The following is an extract from a talk I gave at Week 1 of New Word Alive last week on 1 Peter 1:22-2:10:
Two for one deal
We know it’s not always easy to love your family. Yet, the God who brings us to new life in Christ also brings us to a new love for his people. Peter says (1 Pet 1:22) ‘you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth’ by which he means we have believed the gospel. But in the very same verse he tells us of something else we have along with our new life in Jesus: v.22, you also ‘have sincere love for your brothers.’
With new life comes a new love. It’s a two for the price of one deal. And we ought to expect love to flow out of life because the God who gave us this new life is the God is love. God is life and God is love and if his word has entered our hearts then the word that brings us to life in Jesus will also brings us to love our brothers.
Bible logic says ‘you do love, so love!’
But there’s one other thing that Peter knows and it’s this loving your new family is not easy is it. The comedian George Burns once said ‘happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.’ It’s the day to day business of getting along together as a family that proves so hard. No wonder Bible logic says, v.22, ‘you do love one another’ and then in the very next sentence also say ‘so go on loving one another deeply from the heart.’ We all know that we can say of many people ‘I do love and yet I need a lot of help to love you as a fellow Christian at times.’
And it’s a big ask to love as God loves. Peter doesn’t say tolerate one another, nor does he say love one another when someone obviously needs love, or love the people you like, or the people you want to like you but love one another (that’s every brother or sister) and love them deeply and love them from the heart.
Our society says love people for what they do for you, or give to you – the gospel says love your brother or sister simply for who are they are – your family in Christ. That’s how families work. Family is about the one place where you love people despite what they do! Family is the one time you choose hang out people you have nothing else in common with except that you are family. Any other group and you’d walk away but because its family you make it work.
And Jesus shows me just what this looks like. He knew how to love deeply and from the heart. When Jesus loved he seemed to make life more difficult for himself rather than less. He picked out they people most difficult people to love. Don’t you think that Zacchaeus was probably a really irritating person? Don’t you think the disciples were a frustration to Jesus at times and at other times a disappointment and an embarrassment?
Love is about what you don’t do
And Peter wants you to know that loving someone is as much about what we don’t do as what we do do. In chapter 2v1 he says ‘rid yourselves of all malice, deceit, hypocrisy and slander of every kind.’ Love isn’t always about how I feel towards someone, love in the Bible is rarely sentimental. Love means deciding not to damage other Christians by my words and my example, not to put myself and my feelings first, not to be so constantly full of my own opinions and ideas that I speak too hastily and harshly to others. Everything that Peter describes in 2v1 – all of these flaws and failings – are sins that damage other Christians, things that destroy our life together.
God has put you into a new family that you might help one another to grow. The goal of life together is that we, v.2, ‘grow up in our salvation’
The church shouldn’t be a place where we just tell each other to grow up but where we help each other to grow up.
Maybe you can think of one or two people whom God has used just in the past few weeks or months to do just that for you. And growing up is what your new life is all about. I have a 2 year old son. He is full of new life. He is for the most part adorably cute – or at least I thought so until Monday afternoon when he decided to put a roll of toilet paper in the sink, blocking the plug hole, turned both taps full on and flooded the downstairs bathroom.
Do you know what I thought to myself as I mopped that bathroom floor? I thought a few things actually but one thing was this; I can’t wait for you to grow up but then I also thought and it’s my job to help you. I have a responsibility to make sure you do grow up.
The word of God brings us to new life and its brings us to new love and we know that a church is living out the gospel as we help our Christian brother and sister grow up into their salvation. That’s not easy. Living together in the Powell household is not always easy and it’s not always easy in our church family either
Growing up is a messy business we need a lot of patience with each other we will let each other down, we will hurt one another, we’ll do and say stupid things we’ll accuse one another of being immature – it’s then that we need to remember that we’re growing up together.
Growing up is not only a messy business it’s a slow business we aren’t the people we want to be. Ask any child how frustrating it can be when they know they want to be riding a bike without stabilisers or swimming without armbands. Why do I find it so hard to change? Why do I keep making the same mistakes? Only a deep love from the heart can enable me to overcome my many failings.
Growing up may be a messy business and a slow business but more than anything else it is a necessary business isn’t it. I hope my son is not putting toilet rolls in the sink when he’s 10!
And the key to growing up together? Well ask any new born baby its craving milk. For Peter that is the milk of the word. Like new born babies lets crave God’s word so that the truth of the gospel changes hearts and minds and grows that new life to maturity.
A sad and sobering report in the Telegraph of a University of Montreal study in which they could not find a male student who had not consumed pornography.
The study found that the average age at which boys were introduced to porn was 10 years old.It also found that single men viewed pornography 3 times a week for an average of 40 minutes each time and men in relationships 1.7 times a week for 20 minutes each time.
What does all this mean for Christians? Who’s keeping watch in your church? Here are 12 questions that spring to mind that need the attention of any leadership team.
