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Podcast: How to handle ethical hot potatos

Posted on by Glen in ethics, evangelism, podcast | 3 Comments

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How do we discuss ethical issues without descending into moralism or banging tribal drums? How can we speak of the good news when we talk about the good life?

Andy and I discuss this in reference to recent debates over abortion and euthanasia. Is there a way of holding out Christ in the midst of the culture wars?

In our episode we discuss:

My conversation with a Dawkins defender

Giles Fraser’s excellent article on euthanasia, and

Emma’s blog post: In defense of Dawkins


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Protecting the Unborn Because Christmas Begins Today

Posted on by Glen in Christmas, ethics | 4 Comments

waterhouse_the_annunciationIt’s the feast of the Annunciation. Today we remember Gabriel’s announcement to Mary:

“You will conceive and give birth to a son” (Luke 1:31).

To be honest, the date’s probably out by 3 months. It’s more likely that Christ was conceived on a date around December 25th and born at the feast of tabernacles in September (cf John 1:14), but let’s go with the church calendar… March 25th is 9 months before “Christmas” and so today we remember the conception of Christ.

Now, think about it. The beginning of Christ’s life as man (and for man) was conception. That’s a vital christological truth. If you can’t affirm it, you will fall into all sorts of errors. You see, there isn’t an independent humanity to Christ. It’s not as though there might have been a Jesus of Nazareth who wasn’t chosen to be the vehicle for the Son’s incarnation. The Word did not look upon a pre-existing bunch of cells and say “That’ll do, I’ll jump in.”

No, “the Word became flesh” – He didn’t adopt some flesh that looked promising. And the point at which He became flesh must be conception. You can’t have the Word slipping into a pre-existing flesh without altering the gospel. All orthodox Christology demands it and Luke, the doctor, confirms. At conception God the Son became a man. To deny this is to embrace all sorts of heresies condemned down through the years (adoptionism or apollinarianism for instance). 

With all that said, the feast of the annunciation ought to be the day we value the unborn more than any other. Yet today we are reeling from the revelation that thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals.

The world recognises that this is wrong. When confronted, the Department of Health immediately put a ban on the practice. But then why is it wrong to dispose of these remains as “clinical waste”? In cases where parents have chosen to rid themselves of their little ones, “clinical waste” is exactly how such lives have been treated. Yet over the last 24 hours there has been an outcry about such practices. Well, rightly so. But let’s think about why it’s wrong.

Surely it’s wrong because we recognise the humanity of the unborn. They are not remains to be incinerated – or, worse, fuel for our central heating! They deserve respect in death. But if they deserve respect in death, then surely – please! – they deserve protection in life? Our hearts cry for it and Christmas demands it.

 

If there is no God…

Posted on by glenscriv in apologetics, atheism, Dawkins, ethics, evangelism | 4 Comments

Last year I was in a kind of debate with Andrew Copson – Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA). His final line of the evening was a plea for us all to “be good for goodness sakes.”

The line sounds twee but there’s a genuine point that deserves our attention: Goodness for the sake of ‘spiritual reward’ is neither necessary, nor desirable. In fact it’s pretty ugly. If a religious person is motivated towards goodness simply by celestial carrots and sticks (which some are) then you can understand a humanist’s protest. I hear the criticism loud and clear, and I wrote these four posts called “Why be good?” as a response.  Only the gospel saves us from immorality and moralism.

But if you’re unaware of the gospel, then your view of religion will probably sound that of like BHA President Jim Al-Khalili:

I have often felt offended by the misguided notion that people require a religious faith to provide their moral compass in order to lead a good life. Reason, decency, tolerance, empathy and hope are human traits that we should aspire to, not because we seek reward of eternal life or because we fear the punishment of a supernatural being, but because they define our humanity.

We might want to be curious about why such traits define our humanity, and who gets to say, and why the ones mentioned by Al-Khalili are so darned anaemic, and why he didn’t also identify deep-seated characteristics like greed, hypocrisy and violence. We might want to point out that Christian faith brings far more to the table than ‘a moral compass’. Actually it’s a vision for the whole terrain and an accounting for why and where we fit into a moral order that is very old and runs very deep.

But we’re not going to mention those things. We’re just going to point out the terrible danger of moralism here.

Suppose that I’m a humanist who has unplugged the celestial CCTV and now I’m free to be good for goodness sakes. What will that look like? Well I’m still going to get outraged by ‘inhuman’ behaviour – good. But now God isn’t the ultimate court of appeal and dispenser of perfect justice. No, the ‘moral-outrage buck’ stops with me. Since God has been deposed, I’m going to have to mount the highest horse.

And, as far as godless high-horseing goes, get a load of this: [Read from the bottom upwards. RD was responding to this]

DawkinsOutraged

Dawkins has never let ignorance of a topic prevent him from weighing in with the full weight of his moral indignation. But feel the indignation.

