Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The gentle God

One of the things about God that I wrestle with is his determination to make me into a human being, a person.  It often seems like this great project of his leads down long, winding roads which surely don't get to the point, or at least don't get there very quickly, and involve me in lots of heartache along the way.  I wish he would short-circuit the process.

Why, for example, does God not just kill off sin in us the moment we first turn to him?  Why does he not make vocation blindingly clear to us the moment we first ask?  Why does he let us, individually and collectively as families and churches, muddle through decision making processes and get it wrong more often than not, when he could just signpost the way clearly - with a voice from heaven perhaps?

I think at least part of the reason is that God will have his human creations as humans, as real relational counterparts to himself.  This does not imply, as more liberal theology has always thought, that God gives human beings radical autonomy, that they stand outside his sovereignty, that they are able to ultimately defy his will.  No, God is God.  But he is God with us in a particular way.

T.F. Torrance commented on the Patristic understanding of the Holy Spirit thus: "If it is only the almighty who can be infinitely gentle, the Holy Spirit may well be characterised as the gentleness of God the Father Almighty."  The way God governs his human creation is through the gentleness of the Holy Spirit.

When we think of the Spirit we usually reach for the dramatic things: Philip whisked away to Azotus, missionary endeavours directed by audible voices from God or prophetic words, healings, tongues of fire.  That the Spirit did and does these things is undeniable, to those who take the Scriptures seriously.  It is not for nothing that he is associated with fire.

But he is also dove.  He is also breath.  He is gentleness.

The Spirit of the Creator God is not in the business of continually over-riding the will and the thought and the judgement of the creatures he made.  He gave us those things!  And he wills that we should use them, that we should be trained in life and godliness, not just magically transformed into the final product.  He wants us to be people.

When faced with a difficult decision, I want God to take it out of my hands.  Lord, just make it clear to me.  Show me your will in a way that I can't dispute or question.  Instead he usually leaves me to pray and think and chat it through with others - and then make a call.  He wants me to be a human being.  Part of that is using my created faculties.  Part of it is also trusting him in a bigger, deeper way: not trusting him to signpost everything in my life, but trusting him to hold me whether I get it right or wrong, trusting him to gently weave even my nonsense into his greater story.  To trust, I suppose, not just the fire of the Spirit's immediate and obvious leading and equipping, but also the Spirit brooding over the waters, the gentle breath of the Spirit in the everyday and the normal.

I feel the burden of responsibility that comes with being human.  I would often prefer it if God would just over-ride my humanity.  But instead he gently takes our very human processes and practices and faculties and softly but surely brings us into his way, through our mistakes and failings as often as not.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Our Triune God saves

I've been thinking a little bit this week, having preached from Romans 5:1-5 on Trinity Sunday, about the way that the Christian revelation of God as Trinity-in-Unity affects our understanding of salvation.  A couple of things to note from the passage:

Firstly, it is God who saves, from first to last.  We have peace with God through Christ, whom Paul has already described as having been put forward by God as a sacrifice of propitiation.  The Father initiates, the Son carries through the plan of faithful obedience and sacrifice.  And the Holy Spirit is described as given to us, pouring out God's love into our hearts.  So from the initial and eternal plan, through its accomplishment in incarnation and atonement, right down to the subjective application of that plan into the hearts and lives of individuals - this is all God.  Our God saves, from first to last.

Second, though, it seems to me that understanding Trinity makes this salvation relational, and preserves the reality of humanity in the whole carrying through of the process.  If God were not Triune, if he were the monad God of monotheism, then it would be a supremely grotesque thing to say 'God saves, from first to last', because it would imply a puppet show.  Here is God, pulling the strings of salvation, and his human marionettes dance out their involuntary lives of praise.  But God is Triune - he is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  He is not only the Father - God above us, transcending us, sovereign from his throne in heaven; he is also the Son - God with us, our brother, taking on and sharing our nature, sovereign in our place, even the place of the cross; and then again, he is God the Holy Spirit - God within us and behind us, the God in whom we all live and move and have our being, sovereign in and through our real human lives, actions, and freedoms.  He is God who saves, in every way, from first to last; but he is the Triune God who saves, and that makes a great difference.

It also means that when we say 'God saves' what we primarily mean is 'God welcomes us, even us sinners, into the eternal relationship and love which he is in himself, the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father within the unity of the Holy Spirit'.  And that is really something.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Spirit and the spirits

You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:2-3

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.  By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who delights to exalt Jesus.  His mission in this last age is to bear witness to Christ, to open eyes to the reality of who Jesus was and is - and in this way to bring people to faith and into unity with Christ (and to reveal the reality of sin and judgement in those who will not believe).  Always his focus is Christ Jesus.

