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I’ve been watching ‘Am I normal?’ – a TV programme about addiction. It asks whether there is such a thing as addiction. What about gambling addiction? Shopping? Sex? Food? Computer gaming? Are these addictions? Are they illnesses? Are you born with them? Do you ‘catch’ them? ‘Suffer’ them? Are you helpless before them?

One doctor, author of the book ‘Addiction is a choice’ was, predictably enough, against such an idea. He said things like ‘It’s simply a weak or bad person making a bad choice…. There’s no such thing as an involuntary behaviour. All behaviour is goal seeking behaviours… Our therapeutic culture, instead of making moral judgments is making pseudo-medical judgements.’

He reminded me of reading Jay Adams – the pioneer of nouthetic (admonition) counseling. Adams taught pastoral counselling at Westminster Theological Seminary for many years. He says things like this in ‘Competent to Counsel’

‘The idea of sickness as the cause of personal problems vitiates all notions of human responsibility.’ (p5)

He doesn’t like this. He sees it as a straight choice between sickness and sin:

‘Is the fundamental problem of persons who come for personal counselling sickness or sin?’ (p17)

Adams therefore goes for ‘sin’.

There are advantages to this. If we are merely victims – sufferers of an illness called ‘addiction’ then the problem and also the solution is out of our hands. If the problem is ours – if we are sinners – then the solution is also within our grasp. Sin is the problem. Repentance is the solution.

What I find strange about Adams, and those who tend to follow him, is that he, and they, are staunch Calvinists. They believe in the bondage of the will (as do I). They believe, I’m sure, people like John Owen when he says:

“To suppose that whatever God requireth of us that we have power of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of none effect.”

This is such a touchstone of Calvinist thought it’s even the strapline of the website ‘Monergism.’ It’s a wonderful quote. And it should be heeded in all sorts of theological debates.

But it’s not heeded when conservative Christians try to put our ability to be moral at the heart of things. Something dangerous occurs when Christians try to make ‘moral responsibility’ the centre of gravity in these kind of discussions. To do so is to push the Saviour to the periphery. Owen saw this. The doctrine of the bondage of the will, at its best, guards against this. But conservative Christians tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to the notion that sinful behaviours ever be classified as addictions or illnesses. They are bad behaviours, bad choices.

Let’s think very briefly about three Scriptures.

In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul brilliantly portrays our freedom and our bondage:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.”

What’s fascinating about these verses is that here we see our freedom to do what we want is described as the very way in which we followed the devil. Our so called freedom to gratify our lusts was precisely the bondage in which we found ourselves.

The second passage is John 8.

Everyone who sins is a slave to sin… if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Far from saying ‘talk of addiction vitiates talk of sin’ isn’t Jesus here saying that sin is addiction? Aren’t we enslaved to sin? Isn’t it a power over us? Do we not find ourselves under its domination? And isn’t the solution not for ourselves to gain mastery but for Christ make us His slaves?

Sin is a power over us. The gospel of grace depends on this fact. Sin is a power over us that is disarmed and replaced by Christ. We are beasts ridden by the devil or Christ – this is where Ephesians 2 and John 8 have brought us. Why would we want to put – why especially would Calvinists want to put – human responsibility at the centre of the discussion??

Finally, think of Luke 5:27-32 where Jesus meets and changes Levi. Jesus says:

"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

Jesus says our problem is BOTH. It’s not either sin or sickness – it’s BOTH. Jesus calls sinners sinner. He calls Levi to repent and follow Him. But in that diagnosis Jesus also reveals that He is the true Doctor of the sick. Our therapeutic culture is not wrong to see us as victims of sin (John 8:34). We mustn’t react against these trends and bellow out ‘we are responsible moral agents, we can choose etc etc’ If we do that, so quickly man comes right to the centre and the Gospel exits stage-left. We become our own saviours from sin. But no, only Christ saves us from sin. And He saves helpless, sick sinners.

We are victims of a sickness called sin. That is absolutely biblical and true. We are also culpable choosing agents – Ephesians 2 told us that the gratification of our lusts was the essence of our bondage! They are both true together. Jesus and Paul could handle bringing both sides of this truth to bear. Liberals and conservatives fall off one side or other. Christians must maintain: “I am a sick, wretched, poor, helpless sinner. And I must repent. That is, I must confess my complete inability to gain mastery over alcohol/drugs/food/pornography/gambling/whatever. I mourn that I ever gave myself to such wicked masters in the first place and I turn to Christ in faith as the only Master greater than these powers.”
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Today I listened to this talk by Robert Reymond addressed to men in the ministry.  If you are a minister of the word, listen and be humbled.  If you know a minister of the word, listen and learn how to pray for them.

