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Thingamy-Jiggery-Pokery

Posted on by Glen in faith, grace, pastoral theology, prayer, preaching | 18 Comments

the-thing-movie-poster

We’re always making a thing out of things that aren’t things. There’s a technical term for this but I’m just going to call it thingification. The name’s not important. What is important is that it’s ruining your Christian life. Let me show you how with reference to 6 things that are commonly thingified.

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Grace is not a thing.

“Grace, Grace, Grace” we sing. And I think “She sounds awesome, I wish I could meet her.” But I can’t meet her because there’s no such person. There’s only Jesus who is given to me by the Father apart from any desert of my own. That’s grace. But grace is not a thing. Grace is the gift of a Person and if I want to know more grace I need to train my eyes on Jesus. Then I’ll see how freely He’s given. At that point I have an experience of grace, but my experience won’t be of a thing but of a Him. (For more see here).

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Faith is not a thing.

“We’ve got to have more faith” we cry. And so we check the little perspex window on our heart to see if the faith pilot-light is flickering strong. Oops, looks like it’s going out. Quick, turn the faith tap to maximum. But  how? What is faith? Again, it’s not a thing. Faith is to recognise and receive Jesus (John 1:12-13). He has been graciously given, therefore we trustingly receive Him. But faith is not something we dredge up out of our inner spiritual life. If you want “more faith”, don’t look for faith – look to Jesus. That’s how faith comes. (For more see here).

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Prayer is not a thing.

“I need to work on my prayer life” we say. And we mean it. But so often what we mean is “I need to improve at this spiritual discipline because my lack of proficiency reflects badly on my stature as a Christian.” Or maybe we want to improve because we want to “improve our relationship with God.” In some ways this motivation is even worse because it pictures “my prayer life” as the thing that connects me to God, rather than Christ. Then it becomes very important to focus on “my prayer life” but as something quite separate from focusing on Christ our Mediator. So we force ourselves to go to the prayer meeting and hear someone pray: “Please may God bless this work…” And we think, “Huh? I thought we were praying to God? Are we? Or are we performing a thing called prayer in front of one another?” Perhaps the pray-er does manage to address God but then mixes up the Persons. At that point you have to ask: Has prayer become a thing that we do. Should it not be an enjoyment of our adoption before the Father through union with the Son in the joy of the Spirit? But so often, don’t we find that prayer becomes a thing we must get right. And a thing that stands between ourselves and communion with God? (For more see here).

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Bible Reading is not a thing.

“I must read my Bible” we vow, “every day, come rain, hail or shine.” Well alright but why? Another spiritual discipline to master? A duty to tick off the list? If we manage it, is there not a sense of “Phew, job done!” But what if “Bible Reading” isn’t a thing in the Christian life. What if Bible Reading is simply how the Father speaks His word to us in Christ and by the Spirit. What if Bible Reading is not a thing we need to get right but a word in our ear from our gracious God? (For more see here).

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The Sermon is not a thing.

“What did you make of The Sermon” we ask each other after the service. Suddenly The Sermon is a thing – a thing in between the preacher and the congregation. It’s a production that we then pass comment on. And from the preacher’s point of view the same thingification can happen: “we prepare and deliver a sermon” rather than “herald God’s word to a congregation.” Unfortunately this thing arises in between preacher and people – a thing that will be dissected and focused upon by both sides. But really there is no such thing. There’s only God’s word coming down through the preacher’s lips. There’s only a congregation hearing the voice of the living Christ. The Sermon is an artifice. It is not a proper object of our attention – only the Christ which it proclaims. (For more see here).

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Discipleship is not a thing. (Updated)

“The church has woefully neglected discipleship” they lament. We all give a hearty ‘Amen’ then we look in our Bibles for the word “discipleship” and, shock horror, it’s not there. The word “disciple” is certainly there, but discipleship? No, the Bible is not interested in disciple-craft. Jesus does not want us to be good at the art of following Him. He just wants us to follow Him. Yet, might it be that discipleship is one more concept that takes us away from Jesus Himself and makes us dwell on a thing in abstraction from Christ? It’s worth considering. (For more see here).

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What do you think? And are there other aspects of the Christian life we thingify?

Grace aint a carrot; Sanctification aint a stick

Posted on by Glen in theological debate | 22 Comments

 

I’ve got a sinking feeling about this.

People sometimes ask me where I stand with Tullian. My genuine first reaction is that I really like him. And every now and again his preaching lands with me. He speaks of Christ’s finished work with relentless passion and I admire that.

