Friday, December 24, 2010

Exodus Reloaded

From the archives...

You don’t usually need a TV guide to know what films are on over Christmas. Every year, without fail, there are some classic films that return to our screens. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, or It’s a Wonderful Life.

There are two seasonally shown films that strike a chord with the events recorded in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel. They are The Great Escape and The Italian Job. The latter is that classic British movie with Michael Caine and Noel Coward, but starring three Mini Coopers. More recently another film with the same name, loosely based on the original, was released.

A remake rarely lives up to the original. That observation, however, does not hold true for Matthew chapter two. In fact we will miss Matthew’s point unless we see that the events surrounding the birth of Jesus are in fact a remake of Old Testament events that surpass the originals.

A lesson in history

The connections between the OT Matthew 1-2 are obvious if we take a bird’s eye view of these chapters. We start off with a lesson in history. Matthew shows us the fulfilment of a promise made to Abraham and the descent of the crown through the line of David (1:1-17). We need to know that Jesus is descended from this particular family, a royal family. Matthew tells us about the birth and infancy of Jesus in five sections. Each section has a passage from the OT that is being fulfilled. The sections are:

Matthew 1-2 OT passage
1:18-25 Isaiah 7:14
‘all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet’ (v22)
2:1-12 Micah 5:2 (2 Sam 5:2)
‘for this is what the prophet has written’ (v5)
2:13-15 Hosea 11:1
‘and so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet’ (v15)
2:16-18 Jeremiah 31:15
‘then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled’ (v17)
2:19-23 ‘So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene”.’ (v23)
With this overview in place we can focus in on some of the details.

The king who opposes God’s Son (Matt. 2:1-16)

When Matthew shows us what happened when the Magi met Herod we are witnessing a remake of the opening chapters of the book of Exodus.

The remake has some surprising reversals. For one thing the OT has consistently portrayed the magicians and wise men of the nations as the bad guys who always come second when they clash with God’s people. Witness the power encounter between the magicians of Pharaoh’s court and Moses and Aaron (Ex. 8:7,18). Fast forward to the time of Daniel and we see the same outcome (Dan. 2:1-16,25-28). Yet here in Matthew 2 the Magi have greater insight than the Jews. They are coming to worship the Christ. Herod, even with the knowledge he has of the Messiah’s birth, seeks to destroy him.

A further reversal of roles unfolds in Herod’s decree to slaughter all the male children in Bethlehem aged two and under (2:16). Whilst this may ring true to what we know of Herod’s character we are also meant to see in his attitude and actions an echo from the OT. Herod, king of the Jews, is playing the part of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. This takes us back to Exodus 1:15-22. Herod is doing what Pharaoh did in opposition to God and His people.

But there is more. Even though Matthew has five sections where the prophets, or the words of the OT are said to be fulfilled, these do not exhaust his OT references. Some of the connections are subtle. We have seen in the actions of Herod an echo of the actions of Pharaoh. We can also see a further reference behind the words in verses 19-20:
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead’. So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
Compare Matthew’s account with the words of Exodus 4:19-21:
Now the LORD had said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead’. So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and started back to Egypt. And he took the staff of God in his hand.
In the original it was Moses who had to flee Egypt and was later told to return. In the remake it is the land of Israel, not Egypt, that they have to flee from, and the land of Israel that they are eventually told to return to. Everything has been reversed. Israel has become Egypt, and Herod has become Pharaoh.

This is a shock and a warning. This is a sign of judgement on Israel. This is also a sign of things to come. We see here the pattern of rejection for Jesus who will deliver His people. Indeed Moses the redeemer was rejected by Israel and welcomed by the nations (Ex. 2:1-22; Acts 7:35) foreshadowing what would happen when the true Redeemer would come. This is also a sign of hope. God is safeguarding the Saviour, just as he did with Moses.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hunting down heretics this Christmas

I have acquired a helper.  In fact I told Kezia that I was going to train our new puppy to hunt down heretics, to which she replied "What's a heretic?"

So you see, I'm not so obsessed with heretics that my children have learned the Heretical alphabet (A is for Arian, Anthropomorphite and Anabaptist, B is for...) and know their Ebionites from their Samosatians.  The dog however is in training to track down anti-trinitarians of all descriptions, Nestorians and Eutychians.

Remember, a heretic is not for life but should be excommunicated after the second admonition.

Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends

The following is an extract from a poignant letter written by Private Frederick W. Heath about the Christmas Armistice in 1914:
Jumping up onto the parapet, a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans. Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship. Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.
Here was no desire to kill, but just the wish of a few simple soldiers (and no one is quite so simple as a soldier) that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease. We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things. We wrote our names and addresses on the field service postcards, and exchanged them for German ones. We cut the buttons off our coats and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany.
But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding. The sight of it made the Germans' eyes grow wide with hungry wonder, and at the first bite of it they were our friends for ever. Given a sufficient quantity of Christmas puddings, every German in the trenches before ours would have surrendered. 

And so we stayed together for a while and talked, even though all the time there was a strained feeling of suspicion which rather spoilt this Christmas armistice. We could not help remembering that we were enemies, even though we had shaken hands. We dare not advance too near their trenches lest we saw too much, nor could the Germans come beyond the barbed wire which lay before ours. After we had chatted, we turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast. 

All through the day no shot was fired, and all we did was talk to each other and make confessions which, perhaps, were truer at that curious moment than in the normal times of war.
You can read the whole thing in The Independent

We Three Kings

From the archives

Matthew 1-2 tells the story of three kings.

These kings are not however the ones known in the West, from the eighth century on, as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. The visitors from the East were Magi, not kings. No, Matthew 1-2 tells the story of King David, King Herod and King Jesus. They are the three kings in the narrative.

King Herod may well be the king of Israel but he acts like Pharaoh king of Egypt. Joseph must flee Israel for Egypt, and later return there just as Moses did in Exodus 4. There is a great reversal theme in Matthew 2 as Israel and Egypt swap identities, and as we realise that Israel is a nation under judgment.

This reversal theme extends itself to the Magi. The wise men and magicians of the nations always come off badly in the Bible in comparison to God's people. Witness the court of Pharoah in Genesis 41 and the inability of the magicians to interpret his dream. It was God who gave Joseph the understanding of the dream. Fast forward to the contest between Moses, Aaron and the magicians, and the same story is told.