The talk finishes after 47 minutes, the Q&A afterwards isn't particularaly illuminating, but that 3/4 of an hour is holy fire!  Now I know I've spoken against completely identifying holiness with 'the quiet time' and there's a bit of that here, but do yourself a favour and listen in.

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Some wonderful quotes which he used:

Robert Murray McCheyne on the congregation's greatest need:

My people's greatest need is my own personal holiness.

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A prayer of Luther's:

Lord God, You have appointed me as a Bishop and Pastor in Your Church, but you see how unsuited I am to meet so great and difficult a task. If I had lacked Your help, I would have ruined everything long ago. Therefore, I call upon You: I wish to devote my mouth and my heart to you; I shall teach the people. I myself will learn and ponder diligently upon You Word. Use me as Your instrument -- but do not forsake me, for if ever I should be on my own, I would easily wreck it all.

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John Newton on the terrible dangers of pride:

While human nature remains in its present state there will be almost the same connection between popularity and pride, as between fire and gunpowder: they cannot meet without an explosion, at least not unless the gunpowder is kept very damp. 

In thinking of Substitutes for the Spirit I was surprised at how many I came up with.  But then again, we all know what the Scripture says is the antithesis to the Spirit. Therefore we know that susbtitutes for the Spirit can be summed up in one word - flesh.  Thus we know

  1. These substitutes will be with us from cradle to grave
  2. They will stick to us like skin to our bones
  3. They will pervade every area of life
  4. They will be selfish alternatives to everything the Spirit is trying to lead us to
  5. They will seem far more natural than the Spirit-led path
  6. They will appear as a counterfeit Spirit-led path - (not every spirit is from God!)

In fact they will appear as the seemingly harmless desire to serve myself - whether in moral or immoral ways.  And so they are at war with my soul. (1 Pet 2:11).  It's often occured to me that maturity in the Christian life consists largely of identifying these desires of the flesh as precisely that. 

We can identify Spirit-led passions.  They will be:

  • Christ-centred
  • Word-based
  • other-focussed
  • cross-shaped

 How are we to identify fleshly thinking?  Ephesians 4:22 is interesting:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires

Three questions occur to me regarding the 'old self' / flesh:

  1. What are the desires of your flesh?  What exactly is the 'old self' telling you about what you need / what you should pursue?
  2. How is this old self deceiving you?  Phrase the desire as a blatant lie: e.g. "Your identity/worth/righteousness lies in people thinking you're funny/attractive/clever/'helpful'."
  3. How has this fleshly existence corrupted you?  Think how ugly it has made you.

Always, though, the underlying pursuit/lie/corruption of the flesh is my attempt to establish a righteousness of my own. (Phil 3:1-11).  Ultimately the flesh tells me to be justified before heaven and earth on my own account.  Therefore the power which alone is able to mortify my flesh is the gospel.  Because the gospel tells me 'Before and apart from any works, I am clothed in Christ.  My whole identity, status, reputation, past, present and future is taken out of my hands and hidden entirely in Christ.' 

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. (Gal 2:20)

 To live by this gospel word is to live by the Spirit.  And it is to crucify the flesh.

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I posted recently on the importance of trusting the Son of God in hard times, not simply the sovereignty of God.  These thoughts have arisen again as I've been preaching on Revelation 4 and 5 recently.  It's pause for thought to see John weeping aloud in the very throne room of God! (Rev 5:4)  Heaven without Christ is hell!

Good thing the elder in heaven didn't comfort the way we ordinarily do... "Do not weep, haven't you seen the throne?  It is very impressive isn't it?"  John has seen the throne.  He is weeping in the face of it!  No the comfort for John is the Lion-Lamb - Christ.  He is the One who turns weeping into cosmic praise.  Let's make sure our comfort is similarly Christ-focused.

 Here are my sermons on Revelation 4 and Revelation 5 if you're interested.

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I've been very blessed by stumbling across the sermons of Victor Shepherd on the web.

Here's a thought of his prompted by Revelation 5:5:

Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed."

Here's what Shepherd says:

I think that what a pastor must have above everything else is a conviction concerning Christ's victory; a conviction so deep in him that it goes all the way down to his DNA, and he exhales it upon his people both explicitly and implicitly even as it seeps out of every pore. A pastor has to be convinced unshakeably of Christ's victory if he's profoundly to support and sustain his people.

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When times are tough - what is your comfort?  When comforting others, where do you point them?

In the circles in which I move the encouragements of choice involve variations on the theme of 'God's got a plan.'  Many's the time when a well-meaning brother (usually a brother) has said 'I guess at moments like this, all you can do is cling onto God's sovereignty.'  Often I've heard friends say that only sovereignty has enabled them to get through the hard times. 

