Saturday, December 13, 2008

Seeing the people you serve as your joy

Yesterday I was refreshed by listening to the Sovereign Grace Leadership Interview Series with C J Mahaney, Jeff Purswell and Joshua Harris on "the pastor and his joy." Here is a snippet, which presents a wonderfully challenging reminder to view the people we serve as our joy. (The clip is from about 44 minutes in, and I recommend listening to it because the written quotes don't quite capture the passion of CJ in particular)

[Jeff Purswell]
...I love how - what a pastoral model this is - when [Paul] addresses the Philippians in chapter four, he speaks of them as, "you Philippians, my joy and my crown." What a model for pastoral ministry! God's people, whom he chose, for whom Christ died, are the objects of Paul's joy. And they are to be the objects of our joy. And so I think another question for pastors when you think of your people is can you say with Paul, "they are my joy"? And if not, then I think we need to examine how we're viewing them. Are we viewing them based on their performance? Or are we viewing [them as] those who were redeemed by Christ's precious blood?...

[CJ Mahaney]

Outstanding, Jeff. We pastors have to ask ourselves, do we - you said it so well - perceive those we have the priviledge to serve as our joy? If not, then we are not perceiving them as those for whom Christ died. And if we will remind ourselves that those we have the privilege to serve are those for whom Christ died it will transform our hearts towards them, transform our perspective of them and transform their experience with us as we encounter them. What a privilege it is in pastoral ministry to encounter individuals each day whom we can express this joy to and for and allow them to be the object of our joy, as a result of the saviour's sacrifice, to allow them to experience the effect of that joy upon their souls on a daily basis. What a privilege! What a pastoral privilege to be able to do this on a daily basis. And if you aren't aware of Christ dying for them, if you aren't aware of the evidences of grace that are present in them, this won't be the experience as you encounter them on a daily basis. So thank you for that reminder and exhortation. That is to be a pastoral priority, whether it's a personal conversation or through the proclamation of God's word on sunday, in whatever the context, it should be obvious to those we have the privilege to serve - you are my joy, thankyou for bringing me so much joy. That should be a common refrain they hear from us and a common experience they have with us.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Spurgeon on health and sickness

"I dare say the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health... with the exception of sickness. If some men that I know of could only be favoured with a month of rheumatism it would be God's grace to mellow them marvellously."

"I'm afraid that all the grace that I have got of all my comfortable and easy times and happy hours might almost lie on a penny but the good that I have received from my sorrows and pains and griefs is altogether incalculable. Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister's library."

quoted by John Piper in Charles Spurgeon: Preaching through Adversity,

Monday, November 03, 2008

I Like Committing Crimes

I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.

W.H.Auden, For the Time Being (London: Faber & Faber, 1958), p.116 - quoted in Moo, D. NICNT commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, p.356

A striking quote, rhetorically neat, but fundamentally flawed. God's character as just means that his forgiveness is deeper and truer than indulgence or complacency towards evil. And God's provision of grace to hard-nosed rebels is transformative in purpose not a licence to continue. As Paul says,

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
Romans 6.1-2

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The foolishness of being neutral on religious questions (Bock)

More helpful comments from Bock: (on Luke 11.24-36)

It is popular in our day to be neutral. In a culture where tolerance is highly valued, nonpartisanship is attractive. In religious discussions we try to avoid stepping on toes, for in Western cultures religious views are generally considered private. We want to avoid offending others in a culture that is diverse. But neutrality is not always a good thing, and neither is polite disengagement. Some issues are important enough to require our considered choices. That is Jesus' premise in this passage.

If God exists, should we think of him as having a laissez-faire attitude, not interested in how we relate to him? Jesus argues that is not the case. Religion by its very nature is a public affair, since it deals with how people relate to reality and to others. Though religious coercion such as marred European history in the Crusades and the Thirty Years' War is wrong, so is our culture's tendency to relegate religious concerns to the fringe world of private reflection. The issues are too important to be kept peripheral. Ultimately we must ask each other, What centers our lives, what do we accept as truth, what defines our character? And so in this short passage Jesus calls us to consider what directs our lives.

Bock on rejecting miracles

As the following comments point out, the modern skeptical reaction that Jesus' miracles couldn't have happened was not an option for Jesus' opponents: they could not doubt Jesus' miraculous power, only reinterpret it. This is from the online IVP commentary on Luke which I think is by Darrell Bock (see here), on LUke 11.14-23

Two options are suggested by those who have doubts. First, some attribute his capabilities to Beelzebub, the prince of demons. They clearly have Satan in mind and imply strongly that Jesus is demonically controlled. The name Beelzebub in its English form comes from the Latin; it appears to refer to the Philistine god Ekron (2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, 16). In all probability the name means "Lord of the flies" (on this discussion and other options, see Fitzmyer 1985:920-21). The name was a derisive characterization of Satan.

The second alternative is a wait-and-see approach. Some want more proof through some sign from heaven. It is unclear what this might have involved--a heavenly portent or just more miracles? In any case, not all are persuaded that demonic control is the answer.

These two possibilities well summarize reactions to Jesus today. Some reject him; others want to see more from him. But clearly, those who were exposed to Jesus realized that they could not ignore his actions or claims. His ministry demanded that people consider his identity.

Significantly, the opponents did not doubt Jesus' miraculous power. The opinion of skeptics today, that miracles do not happen or that whatever Jesus did was not miraculous, was not a line Jesus' opponents took in his day. This is very significant. Surely if this nonmiraculous option existed, it would have been taken. But the opponents and those they hoped to persuade were too close to Jesus to deny that something supernatural was happening. Unfortunately, historical distance can so blur reality that explanations not considered possible at the time of the event can seem possible later. We can reject Jesus, but to doubt his miracles is to question not only him but also, curiously enough, his opponents.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What and when is the kingdom of God?

Not an easy question to answer, but I've had a go! This was for an NTI assignment and, among other things, I found Thomas Schreiner New Testament Theology particularly helpful.

Reader, please feel free to comment and criticise!


What and When is the Kingdom of God?

Joseph of Arimathea was by no means alone in 1st-century Israel in “looking for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15.43; Luke 23.51).

Both John the Baptist and Jesus announced the imminent arrival of the kingdom and called people to prepare themselves (repent) for its arrival. In addition, both link the coming of the kingdom with the coming of Jesus himself. Thus John announces the coming of one “more powerful than I” who will bring the purifying fire of judgment, separating the wheat from the chaff (Matthew 3.11-12). But while John points forward to the one who would follow, Jesus in his teaching and his miracles indicates that through him the kingdom is now breaking in. This is seen in his breathtaking announcement in the synagogue in Nazareth that the prophecy of Isaiah 61 was being fulfilled “today… in your hearing” (Luke 4.16-21).
But it is Jesus’ miracles that constitute strong evidence that the kingdom of God has arrived in the person of Jesus. This is the thrust of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees (Matt. 12.22-30): “but if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (v.28) In a similar vein, when John the Baptist sends to ask Jesus whether he is “the one who was to come” or not, it is to his miracles that Jesus’ appeals as evidence: “go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt. 11.1-5)
Jesus’ answer to John not only indicates that the kingdom is arriving in Jesus, but also gives us important clues as to what the kingdom is that Jesus is bringing in. For it would seem that John’s doubt as to whether Jesus is the one springs from some wrong expectations as to what the kingdom is. As hinted at earlier, John’s expectation was that of imminent purifying judgment (Mt 3.1-12) – “the coming wrath” (v.7), but Jesus’ ministry is not that of judgment, but of deliverance and mercy, of preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, bringing release to the oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4.18-19, quoting Isaiah 61)
This is a programme of restoration, salvation, liberation – the fulfilment of God’s promises for His people, being accomplished through Jesus – as the people declare in Luke 7.16, “A great prophet has appeared among us… God has come to help his people.” But the picture is more complex than that.
For example, in the early chapters of Mark’s gospel we find that, following the startling evidences that the kingdom is near (chapter 1), there is an escalating conflict between Jesus and the religious leadership of Israel (Mark 2.1-3.6), culminating in their determination to kill him (3.6). In turn, Jesus begins to constitute a new people of God (a new Israel, as indicated by the selection of twelve to be apostles (3.14)) around himself. There is a dramatic reversal of who is in and who is not; in the words of Jesus in Matthew 8.11-12, “many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Entrance into the kingdom is for those receives the kingdom “like a little child” (Mar 10.15; Luke 18.17) – it is the tax collector who appeals for mercy that is justified before God, not the self-righteous Pharisee (Luke 18.9-14) – Jesus has come for sinners, not for the righteous (Mark 2.17)
Moreover, there is a complexity to the arrival of the kingdom. For, while it is near and, indeed, “has come upon you” it is still to come. This is the importance of many of the parables of the kingdom (Mat 13, Mark 4) – the kingdom arrives in a small, imperceptible way (like a mustard seed), and then there is a period of growth before the kingdom is fully present (the tree). “The mystery of the kingdom is that an interval exists between the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom”[1]
We need to draw some of these threads together. There was an expectation in Israel that the kingdom of God was coming; both John and Jesus announced that the kingdom was about to break in – through Jesus. But John’s expectation was of purifying judgment, while Jesus’ programme was that the kingdom had arrived in Him now, in a programme of restoration and salvation, especially for the despised & the outcasts, but that the kingdom was also to come – there is a two-stage arrival of the kingdom.
But now we need to factor in the remarable series of events that follow Peter’s recognition that Jesus is the Christ (i.e. the king of the kingdom!) – Jesus’ declarations that the Christ must suffer, die and be raised again, along with his journey to Jerusalem culminating in precisely his suffering, death and resurrection. That this series of events has to do with the kingdom as much as the miracles and kingdom parables do is evidenced by, for example, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the donkey – “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” cry the people (Luke 19.38) and “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David” (Mark 11.10). But what precisely do Jesus’ death and resurrection have to do with the kingdom of God? For Jesus’ triumphal entry does not usher in a political kingdom and the expulsion of the Romans as no doubt some expected (e.g. Luke 19.11).
In a sense, John was right to expect the coming of the kingdom of God to be associated with judgment. Indeed, this is the Old Testament background: “the expectation of a future rule of God in which he fulfills his promises to Israel and subjugates his enemies”[2] And it is also clear as Jesus’ ministry develops, that his rejection by the Jewish establishment is going to bring judgment on them, with God’s people being reconstituted afresh around Jesus.
And so, in the pattern of Isaiah 53, the king himself bears the judgment of God – on the cross – “giving his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45) Jesus’ new people is a community of sinners, and He himself bears their sins that they may enter into His kingdom. Jesus’ death and resurrection provides the basis for the sinner’s appeal for mercy, which, as we have seen, is the prerequisite for entrance into his kingdom. (cf also Luke 23.42) And it opens the interim day of opportunity between the inauguration and consummation of the kingdom, the day of salvation before the final harvest.
In conclusion, the kingdom of God is, in general terms, God’s climactic act in history to decisively and visibly establish his reign in the world, fulfilling his promises to Israel & ushering in a new creation, defeating his enemies and once and for all. But we see that God’s kingdom arrives in the person of Jesus, indicated by his miracles and teaching, and established by his death and resurrection through which, by bearing the wrath of God, a new people of God are constituted who are the firstfruits of the new creation. A day of salvation is opened as the final consummation of the kingdom is postponed, when the full effects of Jesus’ work will be brought to completion in final judgment and new creation.