This unfavourable comparison continues with Daniel in Babylon. Again we see that God gives his people insight. The magicians, sorcerers and enchanters are unable to gain access to Nebuchadnezzar's undisclosed dream (Daniel 2:1-11). Daniel, however, seeks God and God, in his mercy, reveals the dream and the interpretation. No wonder that Daniel then confesses that to God belong wisdom and might, for:

he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
he reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him.
What does this have to do with Matthew 2 and the Magi? The situation has now been reversed. The pattern established in Scripture has been turned on its head. We find Gentile magicians behaving like Israelites, and Israelites behaving like Gentiles. The Magi have more insight, more wisdom, and they come to worship Christ the King.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour

"His self emptying was not a single loss or bereavement,
but a growing poorer and poorer, 
until at last nothing was left him
but a piece of ground where he could weep 
and a cross whereon he could die." 
Abraham Kuyper

Jesus is both God and man, having two natures in one person.  Scripture emphasises this, in part, by telling us what he became, and in doing so also telling what he was before that.  The Shorter Catechism helpfully expresses this truth in the twenty first question and answer (emphasis added):
Q. 21. Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect?
A. The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.

2 Corinthians 8:9; Phil. 2:7; and John 1:14 lie behind the words of Maxentius (below), and the first of these verses lies behind the anecdote about the Welsh nineteenth century preacher David Morgan:
We do not confound the diversity of natures, howbeit we believe not what you affirm, that Christ was made God; but we believe that God was made Christ.  For he was not made rich when he was poor; but being rich, he was made poor, that he might make us rich.
He did not take the form of God when he was in the form of a servant; but being in the form of God, he took on him the form of a servant.  In like manner, he was not made the Word when he was flesh; but being the Word, he was made flesh. 
 On 23rd December 1858, David Morgan ministered at Pen-llwyn and his preaching had a marked prophetic quality:
In the middle of his sermon he startled his audience by suddenly exclaiming, 'If any of you tonight deny the deity of the Son, I have nothing better to tell you than what Morgan Howell, Newport, shouted on Lampeter bridge, "Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor. He became poor when He came to Bethlehem; tell me, when was He rich?"' 
This remark was utterly irrelevant to the preacher's subject matter, and no one could conjecture whence it came, and wither it went. The mystery was solved in the after-meeting, for among the converts were three Unitarians...whose presence in the service was quite accidental, and certainly unknown to the preacher.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The tumour is benign

We had a phonecall from Kezia's surgeon this afternoon to confirm that her tumour is benign.

We will return to Alder Hey on the 4th January for an MRI scan and a meeting with the surgeon to discuss the plan for the next step of sugery and treatment.

We are profoundly thankful and deeply touched that so many friends and churches have been praying for us around the UK and all over the world.

Kezia is fighting fit at the moment, eating heartily, talking constantly, and brimming over with energy.  The improvement in her general health is remarkable.  She has also adjusted very well to her daily regime of medication (tablets are easy to take when you can have them with Galaxy chocolate).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas and the Providence of God

Yesterday morning I preached from Ruth 1 on the time when Christmas seemed to hang by a thread and how God by his providence was providing, upholding, governing and directing people, nature, and history in order to bring his Son into the world. 

We never preach in a vacuum.  The personal context is always significant as well as the experiential context of the congregation.

You can download it here

Friday, December 17, 2010

When the riddles are not resolved

God has called his children, this side of heaven, to live by faith and not by sight, to live looking for a city with enduring foundations, and to live by his promises and not by exhaustive explanations.

I found these reflections by Herman Bavinck, on the grace of God in the gospel and the providence of God in the world, really helpful:
In the case of the Christian, belief in God's providence is not a tenet of natural theology to which saving faith is later mechanically added.  Instead, it is saving faith that for the first time prompts us to believe wholeheartedly in God's providence in the world, to see its significance, and to experience its consoling power...the Christian has witnessed God's special providence at work in the cross of Christ and experienced it in the forgiving and regenerating grace of God, which has come to one's own heart.

And from the vantage point of this new and certain experience in one's own life, the Christian believer now surveys the whole of existence and the entire world and discovers in all things, not chance or fate, but the leading of God's fatherly hand.

Special revelation is distinct from general revelation, and a saving faith in the person of Christ is different from a general belief in God's government in the world.  It is above all by faith in Christ that believers are enabled -- in spite of the riddles that perplex them -- to cling to the conviction that the God who rules the world is the same loving and compassionate Father who in Christ forgave them all their sins, accepted them as his children, and will bequeath to them eternal blessedness.

In that case faith in God's providence is no illusion, but secure and certain; it rests on the revelation of God in Christ and carries within it the conviction that nature is subordinate and serviceable to grace, and the world [is likewise subject] to the kingdom of God.  

Thus, through all its tears and suffering, it looks forward with joy to the future.  Although the riddles are not resolved, faith in God's fatherly hand always again arises from the depths and even enables us to boast in afflictions.
Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2: God and Creation, p. 594-5

To which I say, "Amen."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Why do they hate Aslan so? Polly Toynbee on the repugnancy of the atonement

One from the archives:

The columnist Polly Toynbee wrote an article in The Guardian on 5th December 2005 with the rather acerbic title “Narnia represents everything that is most hateful about religion.”

I will spare you the full extent of her invective against the Christian imagery found in C.S. Lewis' children's stories. But among her numerous thorny remarks the following stood out:

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?
Perhaps the most obvious thing to say by way of explanation about her choice of adjective, is that it is indicative of a heart wedded to the wisdom of this passing age. It is as straightforward a statement of aversion and distaste at the very notion of a substitutionary atonement as one could wish to find. And yet, to those who hold to the presuppositions laid out by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:8, it hardly comes as much of a surprise.
It stands in marked contrast to the expression of the regenerate heart that sees in the cross both the wisdom and power of God. Of all the great confessions of faith perhaps it is the Belgic Confession (Q. 26) that best verbalizes the sentiments of the regenerate mind:
If, then, we should seek for another mediator who would be favorably inclined toward us, whom could we find who loved us more than He who laid down His life for us, even while we were His enemies? And if we seek for one who has power and majesty, who is there that has so much of both as He who sits at the right hand of God and to whom hath been given all authority in heaven and on earth?
And what should we make of her question? Of course we did not ask Christ to die for us. None of us wanted him to. 