2. How and when should be raising the issue with our children? At what age? In what way?
3. How and in what context should we be talking about these issues with the men of our church? When did we last talk to the men about this?
4. What do we need to say to wives and girlfriends? Do they understand the nature of the struggle?
5. How do we protect marriages from ‘virtual-adultery’? Are we helping husbands and wives to talk wisely and appropriately about this issue?
6. What are the statistics for women? Is this a growing issue for both sexes?
7. What accountability structures do church leaders have in place for their own behaviour? Who is asking them whether they are viewing pornography? How can they model godliness in this area of life?
8. What support and accountability do we offer for those willing to acknowledge that this is an issue for them? What church discipline is appropriate too?
9. What are the lies that capture our hearts and make pornography a battle for every man? Do we understand its power?
10. Do we know how to fight this battle through the gospel rather than by mere will-power of self-control?
11. What do we want to say to non-Christians who might be part of the wider church community?
12. How do we help apply the gospel to those who have a ‘past’ in this area even if it is no longer a dangerous issue?
The Happy, Humble Work of a Mother is a super blog post on the unique challenges of parenting pre-school kids. The heart-issue behind all of our work and especially work that is draining, repetitive and that often goes unthanked is ‘are we content to serve the needs of those who most need our help, regardless of their response?’ Well, in the gospel we remember that our work is an imitation of the work of God in Christ who came to serve us. As Melissa McDonald writes When ‘we humbly sacrifice our time and energy again (and again!). Joyfully we reflect our Savior.
Why not share it with those in need of encouragement in their work of raising kids today.
(HT: Mim Pike)
Last Saturday morning the men at City Church gave some time to thinking through issues of sexual purity. This post is the second part of my handout that went with the talk. Part one is here
3) Go to God with your behaviour
Know the compassion of a gracious God . ‘The Lord pities his people’ – JC Ryle
Your natural instinct is to turn to yourself, instead of to Jesus. This is true of all sin, but it’s obvious in your struggle with pornography because it’s a solitary pursuit. Your pornographic sins are, by definition, only about you: what you want, what you hope for, and what you long for. When you are facing hard or disappointing circumstances—boredom, loneliness, money problems, fighting with a spouse, distance from a friend—it’s easy (and instinctive) to turn in on yourself and try to escape your troubles by going to your fantasy life.
Apply the gospel to your behaviour
The gospel is not only a comfort for you as you struggle with sin. It is God’s very means of fighting sin. Just saying ‘no’ or taking cold showers is not a way to fight something that has a first-place in our hearts. The only thing that roots out sin is to replace that sin with a higher or greater love. Loving Christ more than we love sin breaks its attraction and therefore its power over us.
Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) preached a sermon entitled The expulsive power of a new affection in which he set out exactly how the Christian can and should fight sin:
Salvation by grace, salvation by free grace, salvation not by obedience but according to the mercy of God, is indispensable. . . to. . . godliness. Retain a single shred or fragment of legality with the Gospel. . . and you take away the power of the Gospel to melt and reconcile. For this purpose, the freer it is, the better it is. That very peculiarity of the Gospel which so many dread as the germ of Antinomianism [permission to sin without consequence], is, in fact, the germ of a new spirit, and a new inclination against sin.
Along with the light of a free Gospel, the love of the Gospel enters. To the measure that you impair Gospel freeness, you also chase away this love. And never does the sinner find within himself so mighty a moral transformation, as when under the belief that he is saved by grace, he feels constrained thereby to offer his heart as a devoted thing to God, and to eschew ungodliness.
[Why is this grateful love so important?] It is rare that any of our [bad habits or flaws] disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom that this is done through the process of reasoning. . . or by the force of mental determination. But what cannot be destroyed may be thrown out—just as one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection in the mind.
So, eventually, a boy may cease to be a slave of his appetite. How? Because a [more 'mature'] taste has brought it into subordination. The youth ceases to idolize [sensual] pleasure. Why? Because the idol of wealth has. . . gotten the ascendancy. Even the love of money can cease to have mastery over the heart because it is drawn into the whirl of [ideology and politics] and he is now lorded over by a love of power [and moral superiority]. But in none of these transformations is the heart left without an object to worship. Its desire for one particular object may be conquered—but its desire to have some object. . . is unconquerable. . . .
The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. . . It is only. . . when, through faith in Jesus Christ, as we are received as God’s children, that the spirit of adoption is poured out on us—and the heart, brought under the mastery of one great and predominant affection, is delivered from the tyranny of its former desires. That is the only way that deliverance is possible.
Thus, for true change to occur. . . it is not enough. . . to hold out to the world a mirror of its own imperfections. It is not enough to demonstrate the evanescent character of your Christian life. . . or to speak to the conscience. . . of its foolishness. . . Rather, try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts, for the love of Him who is greater than the world.