[1] Schreiner, T. (2008) New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker), p.61
[2] Schreiner, p.49

Personal Update

At the end of August, I, with my family, moved to Spain. We are now living in Terrassa, near Barcelona, and in mid-September I started work for Grupos Bíblicos Universitarios. It is similar to UCCF in the UK. I am an "asesor" (staffworker), and my role is to support, encourage, train, befriend, disciple, love etc... christian students as they seek to live for Jesus and speak for Jesus in their university contexts. It is a wonderful privilege! I will be working mostly in Barcelona, and possibly some other cities in Catalonia (I have visitied Girona once so far), and we have committed to being involved for 7 years. My wife will be involved in small ways, but she has her hands quite full with our two little children!

I am not quite sure what direction my blogging will take since this significant change; I would like to do more blogging in Spanish (particularly on biblical & theological topics) and I would also like to be able to blog about interesting aspects of living out here (that might be better in a different blog), as well as continuing with more theological reflections on things I've been reading etc. So my blogging over the next few months may be rather haphazard until it settles down with some clearer aims and focus.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hola mundo

Well, after 3 months, and finally having had internet installed at home after moving to Spain at the end of August, I should be ready to resume blogging soon... Watch this space

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Our need for imagination

People struggling with life in a fallen world often want explanation when what they really need is imagination. They want strategies, techniques, and principles because they simply want things to be better. But God offers much more. People need to look at their families, neighbours, cities, jobs, history and churches, and see the kingdom. They need imagination - the ability to see what is real but unseen. This is what Paul fixed his gaze on (2 Cor 4). They need to look at a city and see the glorious company of the redeemed being gathered, amidst a brutal spiritual battle, to live in union with God. They need to look at their children and see a Redeemer pursuing their hearts for his own. They need to scan history and see God accomplishing his purpose. People need to see the shining hope of human existence: people can know, love, and serve God. They can commune with him forever and form a community of love that is possible no other way. All of this possible because the King has placed his love and grace on them.
from Paul David Tripp, Instruments in an Redeemer's Hands (P&R)pp.7-8

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Review of When the Kings Came Marching In - Mouw


The Kings Came Marching In draws together two themes: eschatology and a Christian view of culture. To what degree ought Christians work towards the transformation of culture? What will happen to the human culture at the return of Christ? How much continuity will there be between the development of culture in history and the new heavens and earth?

Richard Mouw addresses these questions by considering one specific text: Isaiah chapter 60. In Isaiah 60 we find an eschatological vision of the holy city. Mouw’s thesis is that “it is extremely significant that when Isaiah looks to the fulfillment of God's promises, he envisions a community into which technological artifacts, political rulers, and people from many nations are gathered.” (xvi) The significance of this is that (1) the engagement of Christians in the transformation of culture is legitimated and (2) we can expect continuity (as well as discontinuity) between culture now and the Holy City which is to come.

Mouw develops his thesis in four points, derived from Isaiah 60.

Firstly, the wealth of the nations is gathered into the city. The Holy City is a place of commerce: camels of Midian & Ephah, flocks of Kedar, rams of Nebaioth, the ships of Tarshish etc. are brought in to serve the Lord and his people. This points to the transformation of human culture. Significantly, the same ships of Tarshish appear in Isaiah 2 where they are objects of judgment. God’s attitude to the instruments of human culture is ambivalent: they can be tools of rebellion and idolatry, but it is the rebellion that is judged, not the things in themselves. God reclaims “that which humans have used against him.” The original cultural mandate is fulfilled in God’s turning the objects of culture to His service: “the Holy City is the Garden-plus-the-‘filling’”

Secondly, the kings of the earth march into the city. Mouw sees these references as suggesting that there will be a settling of political accounts, a reckoning in which the kings of the earth give account for their misuse of power.

Thirdly, people from many nations are drawn to the city. People of all nations, without distinction, are converted and gathered in to the city.

Fourthly, light pervades the city. Moving to Revelation 21, which picks up the same holy city imagery, we see that the Lamb is the light of the city. There are cultural dimensions to Christ’s atoning work: "As the Lamb of God he will draw all of the goods, artifacts, and instruments of culture to himself; the kings of the earth will return their authority and power to the Lamb who sits upon the throne; Jesus is the one whose blood has purchased a multi-national community, composed of people from every tribe and tongue and nation. His redemptive ministry, as the ministry of the Lamb, is cosmic in scope." (63)

Mouw concludes by asking how we ought to live in the light of this. We can affirm that Christ will transform culture, someday, but are we ourselves to transform culture? Mouw argues 'perhaps', but culture-transformation is not explicitly mandated in scripture. So, we are to wait for the transformation that is to come. But this is an active waiting: “we must seek the city that is to come.” And we do so by pouring ourselves out in service.


One of the key questions is a hermeneutical one. What is the function of the ‘holy city’ language that Isaiah uses in his eschatological vision? That the new creation is in view is in no doubt. The question is what status does the city metaphor (and attendance cultural wealth metaphors) have in relation to the new creation. In what ways is the new creation like a city?

Contrast Alec Motyer (Prophecy of Isaiah), who argues that the ‘city’ language is no more than part of an elobarate metaphor:
Since Isaiah is thinking of the future in city terms, the gathering of the world into the embrace of the people of God is naturally seen in pilgrimage and tribute motifs. The reality is the winning of the nations by the gospel and the gathering of all into the heavenly Zion when the Lord Jesus returns. [on 60.5]
in this verse, as in all similar verses, Isaiah is stating the truth within the political terms dictated by the metaphor of the city. [on 60.14]
So while for Mouw, Isaiah “envisions a community into which technological artifacts, political rulers, and people from many nations are gathered”, Motyer envisions a community into which people from many nations are gathered, but the technological artifacts and political rulers are incidental, merely part of the metaphor.

Mouw suggests that Isaiah (and John in Revelation) saw (in vision) a real city i.e. what the future new world will actually be like. That may be so, but it is not necessary to carry the point that the city and cultural language has significance beyond being merely a metaphor. Perhaps that point cannot be established for certain, as so much hinges on your overall hermeneutical approach. However, I am very much attracted to Mouw’s view and I would say that Mouw’s basic thesis holds good. It fits with broader biblical theological themes such as the renewal of the cosmos and the resurrection of Jesus vindicating the created order (cf. O’Donovan). It also correlates well to the Holy City language in Revelation 21-22.