This is a point underlined, as it were in thick marker pen, time and again on the pages of the Bible. From Isaiah's description of Christ as despised and rejected by men (Isaiah 53:3) all the way to Paul's retrospective description of Christian believers as being ungodly and enemies toward God (Romans 5:6, 10). 

In the book of Judges there is the pattern of apostasy, oppression from enemies, and cries to God for relief from this misery. In his grace God raises up judges who save the people of God from the hands of their oppressors. Judges 13 seemingly opens with this same pattern. Israel has turned from God to their evil ways, and God has handed them over to the Philistines. But the pattern ends there. Just when we expect to hear a cry to God for relief and rescue there is nothing but silence. 

When the Angel of the Lord announces the birth of Samson, who will begin to save Israel from the Philistines, it is therefore clear that this is an act of sheer grace on God's part. God sent them a Savior, even though they did not ask him to. The span of time between the book of Judges and that column in The Guardian may have spread over several millenia, but chronology cannot cover up the similarities that exist. 

The very glory of the atonement is that Christ died for his enemies. We were not seeking after a Saviour from heaven, but running and hiding from the God who is really there. As Paul reminded the Colossians, it was for those who were hostile in their minds toward God that Christ hung on the cross. It was by that death that he made peace and effected reconciliation with God (Colossians 1:19-22). 

Like Polly Toynbee, I never asked him to do this. That he did it at all is all to the praise of his glorious grace.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Not by chance

Great providence of heaven--
What wonders shine
In its profound display
Of God's design:
It guards the dust of earth,
Commands the hosts above,
Fulfils the mighty plan
Of his great love

The kingdoms of this world
Lie in its hand;
See how they rise or fall
At its command
Through sorrow and distress,
Tempestuous storms that rage,
God's kingdom yet endures
From age to age

Its darkness dense is but
A radiant light;
Its oft-perplexing ways
Are ordered right.
Soon all its winding paths
Will end, and then the tale
Of wonder shall be told
Beyond the veil.

David Charles, 1762-1834;
Translated from the Welsh by Edmund Tudor Owen

Article 7: 
Of God's Providence 
in the Preservation and Government of the World
Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Confession of Faith 

God, in his wise, holy, and righteous providence, 
upholds and governs 
all creatures and their actions. 

His providence extends over 
all places, 
all events, 
  all changes, 
    and all times. 

His providence, in its operation,
is full of eyes to behold, 
powerful to perform, 
makes all things work together for good 
to them
that love God. 

It overrules the sinful actions of men; 
it neither causes nor occasions the sinfulness of any of them.

Monday, December 06, 2010

An update on Kezia

Our youngest daughter Kezia (9) was diagnosed with a brain tumour on 24th November and underwent surgery on Thursday 2nd December.  The operation went well.  The tumour has been drained and decompressed and we will wait and see if this improves her eyesight (her peripheral vision has been damaged).  The surgeon will wait until the New Year before deciding on the exact procedure to remove the solid parts of the tumour.  Either way she will have long term health issues because the tumour has been affecting her pituitary gland and all those complex and delicate mechanisms that regulate thirst, water balance etc.  All being well Kezia will return home tomorrow.

Kezia is just remarkable.  She has not complained once and has taken all of this in her stride.  For us as parents there have been many tears and tremendous relief when we saw her in the recovery room.  We are profoundly grateful for the expertise, medical facilities and care at Alder Hey in Liverpool, and for the support of family and friends locally and from across the world. 

Above all we are profoundly thankful for the sustaining grace of God.  I cannot express this better than in the words of Q & A 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism:

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that in them is, who likewise upholds, and governs the same by His eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ, His Son, my God and my Father, in whom I so trust as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this troubled life, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Truly, this doctrine brings immeasurable comfort to us

The Belgic Confession
Article 13
About the Providence of God

We believe that this Most High God, after He created all things, did not in the least hand them over to fate or the rule of fortune, but continually rules and governs them according to the precept of His sacrosanct will so that nothing may happen in this world apart from His decree and ordination. 

Neither is it possible to say that God is the author of or the guilty party in the evils that occur in this world. For both His power and goodness lie widely open as immeasurable and incomprehensible, and His work and proceedings are sacredly and justly determined and executed, although both the Devil and the wicked unjustly act. 

Truly, whatsoever He does, having exceeded human constraints, we do not wish to inquire about these things pryingly and beyond our constraints. In fact, on the contrary, we nevertheless humbly and reverently adore the hidden and just judgments of God. For it is enough for us, as disciples of Christ, to learn no more than that which He Himself teaches us in His Word, without transgressing the limits that we regard as lawful. 

Truly, this doctrine brings immeasurable comfort to us. For from it we know that nothing happens to us by fortune, but only all things by the will of our heavenly Father, Who truly keeps watch for us with fatherly care, having subjugated all things unto Himself so that not even a hair our head (which have all been numbered down to the individual one) can be plucked out, nor can the smallest chick fall to the ground, apart from the will of our Father. 

And so we thoroughly rest in this, acknowledging that God restrains the devils and all our enemies, just as curbed with whips, so that no one is strong enough to hurt us apart from His will and good permission.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
   a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
    of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
   the covering that is cast over all peoples,
    the veil that is spread over all nations.

  He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
   and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 25:6-8

Sovereign Ruler of the skies
Ever gracious, ever wise
All my times are in Thy hand
All events at thy command

He that formed me in the womb
He shall guide me to the tomb
All my times shall ever be
Ordered by his wise decree

Times of sickness, times of health
Times of poverty and wealth
Times of trial and of grief
Times of triumph and relief

Times the tempter's power to prove
Times to taste a Saviour's love
All must come, and last, and end.
As shall please my heavenly Friend.

Plagues and deaths around me fly.
Till he bids I cannot die:
Not a single shaft can hit
Til the God of love thinks fit.

O Thou gracious, wise and just
In Thy hands my life I trust
Thee, at all times, will I bless
Having Thee, I all possess

John Ryland 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Christ is a well of life: an update on Kezia's condition

As a family we are quite overwhelmed by all the messages of support that we have received from all over the world, for the many people who are praying, and for the offers of practical support from our own congregation, and from friends and churches in Liverpool.