4) Go to others that they might be God’s change-agents in your life
Christian growth comes in and through community. Sexual sin has a hold on us because we do not use the resources God has given to fight it. That resource includes others. Rick Warren writes:
If you’re losing the battle against a persistent bad habit, an addiction, or a temptation, and you’re stuck in a repeating cycle of good intention-failure-guilt, you will not get better on your own. You need the help of other people. Some temptations are only overcome with the help of a partner who prays for you, encourages you, and holds you accountable.
a) Who are you willing and able to talk to about these issues?
b) Who is going to remind you of the gospel in the midst of your struggle?
c) What accountability can you build into these relationships?
d) What protections can you put in place to help you in the fight?
Conclusion – Hope and the power of the gospel
What seems so small and so weak (an acorn) has the power to break even the strongest stone. So the gospel is powerful to set you free from even the most besetting of sins. However you feel about the battle with lust the gospel is able not only to save you from your sins and to comfort you in your falls but to give you some level of victory over sins like lust.
Tim Keller tells the following story about the power of the gospel that is in you.
A minister was in Italy, and there he saw the grave of a man who had died centuries before who was an unbeliever and completely against Christianity, but a little afraid of it too. So the man had a huge stone slab put over his grave so he would not have to be raised from the dead in case there is a resurrection from the dead. He had insignias put all over the slab saying, “I do not want to be raised from the dead. I don’t believe in it.” Evidently, when he was buried, an acorn must have fallen into the grave. So a hundred years later the acorn had grown up through the grave and split that slab. It was now a tall towering oak tree. The minister looked at it and asked, “If an acorn, which has power of biological life in it, can split a slab of that magnitude, what can the acorn of God’s resurrection power do in a person’s life?”
The minute you decide to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord, the power of the Holy Spirit comes into your life. It’s the power of the resurrection—the same thing that raised Jesus from the dead …. Think of the things you see as immovable slabs in your life—your bitterness, your insecurity, your fears, your self-doubts. Those things can be split and rolled off. The more you know him, the more you grow into the power of the resurrection.
Post-script: Why marriage won’t fix things
It’s not about sex, not even about lust, it’s about you and the gospel. Tim Chester comments,
It you’re not yet married, porn is a sin against your future wife. You’re also creating a set of expectations that bears no relation to real sex or real marriage. You’re storing up a database of images that will compete with your future wife. You’re gifting the devil, a reservoir of temptations to use against you.
Using porn is a bad way of preparing not to use it when you’re married! Every time you use porn, you’re giving it more control over your heart. You’re sowing a bitter harvest for your married life.
Here are my notes (part 1) from a City Church men’s breakfast held last Saturday morning exploring issues of lust and pornography.
A. Why can’t we talk about it?
1) a secret sin
2) a shameful sin
3) a highly-addictive sin
4) a debilitating sin
5) an enslaving sin
6) an isolating sin
All of which is a recipe for denial and deceit.
B. Why might we not be in the fight?
2) We’ve tried everything and failed
3) We don’t know how to apply the gospel to sexual sin in a way that helps us fight sin
4) We dare not ask for help or speak to others about our sin
C. Is change possible?
Yes,by God’s grace. Change happens when you
1) Face your behaviour honestly
2) Understand the roots of your behaviour
3) Go to God to work true (gospel) change in your behaviour
4) Include others as God’s change-agents in your behaviour
1) Face up to your behaviour
Flee sexual immorality – 1 Corinthians 6:18
a) What is it doing to God?
- Dishonouring God – 1 Cor. 6:18-20
- Denying Christ – 1 Cor.6:18-20
- Grieving the Spirit – Ephesians 4:30
b) What is it doing to me?
- Robbing you of your joy
- Rendering you ineffective in ministry
- Weighing you down with a guilty conscience
- Creating barriers between you and your wife, girlfriend
- Our salvation is at stake
- Hebrews 12:14 - Without holiness no one will see the Lord
- Matthew 5:27-30 - “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
- Ephesians 5:3-5 - But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
c) What is it doing to my spouse (future spouse)?
Porn (or lust more generally) hijacks your brain. One secular author has said:
Countless men have described to me how while using porn, they have lost the ability to relate or be close to women. They have trouble being turned on by “real” women, and their sex lives with their girlfriends or wives collapse.
2) Understand your behaviour
The problem is in your heart and not in your Internet provider – Mark Driscoll
a) Understand and avoid the circumstances in which you are tempted.
David Pawlinson advises asking ourselves to work out the triggers for temptation;
- When does it happen? What is going on? What happened that day?
- What were you thinking about? What was the nature of the temptation?
- What did you do about it? Did you act on it?
- If you didn’t act on it, how did that happen?
- If you did what did you do after you fell?
- How did you recover? What was the after-effect?