At times though his preaching (and writing) leaves me a bit more disappointed than I’d expect to feel with a guy so keen to preach the gospel. Partly it’s that thing of obsessing over “grace” like she’s the fourth member of the Trinity. Partly also it’s because “grace” can all too often be used as an inspirational carrot. The Liberate guys are keen to secure “grace alone” against all potential legalisms. That’s a laudable aim. But sometimes it seems like the point of these battles is to ensure that my Christian motivation is one of pure grace/gratitude. So often I wanna say “Pah, motivation schmotivation. Trust Jesus, love people. And yeah I phrased that as an imperative. So sue me.”

If we start policing all our motivations and evacuating our speech of improper imperatives we might just find that we’re the grace Pharisees. Let me say, we definitely need to ensure that Christ is offered apart from law and apart from any deservingness of our own. In other words, there is a right distinction between law and gospel and I’m grateful to Tullian and the Liberate guys for highlighting it. But in the rough and tumble of the Christian life, imperatives and indicatives, duty and joy are going to get jumbled up. That’s just the way it is in Scripture and in life. When we insist on certain motivations and configurations of commands and promises an irony comes into play: we can get unhelpfully scrupulous in the name of free grace. 

But that’s no reason to censor the guy. I’m really grateful for Tullian and at times he’s preached into my life in powerful ways.

The fact that he points out legalism around him does not, in my opinion, make him a divisive figure. There is legalism around him. And while “grace” and “the gospel” can wear thin as terms on his lips – “sanctification” and “obedience” can wear just as thin on the other side.

If Tullian preaches that we ought to love God and neighbour (and he does, all the time), then we can take issue with some of the ways that he does it (see the crits above). But he does preach the good life of love – imperfectly but still genuinely. Therefore I’d say he preaches the only kind of “sanctification” we should concern ourselves with.

Honestly, if you want a “sanctification” that is not precisely and without remainder loving God and neighbour (because this is the good life of Christ freely given to you) then you are pursuing a proud and idolatrous spiritual status of your own. Such sanctification is not holy but utterly profane. The fact that people care so very much about “sanctification” when loving God and neighbour does not entirely satisfy this craving really worries me.

So whatever happens with Tullian and TGC, here’s what I wish for both sides. Let’s remember:

Grace is not a psychological motivation – it’s Christ’s life for us

Sanctification is not a religious status we seek – it’s Christ’s life in us

Grace is not mainly inspiration for the heart.

And grace is not mainly fuel for the will.

Grace is Jesus, freely given to us sinners. So let’s hear less about the bad-guy legalists/liberals/licentious over there, let’s hear less about the motivations of our hearts, let’s hear less about our striving for some kind of holiness quotient and let’s hear about Jesus.

The thing is, I do hear about Jesus from Tullian. I hear a lot about Jesus. And I’m grateful. Whatever happens I’ll gladly continue listening to his preaching. His is an important voice to hear. TGC would be much the weaker without him.

God is Giver

Posted on by Glen in pastoral theology | 3 Comments

fountainImagine it.  Imagine that the Father is eternally sending forth Himself in Word and Spirit.  Imagine that He is a spreading goodness.  Imagine that He is infinite plenitude rather than infinite need.  Imagine He is a Fountain of outgoing love.  What then?

Well, for one thing, let’s ask ourselves, how should we correspond to God the Giver?  Surely the most fundamental answer must be: by receiving.  Or to put it another way, the work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent. Or again, we might say that the righteous shall live by faith.  Life in relationship with the Giver is a life of receiving.

But notice therefore that the first thing to which I’m called is not worship but faith.  Of course I am called to worship, but it is the worship that is shaped by a prior commitment to receive the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  We love because He first loved us.

Why do I labour this point?

I labour it, because it seems to me that another point is laboured beyond proper proportions.  And that is the concept of idolatry.

I’m forever hearing that idolatry is the key to the Christian life.  I need to identify my idols and turn from them, returning to the true God.  The underlying assumption seems to be that false worship is the problem, true worship will be the solution.

There’s a lot of diagnostic gain to be had in following this insight.  My mind is a factory of idols.  And this does betray and perpetuate my disordered desires.  But we haven’t yet diagnosed the underlying problem if we’ve only seen it as a problem of worship.

First of all I am a receiver.  Therefore first of all I have failed to receive my life, my identity, my joy, my purpose from Christ.