We are also profoundly grateful for the way in which Kezia is coping with all of this.  She will be readmitted to Alder Hey on Monday and her operation is scheduled for Thursday.  We have met her surgeon and he is regarded as one of the finest in the UK, if not the finest, when it comes to operating on the rare type of brain tumour that she has.

David Meredith wrote to me and said that he hoped and prayed that what we have learned and experienced in the light will stay with us in the dark.  May it be so for these are deep and dark waters.  But as I said to Kezia last week, it is wonderful that God is our God, that is what he has promised to be, he is the God of the Covenant.  We know where our only comfort in life and in death lies.

Continue to pray for us

Here are some words that I have found helpful in the past and continue to draw encouragement from.

Robert Murray M'Cheyne:
You will never find Jesus so precious as when the world is one vast howling wilderness. Then He is like a rose blooming in the midst of the desolation,--a rock rising above the storm.
Samuel Rutherford:
If there were ten thousand, thousand millions of worlds, and as many heavens full of men and angels, Christ would not be pinched to supply all our wants, and to fill us all.

Christ is a well of life, but who knoweth how deep it is to the bottom?
And the following gem is also from Rutherford:
Grace tried is better than grace, and it is more than grace; it is glory in its infancy
John Owen:
Our beholding by faith things which are not seen, things spiritual and eternal, will alleviate all our afflictions,--make their burden light, and preserve our souls from fainting under them. Of these things the glory of the principal, and in a due sense comprehensive of them all. For we behold the glory of God himself "in the face of Jesus Christ."

He that can at all times retreat unto the contemplation of this glory, will be carried above the perplexing prevailing sense of any of these evils, of a confluence of them all.

It is a woful kind of life, when men scramble for poor perishing reliefs in their distresses. This is the universal remedy and cure,--the only balsam for all our diseases. Whatever presseth, urgeth, perplexeth, if we can but retreat in our minds unto a view of this glory, and a due consideration of our own interest therein, comfort and supportment will be administered to us.
From the preface to the reader, "Meditations and Discourses on The Glory of Christ," in The Works of John Owen Volume 1, p. 278

Calvin on salvation in Christ:
When we see salvation whole,
its every single part
is found in Christ,
And so we must beware
lest we derive the smallest drop
from somewhere else.

For if we seek salvation, the very name of Jesus
teaches us that he possesses it.

If other Spirit-given gifts are sought--
in his anointing they are found;
strength--in his reign;
and purity--in his conception;
and tenderness--expressed in his nativity,
in which in all respects like us he was,
that he might learn to feel our pain:

Redemption when we seek it, is in his passion found;
acquittal--in his condemnation lies;
and freedom from the curse--in his cross is given.

If satisfaction for our sins we seek--we'll find it in his sacrifice;
and cleansing in his blood.
If reconciliation now we need, for this he entered Hades.
To overcome our sins we need to know that in his tomb they're laid.
Then newness of our life--his resurrection brings
and immortality as well comes also with that gift.

And if we also long to find
inheritance in heaven's reign,
his entry there secures it now
with our protection, safety, too, and blessings that abound
--all flowing from his royal throne.

The sum of all is this:
For those who seek
this treasure-trove of blessing of all kinds
in no one else can they be found
than him,
for all are given
in Christ alone.
Quoted in Sinclair Ferguson, In Christ Alone, p. 7-8

And finally, Louis Berkhof on Christ as our High Priest:
It is a consoling thought that Christ is praying for us, even when we are negligent in our prayer life; that He is presenting to the Father those spiritual needs which were not present to our minds and which we often neglect to include in our prayers; and that He prays for our protection against the dangers of which we are not even conscious, and against the enemies which threaten us, though we do not notice it. He is praying that our faith may not cease, and that we may come out victoriously in the end.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pray for us

Yesterday our youngest daughter Kezia (9) went for an MRI scan.  The doctors discovered a large brain tumor, which is pressing on the pituitary gland.  Kezia is currently in hospital in Wrexham and will be transferred today to Alder Hey children's hospital in Liverpool where the neurosurgeons will assess her and operate.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

As old as dirt

In an article that appeared in The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review in the year 1833, Archibald Alexander translated a large section of N. Arnold's refutation of the Racovian Catechism. Alexander saw the relevance of the older Reformed response to the Socinians as he wrestled with the emerging theological errors of his own day. He saw that heresy never dies and concluded:
One thing must have struck the reader as remarkable, namely, that the modern arguments, by which error attempts to defend her cause, are precisely the same as those employed for centuries past. We know, indeed, that those who now adopt and advocate these opinions, greatly dislike this comparison of modern theories with ancient heresies, and denounce it as invidious.

But why should it be so considered? Or why should they be unwilling to acknowledge the conformity of their opinions with those of ancient times, when the agreement is so manifest, not only in the doctrines themselves, but in the arguments and interpretations of Scripture, by which they attempt to support them?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

All you need for Christmas is the Trinity

Well, that's the title of a sermon I preached a few years back. 

But this post is not about a sermon, it is about two day conferences for ministers happening next year hosted by the Evangelical Movement of Wales.

We don't have a title as of yet but here are the essential details so far:

The day conferences will be on the Trinity with three sessions on the Father, the Son and the Spirit (yes, in that order) and the implications and applications of the Tri-unity of God for worship, prayer and pastoral ministry.  Each session will be 45 minutes long followed by around 15 minutes for questions.

Our speaker is Prof. Douglas F. Kelly (Richard John Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary).  Doug Kelly is the author of several books including Systematic Theology Vol. 1: The God Who is, The Holy Trinity (Mentor: Christian Focus, 2009)

Concerning the doctrine of the Trinity Augustine wrote that "In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable" (De Trinitate 1.3.5). Directly or indirectly every Christian belief is rooted in and connected to the doctrine of the Trinity.  It is the most important doctrine of the Christian faith. 

With apologies to Martin Luther, of the doctrine of the Trinity it should be said that "we cannot know it too well, preach it too often, and we need to beat it into our heads continually."  

What could be better for ministers of the gospel than spending the day contemplating and adoring the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are the same in substance and equal in power and glory? 

The dates for your diary are:

Monday 28th February 2011 in Bala (for those in North and Mid Wales, Liverpool, Manchester, Shrewsbury, the West Midlands etc.)