Keeping this journal will help you see what is really going on in your struggle with pornography. As you start to grapple with your deeper sin patterns, you’ll see that your problem is much bigger, your need for grace is much deeper, and your goal is much more magnificent than you ever imagined.
b) Understand the underlying causes of sexual temptation
Is it hardship, boredom, hurt, anger, betrayal, loneliness?
Sexual temptation is rarely simply about sex. Sexual temptation is usually much more about idolatry. When we stumble into sexual sin what we are seeking is a form of salvation. In secular language we might say ‘escapism’ but what we are really doing is asking our fantasies to rescue us from a world of insignificance, rejection, loneliness, boredom, etc.
Tim Chester writes:
Our longing for porn is a version of our longing for God.
The following six-points are adapted from Tim Chester’s book and highlight how in six different ways we look to pornography to save us from ourselves. He then goes on to show how the gospel is the real answer to our temptations.
i. Porn says ‘in my world you’re significant’
The fantasy-world of pornography is attractive to people because at least in that world they are not only noticed but they rule! Porn provides a fantasy world in which you’re potent, adored, the centre of attention. Women ‘offer’ themselves to you. That is a very attractive thought to self-centred fallen humanity.
Is that really good news?
Any gospel that put’s you at the centre and through which everyone else exists only to serve you is not good news at all. It’s not only fake reality but a very damaging one! The gospel is the daily lesson of learning not to see yourself as the only one that matters.
God’s gospel also says ‘in my world you’re significant’ but in a true way.
We’re significant because we matter to God. He loves and adores us but not because we are lovely but simply because he has chosen to love us. So we receive God’s love in an undeserved way because of Jesus. The result – God is in his proper place and I am in mine.
ii. Porn says ‘in my world you’ll never be lonely’
Porn promises the relationship we seek and the intimacy we crave. In the world of porn I don’t face rejection and I never need feel lonely.
As Tim Chester comments; Porn offers a safe alternative to intimacy
‘It seemed like a safe way to be sexually active without getting involved in a real relationship.’
‘Fearing rejection, we retreat into the fantasy world of porn in which women adore us and offer themselves to us without risk.’
God’s gospel is one in which he says ‘in my world you’ll never be lonely’.
Rather than retreating in false intimacy because we cannot risk rejection. The gospel offers us the unconditional acceptance that I crave and need. In a relationship with God that will go on for ever.
I may or may not enjoy the intimacy of marriage and of a sexual union in this life but the gospel promise is that human intimacy even between a husband and a wife is just pointing us ahead to the perfection of an intimacy with God that will continue for ever.
iii. Porn says ‘I can make your problems disappear’
Porn for so many is a form of escapism. People leaving their problems far behind as they seek an adrenaline fuelled high. Porn offers to takes you to another place on a legal high.
So when circumstances are too daunting. When you’re facing exams, deadlines, difficulties at home or work the quick fix of porn is the gospel for many.
Is that really good news?
Like any other form of abuse porn creates its own vicious circle. It gives you a brief high but then comes the big low of shame and guilt. And so you repeat it all over again.
God says ‘Do not escape your troubles – know God in your troubles’
Escapism is a failure to come to terms with reality and an unwillingness to face up to life in a fallen world. For the Christian valuable lessons are learnt in the troubles. Lessons that often can’t be learned any other way.
Paul pleaded with the Lord to take away his troubles ‘the thorn in his flesh’ but Jesus said ‘my grace is sufficient’. That is the good news of the gospel.
Paul writes: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.(Philippians 4:5-6)
iv. Porn says ‘I am your reward for a good life lived’
For some porn is a form of escapism from the pressures of life but at other times it can function as a reward for endurance. Maybe the temptation comes from the thought that my hard-work goes unrecognised at home or work or in an even more subtle and perverse way my sacrifice for the gospel goes un-thanked then porn says I can compensate you for your labours or I can reward you for…
We might say ‘I’m giving up stuff for Christ, even the chance to be sexually active as an unmarried Christian man and porn is my compensation.’
God gospel promises a reward for obedience that is a good ultimate and lasting joy
Porn may tempt with a quick fix but it is Christ who promises a true reward when we work hard for him. Yes, we may have to wait for our final reward and it is primarily a future one but the promise of blessing now for those who serve him well is given by Jesus too.
Jesus says: I tell you the truth, Jesus said to them, no-one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life. (Luke 18:29-30)
Chester comments: The life of obedience is not the bad life or the sad life. It’s the good life. Life with God and for God is the best life you could live. Change is about enjoying the freedom from sin and delight in God that God gives to us through Jesus.
v. Porn says ‘I am the god that always gives you what you want in exactly the way you want it’
The gospel of porn is a call to switch allegiance to a god who is altogether more willing to give us what we want. Why serve a God who does not satisfy your every demand when porn will?
When we turn to the idol of porn Chester notes it ‘can be an expression of anger, revenge, resentment or ingratitude…Porn may even be an act of anger against God, when life hasn’t turned out the way we want.’ It can mean turning to a god who is no god at all out of frustration with our Christian life.
