Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lent 1

The problem with spiritual disciplines is that the rest of life does not stop to give you time and space for them.  There are still people to see, tasks to perform, ordinary life to live.  And there are still annoyances and irritants and distractions galore.


So, what to do with all the stuff that just keeps getting in the way?  Say I wanted to spend the day meditating on my sinfulness - how am I to do that when my kids are noisy and excited and I have jobs at church, and tomorrow's working day is already starting to invade my mind?

Have you thought about meditating on that last paragraph?  Seems like there's plenty of sinfulness there to be going on with - selfishness, for starters, and an unwillingness to serve.

Oh, come on, you know I didn't mean that.  I wanted to spend the day thinking about My Need For A Saviour, and maybe The State Of Fallen Man.  That sort of sinfulness.  Not just the petty everyday stuff.

So you wanted to meditate vaguely on big ideas rather than think through your actual sins?


Seems like you might be wasting your Lent.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Three-fold sin

Karl Barth describes sin in three ways, each in relation to an aspect of the work of Christ:

1.  Where Christ humbled himself, each and every other human being exalts himself.  This is all the more striking when we bear in mind the inherent glory of Christ as the Image and Son of God, and on the other hand the dust from which humanity is shaped.  Despite this, Christ humbled himself to death - even death on a cross, in striking contrast to the status-seeking and self-promotion of humanity.  Sin in its first form is pride.

2.  Where Christ obeyed God and lived a life of active fellowship with him, each and every other human being avoids God's call and resists his fellowship.  Jesus always did the will of his Father, even when that will led him to Calvary.  We, on the other hand, do not respond to God's call.  We do not take up the responsibility of living toward God, but instead fall for the lure of irresponsibility and inaction.  Sin in its second form is sloth.

3. Where Christ bore true witness to God, each and every other human being distorts or ignores the knowledge of God.  Jesus was the light of the world, but we prefer to live in darkness.  We manufacture idols, literal or metaphorical, and create gods in our own image.  In doing so, we lose touch with ultimate truth, and consequently with all truth.  Sin in its third form is falsehood.

Obviously this is not the only way to think about sin, but I find it helpful especially for the way it places our sin in the context of Christ's righteousness.  Here, face to face with the only example of human righteousness there has ever been, we are surely forced to acknowledge that we not only fall short but set off in entirely the wrong direction.

Kyrie eleison.  Christe eleison.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


In the past, it would be fair to say that I've not always had positive things to say about Lent.  I'd stand by that, perhaps especially this one. But I have also shifted quite significantly in recent times.  As I get more into the rhythm of the church year (and I see that I started to follow it back in 2011), I find that there really is virtue in alternation of fast and feast.  Today I've been pondering how together they help us to live into our Christian identity.

The Christian is simul iustus et peccator - at once righteous (in Christ) and a sinner (in themselves).  To forget one or the other is to wander dangerously from the gospel.  The fasts of Lent and Advent help us to remember that we are sinners in need, with no inherent goodness before God.  They help us to remember that we still need to put to death the sinful deeds of the earthly nature and to discipline our bodies.  Now, this can go horribly wrong.  We can attempt to change our behaviour by our own willpower; we can perceive any effort toward change as earning God's favour; we can imagine that discipline is a good in and of itself.  But those errors will creep in whenever we try to pursue godliness.  They don't detract from the need to remember our sinfulness by nature, and to put to death the sinfulness that still remains.

But to be at once righteous and a sinner is not an equilibrium.  It is not as if I am equally well defined by both words - 'righteous' and 'sinner'.  My identity in Christ is by far the more fundamental.  If I am joined to him by faith, I am righteous.  Everything is done for me by him.  So, the fasts do not just peter out; they lead to feasts.  Because my meditation on my sinfulness and need is meant to drive me to Christ, and to celebrate his work.  In Advent I consider the need that I have, and that the world has, for a Saviour - and then I celebrate his coming.  In Lent I consider the need I have for a remedy for sin, for redemption, for a new start - and then I celebrate Jesus' death in my place and his resurrection.  The church calendar keeps me on the move.  It reminds me that the painfully present sin is actually, fundamentally past.  It is possible to feast, because knowing my need and emptiness I can turn to Jesus and be filled.

A fast is a witness that what I need is not fundamentally food, but Christ.

A feast is a witness that in Christ I have what I fundamentally need.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Kingdom Through Covenant

I recently finished reading this book by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum.  In essence, the book is an attempt to show a 'third way' between dispensationalism on the one hand and a Reformed covenantalism on the other.  If that immediately confuses you, think of it like this: this is a debate about how much continuity and discontinuity there is along the Biblical storyline.

For dispensationalists (although there are various flavours and varieties), there is a great deal of discontinuity.  The way God deals with human beings changes over the course of salvation history.  The discontinuity is greatest when we reach the 'new covenant' in Christ, when in the classical dispensationalist scheme the church is understood as a sort of parenthesis in God's plan, which is really still focussed on the Jewish people.  For dispensationalism, the covenant with Israel and the covenant with the church are totally different things.

