still on my guard though!).

It feels a bit like a holiday actually.

Cross now; Crown later...

Ryle on 'The Fight'...

A general faith in the truth of God's written Word is the primary foundation of the Christian soldier's character. He is what he is, does what he does, thinks as he thinks, acts as he acts, hopes as he hopes, behaves as he behaves, for one simple reason - he believes certain propositions revealed and laid down in Holy Scripturee. "He that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a Rewarder of them that diligently seek Him." (Heb 11.5)


Let us settle it in our minds that the Christian fight is a good fight - really good, truly good, emphatically good. We see only part of it yet. We see the struggles, but not the end; we see the campaign, but not the reward; we see the cross, but not the crown. We see a few humble, broken-spirited, penitent, praying people, enduring hardships and despised by the world; but we see not the hand of God over them, the face of God smiling on them, the kingdom of glory prepared for them. These things are yet to be revealed. Let us not judge by appearances. There are more good things about the Christian warfare than we see.


Let us remember that if we would fight successfully we must put on the whole armour of God, and never lay it aside till we die. Not a single piece of the armour can be dispensed with. The girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the sword of the Spirit, the helmet of hope - each and all are needful. Not a single day can we dispense with any part of this armour. "In heaven we shall appear, not in armour, but in robes of glory. But here our arms are to be worn night and day. We must walk, work, sleep in them, or else we are not true soldiers of Christ." (Gurnall's Christian Armour.)

No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.
(2 Tim 2.4)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!

We celebrated the Lord's Supper tonight at church, remembering the Lord Jesus' saving death that brings us life, the blood of the Lamb that makes us white. We looked at the picture John's Revelation gives us of what it will be like when we're gathered around the Lord in the new creation. It is mighty that it is our God who holds salvation - for it is He who sits on the throne!

9After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" 11And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."

13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" 14I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15"Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Rev 7. 9-17

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Burst Bubbles

The sheer joy of taking the lead twice, followed by the agony of Liverpool's last-minute equaliser, then defeat at the hands of a penalty shoot-out. 2006's FA Cup Final was a wonder to watch, and no doubt a great advertisement for English football, but the emptiness of finishing the game with nothing is no war badge. West Ham's form this season has been a delight, and it's great to see them collect some of the credit they deserve after their rise from 6th in the Championship to 9th in the Premiership.

I've often pondered football - people's lives, money, emotions ride on the efforts and successes of eleven players. It is a funny old game, for it is 'only a game', something we can't control, affect, input, and yet it controls us, affects us, whipping us up into frenzy's and carrying us down into aching pits... bring on the World Cup!

Ryle on Holiness

Our purest works are no better than filthy rags, when tried by the light of God's holy law. The white robe which Jesus offers, and faith puts on, must be our only righteousness - the name of Christ our only confidence - the Lamb's book of life our only title in heaven.


Jesus is a complete Saviour. He does not merely take away the guilt of a believer's sin, He does more - He breaks its power. (1 Peter 1.2; Rom 8.29; Eph 1.4; Heb 7.10).

"Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, flee to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace."

If we say with Paul "O wretched man that I am," let us also be able to say with him, "I press toward the mark." Let us not quote his example in one thing, while we do not follow him in another. (Rom 7.24; Phil 3.14).

J.C. Ryle, Holiness (chapter 3).

Friday, May 12, 2006

The gospel is...

Here's what happens when you google the gospel:

The gospel is...

- about God!
- easy to distort...
- the good news that God decided not to abandon...
- is the singularly most important communication of God to man.
- carried from the altar...
- that God has provided a way of salvation...
- available for purchase at bookstores Tuesday, March 28th.
- the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for Jew, then for Gentile.
- greater than just the redemption of fallen human nature.
- the message of hope for absolutely everybody.
- the good news of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ...

The Jolly Blogger has some further thought on it.

Learning the lesson of the Fig Tree...

Our weekly bash into Mark took us last night into chapter 13 with that mash of information about the destruction of the temple and the end of the world... the tricky bit was trying to work out which bit was which.