Sometimes people ask me 'how do we balance Jesus and the Spirit?' - meaning, how do we take seriously the objective revelation of God in Christ as Scripture bears witness to him, and also take seriously the mysterious subjective revelation of God in the Spirit?  The answer is that we don't.  Taking the Holy Spirit seriously means setting our spiritual eyes, our hearts, our minds on Christ Jesus.  Any spirit which distracts from Jesus, any spirit which does not exalt him, and spirit which does not confess his incarnation - his death, resurrection, and ascension - as the central reality of human history and each individual human life: that is not the Holy Spirit, but is the spirit of antichrist.

This can be subtle.  There is teaching which makes much of Jesus, but not quite enough.  There is teaching which makes Jesus the noblest of human beings (but not God, at least not in the fullest sense) - this is implicit in a lot of liberal teaching (and there is a lot of it masquerading as evangelicalism at the moment, but that's another matter); and there is teaching that makes Jesus divine in some sense (but not a real human being) - although this side of the equation is perhaps less popular in the current cultural moment.

But the Holy Spirit says 'Jesus is Lord' (that is, the LORD), and the Holy Spirit says 'Jesus came in the flesh' (that is, in genuine humanity, in which he suffered, died, and rose).

Test the spirits, and listen to the Spirit.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Knowledge in the Spirit

"In Jesus Christ God has embodied in our human existence the mutual knowledge which the Father and the Son have of one another and in the Holy Spirit he gives us communion in the mutual relation of the Father and the Son and thus makes us share in the knowledge which the Father and the Son have of one another."

Thus T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 55.

That's a pretty dense sentence, and in urgent need of some punctuation, but there are two truths here that Torrance is getting at which are of vital importance for us.

Firstly, in the incarnation of the Son, God has given us a point of access, a way in which we can truly know him.  In the context of his discussion, Torrance is making the point (drawn from Irenaeus and particularly Athanasius) that God can only be known from himself.  An attempted knowledge of God that began from created things would not get far; it could only really be speculative.  But there is a problem: we can't know God in himself.  Because he is beyond creation, beyond our way of being, he is also beyond our knowing.  God overcomes this problem (for we surely can't overcome it) by making himself present in Christ.  Now we have, within the human world of space and time, a genuine way in - not to an abstract knowledge of God as Creator, but to the relational knowledge which Father and Son have of one another in the eternal Godhead.  Jesus relates to his Father as he always has done eternally, but now he does so as a man, and in so doing establishes the 'objective' knowledge of God for us all.

Secondly, the out-poured Holy Spirit unites believers to Christ, such that they share in that relationship between the Father and the Son.  They know themselves to be alongside Christ as brothers, adopted as the children of the Father.  Being involved in this relationship, believers necessarily have knowledge of God.  But note again: this is knowledge of God which is also knowledge from and through God.  The Spirit, if you like, establishes the 'subjective' knowledge of God for us who believe, by involving us in the relationship between the Father and the Son.

The central thing, I think, which is implied by the incarnation on the one hand and Pentecost on the other, is that there is no second hand knowledge of God.  To know God is to be involved in God's own self-knowledge.  This is very clear biblically in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.  Only the Spirit knows the deep things of God, and he knows them in the way that a human's spirit knows the deep things of that human person.  And yet, we have the mind of Christ; we are made, by the Spirit, to participate genuinely in this self-knowing of God.

What we celebrate at Pentecost is not just power, not just mission, not just the church, but God catching us up into genuine relational knowledge of himself, into the very relationship and knowledge of the Father and the Son in the eternal Godhead.

Good news.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The work done by a doctrine of creation

It can be easy for the doctrine of creation to function merely as a backdrop - establishing a baseline, as it were, to make it easier to see the effects of the fall.  Yes, God made the world, and yes, it was good; but that's all in the past, and this side of Genesis 3 what matters is just pulling souls out of the wreckage before the whole thing goes up in smoke.

But a robust doctrine of creation - of the view that God made all this stuff and that it is therefore good, because it bears the mark of its Creator and serves his purposes - is so much more important than that.

Doctrinally, you can't make sense of Jesus without a sound doctrine of creation.  The idea that God the Son took on flesh makes no sense except in a scenario where God the Maker is still concerned for the stuff he has made.  The emphasis on stuff that pervades the gospel accounts - the physical healings, the miracles of food and wine, baptism and Supper - is inexplicable without a God who has not turned his back on his creation, or had second thoughts about the sheer physicality of the thing.  And then the resurrection - why all the insistence that it was with a real body that Jesus appeared after his crucifixion?  Why the eating of fish, the barbecue on the beach?  This is all such earthly stuff for the risen Son of God to be involved with, don't you think?  I wonder if a lot of the aversion which some people have to the idea of incarnation and resurrection actually comes from a sense that it just isn't spiritual enough for their idea of god.