Tuesday 1st March 2011 in Bridgend (for those in South Wales, Bristol, Worcester and the South West)

But if you want to come from further afield we won't stop you.

There will be a charge for the days.  Drinks will be provided, you can bring your own lunch or buy locally (or order at the conference centre if you are coming to the day in North Wales).

Tearing up truth by the roots

To confess that God exists, 
and at the same time to deny that he has foreknowledge of future things, 
the most manifest folly...
For one who is not prescient of all future things is not God.


The Puritan Stephen Charnock, in evaluating the implications of the denial of God's exhaustive foreknowledge of the future free acts of his creatures, and underlining Augustine's remarks, said that in the book of Isaiah "God submits the being of his deity to this trial" and that "If God foreknows not the secret motions of man's will, how can he foretell them? If we strip him of the perfection of prescience, why should we believe a word of Scripture predictions? All the credit of the word of God is torn up by the roots."

In Scripture, from the temptation in the Garden to the temptations in the wilderness, Satan has always sought to cast doubt on the veracity of God's word. The stakes are very high. Open theism gives us a portrait of God that is distorted, misleading, seductive and destructive. It stands opposed to the clear testimony of the Church down through the ages and jeopardizes confidence in God's total truthfulness. 

If we cannot trust that God is true to his word, that every word of God will prove true, we cannot trust him at all.

Monday, November 22, 2010

There is no shallow end

Before I learned to swim I would always look for the shallow end of the pool.  When it comes to the doctrine of God there is no shallow end:

His judgements are unsearchable (Rom. 11:33)
His ways are inscrutable (Rom. 11:33)
No one has known his mind (Rom. 11:34)
No one has been his counsellor (Rom. 11:34)

His greatness is unsearchable (Psalm 145:3)

His understanding is unsearchable (Isa. 40:28)

Heaven, even the highest heaven cannot contain him (1 Kings 8:27)

He inhabits eternity (Isa. 57:15)

From everlasting to everlasting he is God (Psalm 90:2)

The depths of God are searched by the Spirit, and the Spirit comprehends the thoughts of God (1 Cor. 2:10-11)

No one has seen God, God the only begotten, who is at the Father's side, has made him known (John 1:18)

The love of Christ surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:19)

Until and unless the weight of God's infinite being is straining your thoughts to breaking point, until and unless you have felt the finitude of your mental powers in contemplating the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, you have not even begun to fathom the unfathomable depths of the One, Living, True, and Triune God.
When we say that Jesus existed "pre" his incarnation, we do not mean he preceded it by any finite amount of time.  The Son of God preexisted his incarnation the way that the Creator preexisted creation: infinitely.

Preexistence may be easy to say, but that one little syllable, pre-, is a quantum leap from Here to There, from time to eternity.  Before you have finished that syllable, you have left behind everything measurable and manageable.
Fred Sanders, Embracing the Trinity, p. 85

Atonement and the altar on Mount Ebal: Joshua 8 (Guest post)

The following is a guest post by the Rev. Dr. Paul Blackham

The roots of the events in Joshua 8 go right back to the curses and blessings of Deuteronomy 27.  Moses commanded the people to stand on the two mountains of Ebal and Gerizim, to build an altar on Ebal, the mountain of curses, and to declare all those things that would bring the curses down on them.

Deuteronomy 27:12-15, 19, and all the way down to verse 26.
When you have crossed the Jordan, these tribes shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin.  13 And these tribes shall stand on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan and Naphtali.
The Levites shall recite to all the people of Israel in a loud voice:
 “Cursed is the man who carves an image or casts an idol — a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of the craftsman’s hands — and sets it up in secret.”
 Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”… [onto verse 19]
“Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.”
 Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”… [then right down to verse 26]
 “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.”
 Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

This is exactly what happened in Joshua 8.  The entire ancient church, made up of natural Jewish people as well as those who had joined the church from the surrounding nations, all gathered at the chosen mountains.

Joshua 8:30-33 – “Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the Israelites. He built it according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses — an altar of uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used. On it they offered to the LORD burnt offerings and sacrificed fellowship offerings. There, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua copied on stones the law of Moses, which he had written. All Israel, aliens and citizens alike, with their elders, officials and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the LORD, facing those who carried it — the priests, who were Levites. Half of the people stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had formerly commanded when he gave instructions to bless the people of Israel.”

Notice first that the altar was built on the mountain of curses, Mount Ebal. 

Breaking the covenant of the LORD God brings a curse.  If we do not love our Glorious LORD with all we have and love everyone else as we should then we show that we have rejected His life and love.  When Adam and Eve originally refused to obey God's voice there were deep consequences.  A curse fell upon them – cursing the land, their relationships, their bodies and their destiny.  There is no life or health, no love or joy if we do not trust Jesus.  Rejected by the earth and rejected by heaven, the cursed sinner hangs in the air with nowhere to go but the corruption of death.

The altar was built on Mount Ebal because this holistic curse can only be broken through the blood and fire of atoning sacrifice.  Under the curse the only hope is the sacrificial altar, the blood poured out for atonement.  No other remedy had any place on Mount Ebal.

Notice second that the altar had to be built with “uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used.”  Iron tools are all about human ability and human arrogance.  The Philistines were the masters of iron tools [1 Samuel 13] and it was symbolic of human power.  This altar could not be built with human power or pride.  It needed to be as free of human input as possible, because there is nothing that any of us can do to remove the curse against our sin.  Yes, an altar is needed, but this has nothing to do with human religion or human offerings.  We can do nothing to escape the curse of death and emptiness that lies upon us. 

We need an altar, but we need a sacrifice that we cannot provide.

Now, all this is set alight by the events in the first part of Joshua chapter 8.  The city of Ai was under the curse of the Living God.  Their constant and worsening rejection of His ways had grown worse every generation until the time for judgement had arrived.  Under the curse they faced the fiery day of judgement under Joshua.

Joshua 8:28-29 – “Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day.  He hung the king of Ai on a tree and left him there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take his body from the tree and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.”

That curse to be proclaimed on Mount Ebal was first vividly and frighteningly displayed in the judgement on Ai. Deuteronomy 21:22 declared, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse”.  The crucified man is rejected by the earth and rejected by the heavens, the curse of sin obviously displayed in his dead body.  So, Joshua crucified the king of Ai and then rolled the stones over his body outside the city gates, and there was no rolling away of the stones on the third day.  Those stones remain there to this day.