Let’s put this in the language of Jeremiah 2:13:

My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Sometimes people articulate the problem of idolatry the way the LORD does – as a double-sin.  But often I hear idolatry defined merely as well-digging.  i.e. they diagnose my problem simply as offering myself to the wrong thing.  Yet before that sin there is a primary sin – forsaking the Fountain!  And, pastorally speaking, we miss out hugely if we put the focus on the broken wells.

If my problem is diagnosed as “giving myself to career in an idolatrous fashion” then you might convince me that this is foolish, even that it’s blasphemous.  But my heart is not yet ready to trust Christ as the Fountain of Living Waters.  Instead it will seem to me that God is a Taker who is even more demanding than my career.  You might tell me that this is perfectly proper since God is the Ultimate Boss, but my thirsty soul won’t buy it.

What’s more, you may be participating in the greatest of idolatries – you may be painting God as, ultimately, Taker rather than Giver.  And implicitly you may be pointing me to a false gospel.  For if the problem is “offering myself to a false god”, there’s a distinct danger that the implied solution will be “offering myself to the real God.”  But that is not the gospel.  The gospel is the real God offering Himself for me.  And my real sin is refusing His thirst-slaking Spirit.

But if we fight the double-sin of idolatry it will mean not only facing the worship-denial of well-digging.  Even more deeply, it will mean facing the thirst-denial of forsaking the Fountain.

I have deep longings which I crave. And that craving is not sinful (it might be, but it might not be). Actually my thirst-denial might be the really sinful thing. I might be trying to protect myself from how desperately I want life to work and how disappointed I am. If the Lord is a Fountain then denying my thirst might be an even bigger sin than digging a broken well, mightn’t it? But I might not get in touch with that if I keep getting told that my problem is my desires.

Those who think of themselves as more conservative, theologically, can get uncomfortable when you talk about thirst and the sin of thirst-denial. Perhaps it sounds like a capitulation to felt needs. But if the Lord is a Fountain then how we are receiving the Living Waters (or not) is even more important than how we’re replacing them.

Remember – the answer to Jeremiah 2 is not to start digging in the right place (as opposed to the wrong place). The answer is to face your thirst and stop digging!

The real way to fight idolatry is to return to the Source of Living Waters.  “Repentance” – “metanoia” – “change of mind” (all one word), is looking again to the outstretched arms of Jesus and seeing that God is Giver. This is what revolutionizes hearts and minds – drinking from the Fountain.

10 Misconceptions About Grace

Posted on by Glen in gospel, grace | 27 Comments

grace

A repost from 2011

‘Isn’t it wonderful that we’re now under grace?’ they enthuse.

‘Sure is,’ you say.

And then they explain what they mean by ‘grace’ and you wonder what it is they’ve really found themselves ‘under’.

Here are 10 common misconceptions.

1. Hallelujah, God has lowered the bar!  He used to care about loads of stuff.  Now it’s just a few things.  You know, important stuff.  We don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.  Just the big stuff.

2.  Hurrah!  Now we obey God out of gratitude for what He’s done, which is an entirely new concept.  Thank God we’re free from the law, which obviously was only ever about stoic duty and nothing to do with gratitude for past salvation (Exodus 20:2).  Now that we’ve got gratitude it means all legalism is a thing of the past.  So long as we’re grateful.  Properly grateful mind you.  Grateful enough to empower a whole heap of obedience.

3.  Phew – now we don’t have to get hung up about the laws of the land.  So don’t ask me to pay my parking ticket – Pharisee!

4. Isn’t it great – it’s not about duty-bound works, it’s all about love.  Of course the law had nothing to do with love.  Nasty law.  Now, as long as we stress love we’re avoiding all forms of legalism.  Speaking of which – what is your love-meter reading today?

5. Grace is about treading that tight-rope between legalism and licence.  It’s getting the balance just right between celebrating our freedom and not indulging it too much.  Cos, you know, we’re forgiven, but let’s not go crazy.  Let’s live in “grace” which is the safe middle-ground between moralism and immorality.

6. God used to be fierce and judgemental now He’s chilled and sweet.

7. God used to be about pragmatics, now He’s just into dogmatics.  He used to be interested in deeds, now He’s interested in creeds.

8.  Legalism is all about obeying the law in my own strength.  Grace is about obeying the law in God’s strength.  Grace is the fuel for my car.  It keeps me going towards the destination.  It’s a heck of a long drive but, Praise Jesus, there’s fuel in the tank.

9.  Discipleship used to be important but now it’s about grace.  Which means… you know.  Not really discipleship.  More… you know… grace.

