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Ok, another little example of engaging with non-Christian world-views.  This is from a wedding sermon I gave a few weeks ago.  The great majority of the congregation were not Christians. The couple asked me to speak from 1 John 4:7-12.  I'll quote a part of the sermon and then make some comments.  (Just so you know I've tweaked the last paragraph since giving the sermon.)


Why is virtually every film, every TV show, every novel, every pop song obsessed with people falling in love and getting together?  If they're not obsessed with falling in love and getting together, they're obsessed with falling out of love and drifting apart.  You can't get around it: this kind of committed, mutually self-giving relationship consumes our culture and consumes our hearts.

Why?  Why do all the songs say ‘Love is the greatest thing'? 

Craig and Debbie know.  That's why they chose this reading from the bible.  Why does the world say ‘Love is the greatest thing.'??  Because God, the greatest thing, is love. 

That's the famous phrase from our reading.  Verse 8: "God is love."  Coming into church this afternooon you may not have known any verse of the bible - now you know one.  "God is love."

God's not just in a long-term relationship.  God is an eternal relationship of committed love.  God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit love one another, uphold one another, pour their life into one another from eternity past to eternity future.

The committed love of marriage is a faint picture of the incredible love that binds the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Whether you believe in Him or not, whatever concept of God you've brought to church this afternoon, allow it to be shaped by God's own word.  God is love.

God doesn't just do love.  God is love.  His very existence is an existence of love.  Love is the very stuff of His being.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are who they are because they are constantly giving and receiving love.

Why do the songs say love is the greatest thing?  Because the greatest thing, God, is love.  To put your finger on the ultimate pulse of reality you will find the committed love of these three Persons.  Of course the whole world sings of love.  How could it not?! 

But here's the terrible tragedy.  The world doesn't know why love's the greatest thing.  And so the world is left with this groundless, abstract thing called love.  It becomes a mere feeling for us to praise and magnify, and, in all probability, to watch slip through our fingers.  Love, without this grounding in God, becomes only a sentiment to be admired.  But if that is all that love is, then today is robbed of it's meaning.  If love is just a feeling, we may well smile at the happy couple, we will praise their participation in this grand myth called love.  But then we'll go home wondering if there's any real substance to it all.  But to all that, the bible says Perish the thought!!  Love has a grounding.  As verse 7 says "Love comes from God".  That's why Craig and Debbie want us to think about these verses.  The God who is love will breathe meaning back into that old cliche that 'love is the greatest thing'.  And in doing so He will provide a foundation not only for Craig and Debbie's marriage but for all of our lives.  So let's pay attention to these verses for the next couple of minutes...


Four observations.

First, the Christian can take upon their lips non-Christian sentiments and use them truly.  But in doing so we commandeer those propositions and press them into a quite different service.  So 'love is the greatest thing' on the lips of a non-Christian means what?  Well it could mean many things but at the end of the day it effectively boils down to 'love is God.'  Love itself becomes the object of worship.  But what does 'love is the greatest thing' mean on the lips of a Christian?  Well in the kind of context I tried to give in the sermon, it becomes testimony to the entirely different truth 'God is love'.

Secondly, I really mean it when I wonder out loud How can the world not sing of love?  I am happy to draw attention to this universal sentiment that 'love is the greatest thing.'  But I will tell the non-Christian that he or she doesn't really know why it's their sentiment.  And that even the terms of that sentiment are distorted into falsehood.  'Love is God' seems a hairs-breadth from the truth, in fact it's idolatry.  And idolatry is not a stepping stone to true worship.

Thirdly, none of this depends on agreeing with a non-Christian definition of love.  It's not a case of saying 'Hey, you love love, I love love, everyone loves love.  Lemme show you the best love.'  We can't do that because verse 10 describes love in terms that are completely off our natural radar screen.  According to God's word, love is bloody, sacrificial, atoning death.  And that for enemies.  I've never found the non-Christian who will agree to that definition of love in advance!  We simply do not share a common understanding of love from which we can argue to divine reality. 

Fourth, I'm very fond of that kind of phrase: 'Allow yourself to be told...'  I don't know where I first picked it up but it's kind of my whole theology of revelation.  Preaching (but in fact all speaking of Christian truth) is declaring with divinely delegated authority: 'Allow yourself to be told something you do not know, could never anticipate and will never have under your belt...  Put yourself in the path of this meteor from above...  Receive something that you absolutely do not already have in your grasp.'  It is news that we tell.  Revelation.  I try to have my rhetoric shaped by that.



Ok, so we've noted the danger of fiting Jesus into a pre-fab system of truth. We don't want to do that.  But Missy has asked the $64 000 question.  It's basically this: What do we do when speaking to a non-Christian - isn't it desirable at least sometimes to bring Christ to them according to their preferred programme?? 

I'm not going to be able to answer this very well.  But I'm just going to give some thoughts as they occur and then I'd love if others chimed in with how they go about this.

