Tuesday, May 23, 2017

REPOST: Imprecatory

Psalm 139 is regularly read in church services.  It's a beautiful celebration of humanity as created and sustained by God.  It's a wonderful reassurance that God's great design stands behind each human being, and that his awesome presence accompanies each human life.  Where we are perhaps ready to see the flaws in each other and in ourselves, the Psalm encourages us to view each person as "fearfully and wonderfully made".  Where I tend to feel alone, the Psalm lifts my eyes to see that wherever I am and whatever my circumstances, God's "right hand shall hold me".  No wonder the Psalm gets so much airtime.

But then you hit verse 19.  Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!

The reading often skips this bit out.  How can this verse sit alongside the beautiful sentiments of the rest of the Psalm?  How can we affirm on the one hand that God knows each human life intimately, but on the other hand pray that God would smite the wicked?

But there is no conflict here.  It is precisely because of the value of life that the Psalmist cries out against the wicked.  The wicked are "men of blood", those who stand against God's good intention, those who oppose life.  And they are strong, and they are bold, and mere human beings cannot stop them.

Therefore, oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!

Now, with New Testament lenses on, we can see that this prayer is ultimately answered, not in the death of any number of wicked people, but in the death of wickedness itself  at the cross of Christ.  And yet...  May we not still hand over the wicked, whose power is beyond us, to God - the just judge?  Should we not ask the Judge to enforce justice?  I think perhaps we should.

Love of life - the life created by God - must mean enmity to everything that stands for death, and in that battle our weapon is prayer.

Originally posted in November 2015

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Vote and pray

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.
Thus the apostle.

In directing the believers to pray for those in authority, Paul makes clear that the sphere of political leadership is not one of divine disinterest.  The fact that Jesus' kingdom is not of this world does not mean that the kingdoms of this world are beneath his notice.  Admittedly, Paul's expectations and goals when it comes to praying for kings and all in high positions seem to be very limited, but there is engagement.

Our situation is rather different from Paul's.  Unlike him, we are periodically asked to help decide who exactly will be "in high positions", through the mechanism of electing our representatives.  We approach that as believers who know the King, but nevertheless are called to take an interest in who will exercise temporal authority over us.  Unlike Paul, we are called not only to pray but to act, to take a degree of responsibility (albeit a small and limited one) for the powers that be.  The emperor did not ask for Paul's input in how he ran his empire, but we are asked for input, and it is important that our input be decisively shaped by the recognition that Jesus has died and risen, and is now ascended and enthroned.  We vote, just as we live, as witnesses to that decisive fact.  Our priorities ought to be different as a result.  Can I suggest a few particular areas to think through?

In 2015, 191,014 human beings were legally killed in England and Wales.  They were, of course, killed in the womb, but killed they nonetheless were.  If you're a taxpayer, you helped to pay for it.  We are called to bear witness to the fact that in Christ no human life is superfluous, hopeless, or without value.  If one of the candidates for your parliamentary seat is consistently pro-life, and shows some willingness to act on their convictions, can I suggest that this might trump a whole load of other considerations?  I know that lots of Christians in the UK have been dismayed at the 'single-issue' voting across the pond, and I'm not saying that you should ignore everything else.  But if you did have to pick a single issue, saving the lives of unborn children wouldn't be a bad one.

In a similar, but less extreme, vein, there are numerous people in the UK who, through ill health or disability, are unable to support themselves.  On this issue, we look for representatives who first of all have compassion - who actually show some signs of caring - and then secondly who have a plan.  I don't think we need to be or ought to be particularly attached to any one plan, but we want representatives who will prioritise taking action in this area.  We live as those who believe in the God of compassion when we vote with compassion - and note that the God of compassion did not sit in heaven feeling sorry for us in our brokenness, but acted to help!

A third area would be around freedom of expression, and especially freedom of religion.  This has two aspects to it: domestic and international.  Internationally, we want representatives who will support the spread of religious liberty around the world.  Domestically, we want representatives who will protect the right of people of all faiths and none to act according to conscience and to speak according to their conviction.  We should stand for religious liberty for all, not just ourselves or those like us.  This is, I will confess, partly out of a self-interested application of what might be termed the Niemöller principle - if we don't speak out when they come for the Muslims, who will speak out when they come for us?  But there is also something more principled about it.  We believe in the Christ who rules by his sovereign word, and wherever that word is given liberty he will extend his reign - we are not, or ought not to be, afraid of other ideas or beliefs.