10. It used to be about my works.  But now it’s about my faith.

No, non, niet, nein!

In the flesh it was about your work.  In the Spirit it’s about Christ’s work.  That’s the difference.  Not so much “works versus faith” as “you versus Christ”.  It’s His work outside of you.  His redemption.  His Person in Whom all the promises of God are yes and all the laws of God are fulfilled.   He defines the realm of grace.  Not abstract qualities like gratitude or lovingness or certain mental states – all of which might be worked up apart from Jesus.  Neither is it about God’s own disposition softening in His old age.  And neither is it about the absence of certain obligations, from the state or Scripture or conscience or Christ or wherever.

It’s about the kingdom of the Beloved Son in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and over to which we have been delivered apart from any merit of our own (Colossians 1:13-14).   It’s the position we find ourselves in – sealed by the Spirit into Christ, hidden in Him at the Father’s right hand – lavished with mercy and honour and kindness, our old man crucified and put away, His Spirit put within us.  A new realm, a new Master, a new Power, a new freedom, a new destiny and we’ve done nothing to deserve it.  And it’s all real and it all holds true not by my own workings or feelings but by the Almighty Father, who raised Jesus from the dead and raised me up with Him.

Grace is not like a new and improved religious programme that’s nicer, less draconian – less duty, more love and groovy vibes.  Grace is the blood, sweat and tears of Jesus expended on your behalf while you do nothing but cause His death.  It’s the mighty resurrection of Christ in which you are swept up to glory entirely apart from your own efforts and merits.  Grace is where you find yourself – in Christ – and you’re in Him not because but in spite of yourself.  Now compare with the 10 misconceptions above.

How do we get it so wrong?

Perhaps my favourite verse:

I was crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20)

I don’t know any better way of explaining biblical grace than the David and Goliath story – here’s an older post on it. Or just click the grace tag for more.

Which of those 10 misconceptions do you hear most commonly?  Any more to add?

 

Four Thoughts on Grace for Reformation Day

Posted on by Glen in gospel, grace, pastoral theology, works | 8 Comments

Luther PreachingI’ve written previously about The Trendy Trifecta – Trinity, Grace and Idolatry. We love to preach them but it’s so easy to speak of these topics anthropologically. We preach Trinity because it connects with our need for love. We preach grace because it gives us our motivation for the Christian life. We preach idolatry because it explains our psychological struggles with sin.  On reformation day, let me say a couple more things about that middle topic: grace. Here are four things it’s important to affirm as we speak of grace:

Grace is not a substance.

Quite often among those who want to spotlight God’s grace, it’s spoken of in impersonal terms, as a concept, even as a liquid that Christians should be drunk on. Grace, Grace, Grace, they say. And I think “She sounds great but I think I’ll stick with Father, Son and Spirit.”

Remember the medieval church was all about “grace” too. But, again, it was more like a liquid, dispensed through the sacraments with the priests controlling the taps. Certainly we Protestants have done away with such intermediaries, but the chief error is the thought of grace as a substance.  Properly, grace is the Father’s free gift of Jesus given by the Spirit. He’s the One we proclaim, not “grace” in the abstract.

Grace is not, primarily, a motivation 

Again the medieval church was full of “grace” as a motivator. Infused grace filled you up and helped you live the Christian life. Ironically, there are many who say we need a reformation today (Amen, may it come) but they seem to champion “grace” chiefly in terms of its motivational qualities. Apparently Jesus, freely given to me, is mostly important because of the gratitude fuelled ethics that flow from His gift. And then it becomes very important to discern the motivations of my heart – whether they’ve originated by command or promise.

Well… motivation is important but that’s not where the law/gospel distinction should be pressed. In the bible, God graciously saves me in Jesus and gives me the new life to live. So off I go – and yes, I work it out with blood, sweat and tears. And no, I don’t for a minute think that such “effort” is opposed to grace. Because grace is not distinguished from law in terms of what goes on in my heart! That distinction happens far above my pay grade. Or at least, it ought to. Which leads us to…

Command does need to be distinguished from promise

The grace preachers are correct when they say that law and gospel must be distinguished. There is far too much co-mingling, leading to what Mike Horton calls GoLawspel preaching. The good news of Jesus gets mashed up with principles for holy living and the Christian is left without a promise to rest their hope on – only a string of conditionals they must fulfil. Many people who complain about the grace-preachers counter it with calls for balance.  This, to my mind, is a great mistake (for more, read The Monstrous Evil of Balance: Or Why Nuance is Always, Always Wrong). Gospel and law are not to be balanced. Faith and works aren’t opposite ends of the spectrum that require a happy medium. We don’t need the pendulum to swing back from ‘too much grace’ so that we add in some holiness to compensate. We are grace alone people and works come – MUST come – on the far side of a radical insistence on the blood of Christ alone.