Why go God’s way in life if that involves difficulty and delay? When Satan offers Jesus the kingdoms of this world he is tempting him to take what will one day be rightfully his and grab it now.
God’s gospel says ‘will not God graciously give us all things’
In the gospel of Jesus God has promised us everything we need even if that is not everything that we want. I once heard Tim Keller say in a sermon ‘unless we are willing to let God contradict us haven’t we simply made God in our own image’.
In the gospel of God is a call to recognise and rejoice in the thought that God has withheld no good thing from us for he has given far more than we deserve and he has given us his son.
vi. Porn says ‘I can save you from yourself’
All false gospels are attractive because they promise us a new life. A life in which we can be different people. Porn says I can give you significance, intimacy, freedom from worry, reward and success and all with ease.
Porn offers us a way out of a tough life. It offers us heaven on earth. Well at least for a time. The attraction is in the quick fix, instant result.
‘I just want to feel that I’m OK, I turn to porn instead of God because the gospel doesn’t tell me that I’m OK.’
The biggest lie of all is in this gospel that is no gospel at all. For this gospel of porn is a gospel that takes us far from Christ and from the God who made us and loves us. In choosing this gospel we turn our backs on the only gospel that can save.
God’s gospel says ‘only God can save you from yourself.’
He is the one who atones for our sin and he is the one making us new. His spirit is able to transform us into the likeness of Christ with ever-increasing glory.
She has millions in the bank and a football hunk in her bed – but Victoria Beckham insists she still needs to prove herself every day. The singer and designer puts her success down to hard work and admitted her self-esteem often needed boosting. So began a piece in yesterday’s Metro newspaper reporting the edited highlights of an interview in this month’s Elle magazine with Posh. She says of herself;
When I was on-stage with the Spice Girls, I thought people were there to see the other four and not me. And when I go out with David and people take pictures I think, “They’re here to take David’s pictures.
On her move into the fashion industry she reveals how her fears about herself continue to fuel her ambitions. It was never my intention to prove anybody wrong. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I don’t have to work, I need to work.
What’s more her insecurities find their own expression not just in the need to work but in the way she works. Admitting to being a ‘control freak’ she confesses You’ve got to trust people. Sometimes that’s difficult for me because I want to micro-manage absolutely everything. I can’t hand over. But I’m trying to do that more.
What Victoria Beckham recognises is that our fundamental insecurities about who we are and why we matter often find expression in our work. Whether that is the barely suppressed envy of colleagues or our need to control others or even the need to better them through overwork and unhealthy ambition, we are really struggling with our own identity and place in the world.
Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavour is a book in which he not only highlights these realities and their source but sets out just how the gospel is able to transform our work lives. Through the gospel we no longer need to work for an identity (which will always leave us insecure) but from an identity, given to us in Jesus Christ. Accepted by God, chosen and dearly loved, adopted as his children, our motives for work are transformed. Keller writes;
The truth will change your identity. It will convince you of your real, inestimable value. And ironically, when you see how much you are loved, your work will become far less selfish. Suddenly all the other things in your work life – your influence, your resume,and the benefits they bring you – become just things. You can risk them, spend them, and even lose them. You are free.
Taking the example of Esther in the Bible who as a royal Queen became a person of greatness not by trying to make a name for herself; and you will become a person of greatness not by trying to make yourself into one, but by serving the One who said to his Father, “For your sake, thy will be done.
JC Ryle asks ‘Who is responsible when people refuse God’s offer in the gospel?’
There is nothing wanting on God’s part for the salvation of sinners’ souls: no one will ever be able to say at last that it was God’s fault, if he is not saved. The Father is ready to love and receive; the Son is ready to pardon and cleanse guilt away; the Spirit is ready to sanctify and renew; angels are ready to rejoice over the returning sinner; grace is ready to assist him; the Bible is ready to instruct him; heaven is ready to be his everlasting home. One thing only is needful, and that is – the sinner must be ready and willing himself. Let this also never be forgotten: let us not quibble and split hairs upon this point. God will be found clear of the blood of all lost souls.
Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of Matthew – The Wedding Banquet, Matthew 22:1-14
A friend of mine was enjoying a pint in the pub when a guy he didn’t know offered him a job. The job was working on a building site for a multi-storey office block. My friend had never done anything like it but was up for a challenge so he turned up, found a hard hat and walked on-site. Within a few hours he was operating a pneumatic drill breaking up a concrete floor that needed to be re-laid. Within a few minutes of starting he was falling through the floor onto another concrete floor below. He missed scaffolding pipes by a few inches that would have broken his back. He could have died, he ‘should’ have died and if he had, others would have been guilty of his death.
You might say he should have had the sense to have not been there in the first place, but nevertheless someone should have been protecting him. He was put in a dangerous place that he had no right to be in — unprepared for the dangers that awaited him, he nearly lost his life.