Thinking of my own context of working with students, what help does When the Kings Come Marching In offer?

- I would want to help students to appreciate the inherent value of culture as fulfilment of God’s creation mandate, along with understanding the idolatrous and rebellious uses to which culture, that Christ’s redemptive work is cosmic in scope and that we can look forward to a new heaven and new earth (not a disembodied heaven) which will include some kind of transformation of culture. Isaiah 60 could be a useful chapter for working through some of these issues, although I would maybe go to Revelation 21-22 and other passages first.

- This has pastoral implications in relation to issues of guidance and vocation. Simply, we can see that all kinds of jobs, that engage in all kinds of aspects of human culture (including, for example, commerce and politics) are legitimate vocations for Christians. We can glorify Christ in all kinds of work, not just so-called ‘spiritual work’. Students can be helped to think through their own future in this way. A book such as Glory Days by Julian Hardyman is helpful here. (and probably a better starting point than When the Kings)

- Finally, a caution from Mouw’s conclusion about following the clear mandates we do have in scripture. Some discussion about the transformation of culture is mysterious and perhaps even speculative. And it can certainly be easy to get carried away with a new understanding of something so that you ignore or even disparage other areas that are equally important and which the new teaching was intended to balance not replace. So, for example, an emphasis on the cosmic implications of Christ’s atonement should never replace the personal implications of substitution & forgiveness for the individual sinner. So it is helpful to remember that the transformation of culture awaits the return of Christ and therefore, whatever our engagement with culture now, it ought never to replace the business of loving our neighbour, proclaiming the gospel message etc – tasks that many brothers and sisters with a less adequate view of culture (as we would see it) get on with, with great commitment and faithfulness and with God’s blessing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Frame on the apologetical value of ethics

I love John Frame's work on theology, epistemology, apologetics etc. (e.g. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God and Apologetics to the Glory of God)

Well, Frame's The Doctrine of the Christian Life has just been published. This is great news and it will go on to my wish list to be sure. It's on, but not on yet. Is it available in the UK yet?

The draft of DCL used to be on-line (see here), but are (as far as I can tell) no longer available, presumably because of publication.

The following quotes are from the draft (introduction); they point out the value of Christian ethics for apologetics and evangelism.

The study of ethics has an enormous importance for our witness to the world.

We live in an age in which people are greatly concerned about ethics. Every day, the news media bring to mind issues of war and peace, preserving the environment, the powers of government, abortion and euthanasia, genetic research, and so on. Many people seem very sure of the answers to these ethical questions. But when you probe deeply into their positions, they admit that their conviction is based on nothing more than partisan consensus or individual feeling. But the Bible does give us a basis for ethical judgments: the revelation of the living God. So ethical discussions open a wide door for Christian witness.

People are far more open to discuss ethics than to discuss theistic proofs, or even "transcendental arguments." Philosophy does not excite many people today, and many are not even open to the simple witness of personal testimony and the simple gospel. But they do care about right and wrong. Christians who can talk about ethics in a cogent way, therefore, have a great apologetic and evangelistic advantage....

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chiastic Bible overview

A helpful way of summarising the Bible's over-arching story. The structure is neat (and true, not forced), the centrality of Jesus' person & acts is emphasised and it is memorable.

from David Field's lecture notes on Ethics (see lecture 002) (my adaptation - i.e. I put it in a box with a yellow background!) sorry, it's not very clear, but I couldn't get the indents any other way.

Fear of death

The man who fears death, even though he contrives to put a somewhat better face on it, is at least nearer to the truth than the man who does not fear it, or rather pretends that there is no reason why he should do so. Since it is a sign of the divine judgment of human sin and guilt, it is very much to be feared.

Barth, quoted in Field, D. & Atkinson, D. (eds) (1995) New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (IVP), p.91 [article on 'Life, Health and Death']

Sunday, June 15, 2008

John Piper on risk

"If we walk away from risk to keep ourselves safe and solvent, we will waste our lives.

"If Christ is an all-satisfying treasure and promises to provide all our needs, even through famine and nakedness, then to live as though we had all the same values of the world would betray him." (p.107)

"my sense is that in the prosperous West, the danger in the church is not that there are too many overly zealous people who care too deeply about the lost, and invest hazardously in the cause of the Gospel, and ruin their lives with excessive mercy to the poor. For every careless saint who burns himself out and breaks up his family with misdirected zeal, I venture, there are a thousand who coast with the world, treating Jesus like a helpful add-on, but not as an all-satisfying, all-authoritative King in the cause of love." (p.118)

"One of the marks of this peacetime mind-set is what I call an avoidance ethic. In wartime we ask different questions about what to do with our lives than we do in peacetime. We ask: What can I do to advance the cause? What can I do to bring the victory? What sacrifice can I make or what risk can I take to insure the joy of triumph? In peacetime we tend to ask, What can I do to be more comfortable? To have more fun? To avoid trouble and, possibly, avoid sin?" (p.118)

"Since we all live in a world created by television, it is almost impossible to see what has happened to us. The only hope is to read what people were like in previous centuries. Biographies are a great antidote to cultural myopia and chronological snobbery. We have become almost incapable of handling any great truth reverently and deeply. Magnificent things, especially the glory of God, as David Wells says, rest with a kind of “weightlessness” even on the church." (p.121)

"At these moments, when the trifling fog of life clears and I see what I am really on earth to do, I groan over the petty pursuits that waste so many lives—and so much of mine. Just think of the magnitude of sports—a whole section of the daily newspaper. But there is no section on God. Think of the endless resources for making your home and garden more comfortable and impressive. Think of how many tens of thousands of dollars you can spend to buy more car than you need. Think of the time and energy and conversation that go into entertainment and leisure and what we call “fun stuff.” And add to that now the computer that artificially recreates the very games that are already so distant from reality; it is like a multi-layered dreamworld of insignificance expanding into nothingness." (p.125)

Quotes from John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Notes on the reading of books

1. Comprehensiveness
When I read a book I want to understand the whole of the case that the author is presenting. Chapters, sections, paragraphs all have a place within an overall structure. To understand any part truly I want to know how it fits into the whole argument.

2. Fairness
I want to understand an author’s argument accurately; I do not want to misrepresent it. This involves getting into the structure of the case the author is presenting, delaying evaluation until one has understood what the author is trying to say, not reacting too quickly but allowing a fair hearing. A full, deep response is only possible following the effort to truly understand. Otherwise a response will be superficial

3. Sparks
At the same time, it is often sections, or paragraphs, sentences or phrases that strike home, that spark off some sequence of thought or so forth. The most productive reading can be when one grabs, ponders and interacts with some smaller unit of thought. In John Piper’s words, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences… My prayer is that God might be pleased to take the short readings of this book and set a sentences or a paragraph on fire in your mind.”

4. Interaction
How, then, does one interact with a book? At different levels, surely. I can seek to get a grasp of the whole, to understand fairly the overall theme which the chapters and sections and paragraphs are developing. In this case I may want to review and evaluate the whole. But equally I can interact with a phrase or sentence or paragraph or section, to allow a spark to set on fire another whole chain of thought, to develop it, argue against it, bring it into contact with other thoughts from other authors.

5. Assimilation and Assessment
The goal of learning is living; the goal of learning is loving. Reading is food for growth. And ultimately, when I read I need to take on board, put into practice that which I read, having evaluated that which is true and helpful.

Two alternative forms of interaction with a book:

A. Review
Here, I am seeking to a) accurately summarise the main thrust of the book b) evaluate its strengths and weaknesses c) think through ways in which I need to respond and change. ‘This is what the book says – this is where he is right – this is where he is wrong – this is how I need to respond’

B. Interaction
Here, I am picking up on themes, ideas, thoughts from the book that have particularly impressed me (for good or bad). I examine that thought, interact with it, challenge it, pair it up with other thoughts, draw implications from it etc. I am not seeking to present ‘what the book says’ but interact with one idea.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Lessons from Nehemiah 1-2

Here are some notes from a great Don Carson message on Nehemiah 1-2 (first of 5 messages, here)

Nehemiah’s concern for God’s promises and God’s people. Nehemiah is not for individualistic Christians.

1. A servant who perceives the need with tears and contrition
Nehemiah lives c. a century after the exile to Babylon. There have already been two movements back to Jerusalem. (Ezra 1-6 and Ezra 7-10)
But the remnant is not doing well. They had already had an aborted attempt to rebuild the walls (see Ezra 4.12 etc.)

Nehemiah’s response: not distant professionalism but deep identity with the people of God. cf. Paul, Moses, Isaiah, Ezra. We must so identify with the people of God that we are driven to tears and fasting and intercessory prayer.