My first thought is this:  If we're doing evangelism then we are necessarily relating Christ to non-Christian thought-forms.  Even if all we do is read out the sermon on the mount it will be heard from within a pre-existing mindset.  What's more it will be heard as remarkably similar, if not completely continuous, with human philosophies.  Think about it.  We all live in a universe made by, through and for Christ and which proclaims Him in every detail. Everyone is working with the same conceptual raw materials and can do no other than come up with some re-arrangement of Christian truth.  When the pure stuff is brought to bear on discussion people will say 'Yeah, yeah.  That's just like X.'

But is it?  And is it ever true to say to a person 'You know it is just like X.  And I'll add Y and Z to your X and we'll build towards saving knowledge of Christ.'

Well let's think about the nature of truth.  Paul says we find truth in Christ - hidden in Him in fact (Eph 4:21; Col 2:3).  Jesus says He is truth (John 14:6) and even goes so far as to say that God's word (which He also calls 'truth') when not related to Him, leaves people in terrifying ignorance.  (John 5:39f; 17:17). 

Truth is relative.  It stands in strict relation to Christ the Truth (good name for a blog I reckon).  His subjectivity is the one objectivity.  What is there outside of Him in Whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden?  Rearrangements of Christian reality yes - but because of that re-arrangement they are rendered blasphemous falsehoods.  The true test of a proposition is not its conformity to an abstract notion of reality or reason or scientific law.  The true test is its relatedness to Jesus.

It is simply not the case that discrete parcels of truth lie around the universe largely intact.  It is even less true that sinful humanity has some capacity (or inclination!) to assess these propositions, divorced as they are from Christ.  It's outright Pelagian heresy to imagine that such 'discrete propositions' and such 'objectively assessed' truth will lead a person to Christ.  Christ leads us into the truth.  Study of abstract truth does not lead us to Christ.

Now, what about non-Christian philosophies?  Can a Christian take a sentence from Homer (either Simpson or the poet!) on their lips and use it to testify to Christ?  Of course!  But in doing so they have vindicated Christ not Homer.  They have not given testimony to the rightness of that proposition in its own context.  They have commandeered it and pressed it into Christ's service - the service it should have always rendered.  This is precisely the language of 2 Corinthians 10:5 - taking every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.

In this verse Paul paints the picture of these renegade 'thoughts' that have gone AWOL from Christ.  We arrest them and press them back into the Lord's service.  But what we don't do is grant these thoughts a civilian existence, as though they'll do the Lord's service no matter what uniform they're wearing.  No.  Either they're in obedience to Christ (explicitly wearing the uniform) or they're a pretension setting itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:5).

Ok, but now we're back to the inescapable problem.  Here is a non-Christian with all their presupposed notions of truth that can only lead them to error.  Now here comes Christ the Truth.  And we've already conceded that the non-Christian cannot but hear Christ according to their presupposed notions.  So what do we do?

Well here's one tempting response.  Simply oppose everything they say.  They buy into post-modernism - we counter with modernism.  They're comfortable with irrational claims - we respond with rationalism.  They say 'truth is relative' - we insist 'truth is absolute.'  They indulge in immorality - we preach morality.  Well you may well get a discussion going.  But have you brought them to Christ?  Or to the 1950s? 

Tim Keller ministers among the groovy lefties of Manhattan.  What's his approach?  Traditional religious values?  No, as he likes to say the bible is not left wing or right wing - it's from above.  Whatever we say into these debates must make that clear.

Another thought.  Jesus did not come onto the world stage addressing 'universal human concerns'.  He wasn't born into the Areopagus as the Ultimate Philosopher.   He did not open with: 'We all know the truth about relationships, money, power etc.  I've come to bring you the ultimate experience of these.'  No.  He comes specifically and almost exclusively onto the Jewish scene, addressing Jewish hopes and concerns.  He comes as Messiah into a very specific, encultered setting which He had been meticulously preparing for Himself for centuries.  A people had been formed, a law had been given, a land, kings, prophets, priests, the Scriptures.  And the understanding, ideals, hopes and problems of this people are actually quite strange to the natural ear.

They worried about ceremonial cleanness and atoning sacrifice; about land and exile; about Sabbath and the throne of David.  They were a particular people with particular patriarchs and a particular God called Yahweh who was (and is), among other things, their tribal deity.  They were concerned about His particular promises - His covenant - and their particular fulfilment.  The Jesus-shaped hole at the heart of Israel was a very peculiar shape indeed - at least to modern sensibilities.  It is, in many ways, very different to what contemporary evangelists consider as the Jesus-shaped hole of today's 'enquirer'. 

And so when the LORD incarnate comes as His own Prophet, He does a couple of peculiar things that we modern evangelists don't really do.  First He comes in fulfilment of the Scriptures.  All the Gospel writers do this but Matthew especially introduces Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament.  Here is the One at the centre of this history and this people and these hopes.  Do we present Jesus like that? 