In the classical Reformed scheme, on the other hand, there is one covenant, and it is common to talk about the 'unity of the covenant of grace'.  (Actually, on some versions of Reformed thinking there may be a couple of other covenants, notably the 'covenant of works' broken by Adam - but these are not hugely relevant here).  This is why many Reformed folk are keen on infant baptism, and not keen on Christian Zionism - the covenant is the same, so if infants were circumcised they are also to be baptised, and the people of God is also the same, so non-Christian Jews cannot still be related to God via a different covenant with different terms (although the covenant of grace may still have implications for them).

Gentry and Wellum's middle way has a lot to commend it.  The book itself I found quite hard going, but I think that is just because there was a lot of very, very detailed exegesis.  I struggle with that level of detail!  Actually, the book itself promised to be a mix of Biblical and systematic theology, but in fact it was almost entirely the former with a slight consideration of some of the headline implications for the latter.  But that is by the by,

The system itself is clear: the Biblical storyline is driven by the covenants, which really are different (contra the Reformed), but which all point in the same direction (contra dispensationalism) and all find their climax in the death and resurrection of Christ.  This is, I guess, a 'Reformed Baptist' hermeneutic, so it's no surprise I found it fairly convincing.  One of the most useful points I took from the book as a whole is the nature of all the covenants as both conditional and unconditional.  Whereas there has been a tendency to divide the covenants into those which are unconditional - God will uphold them no matter what - and those which are conditional - they depend on human obedience for fulfillment - Gentry and Wellum helpfully show that a large part of the narrative of Scripture is driven by the fact that all the covenants require human obedience, and yet underneath that requirement is God's sovereign determination to establish his covenant. It is the tension which this introduces, given the constant failure of the human partner, which drives the narrative forward, and is only resolved in the perfect human partner, Christ.  This also helpfully highlights the need for a clear doctrine of Christ's active obedience.

On the whole I found the book more convincing when tackling dispensationalism, but that could just be my bias.  I'd like to see more attention given to the implications of this Biblical Theology to Dogmatics/Systematic Theology.  Maybe that would be another book; this one is long enough!  But if you're up for a thorough examination of the issues, you could do much worse than this.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Fry - and the cross

Of course many people have offered comment on the Stephen Fry interview.  If he, unexpectedly, came face to face with God after death, Fry would essentially accuse God.  The world is full of suffering.  Cancer in children.  Hideous parasites.  God, if he made a world like this, is 'capricious, mean-minded, stupid'.  If such a God exists, he should be resisted and hated.

This is not so much atheism as anti-theism.  I am not denying that Fry is an atheist, just making the point that this particular argument is not an argument against God's existence, but an argument against God's goodness.  If God exists, he cannot be good, based on our experience of the world.

I have some sympathy.

I have definitely had moments when the world in its beauty has cried out to me that there is a Creator.  The starry sky above me certainly seems to demand an explanation, not just for why it is at all, but for why it is so great, so beautiful.  I have seen my children born and, for a moment, had no doubt whatsoever that a good God exists.

But I think more often I have been painfully aware that the world is a terrible place.  I have not really suffered, personally, but I know people who really have.  And I watch the news.  I am more often impressed by the horror of the world than the beauty.  I can see where Stephen Fry is coming from.  Based on observation of the world alone, I doubt I would be a worshipper of God.  Maybe there are philosophical answers to the 'problem of evil', but I don't think any of them would be enough to shift the suspicion that God might well be capricious and mean-minded.

So here's the thing, the one thing, that for me clinches the question of faith and suffering:  Jesus Christ, crucified.

Once you have seen God stretched in agony on the cross, it is hard to think of him as capricious, no matter what else is going on in the world.

Once you have heard God cry out with one of his last painful breaths for the forgiveness of his enemies, it is hard to think of him as mean-minded, no matter the apparent evidence from elsewhere.

A God who voluntarily suffers is not the God against whom Fry launches his accusation.  And if the Christian story is true - if that suffering was redemptive for us - then God, far from being capricious and mean-minded, is astonishingly loving.

It is not that every question about suffering is answered by the cross of Christ.  But every question is changed.  If God is so committed to the elimination of suffering, and of the moral evil with which the Bible insists suffering is associated (albeit in complex ways), then the question to direct to God in the face of ongoing horror in the world is not 'how dare you?' but 'how long, O Lord?'  You have said you hate suffering, you have demonstrated that you are serious at the cross - how much longer must we endure it?  That question is painful, but perhaps it is a pain that is bearable in the light of the cross.

Other questions are changed too.  Why would a good God create a world which contained so much suffering?  That is a valid question.  But it means something different when placed alongside the questions 'why would a sovereign God create a world in which a creature like Stephen Fry could call him stupid?  Why would a glorious God create a world in which Roman soldiers could spit in his face?'  Of course we can ask 'why have you put us all through this, God?' - but we can also ask 'why have you put yourself through all this, God?.

And the answer from the cross is: because of love.