Sunday, April 29, 2007

Laugh more, cry more

I've been pondering recently how very detached it is easy to become. I mean, one can very easily find oneself in a place where the most terrible of tragedies elicits not a single tear, and the most stunning beauty barely prompts a gasp. Laughter is hardly ever more than a cynical chuckle. More often than not, a shrug is all the expression of emotion we can manage.

This strikes me as sad. Also, ungodly.

If there is ultimate meaning in the world - and, for reasons I may go into in a later post, I think that there can only be ultimate meaning if there is God (not "a god", but God) - then everything has meaning and significance. Tragedy is real tragedy; joy is real joy. And to treat them otherwise is to deny God.

God says "Yes" to creation; he says "Yes" to life. That's one of the main points of the Genesis story. Creation in all its fullness, which I take to include the various expressions of human existence present in potential at the beginning, is approved by God. That means it is to be enjoyed, loved, experienced deeply and emotionally. Thus Karl Barth:

"Thus the call that we should seek joy is not merely a concession or permission but a command which cannot be lightly regarded by one who has appreciated the divine justification of creation. We need not be ashamed before the holiness of God if we can still laugh and must laugh again, but only if we allow laughter to wither away, and above all if we have relapsed into a sadly ironic smile". Church Dogmatics, III/1, p. 371

Isn't that sadly ironic smile the precise posture of our culture? Of course, it can hardly be otherwise in a world stripped of God and therefore of meaning. In such a world, we can't be sure that life is good - or even that good could be defined in a meaningful way. But for the Christian - for the one who believes that life and creation are good on the basis not of a deduction from the (admittedly confusing) evidence of life itself as it appears to be, but on the basis of God's word which says "Yes" to creation - there must be laughter, and there must be joy. A holy naivety is called for here. We take God's "Yes" to creation at face value and believe it, whether the world currently looks good or bad to us, and we seek joy.

Christian, play silly games! Run around on the grass! Above all, laugh!

There is, of course, a flip-side to this. God has not only said "Yes" to creation. He has also said "No". God judges what is evil in life and creation, and in so doing reveals that evil is also real, and not merely an impression of our minds. Evil is real, and so tragedy is real. It is not a meaningless event in a meaningless world. It stands under judgement, but that doesn't make it any less real. And so we must experience this, too, in a deep, emotional - above all, real - way. Barth again:

"How can a man stand before his Creator without realising that he is lost and must perish? ... Hence the man who must and will weep has no need to be ashamed when faced with the Creator's goodness. The only man who has cause for shame is he who motivated by false pride refuses to weep, or perhaps for simple lack of insight has lost the capacity to do so. The very last thing that ought to happen is the attempt to elude the misery of life" CD III/1, p 373

Taking God's "No" as seriously as we take his "Yes", we are required to mourn and weep. So much in our world is wrong. So much is painful. So much is evil. In a world where there is ultimate meaning - in a world where there is God - we must take these things seriously, and respond appropriately in grief - and also anger.

Christian, weep as you watch the news! Grieve as you see the brokeness of the world! Above all, cry out against it to the God who has said "No" to evil and will not let it have the final word.

"...the divine revelation manifests both the sorrow and joy of life, and therefore not only permits but commands us to laugh and weep, to be glad and sorrowful, precluding only the attitude of indifference, the judgement of the sceptic..." CD III/1, p 375

I am convicted that I need to out-feel those around me who do not know God, because unlike them I have reason to believe that my feelings are a response to real joys and real tragedies. I need to be involved intellectually and emotionally in all the real good and all the real evil of the world and of the lives of those around me.

I need to laugh more. I need to cry more.

Friday, April 20, 2007

When truth demands division

Have a peek at Adrian Warnock's blog if you're not aware that Word Alive, the popular student week of Spring Harvest, is no more. Essentially, the relationship between UCCF and Keswick on the one hand, and Spring Harvest on the other, has come to something of a messy end. So here we go. Disunity amongst Christians. Harsh words spoken. Bad feeling.

What a disaster.

Except that this was division caused by two issues. The first issue was the truth of penal substitution. UCCF and Keswick insisted that people who are known to disbelieve in this doctrine not appear at Word Alive. Why? Because this is the gospel. This is the heart of our salvation in Christ. When we start to talk about the Lord Jesus bearing our sins in his own body on the tree, becoming a curse for us - then we are well within the realm of essential truths, truths not to be compromised on. A line has to be drawn somewhere, and if I'm any judge of things this is the place to draw it. Did Christ bear the penalty for sin? That question is crucial. To preserve the clarity of this central gospel truth, division is justified.