2. A servant who prays with deep knowledge of God
Nehemiah presupposes that
a) God is sovereign; “It is very common in Scripture, when things are going wrong, to acknowledge God’s sovereignty”
b) God keeps covenant.
c) God expects repentance where there is sin.
d) God punishes and restores his people. cf. Deuteronomy; Revelation 2-3.
e) God knows his own people and watches over them.
f) God delights in those who revering His name.
g) God controls everything; including the most practical. Nehemiah has thought through enough to know what must be done: he needs imperial sanction (which would be a reversal of the king’s policy of 20 years ago). But he knows that God is sovereign. cf Isaiah 10. “Nehemiah sees that he is ideally placed, and he wonders.”

3. A servant who plans with patience and understanding of God’s enigmatic providence. 2.1-10
Nehemiah has planned what he is going to say, he trust in God’s sovereignty but he doesn’t know the outcome. He does what is right, but God’s sovereignty is enigmatic. God may have an alternative; cf. Esther – 4.14. ‘If I perish I perish’
You still do what is right, what is courageous, what leans on God’s providence.
Nehemiah has thought it all through, but notice that he does the opposite to Ezra! Nehemiah asks for safe-conducts but Ezra doesn’t. But the circumstances are different.

4. A servant who prosecutes with wisdom and collaboration. 2.11-20
arrives with careful reserve; quiet reconnaisance; inclusive leadership (‘we’); ignores the opposition – he is inclusive within God’s people but draws some clear lines here.

Nehemiah: a man with a godly, entrepreneurial vision. Ezra the teacher did not build the walls. A vision of how to get from here to there. Preachers need to think entrepreneurially, or work with those who can. God raises up Nehemiahs too.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Prayer again: Give yourselves no rest

The title for this post makes me tremble, for how often do I treat prayer as an occasional, when-I-feel-like-it activity? What follows is both a sharp rebuke and a tremendous encouragement to lay aside prayerlessness and give ourselves to prayer.

Isaiah 62.6-9:

On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen;
all the day and all the night they shall never be silent.
You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest,
and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.

The LORD has sworn by his right hand and by his mighty arm:
"I will not again give your grain to be food for your enemies,
and foreigners shall not drink your wine for which you have laboured;
but those who garner it shall eat it and praise the Lord,
and those who gather it shall drink it in the courts of my sanctuary."

Barry Webb on these verses:

"[God] has a word of encouragement for all those who, like Isaiah, give themselves no rest but call on the LORD unceasingly to bring his plans for Zion to fruition. They are like watchmen whom God has set on Jerusalem's walls. He is the one who has raised them up as intercessors, and therefore they are licensed to be bold. They are to give the LORD himself no rest until his promise is fulfilled. The LORD is not offended by such bold intercession; it is precisely the kind of praying that he desires and commands.

"But there is a fine line, as we all know, between boldness and presumption. Boldness of the kind we are talking about here is justified only where prayer is based directly on the revealed will of God. That is why encouragement to be bold in verses 6 and 7 is followed immediately by a divine oath and a divine proclamation, in which the LORD's purposes are reaffirmed in the strongest possible terms.


"Rightly understood, there is tremendous encouragement in this passage for us in our praying, for so much of what Isaiah confidently expected is not happening. We live in the last great era of history. The promised Saviour has come to Zion, a banner has been raised for the nations by the worldwide proclamation of the gospel, and the final great pilgrimage has begun. If Isaiah had good reason to pray boldly for the fulfilment of God's promises concerning Zion, how much more do we! 'Father, may your kingdom come, may your will be done.'"

Webb, B. (1996) The Message of Isaiah (IVP), p.238-239

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The greatness of prayer

This post from David Field reminded me this morning how foolish prayerlessness is and how exciting and vital prayer is.

For example:

"If I pray now...

...I will bring pleasure to my heavenly Father, to Christ my Saviour and Lord, and to the Holy Spirit. Put differently, I will bring a smile to my Father's face!
...I will demonstrate consistency with my belief that life flows out of conscious relationship with God
...I will be using my time in the best way possible
...I will be less affected by the opinions of mere mortals
...I will see my affairs, concerns, opportunities and callings from the perspective of the heavenly realms
...I will be wielding the most powerful weapon ever forged
...I will, as the Lord answers prayer, be caught up in God’s purpose of exalting his Son through the salvation of billions and the renewal of the world."

and many more besides

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Soteriology of the Gospel of John

A major theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus has come into the world from God. He is “the one who came from heaven” (3.13, 31); He has been sent by God the Father (many references!!); He is the light who “has come into the world” (3.19, 12.46), “the bread come down from heaven” (6.32-33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58), “the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (11.27) and many similar descriptions besides. Jesus’ origin is a significant point of discussion and dispute throughout the gospel. The Jews debate where he is from during the Feast of Tabernacles (7.27-29, 41-43, 52). It forms part of the dispute between Jesus and the Jews in chapter 8 (e.g. 8.14), and between the Pharisees and the blind man healed by Jesus (9.16, 29-33). Even Pilate asks, “where do you come from?” (19.9)

As the Gospel develops, it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus has not only come into the world from God, but he is also leaving the world and returning to God. (e.g. 13.1) Hinted at during the early parts of John (e.g. 6.62, 7.33-34, 12.35-36), His leaving becomes the backdrop to the urgent discussions during the meal on the night of his betrayal. (chs 13-17)
Jesus is the one who has come from heaven, sent by the Father into the world, to subsequently leave the world and return to the Father. The theme is so pervasive that there is no room to go through all the instances of its occurrence, but the questions that logically flows from it lead us easily into our discussion of soteriology. For what purpose did the Father send the Son into the world? Why did he come, and then leave?
Already in the Prologue, we are alerted to the fact that all is not well with Jesus’ coming into the world, and therefore that all is not well with the world. The world was made through Him but “the world did not recognise him” (1.10); “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive Him.” (1.11) The world is, in fact, in darkness (cf. 1.5), a darkness that hates the coming of light into the world, because of its evil (3.19-20; 8.12, 12.35-36, 46). The world stands in danger of judgment (3.18), slaves to sin (8.34; cf. 9.41 etc.) and held captive by the devil (8.44, cf 12.31).[1]
The world is in need of salvation. And so, clearly and wonderfully, the message of John’s gospel is that Jesus has indeed come to save the world!
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (3.17)
“For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.” (12.47)

“We know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” (4.42) (the testimony of the Samaritans)
If the Father sent the Son into the world to save it, we need to ask two further questions: (1) how, precisely, is this salvation achieved? and (2) to what, or for what, is the world saved?

Jesus came to reveal the Father (e.g. 14.9-11), but salvation is not merely revelation – a new knowledge or enlightenment.[2] John’s Gospel inexorably heads towards a climax in which salvation is definitively accomplished. That defining moment – Jesus’ ‘time’ (2.4; 7.8; 7.30 – is his death and resurrection. Several times, from 5.16 onwards, the Jews attempt to seize Jesus in order to kill him, but they are unable to because “his hour had not yet come.” But it is all heading towards his death.

As the third Passover of John’s Gospel draws nearer, the tension mounts until, having been prepared for His burial by Mary’s anointing Him with oil and having entered into Jerusalem as the king on the donkey[3], the arrival of some Greeks seeking to meet Him moves Jesus to declare that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12.23) and “now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” (12.31) Now is the time for Jesus to die (12.24, 33) and this is the reason why Jesus came (12.27).
What is the significance of Jesus’ death? The clues are scattered throughout the gospel: He is the Lamb of God (i.e. the sacrificial, passover lamb) who takes away the sin of the world. (1.29) He must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. (3.14-15) His flesh is the bread given for the life of the world. (6.51) He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (10.11, 17-18). He is the one man who will die for the Jewish nation – “and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” (11.50-52) He is to be lifted up from the earth, in order to draw all people to himself. (12.32-33)

Jesus’ death achieves salvation; perhaps the first epistle of John best expresses the significance of this truth:
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (2.2)
This is how we know what love is: Jesus laid down his life for us (3.16)
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (4.10)[4]

Because it is an atoning sacrifice that deals with sin, Jesus’ death brings life. The goal of salvation, or what we are saved into or for is life or eternal life. John’s gospel, like a coral reef or estuary, is teeming with life! In Him (the Word) was life (1.4). Whoever believes in Him has eternal life (3.15, 16, 36). Whoever drinks the water offered by Jesus “will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4.13). The Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it (5.21). He is the bread of heaven that gives life to the world. (6.33) He has come that his sheep may have life, and have it to the full. (10.10) He is the resurrection and the life: anyone who believes in Him will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in him will never die. (11.25-26) And these represent only a selection of relevant texts.

