Jan 24, 2013
neil

Whose fault is it anyway? JC Ryle and God’s offer of salvation

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

Jan 22, 2013
neil

Jesus isn’t superman

My son asked me a really good question after a great sermon on Sunday evening. The preacher pointed out that there are things God cannot do; he cannot lie for example and he cannot be tempted either.

How then was Jesus tempted by Satan in the wilderness? Rufus asked. Was that temptation real? The writer to the Hebrews thinks that it was when he writes that Jesus was tempted like us in every way and yet was without sin. So what is the answer?

The answer is that Jesus isn’t superman. Or more precisely Jesus isn’t Clark Kent. We all know how the story goes – in the superman films people think they’re face to face with an ordinary human-being yet we know that behind the persona Superman’s real identity is simply disguised.

It was Apollinaris of Laodicea (died 390) who taught that the best way to think about Jesus is that he was God carried around in a human body and that tends to be the way most of us still think of Jesus today. But the church rejected Apollinaris’s error and recognised that the Bible affirms that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man in one person, and will be for ever.

Because Jesus was fully man he had not just a human body but a human mind and human emotions because Jesus was fully God ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ Colossians 1:19. One person with two natures and those two natures inseparable yet distinct.

So Grudem concludes in his Systematic Theology the eternal Son of God took to himself a truly human nature, and Christ’s divine and human natures remain distinct and retain their own properties, yet they are eternally and inseparably united together in one person.

Jesus was no less human than you or I

Now that is really good news when it comes to the Christian life – not least when it comes to temptation. For there is a man (more than a man, but not less) who was tempted like me in every way and the promise given us is clear.

Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. – Hebrews 4:16.

And before we refuse to go to Jesus with our temptations because we think to ourselves but Jesus never sinned and therefore doesn’t really know temptation as I do a word of advice from CS Lewis.

No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.

Jan 15, 2013
neil

Some doors need to be kept locked – Steve Chalke, sexuality and preaching the negatives

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.

Jan 11, 2013
neil

Whatever your view on gay marriage Tory plans are unworkable says senior Tory

Jan 9, 2013
neil

Is there a way back from sexual sin?

In a powerful and moving post Julia Huisman (Director of Communications at Bethel Church in Crown Point, Indiana) and Tammy Johnston (Director of Women’s Ministries at Bethel Church) offer their testimony as a comfort and hope for all those dealing with past sexual sin and the guilt that lives on.

 

Jan 8, 2013
neil

G.K. Chesterton on why heaven can never be dull

Who would want to go on living for ever? Only He who has never grown old:

A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy

Jan 5, 2013
neil

The darker side to being driven

Jon Tyson is lead pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York City. I found a sermon he preached in December from Matthew 1:21-23 really enlightening, not to say a little disturbing. Tyson (about 19 minutes into the sermon) highlights a hidden danger inherent in the hearts of men and women driven by a noble desire – living for God.

What could be wrong with such a fine ambition? Essentially, Tyson points out, the danger comes from failing to recognise that our lives were never intended to be lived for God but with God. When our passion is not Christ but doing stuff for Christ we become vulnerable to that most subtle danger of ‘importing worldly ambition into Christian ministry’.

Tyson draws on a blog post written by Skye Jethani entitled Has mission become our idol to expand his point. Jethani writes

Sometimes the people who fear insignificance the most are driven to accomplish the greatest things. As a result they are highly praised for their good works which temporarily soothes their fear until the next goal can be achieved.

How easy it is for Christian ministers to believe that the worth of our life is determined by the achievements of our ministries. Jethani quotes Gordon McDonald who says of this condition (which he defines as missionalism);

Missionalism starts slowly and gains a foothold in the leader’s attitude before long the mission controls almost everything; time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics and convictions.

How many Christian ministers are actually pursuing a worldly ambition –driven by a desire to prove themselves through their ministry – rather than joyfully living out their lives and fulfilling their ministries with Christ?

What might be tell-tales signs that your ministry has morphed into a self-serving idol?

Here are 5 symptoms I recognise in myself;

1) An aggressive self-promotion of our own ministries. Every conversation, blog-post or tweet is an opportunity to talk about ourselves through the vehicle of pushing of a ministry rather than an opportunity to bless others with the gospel.

2) A lack of interest (let alone joy) in the ministry of others. If my sense of self-worth is located in my ministry then the success of others disturbs and threatens me. They become a threat to my security and rob me of my joy.

3) When our ministry is an idol, and its success becomes our consuming goal, relationships suffer. When our focus is our ministry our relationships begin to be defined by the extent to which they can be useful to us in fulfilling our objectives. Family life suffers because they don’t advance our cause and instead slow us down by demanding time and energy we want to invest elsewhere.  In essence the idol is seen to be at work when I am only interested in others to the extent to which they can assist in the completion of my projects and plans.