When one tweeter asked him whence his moral compass (given Darwinism and all), he responded:

Idiot that I am, I’m mining the quote – but I think it unearths a deep problem for those who let go of “God” but want to be “Good.” The problem is not in acting morally- of course not. The problem comes in adjudicating the morals and in acting The Moral One.  Wonderfully for the Christian, the Father adjudicates and the Son is the Moral One, but what’s the situation for the humanist?

They are above the non-existent ‘God’, they are above the religious who (they claim) are only good for dubious reasons, and they are above nature (‘red in tooth and claw’) and their own selfish genes. They have risen above everything else in all reality… in order to be good.

How does a humanist not avoid hubris at this point? How do they not avoid moralism?

Dostoyevsky famously said “If there is no God, everything is permissible.”  But nihilism isn’t the only danger. Dawkoyevsky’s dilemma is this: “If there is no God, everything is puritanical.”

Obedience: Not a dirty word

Posted on by glenscriv in ethics, gospel, grace, pastoral theology | 11 Comments

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.

Why be good? Part four

Posted on by glenscriv in ethics, gospel, pastoral theology | 13 Comments

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!

Some final thoughts…

Why be good? Part three

Posted on by glenscriv in ethics, gospel, pastoral theology | 3 Comments

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…

Why be good? Part two

Posted on by glenscriv in ethics, gospel, pastoral theology | 12 Comments

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…

Why be good? Part one

Posted on by glenscriv in ethics, gospel, pastoral theology | 12 Comments

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…

Sexual immorality

Posted on by Glen in ethics, sex | Leave a comment

William and Kate have cohabited for substantial periods of time prior to marriage.  Let’s call the level of evangelical outrage at this “X”.

I will admit that for me “X” has been really very low.  And I’d say that, institutionally, the public levels of “X” have also been low.

Now imagine the level of evangelical outrage if Harry started dating Gary.  Let’s call that level “Y”.

I don’t have to wonder whether the public levels of “Y” would be greater than the public levels of “X” – we all know they would be.

But I wonder whether, for you personally, “Y” would be greater than “X” (in spite of all that we say about all sex outside marriage as wrong).

Let’s represent the difference between “X” and “Y” by the term “Z” (so that Y-X = Z)

I wonder what proportion of “Z” ought to be labelled “homophobia”?

Is it good because God says it is or…

Posted on by Glen in ethics, trinity | 12 Comments

In the interests of keeping damned dirty philosophy out of The King’s English… here’s a little diversion on the topic of “Behold it was very good“…

There’s a very ancient question in philosophy: Is a thing good because god says it is, or does god say it’s good because it is good?

We probably want the answer to be the latter.

Instinctively we don’t trust god (or the gods) and we don’t want to cede to divinity the right to judge.  We’d rather be the arbiters and we’d rather there be a standard of good outside of god to which god just has to shrug his shoulders and say “Gotta admit, that’s good.”

Now within the terms of this thought experiment, that’s interesting isn’t it?  We’d probably rather trust an impersonal standard than a personal god.  There’s a window onto our hearts.

But the reason the philosopher likes posing this question is because at this point she has you!  “Aha!” comes the gleeful riposte, “now you have something outside of god – something to which god is subject.  Gotcha!”

While this is a problem for the god of philosophy, it’s not a problem for the God of the bible.  For all eternity there has been something alongside the Father – and not just one thing, because if that were the case then all of reality would fall into ‘Father’ and ‘not-Father’.  If there were only two eternal Persons, the only sense of distinction that could exist would be between self and not-self.  Otherness would be tantamount to negation, or at leasty threat.

But no, in the living God there is true distinction and particularity because besides the Father there has always been His Son and His Spirit.  There not only can be things ‘outside’ the Father which move Him – He always has been most moved by His Son and effusive in the praise He showers upon Him.  This praise is intimately linked to the Spirit in Scripture (for instance, Isaiah 42:1).

Now Jesus both is good and is called good by the Father.  And neither truth is more foundational than the other – for the goodness of the Son and the loving praise of the Father are (here’s a word for you!) equiprimordial – that is, equally old.  Equally ultimate.

When the Father creates a world through and for His Son, the very dynamic for creation is that eternal praise.  The world exists to be drawn into and under the Son – to share in this life of goodness and appreciation.

So the Father’s approval of the world is not simply a divine imposition.  He is moved to make this acclamation – and moved by something ‘out there’.  But the ‘out there-ness’ is not a brute fact.  The world is not good in and of itself.  There is none good but God alone!  The world is good as an expression of the Father’s love for Christ, as a proclamation of Christ the Craftsman’s glory, as an inheritance for the Beloved Son.

God loves the world for the sake of His Son.  And its goodness – in fact all goodness – is always related to its orientation towards Christ.

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