Mar 10, 2011

How to have a good argument with Rob Bell

No-one should set out to be controversial for the sake of it and its certainly a worrying sign when someone revels in the reputation of a controversialist.  Nevertheless, in a world in which the gospel will always be under attack (often by those inside the church) at times it is necessary to be controversial. If the leader is to protect the flock then he must expose error in order to guard the gospel.  Defending the truth must mean contending for truth.

The ideas contained in Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins are ideas that need to be opposed and opposed in the strongest terms. It matters. It matters because the gospel is at stake in what he writes. Is salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus or not? Bell has concluded that it is not, or at least not in faith in the way in which the Bible presents it. Ahead of publication a promotional video was released in which Bell raised a number of provocative questions that only buying the book would answer.  Some Christians have been critical of those who they believe have condemned a man for just asking questions.

Now that advanced copies sent by the publisher are being read we can see that the initial concerns of many are proving well founded.

Tim Challies in his review,based on reading an advanced copy of the book, quotes a couple of quite extraordinary statements.  As Bell looks at the subject of heaven and hell he states:

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better…. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.

And in case we are in any doubt as to Bell’s conclusion. He comments:

People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways.

Sometimes people use his name;
other times they don’t.

I’m not sure whether Bell is a full-blown universalist (all we finally be saved) but what I am sure of is that his message of a Jesus who saves people who don’t even know that he has saved them is poison to the church. As a result the book is one that for the sake of the name and honour and reputation of Jesus must be opposed.

But how do we have a good and godly argument?

Nathaniel Dimock (1825-1909) was a Church of England minister and an evangelical. Although not widely known JI Packer commends him as ‘the saintly controversialist’.

He happened to live and minister at a time of great controversy in the Anglican church when truth was under attack from Enlightenment Rationalism and the Romish Ritualism that flowed out of the Oxford Movement.

As a result Dimock gave himself to writing extensively for over 30 years to countering error in the church. We can learn much not only about the need to refute error, as a sacred duty, but also the manner in which we ought to conduct ourselves.

Dimock wirtes in 1876 at the end of a work on the Eucharist.

It belongs to Christian controversy to set forth the truth, and the whole truth, but to set it forth in love. This conducted, controversy itself, though often a painful duty, is really a very sacred thing. And while earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, we may surely ask for God’s blessing on consecrated controvery. And asking, we surely expect that in His own good way God will graciously employ feeble efforts made in a sacred cause.

His manner was well recognised by those who knew him. After his death, Handley Moule (then Bishop of Durham) wrote in the foreward to the memorial edition of Dimock’s collected works:

In him the grace of God combined in perfect harmony a noble force and range of mental power, an unshakeable fidelity to conscience and Revelation, and a spirit beautiful with humility, peace, and love.

Even those who opposed him theologically could not help but comment on his gracious method.  A critical review of one of his books still recognises;

The courtesy and calmness and Christian spirit which Mr. Dimock shows in this pamphlet certainly entitle all he has to say to consideration, and demand grateful recognition from those who cannot agree with his conclusions

The conclusion of the matter is this: How we disagree with someone as well as how we contend for the truth are both gospel issues.

The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy about how a godly minister will conduct himself:

Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.

As many of us will no doubt enter into debate with Rob Bell (or at least with those who support his views) Dimock asks us a question to which we all know the answer;

Does anyone really suppose that the cause of Him, who would have us love one another, can be forwarded by nourishing in our hearts the bitterness, wrath, and anger of our grievous odium Theologicum, or that the truth of the Gospel will be advanced by addressing unseemly language?

Mar 9, 2011

What has Christianity ever done for us? The answer from a Chinese academic

Former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson, recently reviewed Niall Ferguson’s new book, Civilisation: The West and the Rest.  In his review he includes a remarkable quote from a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which on it’s own website describes itself as ‘the highest academic research organization in the fields of philosophy and social sciences as well as a national center for comprehensive studies in the People’s Republic of China‘) in which he describes the remarkable impact of Christianity in shaping Western civilization.

He said: “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world.

“We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.

“Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system.