Passive and active righteousness need to be sharply distinguished

Having distinguished law and gospel, here’s the other vital distinction: Before God you can only receive righteousness in the gift of Christ Our Righteousness. Before the world, you are to pour yourself out for the family of God, for your neighbours, for the nations (this is the distinction between passive and active righteousness). We live by faith as regards God, by love as regards the world. Therefore calling the Christian to an active righteousness in their Christian walk is not anti-grace at all. Grace flows downhill into exactly that kind of life.

Therefore I don’t need to be forever agonising over the motivation of the saints if I want them to stop sinning in this way or that. Absolutely I should set everything in the context of the gospel and when we rebuke each other it should be because “they are not walking in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14). Yet Galatians 2 – itself a stunning proclamation of the gospel – speaks of opposing folks to their face because they are wrong. Paul commands Peter to stop and he’s not particularly bothered about unearthing the depths of Peter’s emotional commitments in the moment. Similarly, if I discover that my brother in Christ is cheating on his wife I will feel no qualms about taking drastic and forceful steps to try to end it. None of that is a betrayal of the true grace of God because telling folks to behave like Christians is totally what the grace of God produces. Of course you should be faithful to your wife – God has claimed you in Christ, you belong to Jesus, you are acting out of line with your true self, cut it out!

Commands are totally, totally awesome. It’s just, they don’t make you right with God. And you and I are quite prone to linking our active righteousness (with the world) to our passive righteousness (with God). So preachers should take care to distinguish the two. But having done that, commanding Christians to obey is not only permitted. It’s necessitated by the fact that – by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone – we belong to God. Therefore, be generous, give sacrificially, love your spouse, practise hospitality, forgive your enemies. You’re free now – free to live this life. So go do it.

But – someone might ask – won’t the gospel itself produce these characteristics in us by the Spirit? Yes and no. Yes, in that those behaviours are the fruit of the gospel and our teaching about them must be organically tied to the gospel. But no in that you and I are flesh as well as Spirit. Therefore, let’s allow the good law to shape (even to pummel) our fallen flesh, not because our identity with God depends on it (it doesn’t), but because our graciously secured identity entails it.

To summarize

Let’s love and proclaim the grace of God in Jesus. But let’s make sure it’s Jesus we’re spotlighting, not a substance or motivational spur. Let’s distinguish clearly between law and gospel, making sure to offer Jesus as the Gift He most clearly is. But let’s not shy away from commands in the Christian life. In Jesus, God graciously gives us a new life, entirely apart from our works or worthiness. This life is secure with God, but wonderfully it is to be lived before the world. Thus commands regarding our active righteousness do not negate the gospel but flow naturally from it.

The Context is Key. The Context is Mission

Posted on by Glen in grace, mission | Leave a comment

blues-brothers-mission-godA repost

In preaching through 1 Corinthians recently I listened to a lot of sermons on chapters 9 and 10.   Two themes in particular were hammered home by preachers.

In chapter 9 there’s the olympic training regimes (v24-27).  In chapter 10 there’s ‘glorifying God’ in all circumstances (v31).  But so often the context of these verses is ignored.

So in chapter 9 we read this:

24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

That’ll preach won’t it?  Go into strict training people!  There’s a medal held out.  Be an Olympian Christian.

And what did all these sermons mean by being an Olympian Christian?  Personal holiness.  Devotional disciplines.  You know the drill.

But what is the context?  Verses 19-23 – becoming all things to all men so that by all possible means we may save some.  It’s a missionary context.  Beating our bodies and going into strict training is a description of how we order our lives with evangelistic priorities.  This Olympian spirituality is an outwardly focussed determination to move out into the world for the salvation of others.  That’s quite a different sermon.

In chapter 10 we have that famous verse:

31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

What does this mean?  How would it look like lived out?  Well if you listen to these sermons it’s mainly about personal holiness.  Devotional disciplines.  You know the drill.

But again, what is the context?  It’s eating and drinking in the context of food sacrificed to idols.  The context is a world full of unChristian and anti-Christian cultures and practices which, nonetheless, the Christian is compelled to engage.  And so verse 33 says:

I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

It’s about adapting all things, even eating and drinking, to the end that Jews, Greeks and the church of God is built up (v32).  Effectively verse 33 explains verse 31.  Doing all for the glory of God means doing all for the good of many, so that they may be saved.  This makes sense of the ‘glory of God’ which is not a static quality but an outgoing salvific movement.