The other peculiar thing Jesus does is to begin by saying 'Repent and believe the gospel.'  That's not His punchline - that's His opener.  'Repent and believe the gospel' He commands.  And then He unpacks the life of the kingdom.  On those terms He speaks of relationships, money, power etc.  First the beatitudes - the gatehouse to the kingdom - then a description of this kingdom life.

What would evangelism look like that followed this pattern?  Something like this I think: "You've been speaking to me about love / freedom / fear / power / addiction / sexuality / abortion / capital punishment / healthcare / education / the state / animal rights / whatever.  Jesus has a lot to say on those issues but I'm going to have to back up from our discussion and give you a bird's eye view.  Let me give you the bible's view on X in three minutes."  If your friend isn't willing to do this then they're not willing to have a serious discussion anyway.  Present your biblical theology of the issue with Jesus at the centre.  Now Jesus is your non-negotiable.  He is the vantage point from which you address the subject.  He is not in question - everything else is.  Even use language like "For the sake of argument, work with me on this.  I'm describing Christ's universe - He made all things, He came into the world to reconcile them etc etc...  Doesn't that explain perfectly what we find when it comes to X?'

What you don't want to do is say 'X is absolutely true.  Now please investigate Jesus and I hope you find that He fits the criteria already established by X.'  I find Karl Barth's warning on this particularly salient:

The great danger of apologetics is “the domesticating of revelation… the process of making the Gospel respectable. When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it and peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it inoccuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control.” (II/1, p141)

More Barth quotes here.

Anyway I've got a few more things to say but I've rambled on too long.  Maybe a worked example or two would help.  Perhaps that's what I'll blog next.

But I'll leave it there for now.  What do you think?



If you ever say Amen it's usually a response to what someone else has said or prayed, right?

And it's usually after what they've said, right?

And only if it's really good do you repeat it: 'Amen, Amen!', right?

So it's an affirmation that someone else has just spoken truth (Amen is straight from the Hebrew for truth).

But when Jesus comes along, what does He do?  He gives Amens to His own sayings: 30 times in Matthew alone!  And in John's Gospel He gives a double-Amen to 25 of His own teachings!

e.g. Amen, Amen I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life (John 5:24)

What's Jesus doing by prefacing His teaching with 'Amen, Amen'?  Well let me put words to what this means.  Jesus is basically saying:

"You don't stand in judgement on my word.  I won't even wait for your Amen.  Your Amen could only ever be the faint echo of my own Amen!  You do not and cannot stand in judgement on my word.  Before you've even heard a syllable of it, I tell you on my own authority that this is truth.  This is the only authentication or approval these words ever could or should have - my own.  This is true because I say it, not because you have some vantage point from which to assess these words.  Let my Amen recalibrate everything you consider to be truth.  You must simply accept my words as the gold standard of truth because it is I who speak them.  In short: It doesn't matter what you think - this is the truth, deal with it!"

Who speaks like this?  Only God's Faithful and True Amen (Rev 3:14).

Imagine if our bible reading, our theology, our apologetics, our Christian obedience was shaped not by whether we thought, in all good conscience, we could give our Amen to Christ?  What if we stopped trying to assess Christ's word with our Amens and instead simply received His Amen in glad submission?

May we hear His word in the Spirit in which it was spoken - as truth itself. (John 17:17)


Some nice moments from Barth against apologetics

"Knowledge of revelation... begins with certitude. Either God has spoken or He has not spoken. If He has spoken, He has done so in such a manner that it is impossible not to heed Him. Among others, the question of His existence and nature are then decided and can be answered only a posteriori. Doubt and despair, human unbelief, and even a sea of uncertainties on our part, will not be able to change the certitude of His presence. Revelation is this divine presence." (God in Action, p8)

"And we are certainly not ministers of the Word if we feel ourselves called to be benevolent protectors, or big-hearted friends or representatives of whom the Word of God has need." (God in Action, p67)

"What God speaks is never known or true anywhere in abstraction from God Himself. It is known and true for no other reason than that He Himself says it, that He in person is in and accompanies what is said by Him." (I/1, 155)

The great danger of apologetics is "the domesticating of revelation... the process of making the Gospel respectable. When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it and peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it inoccuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control." (II/1, p141)

"For we know nothing of our created state from our created state, but only through the Word of God, from which we can derive no independent, generally true items of knowledge, different from the Word of God and therefore leading up to it." (I/1, p148)

When people say ‘God' "far too often what is meant by it is... the unsubstantial, unprofitable and fundamentally very tedious magnitude known as transcendence, not as a genuine counterpart, nor a true other, nor a real outside and beyond, but as an illusory reflection of human freedom, as its projection into the vacuum of utter abstraction." (III/4, 479)

 "If grace is alongside nature, however high above it may be put, it is obviously no longer the grace of God, but the grace which man ascribes to himself. If God's revelation is alongside a knowledge of God proper to man as such, even though it may never be advanced except as a prolegomenon, it is obviously no longer the revelation of God, but a new expression (borrowed or even stolen) for the revelation which encounters man in his own reflection." (II/1, p139)


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