But there is a second issue which is more frustrating. There will always be error, and people who hold the truth according to the Scriptures will always have to battle it, and when necessary separate from those who hold it. But what about the apparently large number of people who don't disagree with penal subsitution - but just don't see why it matters enough to divide over? What's going on there? This kind of doctrinal indifferentism is a real tragedy, on so many levels. It shows a lack of a deep understanding of the cross, because if the truth of it were understood in head and heart surely there would be more zeal for that truth on display? It hinders unity amongst Christians who hold the Scriptural view, because often the "indifferentists" will prefer to maintain unity with those who are in error than with those who hold the truth, even though their minimalist theological convictions are more in line with the latter. And most fundamentally, it dishonours Jesus by holding that it doesn't matter exactly what he did on the cross.

So, Word Alive is dead - but New Word Alive is... um... alive. And so there could be good that comes out of this: a great conference where the truth of the gospel is spoken unashamedly, without confusion. This could be a rallying point for all those who love the central truths of the gospel. Whether it will turn out that way or not will depend in large part on whether Biblical Christians can shake off the disease of indifferentism.


Check out the wonderful linkage available via the blue fish project.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

John Owen is my homeboy

And I quote:

Reason alone - especially as it is corrupted and depraved - can discern no glory in the representation of God by Christ; yea, all that is spoken thereof, or declared in the gospel, is foolishness unto it. Hence many live in a profession of the faith of the letter of the gospel, yet - having no light, guide nor conduct, but that of reason - they do not, they cannot, really behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; nor hath the revelation of it any efficacy unto their souls. The manifestation of him in the light of nature, by the works of creation and providence, is suited unto their reason, and doth affect it; for that which is made of Christ, they say of it, as the Israelites did of Manna, that came down from heaven, "What is it?", we know not the meaning of it. For it is made unto faith alone, and all men have not faith.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


In the new creation, Oxford will always win the boat race.


No, seriously.

Holy Saturday

I think Holy Saturday is the strangest day of the year. I also think it is the day most representative of the whole of the year.

Yes, I do have a slightly odd brain.

Let me explain. Holy Saturday is strange because it is neither here nor there. Liturgically, it is stuck somewhere between "Christ has died" and "Christ has risen". It's this curious waiting time between the cross and the resurrection. What does it mean? Is the world fixed? It doesn't look like it. Did the Messiah win? It doesn't look like it...

But then, Holy Saturday is also the day that most resembles my daily experience of life. Somewhere inbetween. Not anymore in the darkness of the past; not yet in the glorious brightness of the future. The whole of life is lived knowing that something decisive happened in the past, and something decisive will happen in the future. But I live in the meantime. And if I'm honest, I still look around at the world, and indeed at myself, and sometimes ask: is it fixed? Did he win? Because honestly, it doesn't look like it.

Holy Saturday is the day of holy angst.
For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened--not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 2 Cor 5:4
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Rom 8:22,23

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday

The most important thing that has ever happened in (or out of) the history of the world is remembered today. I've been pondering something that was said at the time.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

The speaker was of course Jesus. He was already crucified; it would not be long before he died. His suffering - physical, mental, emotional, spiritual - was more than I can describe. But this is the heart of it. Forsaken by God.

How forsaken? Bear in mind, this will only make sense if you acknowledge and confess with the church that this man is also the eternal Son of God, the second Person of the Divine Trinity - a person who has always enjoyed perfect relationship with God the Father. But then also bear in mind that acknowledging and confessing this makes it impossible that he should be so forsaken. God forsaken by God?

Pondering this cry from the cross, I find myself staring into a deep abyss of profound agony and profound love. God the Holy Trinity - the one whom the church delights to call indivisible - is, in some sense at least, divided. As Christ takes on his shoulders the sins of the world (my sins!), he stands before the Father as the guilty one. He, the guilty one! And God is too pure to even look upon evil... What agony.

But what incredible love. God the Holy Trinity sees the world of humanity cut off from himself - cut off from the relationship we were made for, by our own will and act. Does he reject us? No. He takes it into himself. Jesus Christ will be the cut-off one. The alienation and mess of our rampant atheism and godlessness will be taken into the nature of God himself. What was an external relationship of judgement is taken in and made an internal one.

My Lord, what love is this?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

United we stand? (4)

Here are just a few implications of things that I've been waffling about so far on the nature of Christian unity. They're not designed to be a complete blueprint for all future activity expressive of Christian unity, but I do think they're things that people ought to take on board.