We figured there may be parts of the chapter describing events that occur both pre-end-of-temple, and pre-end-of-world, for instance 3-8 (there are plenty of wars, famines, and earthquakes... 'this must take place, but the end is not yet'), and 9-13 too (the call to preach the gospel 'to all nations', which hasn't yet been completed, and the promise that 'the one who endures to the end will be saved').

14-23 seems to focus in on the destruction of the temple, with the 'abomination that causes desolation' being the sign it was soon to happen. The claims of v. 19 are big: 'for in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be', initially causing me to infer it's the end of the world on the agenda. But hang on, the destruction of the temple was, in short, a localized picture of God's judgement on old Israel... pretty massive.

The description of the coming of the Son of Man (24-27), already referred to in 8.38, seems to bring about the end of this old world, with the Son of Man gathering his elect and the natural lights coming to a halt.

And the lesson of the Fig Tree? When the leaves come out, summer is near. Thus, when the temple is destroyed, Jesus' return is also near, 'at the very gates' (v. 29). What Jesus says to his disciples, he 'says to all: Stay awake' (v.37). The command to be alert is all over the chapter (5, 9, 23, 35-37).

Is Jesus' (and Mark's) point that we have no grounds to assume that Jesus' return won't be tonight, tomorrow, this week, etc. It seems as followers of Jesus we're called to be a watching people, potentially tried & beaten 'for my sake' (v. 9, 13), preaching to all nations, and not getting so caught up that we lose an eternal perspective... would our lives look significantly different if we knew He was returning tomorrow? (...I think that's a rhetorical question).

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Another gift of the Spirit?

Was engaging in a bit of banter with a fellow theologian revising for her finals when she spouted this nugget...

"It's amazing how the Holy Spirit is so at work that I can't remember half the heresy I hear in lectures!"

Putting It All Together...

This morning I had my final New Testament Theology lecture of the academic year. We've spent last term looking at Paul's 'theology', and today JB focused on bringing it all together: Is there a centre to Paul's theology? What role does the interpreter play in deciding what Paul is going to say? Is a 'web' a better metaphor than 'hubs and spokes'?

Honestly, I found it hard enought trying to remember which of Paul's books we were 'supposed' to count as Paul's, and which were apparently questionable...

Of course it is worth spending time remembering that Paul was writing letters, and all letters are situational. At the same time though, whilst Paul may not be being systematic, that does not mean he isn't coherent. In effect he does his theology in dealing with specific churches.

One thing that didn't crop up, yet has to be a key issue for the Christian theologian, is the fact that Paul's letters fit into one big message, one phat story. There must be a fine art to balancing between giving each book of the Bible it's own space to breath - so that we do listen to the message of that author at that time - yet interpreting it in light of what the rest of Scripture tells us.

I suppose one good thing I have realised studying this course is that so much of our Christian thinking, of our 'theology', so much of our way of seeing the world, has its roots in Paul's personal words to a handful of churches and characters who all lived 2000 years ago.
Thank God for Paul, and thank God that his Spirit breathed out through him!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

'He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings...'

Met with a group of brothers and sisters last night for our second excavation into Daniel, this time Daniel 2 (with the help of 7.1-14 and 8.3-8, 20-21). Incredible! From a bit of net-trawling I figure there's a bit of debate as to what the fourth kingdom is, but if we can safely say Babylon is #1 (2.28), Medo-Persia is #2 (8.20), and Greece is #3 (8.21), then historically it makes sense if Rome comes next, thus is #4. How amazing that the stone that forms the everlasting kingdom (2.35, 44), which chapter 7 implies is the Son of Man (7.13-14), strikes during the fourth kingdom.

The look on one of my sisters face when she figured '...hang on... Jesus arrived on the scene during the Roman kingdom... no way...!' was quite something. Immense!

Daniel's attitude to God's revelation is a bit of a nudge... how often do I not bless the God of heaven for the revelation given in his Word...