I tell the tale because I have recently been reminded that I have a job that involves protecting people from entering dangerous places. The pastor-shepherd protects the flock and the way we protect, at least in part, is by saying ‘don’t go there’ when we see or sense danger.
That charge to protect is a call to ‘preach the negatives’. Our preaching needs to challenge wrong living but it also needs to warn of dangerous theology. In a talk I heard last week I was reminded that false teaching doesn’t even necessarily have to affirm that which is false. False teachers often start by promoting dangerous ideas in an altogether more subtle and invasive way. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins is a case in point. When you turn deadly ideas into open questions, you invite God’s people to enter dangerous places.
Hugh Palmer, Rector at All Souls Church, London (the home of John Stott’s ministry for over 50 years) warned in a recent talk that Bell’s book ‘opens the door to tragic places and never closes them’. You don’t have to walk through the door yourself to be a false teacher, you merely have to open one after another and invite others to explore for themselves where they would like to go.
Our ministry has to have some negatives. We protect the flock by preaching the truth but also by locking and double-locking the doors of dangerous and deadly ideas and then we stand in the way of anyone reaching for the handle.
Paul writes in Acts 20 in his farewell message to the Ephesian elders;
Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!
The preacher must know the truth, preach the truth and warn against those ideas that oppose the truth.
It’s desperately sad to see Steve Chalke walk away from evangelical truth in his recent statements in support of practising homosexuality, arguing that it is consistent with Biblical Christianity. But what is also culpable is the decision of those at Christianity magazine to promote his ideas in the most public way by letting him open doors in people’s minds, many of whom are vulnerable to dangerous ideas. True, the magazine also presents the biblical evangelical position alongside Chalke’s ideas but in effect, that is to leave two doors open and invite people to decide for themselves.
The defence the editor of the magazine makes is, first, that Steve Chalke has written for the magazine for a number of years
(so it’s the least they could do to give his ideas such a prominent place in this month’s edition?) and secondly
opening up the issues is what this magazine does. We’re evangelical in conviction, but our approach has never been to suppress what others think, whether within or outside of evangelicalism.
I hope you notice the emotive choice of words. If it is an act of ‘suppression’ to silence false teaching then the same charge applies to Jesus and the apostles who spend considerable time not only refusing to promote dangerous ideas but actively speaking out against them.
Christianity magazine has decided to leave open the door that Chalke has walked through, and their rationale is that they have opened another door in an alternative and more traditional point of view presented by Greg Downes. What this all amounts to is opening two doors and inviting people to decide for themselves which they will walk through. One door leads to life and the other, death. One must be closed and locked, but that will only happen if you are prepared to preach the negatives.
Most of us ministers think the test of a good church is one that preaches the gospel faithfully. That must be right. But is it enough? In the new free e-book Brothers we are still not professional Ray Ortland Jr. wants us to recognise a further test of orthodoxy. Does our church not just preach the gospel but evidence transformation through the existence of a recognisable gospel culture. The issue his chapter addresses is the necessary connection between preaching the gospel of grace and living out the gospel of grace in our church communities. So the challenge for any who are leading churches is not just to preach a gospel message in our churches but to build a Gospel Culture.
What should be happening in our churches?
Where the gospel is faithful preached and carefully applied the church community ought to exhibit the transforming effect of that gospel. Ortland describes a church shaped by gospel preaching as a social environment of acceptance and hope and freedom and joy. As different books of the Bible highlight different aspects of the gospel so they shape the community in different ways. Ortland suggests;
- The doctrine of regeneration creates a culture of humility (Ephesians 2:1–9).
- The doctrine of justification creates a culture of inclusion (Galatians 2:11–16).
- The doctrine of reconciliation creates a culture of peace (Ephesians 2:14–16).
- The doctrine of sanctification creates a culture of life (Romans 6:20–23).
- The doctrine of glorification creates a culture of hope (Romans 5:2) and honor (Romans 12:10).
- The doctrine of God—what could be more basic than that? — creates a culture of honesty and confession (1 John 1:5–10).
The gospel really does have power to create God’s new society that is radically different from the world. However the sad reality is that whilst individual lives may be being changed through the gospel sadly too many churches find their community life a pale imitation of what we should expect.
So why is it that churches that preach the gospel fail to be transformed by the gospel?
Here are a few thoughts from my own experience
1. Because it’s a whole lot easier to preach the gospel than to live it. Many things will work against the transformation of our life together. Sin in all its forms; apathy, indifference, self-centredness, etc. will inevitably make establishing a gospel culture harder than ensuring faithful gospel preaching. Gospel preaching requires just one man to get it right, gospel transformation requires the whole community to put it into practice. What all that means is that it is not automatic that a church preaching the gospel will be being transformed by the gospel. We should recognise that it is always a slower process than we would like (as is our personal sanctification) but still it ought to become increasingly evident in a gospel-preaching church.