“But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.

“The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”

It does seem remarkable to me that it takes an Atheist state (you are required by law to be an Atheist to be a member of the ruling Communist Party) to remind us of our Christian heritage. Maybe we just take for granted everything that we have and we simply don’t realize where it has all come from. We don’t ever stop to think (dare I say to thank God) for how much the Bible and Christianity has done to bless the West.  Perhaps we might be willing to wake-up to all of this before it is too late.

Mar 8, 2011

Why does the BBC think it’s time to give Christianity a good kicking (again!)

The article in today’s Daily Telegraph had a sad ring of familiarity to it.  The opening sentence begins ‘The BBC’s new face of religion is an atheist who claims that God had a wife and Eve was “unfairly maligned” by sexist scholars.’ And it goes on to explain that the BBC have decided to invest your licence fee and mine in a primetime BBC Two series, The Bible’s Buried Secrets, which will set forth controversial and provocative views on the text of the Bible as interpreted by an atheist scholar at Exeter University.  No doubt this will all be out in time for Easter.

The head of BBC’s religious output is Aaqil Ahmed. So today’s headlines got me wondering when the BBC’s series attacking all the other world religions is likely to be commissioned. I thought I’d draft Mr Ahmed a letter to find out and I thought I’d share it with you.

Dear Mr Ahmed

I note with interest that the BBC has commissioned another series of programmes designed to disparage orthodox Christianity, The Bible’s Buried Secrets. No doubt in pursuing your agenda of equality and diversity you have also begun prelimenary work on spending my licence fee on programmes designed not just to ridicule the faith of Christians but Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus too.  When, for example, can we expect to find The Kuran’s Buried Secrets on our TV screens? There are a number of Islamic scholars who are themselves either liberal Muslims or atheists whose unorthodox views would be as interesting to hear as that of Dr Stavrakopoulou.

If, because of the time you’ve had to spend considering how to offend Christians, you haven’t quite got round to thinking how best to insult other people of faith maybe I can suggest one or two avenues that you could explore.  For liberal scholars who have done a fair bit of work deconstructing Islam how about commissioning Ibn Warraq  to make a series based on his scholarly books such as The Origins of the Koran and The quest for the historical Mohammed. No doubt his views broadcast by the BBC will help boost ratings and make a few newspaper headlines. Or you could turn to Christopher Luxenberg and his ground-breaking ideas that the text of the Kuran is based on pre-existing Christian Aramaic texts.  Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran is the work to consult for more on that line of thinking.

I look forward to hearing back from you on how work is progressing on these series but I won’t be holding my breath.

Yours not very sincerely…

Mar 7, 2011

When worry becomes a way of life

Worrying in one form or another costs the British economy £5 billion a year.  Non-work related stress, anxiety and depression account for more lost days at work than any other form of illness in all but manual workers.

But perhaps more alarming than any statistic is that according to Martyn Lloyd-Jones if you are a Christian ‘The result of worrying about the future is that you are crippling yourself in the present.’ Worry is in essence practical atheism. It is the failure to live in the world as we know it to be ie a world in which we are known and loved by a heavenly Father.

In his book Studies in the Sermon of Mount Lloyd-Jones devotes five chapter to the subject of worry from Matthew 6:25-34. The last chapter is entitled Worry: It’s causes and cures in which he tackles that curious verse, v.34, in which Jesus says  ‘Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’  It’s the best chapter of all and in eight pages Lloyd-Jones gives us some great wisdom on worry.

What Jesus says to us when worry is a way of life.

To make sense of why we worry and what we need to do with our anxieties Lloyd-Jones starts with commenting on Jesus’s words ‘each day has enough trouble of its own’.  The antidote to worry is not to live under the illusion that ‘it might never happen’ but to recognise that in a fallen world Jesus does not offer us a trouble-free life rather a worry-free life.

Our Lord seems to picture life like this. As a result of the Fall and sin there is always a problem in life, because when man fell, he was told that henceforward he was going to live and eat his bread ‘by the sweat of his brow.’ He was no longer in Paradise, he was no longer just to take the fruit and live a life of ease and enjoyment. As the result of sin, life in this world has become a task. Man has to labour and must meet trials and troubles. We all know that, for we are all subject to the same tribulations and trials.