Future ecumenical activity should have a strong confessional basis
Since Christian unity is based on truth, attempts to display that unity must also be based on the truth. If big ecumenical events are planned, they should have at their heart a statement of the gospel around which we are uniting. This will doubtless exclude some people who have hitherto been involved in events, although it may also encourage some who have not been involved wholeheartedly to come onboard. However, even if this course of action seemed pragmatically undesirable, we should take it because it allows us to draw the lines in the same place as the New Testament.

Unity need not flow from church leaders or structures

An informal Bible study group consisting of people from different churches is as much a display of the visible unity that the New Testament calls for as a meeting of church leaders, or an event jointly organised by different churches. In many ways this sort of grass-roots unity is a better expression of Christian unity than an organised event, because it flows more directly from the sense of a shared experience of the Spirit and a shared commitment to the truth.

Christian unity will only be made visible through relationships

At one level this simply flows from the nature of the unity that we see in God the Trinity. At a more pragmatic level, it is necessitated by the need to assess the visible evidence of spiritual unity that I have argued for. Only in the context of a relationship can there be the realisation that we share the same experience of the Spirit and the same faith. This is as much true for Christian churches and organisations as it is for individuals.

No individual, church or organisation should be asked to commit to a programme or event in which they have no control over who else is invited to join

This follows from the previous point. It is not reasonable to ask Christians to unite with others when they have had no chance to ascertain whether they show evidence of spiritual unity.

To decline visible unity with someone is not necessarily to impugn their salvation

There are many valid reasons why a Christian, Church or organisation may decline to unite visibly with another group or individual. The most obvious would be that they simply do not know whether they share the same faith and the one Spirit. However, no person or group’s choice to decline unity in any given situation should be understood to mean that they do not believe another person or group to be spiritually united to Christ. At worst, they may claim that the other person or group does not seem to share the faith and experience of the Spirit which they are looking for as evidence of their spiritual unity. However, charity demands that we not assume that persons or groups declining unity are making even this limited judgement unless they specifically say so.

Within those limits, I think that we should be seeking to maintain the unity God has given us - putting real energy into doing so, with enthusiasm. And I think we should be making that unity visible - whether through big events, joint ventures, or just co-operation locally - so that the world can see that we are Christ's disciples.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

United we stand? (3)

I promise I'm getting towards the point of this lengthy excursus into ecclesiology.

The more discerning reader will have noticed that the two aspects of our unity mentioned in my last post relate pretty directly to the Reformation distinction between the Church as catholic (universal) assembly and the church as local congregation. Despite some theological difficulties with this distinction, it seems to remain valid. All those who are united with Christ are united with the Church catholic, which is the Bride of Christ. However, as it is impossible to discern an individual’s connection to Christ, so it is impossible to state with exactitude the limits of the catholic Church. The unity is real and God-given, but it is not visible in itself.

All those who are united by a common experience of the Spirit and a common faith, however, are called to form local congregations as visible expressions of the catholic church. This unity is visible because based on things that can, to an extent, be discerned by Christians. Of course, this visible unity assumes invisible unity, just as the gift of the Spirit and unity in the one faith assume a common union with Christ. In fact, the reason we unite with those who share our faith and our experience of the Spirit is that these things provide evidence that we are already united with them on the basis of our mutual unity with Christ.

It follows from what we have said about the impossibility of discerning with precision the boundaries of the catholic Church that there may well be those with whom we have visible unity but with whom we are not, in fact, spiritually united – in other words, there will be those within the congregations of our churches who are not, in fact, united with Christ. This is not something that we could ever ascertain for certain. Furthermore, the New Testament does not encourage us to give it too much thought. We are encouraged to unite with all those who testify to their experience of the Spirit and hold the same faith. Only God can look deeper than this. Therefore, we should not be suspicious of people in our churches, or in other churches, who appear to share the Spirit and the truth. Rather, we must look on them as brothers and sisters and unite with them accordingly, leaving the final judgement to God. If we are called to be suspicious of anyone, it is of ourselves.

It is important to recognise at the same time that the New Testament does not encourage us to be so charitable as to assume that those who do not share our experience of the Spirit and do not hold to the faith entrusted once for all to the saints are nevertheless really united with Christ. We are directed to the marks of visible unity – the Spirit and the truth – and not to speculation on a person’s spiritual state.