In Jesus is life; He is life, and he offers life to whoever will believe in him. The offer of life is possible because Jesus lay down his life and took it up again. But what is this eternal life that is offered? On the one hand it is the hope of resurrection (e.g. 5.28-29; 6.39-40 etc.). It is, moreover, an ongoing-forever life (e.g. 5.51). It is a qualitatively different life - full life (10.10). It is life that, while with the fuller realisation to come, is entered into now (e.g. 5.24) Finally, “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (17.3) Knowing God – in the language of 1 John, “fellowship with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1.3) – is ultimately what we are saved for, although not in a an individual beatific vision kind of way, since fellowship with (and love for) each other is included within that fellowship with God, both in John 17 and throughout 1 John.
To sum up, the Father sent the Son into the world to save the world. That salvation was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus with the result that whoever believes in Him receives eternal life. That is the soteriology of John’s gospel. To conclude, I wish to offer a couple of reflections.
1. Jesus’ coming precipitates a crisis for the world – and therefore for each one of us. The world was already in darkness, humanity was already enslaved in sin and captive to the devil. But now, with the entrance of the Creator onto the world he has created, the issues are intensifed, the terms of debate subtly altered. Now that he has come, it is with Christ we must reckon. This is shown e.g. in 3.18 where condemnation is issued “because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” This should remind us of the vital importance (and glory) of Christ’s coming and give us confidence to keep on preaching Him first and foremost.
2. In examining the soteriology of (mainly) the gospel of John, I have tried to avoid moving too quickly to reading John merely with soteriological questions in view. i.e. I didn’t want to simply structure this paper, say, as (1) what is the problem, according to John? (2) what is the solution? (3) what is the result (or goal) of salvation? I thought it would be more helpful to try to wrestle with some of the themes that shape John itself, and from them draw out the soteriology. Hence me starting with discussing Jesus coming into, and going out of, the world. Whether this approach has worked or not I don’t know, but I certainly found the predominance of that particular theme very striking, and it was helpful for me to then follow through with the soteriological questions from that framework.
3. This study has also reaffirmed for me the centrality of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death. According to Marshall, “there have been repeated attempts to deny the central and sacrificial character of the death of Jesus in this Gospel” but, as Marshall goes on to say, “they can be confidently rejected.”[5] Jesus’s “hour”, the defining moment of his mission, is his death and the clues are sufficient throughout the gospel, and made even clearer in the statements in 1 John quoted above. If Jesus had not died for our sins, there would be no salvation.
this was an assignment I wrote for NTI

Carson, D.A. (1991) The Gospel According to John (Leicester: IVP)
Kruse, C.G. (2000) The Letters of John (Leicester: Apollos)
Marshall, I.H. (2004) New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP)

[1] We could add here, the link between sin and the devil in 1 John 3.8-10: “the one who does what is sinful is of the devil” while “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”
[2] cf. Marshall p.512-3, Carson p.94
[3] in contrast to the previous passover when the crowd tried to make Jesus king by force, not understanding that his kingship was to be exercised by giving his life for the world (ch. 6)
[4] According to Kruse (pp.35, 174-178) the references to blood in 1 John 5.6-7 also refer to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death.
[5] Marshall p.519, fn 40

Monday, March 17, 2008

Book Review - Going the Distance by Peter Brain

Peter Brain (2004) Going the Distance (Matthias Media)

An enormously helpful book: the focus is on pastors, but it would also be very helpful for church members to understand better the pressures that pastors face and so be equipped to support them better.

The thesis of Going the Distance is that for effective long-term ministry, Christian ministers need to look after themselves. The implementation of good principles of self-care are crucial for the pastor to avoid burning-out in the face of the multitudinous and intense pressures of what Christian psychologist Dr Arch Hart describes as “a unique vocation and if undertaken seriously the most dangerous occupation around.” (quoted by Brain, p.12) This self-care needs to be intentional on the part of pastors, and should not be seen as in conflict with the call of Christ to self-denial, for the pastor’s efforts at looking after himself will both set an example to others and sustain his ministry in the long-term.

Areas covered in Going the Distance include burnout, stress, depression, anger, the pastor’s family, sexual temptation and friendship. Each issue is discussed with a view to understanding the dangers involved and suggesting principles & strategies in developing a healthy approach in each area. There are also significant chapters addressing church members, church leaders and denominational leaders as to how they can contribute to the health of their pastor’s ministry. The penultimate chapter emphasises the vital role that the doctrine of justification by faith plays in establishing the pastor’s identity and protecting him from many dangers.

Evaluation – what I found helpful
In chapter one, the author argues carefully and, I think, persuasively for the importance of self-care in Christian ministry. He writes from the perspective that pastors, because of their commitment to the Lord and the work He has called them to, are in general going to tend to overwork rather than laziness. But the choice, echoing a comment from Christmas Evans, is not between burning out and rusting out in the service of the Lord. Particularly helpful are his comments on self-care and self-denial. He refers to Dr Hart’s careful distinction where the “call to self-denial refers to our ‘motivational self’, whereas self-care deals with our ‘structural self’” (p.22) and concludes that “devoted service and obedience not only will flow out of a base of thoughtful self-care, but will be fuelled by it.” (p.23) – as long as self-care does not become an excuse for selfishness or cowardice.

The detailed discussion of the range of issues that pose dangers to the pastor is very helpful; here I will mention one or two areas by way of illustration.

Stress and demands are neither unavoidable nor necessarily problems in themselves – for they are the job! However, it is important to have a good attitude towards them to avoid the potentially destructive effects that can come from them. Pastoral ministry is by nature never-ending, the fruit is by default intangible & unmeasureable and there is always more to do. Demands can come from all kinds of directions and if not managed well, unhealthy stress can seriously distort the pastor’s work. In dealing with the demands of ministry, the author suggests (1) that pastors need to define and articulate their priorities carefully and clearly. What areas of ministry should the pastor be concentrating on? If those priorities can be worked through with others (e.g. church leaders) then all the better. (2) When other demands come along that do not fit into those priorities the pastor has the freedom to say ‘no’ and the opportunity to explain what those priorities are. (3) Indeed, when a pastor says ‘no’ to some demand, that ‘no’ gives value to his ‘yeses’. A pastor who is unable to say ‘no’ is in trouble.

Another area where Going the Distance offers very helpful advice is in that of relationships, particularly family and friendship, although I will only comment on the latter here. It is great, argues the author, when the pastor’s greatest support & companionship comes from his wife, but it would be unhealthy if this were the only significant deep relationship he had. A few deep friendships, whether with people in the congregation or from elsewhere, take a lot of time and effort to build, but are enormously beneficial because of the support and accountability they provide. Gordon MacDonald suggests a number of different kinds of friends that a pastor needs[1]:

(1) the sponsor – someone who will mentor, see the potential of, encourage and advise

(2) the affirmer – someone who encourages, shows appreciation, affirms the pastor in his ministry

(3) the rebuker – someone who will tell the truth, especially when it hurts

(4) the intercessor – someone who will pray for us

(5) the partner – someone to work alongside or share & sharpen

(6) the pastor – “the tender person, the person who comes alongside in the moment of exhaustion” (quoted by Brain, p.152).

Finally, let me mention the extremely helpful chapter entitled “a word for local church members”. Church members often do not understand what it is like to be a pastor nor how best to relate to and support him. Reading this chapter would surely be very helpful for many, as it has been for me. A particularly helpful section discusses attitudes to change. Churches can often be resistant to change, but often because of unhealthy attitudes. The author also emphasises the importance of thoughtfulness; when was the last time you deliberately thought about how you can bless and support your pastor and took the initiative to carry it out?

The author says nothing about illness. My experience is that I can handle being ill badly, particularly when I have a forthcoming responsibility (e.g. leading a Bible study) and I am relatively ill. Firstly, I do not know whether I will be better by the time of the Bible study. Secondly, I can make myself worse by worrying; should I cancel? should I wait and see if I improve? Sometimes I have gone ahead and done it (and set myself back healthwise). At other times I have cancelled (and sometimes felt bad about it).

I buy the author’s thesis about self-care, but do worry that I tend more to laziness and fear, and so need to beware of using the principle of self-care as a cover for selfishness. It is possible to go far in advocating self-care – although I certainly do not think the author is going too far. These words from the Together for the Gospel blog provide an appropriate conclusion:

At one point the conversation turned to our busy schedules. One person exhorted another about the importance of rest. It was then that John Piper quietly commented "I find productivity restful for my soul."
"Restful for my soul."
Bodily rest is important. Rest for the soul is even more important.[2]

[1] clearly, there is much overlap between these categories and I think they are to be taken as suggestive not definitive

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Spanish evangelicals and the General Election on 9 March

There are general elections in Spain this sunday, March 9th 2008. 4 years ago, the Madrid train bombings, occurring just 3 days before, was influential in a surprise victory for the Socialist Party (PSOE) over the conservative Partido Popular (PP). This year, Zapatero's Socialists are ahead in the opinion polls. Immigration, a relatively recent phenomenon in Spain, but one which presents significant challenges, is a big issue on the agenda, as is the economy.