To have your life ordered by God’s glory is not simply to do your daily devotions – it’s to live in outgoing invitation for the salvation of others.  Verse 31 is not some abstract call to look pious at all times.  We know what 10:31 looks like – it looks like Paul’s ministry.  It looks like 9:19-23.  It looks like the missionary determination to become all things to all men that some may be saved.

So please, keep the context in mind.  And remember, the context is mission.

All About Us

Posted on by Glen in gospel, grace, preaching, trinity | 9 Comments

its-all-about-meWhen we hear a preacher talk about “our Jesus-shaped hole” we’re sensitive to the dangers. It sounds instantly “me-centred” doesn’t it? If a preacher goes on about our felt needs and how Jesus meets them, Jesus seems only as big as the hole that’s in us. That can’t be right.

Yet, while we may be able to spot that error, another kind of me-centredness can beset the soundest of pulpits. Let me pick on perhaps the three most popular topics preached on in the churches I visit. These days the Trendy Trifecta is Trinity, grace and idols. Everything now is Trinity, grace and idols. Thinking back to last Sunday, I touched on all three, and if you’re a preacher I hope you covered at least two of those!

But here’s the danger, we are so self-obsessed, we can even make these truths all about us. We psychologize them and turn them into anthropology not theology.  So,

We’re interested in “Trinity” because it resonates with our need for love.

We love love, we think it’s lovely. So we love that God is love. And we preach the Trinity because it accords with our prior proclivities. We don’t preach Trinity as the nature of God, we preach it as wish-fulfillment.

We’re interested in “Grace” to the degree that it’s a motivator in our lives. 

It’s all about which regime produces the better Christian life – carrot or stick. Well, because we’re “grace” people, we say CARROT. Loudly! But what we mean is “we believe in a certain shape to the Christian life” – not “we believe in a certain shape to God’s life.” Again, we don’t preach grace as God’s very nature (quite apart from how we feel about it), we preach it as wish-fulfillment.

We’re interested in “Idols” as a psychological explanation for our patterns of addiction.

Idols-speak provides us with a window onto our own desires and we need little encouragement to think about ourselves. Idols-speak can become like the online personality test to discover the real me: delicious! But in preaching there’s a real danger that we don’t consider idols theologically. I find it rare for a preacher to define idols (as Scripture does) as false conceptions of God. Instead we consider over-investment in the world and the flesh and how we can solve our idolatry problem by determining to worship the right thing. In all this, God Himself is quite dormant, waiting for us to switch our allegiances. We are centre-stage. (More on idolising idols here).

It might sound “God-centred” to talk about Trinity and grace and idols, but so easily we make it all about us.

 

Change is not outside-in or inside-out. It’s outside-up.

Posted on by Glen in gospel, grace, sanctification | Leave a comment

not-feeling-it

A REPOST

To change internally through external acts can be flesh.

But to change externally through internal devotions can be just as flesh-ly.

Conversely, the external application of word and sacrament can have a wonderful effect internally.

And an internal resolve to look away to Christ can brilliantly impact your externals.

Neither outside-in nor inside-out is the right method for change.  The division the bible makes is between flesh and Spirit.

The real issue is whether the Spirit is leading us to Jesus and His finished work. It’s the Spirit who takes us outside to Christ who offers up our true standing before the Father.

I talk about this here in a recent sermon on Romans 8 (audio here).

13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live,

What does it mean to put to death the misdeeds of the body by the Spirit.  Not by the law, not by the flesh, not by will power or human effort.  What does change look like that is by the Spirit?

Well, imagine you lie.  You lie to protect your reputation, you tell everyone you’ve done something that you haven’t done to sound like a big shot.  And afterwards you feel bad about lying.  And you want to stop lying like that because it’s getting to be a habit.

Now at that point – what is Christian about that resolve?  Non-Christians resolve to tell the truth too.  There’s nothing Christian about trying to be a better person.  There’s nothing Christian about putting sins to death.  It’s the WAY you put them to death that’s the real difference.

See, you could put it to death through the law.  You could say “The law says Thou shalt not lie.  I’ve broken the law.  I’ll punish myself and put myself under condemnation until I feel I’ve done my penance and then I’ll try really, really hard to be honest next time.”