Something's gone wrong here.   1.5 billion Muslims navigate through life clinging onto 'insh'Allah' (God willing).  800 million Hindus believe that karma will work everything out.  And how many westerners, even in the face of terrible suffering, will still believe 'everything happens for a reason.' 

This was really brought home to me about 5 years ago.  I was praying with a new convert from Islam.  We were worried about his visa application, but I was amazed at how he was 'trusting God's sovereignty'.  In fact he was using language that I usually associate with the most mature of reformed Christians.  I told him I was very impressed, he shrugged his shoulders and said 'In Pakistan we have a saying: 'God willing' - it means that whatever God wills will happen.'  Insh'Allah had simply been translated to a Christian environment.  Yet surely a Christian account of sovereignty involves more than simply transfering deterministic agency from Allah to the Father!  Surely there's got to be a gospel-shape, a Christ-focus, a trinitarian dynamic to Christian sovereignty.  Yet what was so striking about my friend's translated insh'Allah was that it sounded so completely like the Christian pastoral wisdom sketched out above.

Two years ago I went to northern Nigeria and the difference between Muslim and Christian accounts of sovereignty struck me again.  When I wanted something done by Tuesday, the Muslim would tell me 'It will be ready, insh'Allah'.  The Christian would tell me, 'It will be ready, if Jesus tarries.'  Hallelujah!!  Isn't that brilliant??  (King James' English lives on in Nigeria!).  But isn't there all the difference in the world between a future determined by an inscrutible divine will and a future opened up in the gospel-patience of Jesus?  I've tried to get people using 'If Jesus tarries' over here, but it hasn't taken.  Yet.

Now I'm not denying for a second the sovereign rule of the Father through the Son and by the Spirit.  And perhaps in future posts I'll outline some thoughts on what a truly gospel-shaped, Christ-focused, dynamically-trinitarian account of sovereignty might look like.  But for now I will simply question the pastoral wisdom of referring the suffering Christian to the sovereignty of God as though 'God's in charge' was the sum and substance of the Christian hope.

All too often this amounts to a 'light at the end of the tunnel' comfort.   How much better to encourage a person that Christ joins them in the tunnel.

I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings.  (Philippians 3:10)

Christ is with us in suffering.  He is especially near to the broken-hearted.  As Spurgeon used to say, He never throws His children in the fire without joining them in it (cf Dan. 3; Isaiah 43:2).  In suffering we get to know the Suffering Servant with greater depth and intimacy than ever before.   To simply point to the God over and above us in suffering is deficient.  We must also point to the God beside and within us.

The gospel is not the truth that, while I may be buried in muck, God remains untouched in pristine glory and one day I'll be there with Him.  The gospel is that God joins us in the muck.  The gospel is that He stoops, sympathises and suffers alongside us.  And that He raises us with Him to the throne.   But if the gospel is not that God remains in heaven and we battle on till glory, why does so much of our pastoral exhortation betray exactly such a 'gospel.'

Why do we so often point people to God's sovereignty and so rarely point them to God's Son?  Why is the focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and so little on the One who joins us in the darkness?  The one kind of exhortation produces tight-lipped soldiers, the other produces broken-hearted lovers.  Let's aim for the latter!

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When times are tough - what is your comfort?  When comforting others, where do you point them?

In the circles in which I move the encouragements of choice involve variations on the theme of 'God's got a plan.'  Many's the time when a well-meaning brother (usually a brother) has said 'I guess at moments like this, all you can do is cling onto God's sovereignty.'  Often I've heard friends say that only sovereignty has enabled them to get through the hard times. 

Something's gone wrong here.   1.5 billion Muslims navigate through life clinging onto 'insh'Allah' (God willing).  800 million Hindus believe that karma will work everything out.  And how many westerners, even in the face of terrible suffering, will still believe 'everything happens for a reason.' 

This was really brought home to me about 5 years ago.  I was praying with a new convert from Islam.  We were worried about his visa application, but I was amazed at how he was 'trusting God's sovereignty'.  In fact he was using language that I usually associate with the most mature of reformed Christians.  I told him I was very impressed, he shrugged his shoulders and said 'In Pakistan we have a saying: 'God willing' - it means that whatever God wills will happen.'  Insh'Allah had simply been translated to a Christian environment.  Yet surely a Christian account of sovereignty involves more than simply transfering deterministic agency from Allah to the Father!  Surely there's got to be a gospel-shape, a Christ-focus, a trinitarian dynamic to Christian sovereignty.  Yet what was so striking about my friend's translated insh'Allah was that it sounded so completely like the Christian pastoral wisdom sketched out above.