The Spanish evangelical news website, protestante digital (page in English) has several items discussing the forthcoming elections from a christian point of view. The website has been running a on-line opinion poll, which gives some rough indication of likely evangelical voting tendencies. Of 597 votes (to date), 42% have indicated they will vote for the conservative PP, 25% for the socialist PSOE and 17% for other parties (including various regional nationalist parties).

As the article (in Spanish) analysing the results of this modest opinion poll notes, voting options for evangelicals are far from straightforward. The PP is in favour of strong links between the state and the Catholic Church, a position which makes evangelicals nervous given the long history of the suppression of religious minorities, including Protestants, throughout Spanish history. On the other hand the socialists have been pursuing quite an aggressive programme of liberalisation, often overtly antireligious, that has included the legalisation of homosexual marriages and adoptions, and the liberalisation of abortion. According to this article, across Europe evangelicals tend to be progressive in relation to questions of social justice and conservative on ethical issues:

If this is so for evangelicals in Spain, many will be unsure how to vote on sunday. Before marking their voting slip, every christian voter will have to decide, among other things, which of these two axes they should give more importance to: the biblical concern for equality and social justice or biblical values in relation to moral questions. Going for one or the other will have a big say in whether the vote will head left or right.

A booklet has been produced by the Independent Civic Observatory linked, I believe, to the Spanish Evangelical Alliance called Voting Wisely, advising Christians how to approach the issue of voting in the election. For a summary (in English) about the booklet go here

Let us pray for Spanish Christians as they vote, for Evangelical groups as they seek to have an influence for Christ on the political process & Spanish society in general, and for the increasing impact of the gospel in Spain whatever the outcome of this sunday's elections.

P.S. See also the links on the bbc website and here & wikipedia about the forthcoming elections

Friday, February 29, 2008

Book review: The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson


Chapters one to four trace the ‘history of the Spirit’ in the Bible, discussing in turn the Spirit in the Old Testament (1), the Spirit in the life of Christ (2) and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (3 & 4). Chapters five to eight examine the work of the Spirit in the individual believer under the themes of union with Christ (5), regeneration (6), sanctification (7) and communion with Christ (8). Chapters nine and ten look at more corporate dimensions of the Spirit’s work, focussing on baptism and the Lord’s supper (9) and spiritual gifts (particularly the nature of tongues and prophecy, with a defence of cessationism) (10). The final chapter discusses the extent of the work of the Spirit in the world, finishing on the eschatological role of the Spirit in resurrection and the new creation. (11)


It would be an enormous pity if this book were dismissed or ignored because of the author’s stance on the issue of the cessation of certain spiritual gifts, for there it is extremely stimulating and instructive.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between the Spirit and Christ. While the Spirit is present in the Old Testament (where the primary connotation is that of energy/power), it is in the ministry of Christ that He is more fully revealed. Jesus Christ is the Spirit-filled man; it is Christ who gives the Spirit to His Church and it is union with Christ that undergirds all other aspects of the individual believer’s salvation.

In terms of Christ’s own life, Ferguson presents a carefully-argued case that the work of the Holy Spirit in the conception and birth of Christ was vital to maintain his holiness/sinlessness and therefore essential to our salvation: “the work of the Spirit preserves both the reality of his union with us in genuine human nature, and his freedom from the guilt and curse of Adam’s fall” (because he was not born of Adamic stock) (p.42)

When later Jesus receives the Spirit at his baptism, he is being equipped for his public ministry which is in essence a “holy war” in which he, as the messianic figure, is driving back the powers of darkness. The Spirit “serves as the heavenly cartographer and divine strategist who maps out the battle terrain and directs the Warrior-King to the strategic points of conflict.” (p.50) The surprise is that the OT messianic prophecies of the Day of the Lord are being fulfilled at this point in time by Christ, in the power of the Spirit – not at the end of history (cf.Mt 8.29). Jesus as The Spirit-filled Man is also seen in him being the paradigm for human holiness.

Because of the close relationship between Jesus and the Spirit, which Ferguson also identifies in the crucifixion & resurrection, Christ, on His ascension, is able to send the Spirit. Ferguson here picks up on the amazing statement of 1 Cor 15.45 that “the last Adam [became] a life-giving spirit”: “Christ on his ascension came into such complete possession of the Spirit who had sustained him throughout his ministry that economically [although not ontologically] the resurrected Christ and the Spirit are one to us.” (p.54) Therefore the Spirit is another parakletos to us.

So, when Ferguson turns to the question of the Spirit’s work in the Christian, the foundation is that the Spirit unites us to Christ. All other aspects of our salvation make sense in the light of our union with Christ. It is not that Jesus Christ is ‘over there’ and passes the blessings of salvation to us from a distance, but that we are brought to Him and into Him and thus receive what He has. Indeed, we are saved by sharing in Christ’s own salvation. The section on pp.103ff that discusses “Christ as paradigm and source” is quite stunning. Ferguson talks about Christ’s resurrection as his salvation: “The resurrection is nothing if not his deliverance from the power and curse of death which was in force until the moment of being raised… it and no other event in his experience is the point of his transition from wrath to grace.” (104, quoting Gaffin Resurrection and Redemption, p.116). Christ’s resurrection is his vindication, his sanctification, his adoption, his glorification, and by being uniting to him, the believer also receives all those benefits.


There is actually very little about the corporate dimensions of the Spirit’s work. There is a lot about the Spirit’s work in the individual believer, and when Ferguson turns to the Spirit’s work in the church, he seems to move straight to areas which to my mind are slightly tangential, namely baptism and the Lord’s supper and tongues and prophecy. Is that all there is to the corporate dimensions of the Spirit’s work? What about other gifts of the Spirit, given for the building up of the body? What about more generally, the work of the Spirit in creating a community, a people of God where God dwells? And are not the themes of sanctification and communion with Christ also corporate themes? (he seems to discuss them mostly in individualistic terms). The book left me wanting much more on the Spirit’s work in the people of God.


There can be a certain nervousness within conservative, ‘non-charismatic’ circles about the Spirit – or, at least, the excesses of parts of the charismatic movement that seem to overemphasise the Spirit – and the emphasis of Scripture (as brought out by Ferguson) on the fact that the Spirit glorifies Christ can lead to a call to focus more on Christ: it can be seen as more biblical to downplay the Spirit since, it is argued, he downplays himself. But Ferguson will have none of this: “His task is to glorify Christ, not to speak or draw attention to himself. But to draw the conclusion from this that we should not focus our attention on the Spirit at all, or grow in personal knowledge of him, is a mistake. The fact that within the economy of the divine activity he does not draw attention to himself but to the Son and the Father is actually a reason for us to seek to know him better, to experience communion with him more intimately, not the reverse.” (p.186)

In conclusion, the main application of this book is to seek to know the Spirit better. This includes the kind of careful, penetrative study of the Scriptures exemplified by Ferguson that helps us to understand better what he does and who he is. It also includes a deeper desire to experience the work of the Spirit in my own life. Finally, I am left with a desire to understand better and experience that dimension which perhaps Ferguson neglects: the corporate work of the Spirit in the church.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Christianity as Historical and Experimental

How do the 2000-year old events surrounding the life & death of Jesus connect to our lives today? How is the chronological gap bridged? I have found John Stott's comments on Galatians 1.1-5 very helpful on this. To them should be added some discussion about the role of the Holy Spirit (He is not mentioned in the Galatians text):

What the apostle has in fact done in these introductory verses of the Epistle is to trace three stages of divine action for man's salvation. Stage 1 is the death of Christ for our sins to rescue us out of this present evil age. Stage 2 is the appointment of Paul as an apostle to bear witness to the Christ who thus died and rose again. Stage 3 is the gift to us who believe of the grace and peace which Christ won and Paul witnessed to.

At each of these three stages the Father and the Son have acted or continue to act together. The sin-bearing death of Jesus was both an act of self-sacrifice and according to the will of God the Father. The apostolic authority of Paul was 'through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead'. And the grace and peace which we enjoy as a result are also 'from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ'. How beautiful this is! Here is our God, the living God, the Father and the Son, at work in grace for our salvation. First, He achieved it in history at the cross. Next, He has announced it in Scripture through His chosen apostles. Thirdly, He bestows it in experience upon believers today. Each stage is indispensable. There could be no Christian experience today without the unique work of Christ on the cross, uniquely witnessed to by the apostles. Christianity is both a historical and an experimental religion. Indeed, one of its chief glories is this marriage between history and experience, between the past and the present. We must never attempt to divorce them. We cannot do without the work of Christ, nor can we do without the witness of Christ's apostles, if we want to enjoy Christ's grace and peace today.

Source: Stott, John (1968) The Message of Galatians (Leicester: IVP), p.19, here

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Explaining the necessity of the atonement

From Tim Keller, notes from talks given at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary on preaching, here

Why is there need for atonement? Why does Christianity say that Jesus had to die in order for us to be re-united with God? Why can't God just forgive us? The answer is that no one can "just" forgive any serious wrong. If someone has betrayed you deeply and caused great harm - how do you forgive them? Forgiveness means refusing vengeful actions when you deeply want to make them pay for what they did. It means refusing to 'run them down' to others when you deeply want to slice up and ruin their reputation. It means even refusing thoughts of ill-will and rather turning your thoughts to pity and hope for their change. And as time goes on - if you stay the course, the anger will go away and the forgiveness is complete.