2. Because as preachers in our sermons we spend too little time applying the Bible to the community life of the church. My training for preaching prepared me well to preach to the individual Christian but much less the church body. For most preachers we find individual applications relatively straight-forward but I have to say I’ve lost count of the number of sermons that fail to even once address the gathered church.
We need to ask ‘what does this sermon mean for us as a church family?’ as well as for us as individuals. We ought to lead our congregations through our preaching and corporate applications are key here.
3. Because we British (!) struggle to find appropriate ways to celebrate how the gospel is impacting our communities. We don’t often talk about how the gospel is at work in our relationships in the church. Perhaps we ought, in our preaching to celebrate examples of gospel transformation in action. So, for example, a sermon that features the theme of inclusion provides an opportunity to comment on how we’re getting on at relating to those who are different from ourselves in church and to celebrate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationships and how different church is to other communities.
4. Because we think a gospel culture should just grow organically rather than be nurtured. It’s true that much transformation can be seen simply through individuals deciding to put the gospel to work in relationships with other Christians. But why should we simply leave people to it? We don’t think gospel-preaching just happens which is why we give considerable time to training young preachers, reviewing sermons and preparing well for our own preaching. So what energy could we put into facilitating a gospel culture? What training could we put in place? What formal as well as informal opportunities could we create to facilitate gospel relationships?
Don’t let your test of orthodoxy be limited to how faithfully you are preaching the gospel but ask too ‘how is the gospel of the living God transforming our church?’ For much is at stake; Ray Ortland includes this terrific quote from Francis Schaeffer’s The Church Before the Watching World.
One cannot explain the explosive dynamite, the dunamis, of the early church apart from the fact that they practiced two things simultaneously: orthodoxy of doctrine and orthodoxy of community in the midst of the visible church, a community which the world could see. By the grace of God, therefore, the church must be known simultaneously for its purity of doctrine and the reality of its community. Our churches have so often been only preaching points with very little emphasis on community, but exhibition of the love of God in practice is beautiful and must be there.
On Sunday evening City Church held its, now annual tradition, of Carols by Candlelight courtesy of The Blue Coat School in Birmingham. Beautiful music in a beautiful setting. Below is the text of my talk.
One particularly naughty young boy was worried that he might not get what he was hoping for at Christmas so as he sat at his desk writing a Christmas list to Jesus. He began, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy the whole year, so I want a new…’ but then crumples it up into a ball and throws it away. Beginning with a new piece of paper he starts again, ‘Dear baby Jesus, I have been a good boy for most of the year, so I want a new…’ No good he thinks and throws it away. But then he has an inspired idea. He runs downstairs and removes the statue of Mary from the nativity set, puts it in the wardrobe, and locks the door. He takes another piece of paper and writes, ‘Dear baby Jesus. If you ever want to see your mother again…’
Well how are the Christmas preparations going this year? Some of you are looking pretty relaxed the trees up, cards have been sent, the presents bought and wrapped. Some of you are not looking quite so confident, maybe still have a little bit of work to do? Well I’m glad that whatever your situation you’ve made some time to sing carols tonight.
Can I start asking what, in particular, does Christmas mean to you?
Christmas is a few drinks too many – well that’s the answer for some
Christmas is for the kids – lots of us would echo that
Christmas is about the traditions we remember fondly from our own childhood
Christmas is a time to reconnect with the family we struggle to see at any other time of year
Christmas is cancelled or is that wishful thinking for some of you or at least delayed. For some, Christmas can be one of the toughest times of the year.
Well I hope this evening has helped to encourage you that despite all the work we all have to put in, Christmas really is worth celebrating. I wonder whether you’ve seen the Christmas classic film It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart? The American Film Institute ranked it as the most inspirational film of all time and I guess that’s why it’s still shown in America every Christmas day even though it was made in 1946!
The story is about a man called George who thinks that his life has not amounted to anything much and on a snowy Christmas eve is considering ending it all by jumping from a bridge into the icy waters below. But God sends an angel called Clarence, dressed as a man, to rescue him. Clarence’s job is to change George’s mind and what he does is show George Bailey how different the world would have looked if he had never been born. In a world without George Bailey so may lives would have taken a turn for the worse if a man like him had not been there for them.
After he shows him a world in which George Bailey had never existed Clarence the angel concludes; Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?
George is a man transformed at looking at his life in a new perspective and the film ends well. A life lived that brings so much blessing to others IS a wonderful life. He is the richest man in the world!
No doubt there are many people that have played a part in your life who in big ways or small you are grateful for this Christmas time every human life in some sense is a life that makes a difference. In a carol service we’re thinking about one life in particular – the life of Jesus.