Two problems with the law approach.  First, it doesn’t work.  Second, I’ve just resolved to be my own Saviour.  I don’t need Jesus for this.  I don’t need the cross, I don’t need the Spirit.  I’m just trying to be more moral.  There’s nothing Christian about resolving to tell the truth.

But Paul tells me to put lying to death BY THE SPIRIT.

What’s that?  Well to figure out that, we need to figure out what the Spirit is up to in the world.  And verse 14 will tell us what we need to know.  Here’s what the Spirit is up to:

14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Verse 15 calls the Spirit “the Spirit of Sonship.”  So the Spirit of the Son makes US sons and daughters of God.  The Spirit sweeps us up into Jesus so that we share Jesus’ relationship with God.  And what is Jesus’ relationship with God.  He is the Son, who calls out to God, “Abba, Father.”  And now, BY THE SPIRIT, so do we!

Abba is a word for Daddy in many middle eastern languages.  It’s intimate, it’s affectionate.  It’s also deeply respectful.  But here’s the question: Who on earth gets to call Almighty God, Abba?  Calling the Queen “Liz” is bad enough.  But at least calling her Liz doesn’t presume anything about your relationship to the Queen.  To call God “Daddy” you’re not only being incredibly intimate with God, you’re also making a claim on Him.  You’re saying “God, You are my Father and I am Your child.”  And children have certain rights.  In verse 17, Paul will tell us one of those rights – we have inheritance rights – as children of God we are heirs of the cosmos.

So that’s what the Spirit is up to – He’s communicating Christ to me, He’s testifying to me that I am in Jesus and in Him God is my Father, He’s communicating all that that means…

Now come back to verse 13 and ask “What does it mean to put to death the misdeeds of this Adamic body BY THE SPIRIT?”

Here’s what it means.  It means I open up my bible, I read the Spirit’s words and I allow Him to tell me:  “Glen, don’t you realize you HAVE the righteousness of Christ?!  You ARE God’s beloved child, unimprovably so.  So Glen, when you lied, who were you trying to impress?  Why lie?  You are dead to lying now, not because there’s an anti-lying law.  You’re dead to lying because, What need is there to lie?

The Spirit is constantly telling me, “I am a trillionaire walking around the millionaires club.”  And my lying exaggeration is like flashing around a counterfeit £50 note, trying to impress people.  That doesn’t impress people in the millionaires club.  And it completely forgets that I have a trillion pounds to my name?  What am I doing?

So put lying to death BY THE SPIRIT.

It works for all sins.

Put porn to death BY THE SPIRIT.  Why go after that counterfeit intimacy, when Jesus brings us into His eternal fellowship with the Father?

Put covetousness to death BY THE SPIRIT.  Do you really need the latest outfit or the latest gadget, when you’re about to inherit the universe?

Put anger and harsh words to death BY THE SPIRIT.  Don’t you realize you’re loved and appreciated and declared righteous in the heavenly realms?  Do you really need to assert your rights here and now?

Whatever the misdeeds of your Adam nature, put them to death BY THE SPIRIT.

To change by the Spirit means to have my gaze drawn to Christ who is my righteousness.  It means the Spirit re-reminding me that Christ is my standing before the Father.  All my sins spring from trying to live independently of Jesus and establishing my own standing in the world.  So look out to Christ who offers up the real you.  That’s how Christian change occurs.

Ten Thoughts On Salvation

Posted on by Glen in faith, gospel, grace, salvation | 5 Comments

salvation1) We are saved by God. (Jonah 2:9)

God does it all. He does not simply ‘blaze a trail’ or ‘clear a path’ or ‘make it possible’ to be saved. He saves. It’s His work entirely.

2) We are saved from God. (Romans 3:25)

Our problem is not merely our disobedience, our problem is God’s anger at our disobedience. We’re not just saved from sin but from wrath. If our problem was “our sin” then “our righteousness” would be the (implied) solution. But no, the problem is out of our hands – just as the solution is.

3) We are saved for God. (Ephesians 2:18) 

Who cares if we simply receive a “not guilty verdict”? The good news is not that we escape hell. It’s that we are reconciled to the Father, in the Son and by the Spirit.

4) Salvation is about our being. (2 Peter 1:4)

Our problem is not simply our behaviour but our being in Adam. God’s solution is not simply “a clean slate” but a whole new nature in Christ. Atonement is not simply about scapegoats and blood sacrifices (though they are crucial). It’s about our High Priest carrying His people into God’s presence.