As anyone knows who has ever tried it - this is extremely painful, costly, and agonizing. If you do not forgive, you become hard and angry yourself, and a cycle of revenge and conflict goes on and on - so evil triumphs. On the other hand, if you do do the way of forgiveness, you will experience a great deal of pain and suffering yourself. There is no middle ground. Either you can make the perpetrator pay down the debt you feel (as you take it out of his hide in vengeance!) in which case evil wins - or you will absorb the debt yourself. It is the same in the economic realm as in the psychological realm. If someone knocks over your $100 lamp and says, "I'm so sorry" and you say "forget it!" you have forgiven them. But the $100 debt does not vanish into thin air. Either you make them pay it or absorb it yourself (by buying a new lamp or going without light in that corner.) So we see this principle - that when a serious wrong is committed, there is a "debt" that cannot be ignored or dismissed but must be dealt with, and that it must be dealt with through suffering.

Now, if we see this principle at our human level - that only way to defeat evil is through forgiveness that entails suffering - why are we surprised when we hear God telling us it is the same with him?... If when we are wronged we sense a debt cannot be just willed away, that must be paid for with suffering - how much more is God aware of the enormous debt of human beings' sin against one another and against the creation and against God himself. Either there must be judgment so that we suffer, or there must be forgiveness so God must suffer! There is no middle way. He cannot "just forgive" either. On the cross, God paid the debt himself. There we see at the spiritual and cosmic level what we know unavoidably at the psychological and relational level.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Two quotes on sin from Sinclair Ferguson

Two interesting quotes from The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson, both on sin.

On Psalm 51 - different perspectives on sin (words in italics are transliterated Hebrew, but without the accents)
The psalm begins (51.1-6) with a comprehensive analysis of the nature of sin as rebellion (pesa, transgression); as distortion (awon, iniquity); as failure (hattat, sin); as contrareity (against you, you only, have I sinned); as filth that needs to be cleansed (cleanse me... wash me); as falsehood and lack of authenticity and integrity (you desire truth [emet] in the inner parts) (p.137)

On 1 John 3.9; 5.18, that anyone born of God does not sin - here Ferguson offers a different view to that which I have been used to. Worth evaluating, I think.
Many commentators and versions understand John to be speaking here of sin as a prevailing habit. But the pointed language he uses (the Christian 'does not do sin') probably refers to the critical and radical deliverance from specific manifestations of the reign of sin which takes place at the point of union with Christ. Instead of remaining captive in concrete ways to the dominance of sin, the Christian becomes righteous precisely in those areas (cf. 1 Jn 2.29; 3.10). Thus the regenerate Saul seeks the fellowship, not the slaughter, of believers; the new man Zacchaeus gives money away rather than steals it; the transformed Philippian jailer cares for his prisoners rather than mistreats them; the runaway Onesimus, 'useless' in his old life, becomes a faithful servant and is 'useful' to Paul. (pp.129-130)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Decalogue in Old Testament Missiology

I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently engaged in some part-time theological studies with the Northern Training Institute (director Tim Chester). This is an assignment I wrote in October:
The Decalogue in Old Testament Missiology

The thesis of this paper:
God’s election of Abraham, and therefore the people of Israel, was for the sake of blessing all peoples of the world. Along with the Abrahamic covenant, God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt and the establishment of the covenant are Sinai are formative in shaping Israel’s identity as distinctive among the nations. That distinctiveness is expressed in exclusive devotion to the one true God, righteous living and cultic structures (tabernacle, priesthood, sacrificial system) that allow a holy God to dwell among a sinful people. In turn, that distinctiveness is to be a witness, revealing to the nations something of the character of the God who has bound himself to Israel. The Decalogue plays a foundational role within the Sinai covenant, establishing in a seminal way that God alone is to be worshipped, and that Israel is to live righteously. The Decalogue provides a basis for the polemic against idolatry and wickedness which continues throughout the Old Testament, both of which are perennial threats to the mission of Israel as a means of blessing to the nations. Through Israel’s distinctive witness, the nations are expected to come to know that the LORD alone is God, and the Old Testament looks forward to the time when the nations will come to obey the God who has revealed himself in Israel.

Old Testament Missiology
My starting-point is to take as a given that the whole Old Testament, indeed the whole Bible, is missiological.[1] Mission is not a sub-theme that only a few key texts address, but the theme of the whole. The Bible is a product of God’s mission in the world; it exists because God is working out in history his plan to redeem humanity and restore the cosmos. The Bible as a whole, therefore, should be read with a missional hermeneutic. That is, each part should be interpreted within the unfolding ‘meta-narrative’ of the redemptive history revealed progressively in the Scriptures.
Foundational to Old Testament missiology, and therefore crucial in shaping the hermeneutic with which we come to the Decalogue, are the promises to Abraham and the patriarchs. Following the descent into disaster traced out in Genesis 1-11, which ends with the scattering of the nations, hope re-emerges with God’s calling of Abraham. Notice the dynamic of particularity and universality in Abraham’s call. God chooses Abraham (and therefore his descendants, Israel), not any of the other nations. He is the recipient of special blessings from God; he enters into a uniquely privileged relationship with God. Yet the purpose of this particular election is universal in scope: the big picture is that through Abraham “all peoples on earth will be blessed.” Abraham (and Israel’s) election is for the purpose of mission. God’s mission is to bless all nations (the gospel in advance, according to Paul), but that universal goal has a particular historical method, namely God’s work in the specific history of an individual (Abraham) and the nation that will come from Him, culminating in the coming of the Seed through whom the blessing will be fulfilled. This dynamic of particularity and universality is important for interpreting the rest of the Old Testament.
On this basis, Old Testament missiology could perhaps be summarised as God at work in Israel for the sake of all peoples. Many times in the Old Testament that concern for the nations is explicit; at all times the promise to Abraham to bless the nations through him is the backdrop for all God’s work in the history of His people. With that perspective, we turn to the Decalogue, asking how it functions within God’s mission for all peoples. As we do so, we need to be continually asking what is God doing with the people of Israel (the particular) and how does that function within God’s worldwide mission? (the universal).
The Sinai Covenant
The Decalogue forms part of the series of significant, seminal events in the book of Exodus whose purpose is to shape the identity of Israel as the people of God. The exodus itself establishes Israel’s identity as a redeemed people, a people who only exist as an independent nation because God has graciously chosen to bring them out of slavery. Here too, God’s deliverance of Israel (the particular) serves a wider purpose (the universal) that Pharoah may know the LORD, indeed that God’s name “may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex 9.16 cf. 7.17; 8.19, 22-23; 9.14-16; 9.20; 9.29; 18.10-11 etc.)

On leaving Egypt, God did not take the people directly to the land of Canaan, but to the desert, the mountain of God and, most significantly, to Himself (Exodus 19.4). At Sinai, God enters into a deeper covenant relationship with Israel. In a spectacular and terrifying encounter on the mountain, God speaks ‘ten words’ to the people. More detailed instructions are given as to how the people are to live (e.g. Ex 21-23); the tabernacle is constructed, the priesthood is instituted and the sacrificial system set up.

Before coming to the Decalogue itself, it is worth making some remarks about the Sinai Covenant in general, starting with the ‘prelude’ to the covenant in Exodus 19.4-6:

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Notice the following points. Firstly, the covenant obligations given on Mount Sinai do not create the special relationship between God and Israel; that relationship already exists by virtue of the redemption from Egypt (v.4) (and that, in turn, is founded on the promises to Abraham).

Secondly, then, the Sinai covenant that is about to be enacted sets the terms by which that relationship is to be maintained and developed. God’s election and redemption of Israel was unconditional; their continuing relationship with God in covenant is in some sense conditional. If they keep the covenant, they will remain in that special relationship: “you will be my people and I will be your God.”

Thirdly, notice the particular-universal dynamic at work here. God is in a special relationship with Israel. They will be God’s treasured possession, among all the nations. The whole earth is God’s, but, uniquely, they will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. What is to take place on Mount Sinai will shape the identity of the people of Israel in ways that will make them unique among the peoples of the world.