4) When we are defined by our ministry we find it next to impossible to rest from our work. The idol of worldly ambition enslaves us and we fear falling behind.

5) When ministerial success is essential to our identity what keeps us awake at night is not the fate of the lost, or the glory of God but a fear of personal failure.

 

Dec 31, 2012
neil

Why gospel preaching is only half the work God has called you to do

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 ChristiansBut 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?

Conclusion

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.

Dec 27, 2012
neil

World’s leading physicist and atheist finds Richard Dawkins an embarrassment to science

Professor Peter Higgs (he of the Higgs boson particle) has offered his own response as an atheist and scientist to the fundamentalist philosophy of Richard Dawkins.

Admitting to sharing in the embarrassment of many in the scientific community over Dawkins extra-scientific comments Higgs said Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind

In discussing faith and science Higgs went on to say I don’t happen to be one [a believer] myself, but maybe that’s just more a matter of my family background than that there’s any fundamental difficulty about reconciling the two.

(HT: David Robertson)

Dec 23, 2012
neil

He was ruling the heavens even as he lay in a manger

There is a powerful and profound video doing the rounds called The Incarnation in which Odd Thomas, through the medium of poetic word, attempts to express the inexpressible and comprehend the incomprehensible – that at Christmas we affirm God became man.

The video also highlights how much care we need to take when we put into words what happened at the birth of Jesus. Odd Thomas suggests the following;

The second person of the Trinity commissioned to abandon his position

And literally set aside the independent expression of his attributes in full submission

The word manifested in the flesh, the fullness of God expressed

The self-emptying Jesus poured out at the Father’s request

I’m not exactly sure what he means in that second line when he says that the Son literally set aside the expression of his attributes and for all I know we might find that over a cup of coffee we completely agree with each other. But it comes a little too close for my comfort to saying that in taking human form, God the Son ceased to be fully God. If we are to believe that God left heaven and became a baby does that mean he stopped being fully God?

A little over 100 years ago an idea became popular that this is exactly what happened. The kenosis theory was put forward by a man who later became the first Bishop of Birmingham and later Bishop of Oxford, Charles Gore.

Grudem in his Systematic Theology writes The kenosis theory holds that Christ gave up some of his divine attributes while he was on earth as a man…This was viewed as a voluntary self-limitation on Christ’s part, which he carried out in order to fulfil his work of redemption. Grudem puts forward a number of reasons as to why such an idea (based on a misinterpretation of Philippians 2:7) must be rejected. Probably the most important two are that no teacher in the church for 1800 years ever thought that Philippians 2 did mean a giving up of divine attributes and secondly that the context of the passage strongly suggests ‘that it talks about Jesus giving up the status and privilege that was his in heaven’ rather than a change in his nature.

What really happened then in the incarnation?

The truth is that Christmas is bigger and better than this theory allows and that it must be better than this if Jesus is able to save us.

1. The most helpful way to describe the incarnation is not that God the Son gave up his deity but rather that God the Son joined himself to humanity. Grudem suggests ‘the incarnation was the act of God the Son whereby he took to himself a human nature.’

Only such a definition allows us to continue to say that Jesus is fully God and fully man, inseparable but distinct.

2. That means that God the Son did not cease to be God the Son even whilst he was on earth. Here is where it gets to be truly mind-blowing. Christians affirm that God the Son was ruling in the heavens even as he lay helpless in a manger!  Imagine you are in Augustine’s congregation as he gives expression to this truth in these beautiful words taken from one of his sermons;

Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father He remains,
from His mother He goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at His mother’s bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.

Such a truth is essential to affirm even as we acknowledge beyond our ability to comprehend.

3. The trinity is not interrupted and God is not changed or confused. How essential it is that we affirm the unchanging nature and character of God! He cannot be one God at a certain moment in time and another God at a different moment in time. The Son does not stop being the Son and continues to relate perfectly to Father and Spirit within the Godhead even as he experiences life in the flesh on earth.

4. Jesus is able to save us from our sins. Only by being fully God and fully man is he able to save us. If he surrenders his divine attributes he ceases to be fully or truly God. Grudem says ‘If Jesus is not fully God, we have no salvation and ultimately no Christianity.’

Conclusion

Should we therefore ever use language that describes a great condescension of God e.g. can we say of him  ‘God was in a manger’ or ‘God had to learn to speak and to walk’? Yes. Because Jesus truly is ONE person with TWO natures. Because he is one person we may rightly say that what is true of one nature is true of the person. Jesus in his human nature knew what it was to be helpless, weak, dependent on others, ultimately he knew what it was to be tempted, to suffer and to die. Because what is true of one nature is true of the person we can say that ‘God became man’ when he joined himself to humanity.

Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensible made man – Charles Wesley

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