His Kingdom Come!

'A tone, and taste, and character, and habit of life unlike that of other men...'

" "Every tree is known by his own fruit." (Luke 6. 44) A truly sanctified person may be so clothed with humility, that he can see in himself nothing but infirmity and defects. Like Moses, when he came down from the Mount, he may not be conscious that his face shines. Like the righteoues, in the mighty parable of the sheep and the goats, he may not see that he has done anything worthy of his Master's notice and commendation: "When he saw we Thee an hungered, and fed Thee?" (Matt 25.37) But whether he sees it himself or not, others will always see in him a tone, and taste, and character, and habit of life unlike that of other men. The very idea of a man being "sanctified," while no holiness can be seen in his life, is flat nonsense and a misuse of words. Light may be very dim; but if there is only a spark in a dark room it will be seen. Life may be very feeble; but if the pulse only beats a little, it will be felt. It is just the same with a sanctified person: their sanctification will be something felt and seen, though he himself may not understand it. A 'saint' in whom nothing can be seen but worldliness and sin, is a kind of monster not recognised in the Bible!"

J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Evangelical Press, 1976), p. 19.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

'...if we can eat prawns, why is gay sex wrong?'

A really coherent short study on how the Old Testament law is fulfilled in Christ, and therefore how Christians should live today, is 'What God has made clean... if we can eat prawns, why is gay sex wrong?' by John Richardson.

The purpose of the booklet is to really get to grips with how we interpret OT law in light of Christ, and specifically as regards the issue of homosexual sex. The booklet is well worth getting hold of, and if you're someone who's asking the 'how come Christians are told to uphold the law, yet seem to think its ok to wear polyester-cotton clothers (Lev 19.19)?' kind of question, then it's ideal.

Richardson has shortened much of his work down to some bare points in an online article here.

'They become identified with that instrument of shame and death which they have found to be life-giving...'

I've just been reading through an edition of 'barnabas aid', the magazine of barnabas fund, an organization focused on 'hope and aid for the persecuted Church'. A friend was handing out backdated editions that had been gathering dust on his bookshelf in the hope of raising awareness as to what some of our brothers and sisters are going through around the world.

As I turn the pages there is story after story from across the globe about followers of the Lord Jesus under immense pressure in situations where life is incredibly difficult, whether that be because of violent persecution, famine, or the the plight of the 'invisible Christians' in Iraq who are ignored and neglected by all authority in their country.

Yesterday evening a friend and I were reading Colossians 1. One of the most striking things, as Paul prays for the Christians in Colossae, is his request that they may be 'strengthened with all power, according to [God's] glorious might...'. Why is this so striking? Because of the manner in which Paul sees this power taking shape: '...for all endurance and patience with joy...' (Col 1.11).

This may sound like a dull and drab characteristic of the Christian life, but for Paul it is of immense importance, and I have no doubt that our brothers and sisters featured in the eye-opening articles I read this morning would affirm the priority 'endurance and patience' must hold. Indeed it is nothing less than a gift from God. In my comparatively 'comfy' Western context, do I see the need, do I have the same desperate necessity, for endurance and patience? If not, am I viewing 'walking in Him' in a distorted manner?

Monday, May 08, 2006

'Fitting a plug to the lead of a lamp without being able to turn the current off first...'

In revising for my Theology & Ethics exam, I have just read an article on 'Homosexual Relationships and the Bible' by David Field. A few things that stood out:

- Definitions of God based on words (e.g. 'love') in the Bible should be based on the biblical definition of that word.
- Those accepting the Bible's veto on homosexual behaviour must go out of their way to express genuine love for homosexual orientated people.
- Temptation does not equal sin.

Field's work on the biblical texts was actually quite inspiring. Notes from Andrew Goddard's talks, 'Did God Really Say?', at the True Freedom Trust 2005 conference assess the various 'challenges' to traditional thinking as well as the revisionist approaches, and they're worth reading.