And then there is a whole load of other stuff.  It's legitimate to think about economics, although we ought to resist the appeals to our own economic self-interest as much as we are able.  We can take a step back and ask what sort of system seems likely to work best, whether that's in economics or governance.  It's reasonable to think about security and international relations.  On most of these things. Christians will be able to reasonably and faithfully disagree, because they're inevitably based on uncertain assessments of the world and our place in it.  But that doesn't mean they don't matter, or that our choices ought not to be shaped by the reality of the gospel.

When we're done thinking all this through, I think we'll wind up back with Paul.  How huge these issues are!  How complex is the world in which we live!  What confusion there is around even the apparently simplest things!  How entrenched are some of the atrocities of our society!  How desperate is the situation of the voiceless!  And how pathetically small is our influence, our ability to shape things.

And so, pray for kings and all who are in high positions.  One way we can witness is to keep calm and know that Christ is on the throne.  It is, despite appearances, in his hands - all of it.  So vote and pray.  And pray and pray and pray.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Faith in what?

When we (Protestants) say that people are 'justified by faith', what do we mean?  Are we declared righteous on the basis of a general credulity?  Is it faith, per se, that justifies, or is there a particular character to justifying faith?

John Owen, a man not much given to brevity, defines the object of justifying faith as "the Lord Jesus Christ himself, as the ordinance of God, in his work of mediation for the recovery and salvation of lost sinners, and as unto that end proposed in the promise of the gospel".  And he goes on to helpfully unpack that in four dimensions, which we might summarise thus:

1.  "The Lord Jesus Christ himself" - that is to say, the faith which justifies is personal faith, trust in Christ himself.  It is not mere assent to facts.  We all know what it means to trust a person; that is what faith is, and the trusted person is the Lord Jesus Christ.

2.  "as the ordinance of God" - in other words, faith in Christ views him not as a general person, but as the person given by God the Father to bring about our salvation.  So justifying faith is not only grounded in the person of Christ as the Son; it also looks to the Father as the one who sends him.  Knowing that Christ is the one sent by God for the purpose of recovering and saving lost sinners, those who are justified put their trust in him.

3.  "for the recovery and salvation of lost sinners" - the effect of Christ's work is salvation, and so justifying faith has an eye on that as its end goal.  (Owen fudges a little here, to my mind, arguing that although justifying faith ought to lead one to believe that one's own sins are forgiven, that does not belong to its essential nature - I struggle with that; how can one trust Christ for salvation and not trust that one is actually saved?)  Still, justifying faith is not directly faith that one is justified - this could well be mere presumption.  It is faith in Christ as the one sent to effect justification.

4.  "as unto that end proposed in the promise" - faith which justifies is faith which looks at God's promises extended to us in the gospel and leans on Christ in the promises.  All the promises of the gospel - every good thing which God offers to believers - is found in Christ and based in his work as mediator.  Therefore, faith which regards the promises is faith which can be traced to Christ himself.

Justifying faith is trust in Jesus as the one sent by the Father for our good; trust in Jesus as the one who came for our salvation; trust in Jesus as the one in whom all God's promises are yes and amen.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Teaching falsehood and being a false teacher

Back in the day, when I was working with Christian students, I was once asked to give a little talk about some aspect of eschatology.  I duly delivered, and only discovered afterwards that by a misfortune of timing a local church student worker had also spoken to the issue at hand during the week, and moreover had expressed opinions rather contrary to my own.  The students were a little flummoxed.  Being good conservative evangelicals, they were committed to the notion of truth, and they were aware that the differences they were hearing were not the sort of thing that could be explained as different perspectives or any such thing.  But unfortunately they were not equipped with a category for 'Christian teachers having differing interpretations' - if we were teaching differently, one of us must be a false teacher.  To avoid this conclusion, they opted to assume that they had simply misunderstood the talk in their local church.  They were not inclined to consider either of us a false teacher, and so they had to assume that we had not, in fact, disagreed - despite the evidence of their ears.

This story goes a long way to explaining some of my ambivalence about the term 'false teacher'.

What is clear, to me at least, is that on this occasion at least one of us was teaching falsehood.  I am, of course, inclined to think it was the other fellow.  Our views on the question under discussion were irreconcilable, at least in substance (although doubtless there were elements of truth present in both positions).  If what we were talking about was a real thing, then there is no doubt that one of us was substantially wrong (and of course, both of us may well have been entirely wrong; what is certain is that we were not both right).  But it seems to me that when Christians use the category of 'false teacher' they must mean more than this - more than a different opinion or apprehension on one matter of eschatology.  Since every Christian teacher has, at least from time to time, taught falsehood - by error of positive teaching, by omission, by neglecting or just failing to communicate clearly - the sort of broad category being deployed by these students would leave none of us standing.