My interim conclusion is this: visible unity must be based on the visible marks of unity given us in Scripture. To go beyond this in trying to unite more broadly is presumption. It assumes that in the absence of the evidence that God has told us to look for, we can nevertheless discern whether someone is united spiritually to Christ. That seems to me to be a claim to knowledge that only God has. On the other hand, to refuse to unite with those who share in the visible marks of unity seems equally presumptuous, as it involves declaring ourselves to be disunited from those who show the evidence of being united to Christ that God has told us to look for.

Tomorrow I plan to wrap this up with a few more practical comments.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Believing without Belonging?

Are people in the UK really still Christians but just absent from Church?

I rather doubt it. This survey does show, however, that secularism isn't catching on as well as some people would like it to.

Of course, that comes as no surprise to anyone with a passing familiarity with the Bible, or human nature for that matter. We need to believe in God; in fact, we need to involve him in our lives (notice that the majority of people profess to be praying people...) Is that a huge defect in our species, or is it perchance because in reality we are the creation of a God who wants to be involved with us?

Monday, April 02, 2007

United we stand? (2)

It occurs to me that I could write a lot - and I do mean a lot! - on this topic. I was thinking it would be nice to go right down to theological roots. We could think about how there was unity (or perhaps Unity) before the beginning in the Godhead. We could ponder the unity that there will be in the end - when everything is gathered up under one head, even Christ. We could devote considerable space to thinking about the character of this unity: we would probably arrive at the cliched but none the less apposite phrase "unity in diversity".

But that would take a long time.

So I thought I'd focus on one issue: what is it that unites Christians?

I think the answer can be given, and must be given, at two different levels. At the first, and deepest level, Christians are united to one another because they are united to Christ. Unity with Christ is in fact the reason that we are Christians at all. Because we are united to him, we have died with him and risen with him (Colossians 2:11-12, for example). Our unity with him is basic. And if I am united to Christ, and that guy over there is united to Christ, then I am united to him. That's just the way it works. That unity with Christ is brought about by faith in him. It follows that I am united to everyone who has faith in Christ.

But there is a problem. This vital unity with Christ is (to some extent at least) unseen and unexperienced (in a corporate sense: this is not to deny the very real and very precious experiences that the believer has of being united to Christ). Unity with Christ does mean unity with all of his people – with everyone else who is united to him. But this begs the question, how are we to recognise such people? Given that we are not able to discern directly a person’s status with regard to Christ, how are we to know with whom we are called to unite?

Scripture provides two main marks to help us in this regard. Firstly, unity is understood as resulting from a common experience of the Holy Spirit. This is manifestly so in Acts 10, for example. Seeing that the Gentiles of Cornelius’ household have received the same Spirit as the apostles, Peter does not hesitate to welcome them into visible unity through baptism. This understanding also lies behind Paul’s call to the Ephesians (4:3) to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Dunn’s comments are illuminating:

The practical theological corollary to this is that the community of the Spirit is in no sense a human creation. For Paul, we may fairly say, community grew out of the shared experience of the Spirit. Or, as we might say, fellowship… grew out of common participation in the one Spirit. Otherwise it was not the body of Christ.

Perhaps one of the greatest roadblocks on the way to true Christian unity at present is the debate over what this experience of the Spirit is. This certainly requires further investigation, but as a base camp for the expedition I would make the point that certainly none of the particular spiritual gifts can be intended, since the New Testament is clear that Christians are given diverse gifts. It may well be more useful to consider the role of the Spirit as described in John 16, testifying to Jesus and convicting people of sin, righteousness and judgement – in other words, precisely conversion. That this conversion is to be a manifest experience rather than a mere decision or assent is perhaps a challenge to contemporary thinking in some evangelical circles.

Alongside this mark of unity, Scripture presents a unity in the truth – an agreement on the fundamental articles of the Christian faith. This concern is manifested in the prayer of the Lord Jesus in John 17, a foundational text for any consideration of Christian unity. It is generally accepted that this prayer shows Jesus’ deep concern for the unity of his people, but less attention is paid to the description of that unity that the Lord gives. A close reading makes it clear that Jesus sees the “word” – in this context, the gospel message – as a prerequisite of his disciples’ unity: “I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them” (v. 8); “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them” (v. 14); “sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (v. 17); “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (v. 20). The unity that Jesus prays for is a product of the word. The gospel truth unites God’s people.

Paul underlines this in Ephesians 5:5 by listing “one faith” as one of the marks of the unity of the Spirit. In the context of the chapter, the reference is not to the subjective aspect of faith – not to the trust of the Christian – but to the objective content of the faith. This is that message described by Jude as “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Where this faith is held in common, there is visible unity.

Yikes, this is getting long. Perhaps more tomorrow?