5) Jesus is God’s salvation and perfectly reveals His saving will. (John 3:14-17)

Jesus means “The LORD is salvation.” If we want to know God’s will for salvation there is nowhere else to look. God is the God of Jesus – the God of the gospel.

6) God’s love for Christ is primary. (John 3:35-36)

It’s easy to get lost in debates about “God’s love for the church” versus “God’s love for the world.” We might ask ourselves whether / how these loves might differ from each other. But we ought to begin further upstream. God loves His Son and He gives His Son to the world. Where Christ is received, that is the church. But the point is not so much about the church or the world (or the church versus the world). It’s about Jesus.

7) Every blessing is in Jesus. (Ephesians 1:3-14)

As we’ve just noted, God saves by committing everything into the hands of Jesus and then offering Jesus to the world (John 3:35-36). All of salvation happens in Christ (i.e. forgiveness, new life, adoption, election, justification, etc, etc). God doesn’t do any of these things to us outside of Christ – He works them all in His Son and offers them only in Him.

8) Judgement and Salvation are not parallel tracks. (1 Peter 4:17)

It’s not really a matter of either curses or blessings. The world goes through ‘paradise lost’ to a new Jerusalem. Israel goes through exile and then returns. Christ goes through the cross to the resurrection.  We’re baptised into His death and, through our co-crucifixion with Christ, we enter into salvation.

9) Saving faith is not a thing. (John 1:10-13)

Some think of faith as a thing and then argue about whether it belongs to man or to God. But faith is not a thing. Christ is the one saving thing, given to the world. Where He is received – that is called faith. But faith isn’t the saving thing, Christ is.

10) The gospel is the power of salvation. (Romans 1:15-16)

The power of salvation – the Almighty Spirit of Christ – works in and through the word. We must not divorce word and Spirit. We must not imagine that the preaching of the gospel is one thing and saving power is something else – sometimes active, sometimes not. That would be to locate the power of salvation outside the gospel. But no, the gospel is God’s power to save. Most discussions about salvation would be improved if we had a stronger theology of the word.

Unforgiveness and Blasphemy

Posted on by Glen in forgiveness, gospel, grace, pastoral theology | Leave a comment

Slave-shackles-Does-the-Bible-condone-slavery“Forgive each other just as God, in Christ, forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32

That’s the flow – grace comes down to us for our sins and then it’s meant to flow out to others for their sins.

If that’s the pattern, what does it mean when we find another’s sin “unforgiveable”? Well at that point we’re accusing them of blasphemy. Why do I say that? Well that’s what God calls the unforgiveable sin – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In Mark 3:28-30 we learn that rejection of Christ as Saviour is the blasphemy – it is the unforgiveable sin (for more on that, see here.)

But that language is interesting. When God says we’ve done something unforgiveable (i.e. finally and forever rejected Christ), He calls it a blasphemy. My point here is this: when we deem the sins of others to be “unforgiveable” we are saying that they have blasphemed.  They haven’t blasphemed the Spirit, they’ve blasphemed our god.

I’ll explain it like this. We might well find ourselves in the position of knowing:

1) Christ has forgiven me,

2) Christ commands me to forgive, and that…

3) the offences against me are minor – not only relative to Christ’s forgiveness but even when compared to other atrocities in the world.

But, it can still feel impossible to forgive. At that point we’re deeming the offender to have committed an unforgiveable sin.  In other words the offender has blasphemed our real god (our “functional saviour” to use a Tim Kellerism).

I might find countless offences to be “water off a ducks back” but if someone ruins my reputation, or if they harm my career or if they in any way hurt my children – that’s unforgiveable.  At those moments it’s good to be aware that “unforgiveable” is synonymous with “sacrilegious.”  And it’s good to identify the real god who we think is being blasphemed.

When the idol of “my reputation” or “my career” or “my family” is uncovered, it’s actually a huge step forwards in forgiveness.  Because now I’m confronted with the reality of my own need. I must repent and seek forgiveness.  She may have ruined my reputation.  But worshipped it.  When I confront the ugliness of my own blasphemy, my eyes are taken off the horizontal and fixed on the vertical. I realize I’m not so much “offended party” as “offender”.  In the language of Matthew 18, I start to realize the vastness of the ten thousand talent debt.  And the 100 denarii becomes instantly relativized – not just in theory, but hopefully as a felt reality.

So here’s my contention – maybe I’m wrong, correct me in the comments – but I reckon…

If there’s something “unforgiveable” in my eyes, there’s something blasphemous in my heart.

 

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