A life liberated from anxiety doesn’t come from avoiding troubles (for how can we) nor in pretending they won’t come our way maybe by constructing some kind of prosperity gospel. The solution Lloyd-Jones says is this to know how to face them. Continue reading »

Mar 6, 2011

‘Atheist Hitchens given cancer hope by Christian’

So runs the headline in a surprising article in today’s Sunday Times.

An evangelical Christian who is one of the world’s top scientists is trying to save the life of Christopher Hitchens, the cancer-stricken writer who told him at their first meeting that God does not exist.

Francis Collins, who led the projec to map human genes, contacted the atheist when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year.

Hitchens was sent to Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where scientists sequenced the 6 billion letters of his DNA. Using computers in a process that takes several weeks, they also sequenced the 6 billion letters in his his tumours, Then they looked at the two sets for differences.

‘Over these last few months, we have not talked directly about faith,’ Collins said, ‘But I would like to think that Christopher’s sharp intellect has challenged my own defence of the rationality of faith to be more consistent and compelling.’

Mar 5, 2011

A new tyranny – extraordinary words by David Starkey on homosexuality & Christianity

The historian, television and radio presenter, David Starkey is gay and an atheist.  He is also an honorary member of the National Secular Society.  You might therefore expect him to be clearly in favour of the ruling in the High Court this week that banned a Christian couple from fostering children because of their religious beliefs.  Watch the exchange of views amongst the five panelists on this weeks Question Time and you may be surprised.

Mar 4, 2011

‘If this ministry dies out then Christianity dies out’

I saw this video of Andrew Peterson singing ‘Planting Trees‘ on Justin Taylor’s blog It reminded me of two things 1) the natural preoccupation we have with ourselves and with the moment in which we live and 2) the absolute need to proclaim, protect and preserve the gospel not just in our own generation but for generations after we are gone.

Given that left to ourselves we naturally live in the moment  we need to make a deliberate decision to give of our time to the lives of those who will, for years after we have gone, live and serve and work to his glory. We need to be people looking and living for the next generation.  Andrew mentions in the introduction to his  song the inspiring example and sacrifice of his wife in raising their 3 children. Whether or not we have children we have opportunity, as did the apostle Paul, to invest in the lives of those who live on after us. To live for our spiritual children.

In Paul’s second letter he refers to Timothy as my dear Son and 2 Timothy is all about passing the gospel on to the next generation.

There is a Chinese proverb that says If you’re planning for one year, plant rice.  If you’re planning for ten years, plant trees.  If you’re planning for 100 years, educate people. The wisdom of the Bible says, 2 Timothy 2:2, ‘And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.’ Notice the pattern; from Paul to Timothy from Timothy to reliable people from reliable people to others.

All true ministry must have at its heart a concern not just for the gospel in our generation but the gospel secured for the next generation. In the book Trellis and the Vine (the ministry and mind-shift that changes everything), Colin Marshall and Tony Payne make an urgent appeal for gospel workers to plant trees through training.

training (understood in this way) is the engine of gospel growth. People move from being outsiders and unconverted through to being followed up as new Christians and then growing into mature, stable Christians who are then in turn trained and mobilized to lead others through the ‘gospel growth’ process.

But they also recognise that ‘this is a chaotic strategy – an inconvenient strategy. It takes time to train.’

And it’s more than just time. It’s a decision to sacrifice time spent pursuing your own ministry ambitions for the sake of others. Giving up time and opportunity spent doing other things for the quiet, unseen work of close discipleship, mentoring and coaching.

Where are the training opportunities for you?

Maybe you are at a stage in life where you are a young Timothy in need of a Paul. Maybe you could ask an older Christian to meet with you to train you so that you in turn could train others.

If you’re a parent, then like Andrew Peterson’s wife, your dear children must be an urgent priority. How are you doing at training your children ? (Ephesians 6!)

If you lead a ministry area who in your team could you look to develop?