The curse of sin has a terrible power and once it has dragged us into death, there is no escape.  The God-forsaken death is death at full strength.  There were no second chances for the king of Ai.  His cursed death represented the death of everyone in the city of Ai: cursed, rejected and condemned.

If the altar on Mount Ebal, made without human tools, shows the way that even such a terrible curse can be broken, then it is preaching to us of the cursed and crucified Man, the Divine Messiah, who took the full force of that curse in His own God-forsaken death and then having exhausted its full measure rolled away the stones over His crucified body and walk out to a curse-free resurrection life of righteousness and joy.

Friday, November 19, 2010

From the Finger of God: The biblical and theological basis for the threefold division of the law

This looks very interesting.  Christian Focus have just released Philip Ross' From the Finger of God: The biblical and theological basis for the threefold division of the law

This book investigates the biblical and theological basis for the classical division of biblical law into moral, civil, and ceremonial. It highlights some of the implications of this division for the doctrines of sin and atonement, concluding that theologians were right to see it as rooted in Scripture and the Ten Commandments as ever-binding.

More here

"A book of great relevance with an immensely important message for the contemporary church, From the Finger of God is to be welcomed with open arms. It is a fine example of careful, readable biblical, theological, and historical scholarship that leads to deeply satisfying conclusions." 

Sinclair B. Ferguson ~ Senior Minister, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina

"Philip Ross has dealt with issues lying near the heart of the Christian life (and indeed, of the healthy functioning of any human society) in this careful, fair, and, at times, humorous (or at least, entertaining and attention-holding) study of the continuing validity of God's law... I will be frequently referring to his volume in my classes, and warmly commend it 

Douglas F Kelly ~ Richard Jordan Professor of Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina

"The question dealt with in this book is the relationship between the laws and requirements of the Old Testament and those of the New. Are these still obligatory on the New Testament Church? In dealing with this question the author suggests a threefold classification, and provides a very full analysis of the arguments in favour of that classification from many authors down through the centuries, as well as of those who write against that classification. I commend it to all who wish to live by the Scriptures." 

Lord Mackay of Clashfern ~ Retired Lord Chancellor & Patron of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship

"This book is a valuable contribution to discussion about the question of the nature of the unity of biblical law in the context of the diversity of its threefold historical function. It demonstrates how the finality of the person and work of Christ is the crux of the matter and how the atonement has law as its background. A readable presentation of the biblical data relevant to the subject that leaves no stone unturned." 

Paul Wells ~ Professor of Systematic Theology at Facult' Libre Theologie Reformee in Aix-en-Provence, France.

"Like me, you may never have thought that the division of the Law into the categories of civil, ceremonial and moral needed prolonged enquiry. When you read this book you will be glad that Dr. Ross thought otherwise. The book would be worthwhile if only for the discussion of the Decalogue or of the fulfilment of the Old Testament in the New , but there is something for the Bible lover on every page, as well as a demanding but readable opening up of a huge area of biblical enquiry, that takes us with profit from Genesis through to the Lord Jesus and his apostles. A real and rewarding mind-opener."

Alec Motyer ~ Well known Bible expositor and commentary writer

"In recent times, little has weakened biblical theology more than the tendency to collapse all the rules and statutes of the Old Testament into one uniform corpus of law material. In this timely and extremely helpful study, Dr Philip Ross demonstrates not only that the division of the law into moral, civil and ceremonial categories arises out of a natural reading of the biblical text, but that its adoption in Patristic, Reformed and Puritan literature shows it to have been the orthodox position of the church. To lose this confessional distinctive is to drive an unbiblical wedge between the Testaments, and to eviscerate the gospel itself. Unless the moral law is still in force, how can we define sin? And unless we can define sin, what gospel can we preach? Dr Ross's work is an important corrective to much misunderstanding on the nature and place of God's law in the Bible, and a reliable guide both to the primary and secondary literature on the subject." 

Iain D Campbell ~ Minister, Point Free Church of Scotland, Isle of Lewis

"It is a given for scholars in a variety of allied disciplines (e.g., biblical studies, systematic theology, Christian ethics) that the ancient Christian distinction between the civil, ceremonial, and moral laws is without foundation. Philip Ross dissents from the consensus and he does so thoughtfully, lucidly, and wittily. Those who are new to the question and those are willing to reconsider their views will find in Ross an able guide through the labyrinth." 

R. Scott Clark ~ Professor of Church History and Historical Theology, Westminster Seminary, Escondido, California

"This is one of the most important theological books to be published for several years. And it is a book which is desperately needed and which should be read by pastors and church leaders worldwide as a matter of urgency." 

Eryl Davis ~ Head of Research, Wales Evangelical School of Theology, Bridgend, Wales

"Elegantly written, this work is an impressive achievement in biblical studies combining systematic clarity with exegetical analysis."

Theodore G. Stylianopoulos ~ Archbishop Professor of Orthodox Theology and Professor of New Testament (Emeritus) Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, Massachusetts

"In this remarkable work Dr. Philip Ross studies the threefold Division of the Law as traditionally held by the Reformed, Orthodox and Catholic Churches and establishes this framework to be scripturally based. Ross's study is a welcome contribution to this topic especially in the context of challenges to this formulation from several modern authors who reject it as non-biblical, challenges which this study effectively refutes. This study is to be commended not only for its scholarly rigor but also for its ecumenical relevance."

George Keerankeri, S.J., ~ Reader in Sacred Scripture, Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi

Following error back to its lair

What difference would it make if we seriously thought about the origins of false doctrines?

It is vitally important to realise that heresies do not originate in the minds of men and women. Ultimately heresy originates with the devil. 

When the apostle Paul takes the Corinthian church to task for tolerating false teachers he compares their approach to the deception of Eve by the serpent (2 Cor. 11:3). But the deception in the Garden is more than a useful illustration. The super-apostles at Corinth are the servants of the devil disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 

Similarly Paul warned Timothy about “deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1), and of false teachers who are caught in the snare of the devil (2 Tim. 2:24-25). After all the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44). One of the English Puritans said that the devil never lets the wind blow for too long in the same direction.