So I'm keen to have a category for teaching falsehood without being a false teacher.

But there is no doubt that the NT does present us with people who have gone beyond this - people who are, deliberately or naively, leading the people of God astray through their teaching in a way which directs them away from the true God and away from right living.  And I've been thinking recently that we need to have the courage to recover this category and treat those who fall into it in an appropriate way.  This isn't an alternative to having a certain tolerance for error; it goes alongside it.  In fact, the parameters of orthodoxy are such that there is a wide field over which we can range without stepping beyond the bounds, and certainly within that field we can be and often will be 'wrong' - but without being destructively wrong.

I think it is that destructiveness that characterises the true false teacher.

Of course all error is to some extent destructive.  Truth builds up, falsehood pulls down.  But there are two particular types of error which are flagged up in the NT as destructive: error that leads people to such a false understanding of the deity that the God they worship is no longer recognisable as the Holy Trinity; and error that leads people into such egregious moral behaviour that their lives no longer bear the stamp of that holiness without which no one will see God.  These errors destroy people.

Because they destroy people, the appropriate response of the church, and especially of the pastors of the church, is an almost absolute 'no'.  The determined false teacher must of necessity be excluded from the church, treated as a pagan.  There is mercy - there is always mercy! - but in this case it needs to be mixed with fear, fear lest the destructive tendency of false teaching be let loose amongst God's people.

Looking at the confusion in the church on a hundred issues - from things as central to the understanding of God as the divinity of Christ, and things as essential to the moral life as the nature of marriage and sexuality - it seems to me that some lines need to be drawn.  Because I am a product of my time, and because I have the sort of brain and temperament that always wants to nuance everything and see the shades of grey, drawing lines makes me deeply uncomfortable.  But the alternative is worse, much worse: the destruction of faith and morals, with consequences which are potentially eternal.

Friday, April 28, 2017

We're not ready

I was recently reading the little treatise On the Lapsed by Cyprian of Carthage, and was struck by how relevant it is for the church in the West at the moment.  For those unfamiliar, Cyprian was bishop of Carthage for about ten years before his martyrdom in 258.  He was bishop through the Decian persecution, which kicked off with the Emperor Decius requiring every inhabitant of the Roman Empire to offer a sacrifice for the safety of the Empire in front of a magistrate; those who sacrificed received a certificate to that effect, whilst anyone refusing was harshly punished.  Whether the edict was particularly directed at Christians or not, it obviously had a great effect on the church.  By all accounts, the persecution was particularly harsh in Carthage (which had a larger than average Christian population), and many Christians made the required sacrifices.

Two things in particular struck me about Cyprian's treatment of those who have 'lapsed' - who have sacrificed to the pagan gods in order to save their skins and their social standing.

Firstly, he argues that the persecution was not the cause, but merely the occasion, for apostasy.  He looks back to the church before the persecution, and argues that it had become undisciplined.
Among the priests there was no devotedness of religion; among the ministers there was no sound faith: in their works there was no mercy; in their manners there was no discipline.  In men, their beards were defaced; in women, their complexion was dyed: the eyes were falsified from what God's hand had made them; their hair was stained with a falsehood. Crafty frauds were used to deceive the hearts of the simple, subtle meanings for circumventing the brethren. They united in the bond of marriage with unbelievers; they prostituted the members of Christ to the Gentiles. They would swear not only rashly, but even more, would swear falsely; would despise those set over them with haughty swelling, would speak evil of one another with envenomed tongue, would quarrel with one another with obstinate hatred.
The church which was not disciplined and committed to purity of life before the persecution could hardly be expected to stand up when tested.

Secondly, because that is how he sees the problem, Cyprian is not willing to lightly readmit those who have lapsed to fellowship.  The logic is obvious.  The roots of their apostasy did not lie in the persecution but in the failure to take the gospel and its call to purity seriously; the persecution merely revealed the problem which was already there.  So how could the problem be remedy through a relaxation of discipline?  A failure to be serious about the gospel cannot be addressed by not being serious about the gospel.

One reason I've been thinking about this stuff has been the Tim Farron debacle.  I wouldn't want to draw too many parallels between the hounding of the leader of the LibDems and the Decian persecution, but there are a few.  For example, all that is required to escape is to make a token gesture towards the prevalent ideology of the day; nobody requires that you take it too seriously.  Just say it isn't a sin, pay lip-service, and we can all move on.  But the main thought is: if this is a sign of things to come - and it is entirely conceivable to me that at some point it will become difficult for anyone who won't subscribe the new paganism, even if they're not the leader of the LibDems - well, are we ready?  Do we know what we believe and why we believe it?  Are our church communities disciplined?  Do we take the gospel seriously?