What If Jesus had never been born? Would it really make any difference? The 2011 census results show that 25% of people in England and Wales claim to be of no religion. One recent survey found that 51% of people agreed with the statement that ‘The birth of Jesus is irrelevant to my Christmas”
I suppose that means if you ask them what difference the life of Jesus makes, their answer would be none. I guess it is possible to celebrate Christmas without Jesus. To get me in the mood for Christmas I thought I’d try listening to a CD recommended in the paper called Christmas with my friends by Nils Landgren. The first track I listened to was a Swedish setting of O little town of Bethlehem, but weirdly the second is Imagine by John Lennon. What a curious choice of song for a Christmas album as you sing along at Christmas imagine there’s no heaven! Why not celebrate Christmas by imagining that the world would be a better place if Jesus had never been born?!
But there again I suppose it is an extraordinary thing that we should even be in this building at all this evening, remembering the life of a man who lived so long ago. After all his story should be a footnote of history; born in an obscure village, a child was born of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village where He worked as a carpenter until He was thirty. Then for three years He became an itinerant preacher.
This man never went to college or university. He never wrote a book. He never held a public office. He never had a family nor owned a home. He never put His foot inside a big city nor travelled even 200 miles from His birthplace. And He never did any of the things that usually accompany greatness, throngs of people followed Him
And yet in Communist China, the Economist magazine estimates, he is worshipped by more people than there are members of the state Communist Party. Somewhere between 70-100 million people in China will celebrate his birth this Christmas.
Someone has written This one Man’s life has furnished the theme for more songs, books, poems and paintings than any other person or event in history. Thousands of colleges, hospitals, orphanages and other institutions have been founded in honour of this One who gave His life for us.
All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the governments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned have not changed the course of history as much as this One Solitary Life.
HG Wells, author of War of the Worlds famously said;
I am a historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very centre of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history. Christ is the most unique person of history. No man can write a history of the human race without giving first and foremost place to the penniless teacher of Nazareth.
We celebrate at Christmas one life like no other. One life that was always designed to make the most radical difference. This is how Matthew records the birth of Jesus;
an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
The birth of Jesus is the beginning of a wonderful life that makes all the difference in the world. Let me tell you two reasons why I’m glad that Jesus was born and why I’m ready to celebrate his birth this Christmas.
1. Jesus is God with us
Lots of my friends aren’t sure whether to believe in a God and they’re not sure why this God rather than another God. The birth of Jesus brings to an end our debates and speculation about God. We don’t need to argue over God and big bang or look for clues in the fabric of the universe. God is no figment of our imagination for God has entered our world, become one of us.
And not only does that bring clarity in a world of confusion but it brings comfort in a world of pain. That God should become one of us brings God home. When I read in the papers or witness on the news all the sadness and pain that surrounds the tragic events of Newtown Connecticut I want to know that there really is right and wrong, that love does triumphs over evil, that there is someone finally in control, that justice will be done. Richard Dawkins tells me that these desires of my hearts are mere delusions. He tells me I need to wake up to reality that I live in a cruel indifferent universe that it has no design or purpose that there is no such thing as good or evil, right or wrong.
But Christmas cuts across the darkness of Dawkins worldview for it supremely offers me a reason for hope. A reason to say God is not only there but he is for us and with us because God became one of us. He walked my path, he knew my pain. He experienced what it was to suffer injustice, intolerance, hatred and overcame it all for us.
The second reason reason I’m ready to celebrate Christmas this year is that
2. Jesus is God for us
In coming into our world Jesus showed me the lengths that God is willing to go to put things right. You see there is a second reason I am glad that Jesus was born and that is because it shows that not only is God with us but God is for us. The angel said to Joseph
you are to give him the name Jesus,because he will save his people from their sins
Jesus’ life is a wonderful life, full of compassion, concern, he welcomed the stranger, he embraced the poor, he cared for the sick, he provide for the needy, he welcomed in the outsider, the excluded, the marginalised. And he also came for you and for me.
Jesus’ life was a wonderful life because he lived it for you and he gave it up for you when in his death he offered his life as a sacrifice for your sins and mine.
Christmas is a time when we find that the past so often hangs over us and overshadows our joy. We remember our mistakes, relive our regrets, dwell on our misfortunes, hide our shame and guilt and at a time of peace and good will it can be a reminder that when we are supposed to be at peace with others we are not even at peace with ourselves. When we see the consequences of sin in our lives like that we get just a glimpse of how a holy and perfect God sees us.
But Jesus says to us this Christmas time ‘I’m here to take that off you.’ The wonderful life was a life lived for you and for me. And his life has been impacting lives for 2000 years.
What are you looking for this Christmas? I hope that it is more than ever this Christmas not new socks, or a few days off work, but a fresh start and a new life. At the beginning of John’s gospel we find these words;
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The wonderful life that Jesus lived for you is a life he now offers you. A life that knows no end and no end of joy. We sang in our earlier carol ‘O little town’ the following words..
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
51% of people in that earlier service thought that Jesus would make no difference to their Christmas my hope and my prayer is that he might make all the difference to your Christmas this year. Have a happy and blessed Christmas time.
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