Invoking this category to account for theological aberrations is hardly a way to win friends. However, to ignore it is to close our eyes to the clear testimony of Scripture concerning false teaching.

Wayne Grudem has provided a helpful reminder on this point:
After reading such verses [2 Peter 2:1; Jude 3-4], we might wonder if any of us have the same kind of heart for purity of doctrine in our Christian organisations, and the same sort of sober apprehension of the destructiveness of false doctrine, that the New Testament apostles had in their hearts. If we ever begin to doubt that false teaching is harmful to the church, or if we begin to become complacent about false doctrine, thinking that it is fascinating to ponder, stimulating to our thoughts, and worthwhile for discussion, then we should remind ourselves that in several cases the New Testament specifies that the ultimate source of many false teachings is Satan and his demons.
In Beyond the Bounds, p. 342

Atonement and the sin of Achan: Joshua 7 (Guest post)

The following is a guest post by the Rev. Dr. Paul Blackham. 

The deep truth of one man standing for the whole people is powerfully and fearfully revealed in Joshua chapter 7.  See how the chapter begins:

The Israelites acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Carmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the LORD’s anger burned against Israel.

One man acted unfaithfully to the LORD.  One man took plunder from the sack of Joshua for his personal treasure.  Achan alone disobeyed the LORD’s instructions.  Yet, we are told “Israel acted unfaithfully in regard to the devoted things” and “the LORD’s anger burned against Israel”.

Here we see one of the deepest truths in the Bible displayed in the clearest possible terms.  One of the most foolish claims that we make in our fallen mess is that each person must stand alone, that the actions of others have nothing to do with us.  In a highly individualistic age this gets even stronger.  Today we even find people who call themselves Christian yet are not part of a local church family.  They imagine that they stand completely alone before the Living God, that their atonement is a purely personal, individual transaction.

The story of Achan is a great reminder of the fact that we are joined together as a body.  The actions of one effects us all, for good or ill.  The Living God did not create us as a conveyor belt of individual items, but he created a human family that would stand or fall together. 

He deliberately created us so that the actions of one man could have decisive effects for all.

Achan had sinned.  He secretly hid away the plunder that was devoted to the LORD alone.  His secret sin publically corrupted the whole community.  His actions brought guilt on the whole people and had already cost people their lives.  When 36 Israelite soldiers were killed in the defeat at Ai, Joshua knew that the LORD was no longer with them.  When he enquired of the LORD he received a very straight answer.

Joshua 7:10-12 – “The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.”

Israel has sinned.  Israel has lied.  Israel has violated the covenant.  Why?  Because in the community there was a man who had done these things.  The covenant was broken by one man and the LORD was no longer with them because of this one man.

As the story unfolds we see how his whole family were caught up in his sin, probably sharing his greed and his hatred of the LORD and His ways.  Why didn’t his family run away from him when they knew what he had done?  What Achan had secretly done was fully known to the LORD God and in verses 14-18 the target of condemnation narrows down until it is fixed squarely on Achan.  Can we imagine what it was like as the tribe of Judah was selected, then the clan of Zimri is selected and then the families are narrowed down to the guilty one.  Why didn’t Achan repent long before he was found out?  That is the nature of our unbelief and sin.  We will not come into the light but instead we cower in the darkness of our guilt and shame.

When the lights were switched on and Achan and his family were revealed, how could the situation be fixed?  How could atonement be made?  If the covenant with the LORD had been violated, then what would it take to restore it?  Would it be enough to say sorry?  Would it be enough to simply do the right thing with the stolen plunder?  No.  Atonement requires more than mere repentance or restoration.  When we violate the LORD’s covenant, when we offend against His Holy Majesty, when we stand before Him with our corruption and guilt rotting around us, it is not enough to regret what we have done and it is not enough to attempt to patch up the mess we have made.  The cleansing and healing required is very costly.

Only death, only blood, can cleanse away the decaying death of our guilt and sin.

It is in the blood and fire of sacrificial atonement that our sin and corruption is put to death.  What can turn away the fierce anger of a Living and Infinite God?  What can pay Him off?  What can soothe the angry heart and mind of such a God? 

We might not like it.  We might prefer to imagine a thoroughly civilised ‘god’ who likes to deal with problems in a round table discussion, with compromises made on both sides.  We might like a genteel, polite religion with no blood, no sweat and no tears… and yet, when we face the sheer filthy evil of our greed and violence before the Living God, when we feel the desperate darkness of our world, when we are falling into the decay of our own death moments from facing our Maker, surely then we know the value of a blood and fire atonement that reaches to the very depths and soothes even the heart of that Most Holy One who inhabits eternity.

Joshua 7:24-26 – “Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold wedge, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor.  Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger.

Achan brought trouble on Israel.  The guilt and sin of the whole community was focused on him.  One man had brought the sin onto the people and now this one man carried the sin away from the people.  As that one man was killed and burned, it was as if the LORD’s anger against that sin was focused and satisfied.

The end of verse 26 is incredible.  The LORD’s covenant had been violated and He was rightly angry about this.  Yet, through the death of troublesome Achan He showed us, once again, that His own Man, His own Messiah, really would be able to take on the sins of the whole world and turn away, once and for all, the fierce anger of the Most Holy God against all our sins.

The ancient promise of atonement through the one Seed from the earliest days of Genesis was given a powerful if disturbing illustration in the death of Achan.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hell, Annihilation and Human Destiny: J. I. Packer (audio)

This is a re-post, and an important one at that...

In 1991 J. I. Packer delivered a lecture in Cardiff on "Human Destiny." In that lecture he gave a survey of the New Testament teaching on hell and responded to the annihilationist position advocated by John Stott, Phillip E. Hughes and Michael Green.

I sat in the audience, a theologically lightweight sixteen year old, and was far too clueless to take in the significance of what, and who, I was listening to. Since then I have listened to the cassette recording many, many times. I trust that you will find it informative, sobering, and a means of grace to motivate you in your love for God and commitment to evangelism.

The audio file can be downloaded here.

The lecture begins with some very warm words about Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and post-war Welsh Evangelicalism before Packer "bites the bullet" on the big issues of human destiny.

My thanks to Glenn Smethurst for his techie work. I also want to thank the Evangelical Movement of Wales for the use of the recording.