I confess, I worry a bit.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Again with 'the people'

Just a quick grumble about the way the concept of 'the people', which is a pet peeve of mine (cf. this), is already being used in this General Election campaign.  I will try to be kind while I criticise.

The trigger for this particular grumble was Jeremy Corbyn's launch speech for Labour's campaign.  There is lots that concerns me in this speech (when you read things like "the media and the establishment" being grouped together as the powerful enemy who "do not want us to win", you're sailing dangerously close to Trump territory).  But the main complaint from me is the narrative of "the establishment versus the people".  My question, as usual, is 'who are these people?' - and I suppose who are the establishment?

If we have to consider an election as an 'us vs. them' thing, which I don't accept by the way, it would be helpful to be more specific about who 'we' are.  I mean, who are the people?  Am I one of the people, or am I disqualified because of my political preferences?  I sure don't feel like I'm the establishment...  Or are 'the people' in this speech just those with left-leaning politics?  Is it, perhaps, that I do belong to 'the people', but don't understand that my interests are not served by a Conservative government?  Perhaps I don't know what I really 'will', and need to be re-educated.  Perhaps 48% of the general public are not "the people", or perhaps they are the people deluded, who if only they understood would be enthusiastic socialists.  That sort of idea has been advanced before.

Now, lest this be seen as partisan, I am well aware that the other side do the same thing.  I expect a lot of talk about 'hard-working families' in the next few weeks, with its implicit setting up of slackers and others as 'the other'.  I resent the idea that my left-leaning friends are against hard-work and family as much as I resent the idea that my right-leaning friends are part of, or at least supportive of, a secretive powerful cabal, a "cosy club" running the country for their own benefit.

Better rhetoric, please, everybody.  A recognition that we can have different visions for society that aren't necessarily driven by self-interest.  An understanding that we might all want the best for everyone, even though we disagree about what the best is or how to get it.  Less 'us vs. them', more clarity on the concrete differences in policy and objectives, so that we can all choose representatives who reflect our understanding of the best society, in an informed way.

Please?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Christ, the Firstfruits

In 1 Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul engages a fairly fundamental problem in the church in Corinth: some of the Christians are saying that there is no resurrection of the dead.  It appears they are not questioning the resurrection of Christ, because Paul's counter-argument is to point out that if there is no resurrection of the dead then Christ himself is not raised.  And if Christ is not raised, the apostolic preaching is a lie, and the faith of the Corinthian Christians is a sham.

For Paul's argument to work, the Corinthian Christians have to accept the resurrection of Jesus.  So what are they denying?  Presumably they are denying what might be called the general resurrection.  Although Christ was raised, they do not expect themselves to be raised, at least not bodily.  Bodily resurrection would have been distasteful to Hellenistic culture anyway.  So Paul's argument is: if no general resurrection - if no last day on which all are raised, to life or judgement - then no particular resurrection of Christ; but Christ is raised, therefore we look to the resurrection of all.

Apologetically, Paul makes it clear that everything hinges on the fact that Christ is raised from the dead, and the evidence for this is the testimony of the many who saw him alive (including 500 at once, most of whom are still alive when Paul is writing, and can therefore be consulted; also, of course, including Paul himself).

What particularly strikes me today about this passage is what Paul assumes the resurrection of Christ to be.  What does he think has happened?

Paul believed in and looked for the resurrection of the dead before he ever met Jesus.  Like Martha, he expected the resurrection of the just at the last day.  This was part of his Jewish heritage, part of the Scriptural testimony which he had absorbed from youth.  Paul didn't need the resurrection of Jesus to persuade him of the general resurrection.

But also like Martha, Paul has been brought face-to-face with the fact that Jesus is the resurrection.  The last day - the resurrection of the just - has in some sense already come.  Christ is the first of all those who will rise.  That is why Paul says that if there is no (general) resurrection then Christ himself has not been raised.  The resurrection of Jesus is the general resurrection.  In him, the future hope of a faithful Jew like Paul has been brought into the present.  The age to come, quite simply, has come.

That is not to say that the age to come is not still in the future.  Christ is the firstfruits, and the guarantee that the rest will follow.  But something truly dramatic has happened in the resurrection of Christ.  In our individualistic way, we tend to think of the resurrection of Jesus as one thing, and my resurrection to come as another.  But for Paul, the future resurrection of all is so closely linked to the resurrection of Christ that one without the other is unthinkable.  They are in principle the same event, the general resurrection so wrapped up in the person of Christ that they can't be separated.

It's a new day.  He is risen, we will rise.

Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!