The Christian hope also depends on our doctrine of creation.  Jesus rose in a physical body, and will return to raise our bodies and to renew the whole physical creation.  It is a new heavens and a new earth we're looking forward to, not an ethereal floaty existence as disembodied spirits.  Because God loves this creation he has made, he will redeem it.  All creation groans together in anticipation of that glory; it's a shame if Christians aren't excited at the prospect.

Ethically, there are a whole range of issues which Christians will tend to neglect without a firm doctrine of creation.  Environmental stuff, of course, but it goes a lot further than that.  I'm sure some of the debate a couple of decades ago about the right balance between evangelism and social action sprang in some measure from a deficient doctrine of creation: a sense amongst some that what matters is souls, not bodies or social systems or politics.  But if God is the Creator, all those things matter.

Most recently I've been thinking about how lack of a decent doctrine of creation makes our witness and evangelism harder.  It's easy for Christians to become interested only in 'Christian stuff', to the neglect of the world around.  Whether it's the person who can talk intensely about Christ and the need to be saved but has nothing to say about sport or art, or the person who sees value in reading theological tomes but has never enjoyed a good novel - it all serves to make Christianity seem anti-creation, anti-stuff.  Our lives are impoverished if we go even a little way down this road, and then who will want to join us in our impoverishment?

So anyway, God looked at everything he had made and saw that it was very good.

Monday, May 20, 2019

As a father has compassion

Preaching Psalm 103 yesterday, the big thing that struck me was the contrast between the frailty of humanity and the eternity of God:
As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him,
and his righteousness to children's children,
to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.
The contrast is clear: God is from everlasting to everlasting, man is barely from one day to the next.  He is the enduring Lord, they are a flash in the pan at best.  We might ask, with another Psalm, what is man, that God should be mindful of him?

But according to Psalm 103, the response of God to humanity is not disdain.  One might reasonably expect this.  That is how the gods of the classical pantheons tended to view humans, and of course Aristotle thought that god would be completely unaware of such trifles as human beings - too caught up in his own perfection to be bothered.  (It would in fact constitute a loss of perfection for god to cease contemplating his own perfect self and take note of something so mundane as a human being).

Not the God of Israel.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
And in the full biblical witness to revelation, we see what that compassion means.  The Psalmist notes that God the creator "knows our frame" - he knows how we're made.  Of course he does, as creator.  But it's more than that.  In his compassion, God the Son has actually taken on that frame, and lived it from the inside out.  He has not just felt for us in our brevity and weakness, from a distance.  He is not condescending (in a negative way); he has condescended, to be one of us.  His compassion has extended so far, the distance from heaven and earth (the same distance which, according to the Psalm, marks the span of his great love).

What a great God we have, that for us he should become a feeble man!

Monday, May 13, 2019


Great to have Dan Steel from Magdalen Road Church preaching from 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5 for us yesterday.  Lots of weakness in the passage.  The message looks weak and foolish, the people who believe are weak and foolish, the ministers of the gospel work by apparently weak and foolish means.  We would love it all to be stronger, more impressive - but as Dan pointed out, that's because we're glory thieves.  We want the gospel and the church to be (and be seen to be) strong, so that we can be confident in ourselves.  Instead, we are forced to be confident in God.

The logic of Paul's position shows that this is God's choice - it is deliberate.  God chooses to use 'weak' things so that we are forced to rely on him.  It might seem as if God is deliberately keeping us weak.  But the deeper logic is that it could not be any other way.  God must use 'weak' things and thus force us to rely on himself - because he is the only source of strength.  If God had given us a 'strong' message, called a 'strong' people - well, we would have ended up weak.  Weak.

Strength doesn't come through intermediate things, not really.  God does not and cannot impart strength through a message or a method which detaches us from himself.  The reason the gospel gives strength is because it highlights our weakness and binds us to God.

Elsewhere Paul tells the Corinthians that because of the Lord he can say 'when I am weak, then I am strong'.  This is so, because God's grace is perfected in weakness.  At various points I have wanted this to mean something like: when I am weak, it is only temporary, because God will shortly provide new strength.  But it isn't that.  It isn't that at all.  Right now, in my weakness, I am strong - but the strength isn't in me.  I am strong only because in my weakness I am forced to lean on God, the only strength.  God is strength, I am weakness.  I am strong only in so far as I am wholly dependent on him.

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.  It is the waiting, the waiting on him, that brings strength.  The strength never becomes something in us, something we can bank for later; we can never get to a point where we need wait no longer.

So I guess the overall need that we have as churches and as individuals is to be so desperately weak, so thoroughly committed to the weak proclamation of a foolish message, that if anything is going to happen it will have to be God.  It will have to be him.