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.