One might think that the unique privileging of Israel is the very opposite of God’s mission to bless all the nations. Why only Israel? However, we have already suggested that God’s special work in Israel is for the sake of the nations, and this dynamic is present here, hinted at in the key phrases of verse 6. Israel in covenant with God is to have the dual function of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[2] Israel’s national life is to be distinctive (a holy nation); they are to be different from the other nations (and, implicitly, seen to be different: ie. the holiness of Israel is to function as a witness to the nations.) And Israel is to play, in some sense, a mediatorial role between God and the other nations (a priestly kingdom).[3] Wright argues that

It is… richly significant that God confers on Israel as a whole people the role of being his priesthood in the midst of the nations. As the people of YHWH they would have the historical task of bringing the knowledge of God to the nations, and bringing the nations to the means of atonement with God. The Abrahamic task of being a blessing to the nations also put them in the role of priests in the midst of the nations… The priesthood of the people of God is thus a missional function that stands in continuity with their Abrahamic election, and it affects the nations.[4]
The function of the Sinai covenant, then, from the perspective of Old Testament missiology, is to constitute Israel as distinctive from the other nations, and therefore a witness to and instrument of blessing to the other nations. In turn, that distinctiveness has a number of intertwining threads. There is to be single-mindedness in their devotion to God: they are not to worship the gods of the other nations (e.g. Exodus 20.3-6, 22-23; 23.24,32-33). They are to be ethically distinctive and not follow the detestable practices of the other nations. (e.g. Leviticus 18.3, 24-28; 20.26)

Above all, it is the presence of God Himself with his people that will make Israel distinctive: (Exodus 33.15-16)
The Lord replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’

The Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?

In fact, all the elements of the Sinai covenant can be understood as the terms by which God can and will be present with His people. They are the terms under which “they will be my people and I will be their God”. The tabernacle, priesthood and sacrificial system are all instituted to ‘protect’ that relationship – they control the double danger whereby the people’s sin would contaminate the holiness of God and the holiness of God would break out against the people’s sin. Likewise both idolatry and wickedness are warned against so severely since they would gravely endanger that relationship, as, for example, the incidents of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32-33) and Baal Peor (Numbers 25) show.

The Decalogue
Within the whole Sinai Covenant, the Decalogue plays a pivotal role. That there is something especially significant about the Ten Commandments is shown by a number of textual features. Firstly, these are the words spoken by God in the dramatic encounter on the mountain (Exodus 19.4-20.21), with its thunder, lightning, fire, and smoke. Moreover, it is these words that are written (twice) by the finger of God on tablets of stone (see Exodus 24.12; 31.18; 32.15-16,19; 34.1, 28; Deut 4.13; 5.22; 10.1-5). They are referred to as “the Ten Commandments” in several of these texts, and therefore treated as a distinct ‘thing’ in itself. Finally, the Decalogue is referred to simply as ‘the covenant’ (Deut 4.13; Exodus 31.18; 32.15; 34.28), which suggests that while the Sinai covenant can be understand to include all that took place on that mountain, in another sense, it is the Decalogue that is the key covenantal document.

In the giving of the Decalogue, then, God sets out the foundational obligations that the people of Israel are to keep. It begins with a declaration that reminds us again that the identity of Israel has already been established by God’s gracious deliverance out of Egypt. There then follow ten commands, four of which are primarily concerned with love for God, and six love for neighbour. Israel’s distinctiveness is to look like this: single-minded devotion to God and right living. And the Decalogue is important in Old Testament missiology for these two reasons: the polemic against idolatry and the imperative to righteous living. Those themes are of course found in many places in the Old Testament, but the Decalogue is foundational for those themes for a number of reasons. We have already seen the foundational function of the Decalogue within the Sinai covenant. Furthermore, many of the stipulations of the Decalogue are hinted at and anticipated before Sinai, but it is at the seminal event that they are formalised and emphasised so emphatically. In that way subsequent appearances of those two themes can be seen as the exposition and application of the Decalogue to the people of Israel. Israel are continually being called back to the original Sinai covenant.

The next step in my argument is to briefly trace through the Old Testament these two themes of idolatry and ethics as they are related to mission. In other words, I will be highlighting a number of instances where the polemic against idolatry and the ethical imperative set out so seminally in the Decalogue are applied by the Old Testament itself in the context of Israel’s mission in the world. What follows is illustrative rather than exhaustive.

Ethics and Old Testament Missiology
There are a number of instances where Israel’s ethical life and the witness to the nations are connected somewhat more explicitly. Here are a few examples:

1) Israel’s body of laws is meant to display to the nations that they are a people with “wisdom and understanding”, that they are great in comparison to the other nations both because God is near them when they pray and also because of the righteousness of their laws. (Deuteronomy 4.5-8)

2) Israel’s obedience to the commands of God will establish them as God’s holy people and “all the peoples on earth” will recognise that they are “called by the name of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 28.9-10)

3) Part of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple: Obedience to the commands of God is an integral factor in God ‘s upholding the cause of Israel, which in turn is “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.” (1 Kings 8.56-61)

4) There are many texts in the prophets along the lines of “if you, Israel, return to me, I will return to you.” Jeremiah 4.1-2 is remarkable in that, if Israel returns to the Lord – which includes the putting aside of idols and swearing “in a true, just and righteous way”, then “the nations will invoke blessings by him and in him they will boast.”

Leaving aside texts where the ethics-mission link is more explicit, the call for Israel to turn away from wickedness and live rightly is a constant refrain throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophets. More often than not, the distinctiveness of Israel as God’s special people, in contrast to the other nations, is in view. But if we remember that God’s particular election of Israel serves God’s universal purposes for the nations, then we must conclude that whenever Israel is being called to turn back to God, God’s concern for His reputation among the nations is implicit as well.

Idolatry and Old Testament Missiology
The polemic against idolatry is an aspect of the ethical imperative, for it is wicked not to exclusively worship the one true God. Nevertheless, idolatry is a distinct (though inter-connected) category, and, again, the constant warnings to Israel against idolatry, with their seminal formulation in the Decalogue, are highly significant for the theme of mission in the Old Testament.

Israel are to have “no other gods” before the LORD; neither are they to make and worship any image. And that is not merely because the LORD is their God, but the God; that is, the God that Israel worships is the one true God. And the exclusivity of devotion demanded of Israel is to demonstrate both to Israel and to the nations that the LORD is God and there is no other. (Deuteronomy 4.34, 39)

This is too vast a theme to treat in any detail at this point, but by way of illustration, perhaps Isaiah provides one of the clearest examples of the intertwining of the themes of idolatry and mission. One example will suffice – Isaiah 45.22-24 – where “all the ends of the earth” are called to turn to God and be saved because “I am God, and there is no other.” This is a summons which is made in the context of a sustained polemic against idolatry and repeated declarations of the uniqueness of the LORD.

The polemic against idolatry is the consequence of the Bible’s monotheism. And, as Wright argues, “biblical monotheism is necessarily missional (because the one living God wills to be known and worshiped throughout the whole creation)” while “biblical mission is necessarily monotheistic (because we are to call all people to and to join all creation in the praise of this one living God.”[5]

The Response of the Nations
If Israel in its righteous living and exclusive devotion to God was to be distinctive from the other nations, giving witness to the character of the one true God who had chosen to work in them in this special way, what kind of response was anticipated on behalf of the nations?

At one level, the nations were expected to come to “know the LORD”, at least in the sense of recognising the unique nature of Israel’s God. Some of the texts mentioned earlier point to this. On the other hand, the Sinai covenant was probably not intended as a simple blueprint for the nations to copy: that would go against the unique relationship Israel had with God, and the unique role assigned to them (cf. Romans 3.1-2; 9.4-5) and also the limited nature of the Sinai covenant in relation to the progression of redemption history (cf. Galatians 3.15-22; Hebrews 10.1 etc.).
Nevertheless, there is hope in the Old Testament that the nations will do more than simply recognise from the outside that the LORD is God – they will be incorporated into the people of God, and in doing so will, in some sense, accept the law of God given to Israel. So Isaiah 2.3:
Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem
But because of Israel’s failure to be what God called it to be, and the provisional nature of the Sinai covenant itself, the turning of the nations to God is something that is only anticipated in the Old Testament: as in Isaiah 2, it is a future hope. And so, only once Christ – the seed through whom blessing would come – had come and done his work, would the way for the nations to be fully incorporated into the people of God – through faith and obedience (Romans 1.5; 16.26)– be made open.

Alexander, T.Desmond (2002) (2nd ed.) From Paradise to Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch (Carlisle: Paternoster)
Motyer, Alec (2005) The Message of Exodus (Leicester: IVP)
Wright, Christopher (2006) The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Leicester: IVP)
[1] see Wright, Christopher The Mission of God chapter 2 etc. This paper has been influenced heavily by The Mission of God (see bibliography for full reference)
[2] Assuming that Israel fulfils its covenant obligations, which the covenant crisis of Exodus 32-34 puts in grave doubt straight away
[3] This interpretation of “kingdom of priests” is disputed. Motyer The Message of Exodus argues that it refers to the unique access that Israel has into the presence of God; Wright disputes this and argues for the interpretation advocated here. In other words, I’ve copied Wright on this point. See Wright Mission of God pp329-333
[4] Wright Mission of God p.331
[5] Wright Mission of God p.136