The EMW site has a number of audio sermons available to listen to, including those by Ted Donnelly, Don Carson, Geoff Thomas, Doug Kelly, Hywel Jones, and Sinclair Ferguson.

They also have a sermon by Douglas MacMillan (1933-1991), Free Church of Scotland minister and professor of Church History at the Free Church College, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man" from Genesis 6:3 which you can listen to here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Atonement and the Justice of God

The following is a guest post by Rev. Dr. Paul Blackham.  Paul was the Associate Minister for Theology at All Souls, Langham Place and did his doctorate on the Puritan Thomas Goodwin.

It is said that in ancient Rome a murderer was punished by having their victim’s body strapped to their back until it had rotted away.  More relevantly, the Bible views us as already dead, already decaying into the darkness due to our rejection of the One who is our Light and Life.  

 Our offences – our selfishness and sin - are like death clinging to us and this kind of death never just falls away with the passage of time.  We might wish these things would go away.  We might regret them with every fibre of our being.  We might weep away our sleepless nights aware of what we have done, of who we are.  Yet, none of these regrets or tears can ever cut that body of death away from us.  Or else we might laugh it off, filling our hearts and minds with the sights and sounds of work, friends, family and entertainment.  When the stench of that body of death clinging to us gets too strong, we may simply turn up the volume on our work and entertainment.  Yet, it never goes away.

Nothing we can ever do, nothing we can ever feel or resolve, no therapy or drug, no holiday or mid-life crisis or personal trainer or year out can ever take the corruption away.  From the very beginning we were warned that sin means death, and we can never change that equation.

Clinging to us, rotting on us, polluting us at every point is our own moral and spiritual corruption.  When, sooner or later, this corruption is also manifested in our physical flesh, then the process is complete: our sin has paid its wage and dragged us down to the eternal, burning rubbish tip in the outer darkness, far from the eternal home of righteousness, goodness and life.

We need to begin with these stark images because we cannot understand the Bible’s presentation of atonement as long as we see it in the superficial psychological terms that we are so used to.  So many of the discussions of forgiveness or atonement in our modern culture are so self-centred and merely therapeutic – as if the purpose of forgiveness is a selfish thing, setting ourselves free from hatred or bitterness.

There is some truth in that.  If we refuse to forgive, if we show no mercy, then we will be shown no mercy on the Day of Judgement.  If we carry our hatred and bitterness around with us then the evils done to us carry on and grow with each passing day.  Yes, all that has deep truth, but it is not taking us into the heart of atonement.

There are three aspects of justice or righteousness that we will focus on: two of them involve us and one of them completely excludes us. 

First, the justice of God means that He is ready to forgive us, so we are to forgive those who do wrong to us.  We share in God’s justice when we forgive and restore those who have sinned against us, when we forgive as we have been forgiven.

Isaiah 30:18 – “The LORD longs to be gracious to you; He rises to show you compassion.  For the LORD is a God of justice.”
Psalm 33:5 – “The LORD loves justice: the earth is full of His unfailing love.”

Second, the justice of God means that He helps those who cry out to Him in need, so the local church is to be a haven for the widows and the orphans, the hungry and the broken, the sick and the imprisoned.  Righteousness and justice flow out when the victims of sin are shown practical love and mercy. 

Isaiah 1:17 – “Seek justice.  Encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
Zechariah 7:9 - This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.  In your hearts do not think evil of each other."

Yet, the third level of justice belongs to the LORD God alone. 

Micah 5:15 – “I will take vengeance in anger and wrath upon the nations that have not obeyed me.”
Nahum 1:2 – “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies.”
Romans 12:19 – “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”
1 Samuel 24:12 – “May the LORD avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you.”

The LORD God alone can bring the destroying and final vengeance on evil.  Jesus, as the Judge of the World, alone punishes sin and brings His terrible judgement on humanity.  Yes, we might say that through governments and rulers He allows a small measure of this punishment to be meted out even in this present age, but He reserves to Himself the true Day of Justice when all our offences, all our corruption, the body of death that clings to us, is condemned and punished for all eternity.

The LORD’s justice cares for the needy and He longs to bring repentance and forgiveness to those who do evil… but there will finally be a day when He will bring vengeance against the wicked.  Within the Bible itself the focus of atonement is on that third category of justice.

The terrible crisis that faces the world, far more than all the troubles we have with each other, is that we are sinners in the hands of an angry and Living God.  As Jesus said, we do not need to fear those who can harm us only in this passing life, but our greatest fear needs to be of the One whose angry judgement can throw us into the eternal punishment of Hell.  The most urgent need for the world is to find peace with the Most Holy God who we are at war with.

When atonement is made, when God’s own blood has taken away our offensive sin, then we forgive as we have been forgiven and the love of God in our hearts bubbles over into very practical compassion and justice for those in need.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Putting creeds and confessions to work

There is an urgent need for a deeper awareness of historical theology in the life of the Church. For all our technological advances, for all the progress made in the mission of the Church, for all our concerns to speak meaningfully to our own generation and to engage with its unbelief we simply cannot afford to neglect the history of the transmission of Christian truth down through the centuries.

The great creeds and confessions can help us at this point. They stand as a lasting legacy of what is important, what is worth believing and what must be fought for and handed on to future generations. We are prone to the same errors that have arisen in the past and we can learn a great deal from the churchly confessions and classic theological works in order to identify what is discordant with the biblical historic Christian faith and how to deal with it.

The question that faces contemporary Western evangelicalism is whether it really has the spiritual appetite for sound doctrine. Indifference to sound doctrine does not make error go away, it merely makes us ignorant of its dangers and careless about its presence.

As much as creeds and confessions are boundary markers and safeguards against error, and as much as fuller confessions are a greater aide to preserving and proclaiming the truth, they are ultimately insufficient defenses against false teachings. 

Their inadequacy stems from a human factor. The testimony of Church history is clear. False teachers take the words of creeds and confessions but alter the sense and meaning of those words. Likewise creeds and confessions must be upheld by those concerned to defend the truth. Men must have the stomach for a fight and not allow the words of creeds and confessions to be given multiple meanings so that parties in the church can make them mean whatever they want them to mean. 

Accepting doctrinal ambiguity whilst at the same time giving credence to a clear confessional statement and identity is an ideal environment for heresies to incubate in.