Whose life could you shape, envision, inspire because God has put you close to them?

Who could you look out for in church who might be a potential gospel worker, pastor, planter, missionary, in the future?

As Broughton Knox recognised ‘If this ministry dies out them Christianity dies out.’ Let’s get planting trees.

Mar 2, 2011

Video of Shahbaz Bhatti predicting his own death

Mar 2, 2011

I am ready to die – Pakistani Christian Government Minister is assassinated

I have been told by pro-Taliban religious extremists that if I will continue to speak against the blasphemy law, I will be beheaded.” But he said his faith gave him strength.

As a Christian, I believe Jesus is my strength. He has given me a power and wisdom and motivation to serve suffering humanity. I follow the principles of my conscience, and I am ready to die and sacrifice my life for the principles I believe.”

Today Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian Pakistani Government minister died a martyrs death. The Lord Jesus says ‘Be faithful to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.’ – Revelation 2:10

Mar 1, 2011

No one kills in the name of atheism

An atheist told me recently ‘No one kills in the name of Atheism.’  In fact he was so sure he told me  twice.  Of course he’s not unique in making such a claim.  Richard Dawkins writes in the God Delusion Individual atheists may do evil things but they don’t do evil things, in the name of atheism.

Dawkins won’t even allow us to think that atheism had any influence on Stalin’s murderous regime. He writes:

the mature Stalin was scathing about the Russian Orthodox Church, and about religion  in general. But there is no evidence that his atheism motivated his brutality.

Such a conclusion is a luxury on offer only to those with absolutely no grasp of history.  The reality is that it is a plain and simple, indeed brutal, fact of history that over the past 100 years atheism, as an ideology, has been a driving force used directly to plan, plot, organise and carry out the mass murder of millions of people.

For the purpose of this post we will limit ourselves to a consideration of the way in which state-sponsored atheism has been used to justify the intimidation, torture and killing of those whose only crime was belief in God and who posed no other political or ideological threat.  I am indebted to John Blanchard’s ‘Does God Believe in Atheists?‘ for some of the quotes but the ideas remain my own.

The ideology that lay behind state-sanctioned killing of Christians in the USSR

Karl Marx famously wrote:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness.

And for Marx that meant the abolition of religion.

Of course, in periods when the political state as such is born violently out of civil society, when political liberation is the form in which men strive to achieve their liberation, the state can and must go as far as the abolition of religion, the destruction of religion. But it can do so only in the same way that it proceeds to the abolition of private property, to the maximum, to confiscation, to progressive taxation, just as it goes as far as the abolition of life, the guillotine.

Interestingly so indebted to Darwin was Marx that he said of his book The Origin of Species serves me well as a basis in natural science for the struggle in history. He actually wrote to Darwin asking if he might dedicate his next book to him. Darwin put his decision to decline down to the sensibilities of his wider family.

The result of dogmatic Atheism in the Soviet Union

From the very beginnings of the communist revolution in Russia the state set out to apply the atheism of Marx. Religion was systematically targeted as an enemy of the state, an oppressor of the people. It was something therefore not merely to be discouraged but destroyed.

Lenin said: There can be nothing more abominable than religion

And he went on to write

Every religious idea, every idea of god, every flirtation with the idea of God is unutterable vileness…Any person who engages in building a god, or who even tolerations the idea of god-building  disparages himself in the worst possible fashion.

Marx’s dogmatic atheism was being used as the philosophical justification for the attack on religion beginning with Lenin, continuing under Stalin and maintained right through to the collapse of the Berlin wall. The fact that the attack on religion continued over generations demonstrates that this state-sponsered attack could hardly be blamed on the actions of one individual.

As the Wikipedia entry on the Soviet Union records;

The state was committed to the destruction of religion, and to this effect it destroyed churches, mosques and temples, ridiculed, harassed and executed religious leaders, flooded the schools and media with atheistic propaganda, and generally promoted ‘scientific atheism’ as the truth that society should accept.

Time Magazine summarised the legacy of dogmatic atheism in an article in the following way; Continue reading »

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