Two years ago I went to northern Nigeria and the difference between Muslim and Christian accounts of sovereignty struck me again.  When I wanted something done by Tuesday, the Muslim would tell me 'It will be ready, insh'Allah'.  The Christian would tell me, 'It will be ready, if Jesus tarries.'  Hallelujah!!  Isn't that brilliant??  (King James' English lives on in Nigeria!).  But isn't there all the difference in the world between a future determined by an inscrutible divine will and a future opened up in the gospel-patience of Jesus?  I've tried to get people using 'If Jesus tarries' over here, but it hasn't taken.  Yet.

Now I'm not denying for a second the sovereign rule of the Father through the Son and by the Spirit.  And perhaps in future posts I'll outline some thoughts on what a truly gospel-shaped, Christ-focused, dynamically-trinitarian account of sovereignty might look like.  But for now I will simply question the pastoral wisdom of referring the suffering Christian to the sovereignty of God as though 'God's in charge' was the sum and substance of the Christian hope.

All too often this amounts to a 'light at the end of the tunnel' comfort.   How much better to encourage a person that Christ joins them in the tunnel.

I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings.  (Philippians 3:10)

Christ is with us in suffering.  He is especially near to the broken-hearted.  As Spurgeon used to say, He never throws His children in the fire without joining them in it (cf Dan. 3; Isaiah 43:2).  In suffering we get to know the Suffering Servant with greater depth and intimacy than ever before.   To simply point to the God over and above us in suffering is deficient.  We must also point to the God beside and within us.

The gospel is not the truth that, while I may be buried in muck, God remains untouched in pristine glory and one day I'll be there with Him.  The gospel is that God joins us in the muck.  The gospel is that He stoops, sympathises and suffers alongside us.  And that He raises us with Him to the throne.   But if the gospel is not that God remains in heaven and we battle on till glory, why does so much of our pastoral exhortation betray exactly such a 'gospel.'

Why do we so often point people to God's sovereignty and so rarely point them to God's Son?  Why is the focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and so little on the One who joins us in the darkness?  The one kind of exhortation produces tight-lipped soldiers, the other produces broken-hearted lovers.  Let's aim for the latter!

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How to attain humility?  Determine to think low thoughts of yourself?  You'd be defeated before you began.  Self-deprecation is still self-deprecation.  No, to be humble we need to be humbled

Daniel 4 gives us a great picture of this.  Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man in the world, is humbled by the triune God who is 'able to humble' 'those who walk in pride.'  (Dan 4:37).

As a young(ish) Australian male I know a little something about walking in pride.  What can I learn from Daniel 4 about humility?

 First, the hero of the piece, Daniel, accomplishes his work only in the power of the Holy Spirit.

"I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you." Dan 4:9 (LXX has 'Holy Spirit of God' - translating the plural 'gods' as elsewhere in Scripture)

"None of the wise men in my kingdom can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you." Dan 4:18.  See also 5:11,14 (LXX translates them all as Holy Spirit of God)

Without the Spirit, Daniel has nothing to offer.  With the Spirit, Daniel is wiser than the wisest men on earth. 

Second, the promised King of God's Kingdom is described as the Lowliest of Men.

"the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone He wishes and sets over them the Lowliest of men." (Dan 4:17)

In the great inversion of all our human expectations, God's choice for King is not simply a lowly man, but the Lowliest of men.  The King of all kings is the One who says "I am gentle and humble in heart." (Matt 11:29)  How can Nebuchadnezzar exalt himself when the Chosen One of the Most High is the Servant of all? 

Third, Nebuchadnezzar learns humility when he worships the Most High God:

 

34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes towards heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honoured and glorified Him Who lives for ever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; His kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as He pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No-one can hold back His hand or say to him: "What have you done?" 36 At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honour and splendour were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom.

With his eyes turned upwards, Nebuchadnezzar praises Him Who lives forever.  The sovereign glory of the Omnipotent Father draws out of him awed worship.  I'm told (and I can believe it) that the Grand Canyon will take your breath away - no-one stands on the rim with high thoughts of themselves.  And no-one can confess the majesty of our Father and not be correspondingly humbled in the process.

So how do I fight pride?  The doctrine of the trinity of course. I need to know that anything I have of worth in God's service is a gift of the Spirit - "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Cor 4:7). 

I need to know that the Lord of Glory is Himself the Lowliest of men.  His glory is His service.  So how can I exalt myself above Christ?

I need to know that the Most High Father is awe-inspiring in His heavenly power.  As I worship Him I find a grateful 'nothingness' by comparison which is, at that very moment, my restoration to honour.

To be enfolded in the life of these Three is to be well and truly humbled. 

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On humility, see also Bobby on Gospel Living 

-- to KC a fan of trinitarian theology!

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