Monday, 16 January 2017

3D Salvation

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly... God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Romans 5:6-11

The story is told of Brooke Foss Westcott, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and Church of England bishop, being approached by a zealous evangelist. (Accounts differ as to whether it was a member of the Salvation Army or an undergraduate student, but don’t let that get in the way of a good story.) ‘Are you saved?’, Westcott was asked. To which he apparently replied, ‘Ah, a very good question. But tell me: do you mean…?’ – and went on to cite three forms of the Greek verb ‘to save’, indicating that his answer would depend on which of the three was in mind. ‘I know I have been saved,’ he said, ‘I believe I am being saved, and I hope by the grace of God that I shall be saved.’

There’s a temporal span to our salvation, which embraces past, present, and future.

Having just written of God’s love being ‘poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 5:5), Paul reminds us where that love was so clearly demonstrated in the past – in Christ’s death on our behalf, when we were powerless to save ourselves. If God went to such cost to reconcile us to himself, even when we were his enemies, we can be confident he’ll finish what he has started. All this is grounds for assurance in the present, encouraging us to rejoice for what God has done in Christ.

Paul moves with ease from the past to the future to the present. And it’s helpful that he does. Some of us may be certain that God worked in us in the past, but find it difficult to see his hand on our lives right now. Or we might worry whether things we have done in the past disqualify us from his service in the present. Or our current struggles and suffering can make it hard to see the certainty of our future hope. But Jesus has the whole of our redemption wrapped up – then, now, and forever more.

And it’s all of grace. At every stage – past, present, and future – we come with empty hands, seeking mercy from our heavenly father, recognising as Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13 that we ‘work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling’, knowing that ‘it is God who works in [us] to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose’.

Monday, 9 January 2017

A Definite Maybe?

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:1-5

Samuel Goldwyn, the movie producer and co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was known for his malapropisms – amusing statements resulting from the use of incongruous or contradictory words. A story goes that when someone urged him to come to a decision about a project, Goldwyn replied: ‘True, I’ve been a long time making up my mind, but now I am giving you a definite answer. I won’t say yes and I won’t say no, but I am giving you a definite maybe.’

Whimsy aside, that’s perhaps the best that can be offered to us on a whole host of issues – a definite maybe.

In some cases, lack of certainty on our part can be bound up with personal insecurity or a self-worth that has been undermined in damaging ways. But these days, even assertive, self-confident people find it hard to be sure, or at least say they are. For that smacks of intolerance, doesn’t it? The entire drift of our culture makes it unacceptable to say ‘I am sure’, particularly when it comes to issues of faith.

Read again Paul’s words at the start of Romans 5.

Just what is it that flows from being justified? Not merely some vague, warm ‘spiritual’ experience, but peace with God, access to God. And how has this come about? Not through attainment to a higher level of consciousness or through anything we can bring to the table (as Paul has made clear in the previous chapters of Romans), but through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Since God has declared us ‘right’ in the present, that verdict will stand on the last day. Even in the face of suffering, then, we have hope. Here, as elsewhere in the Bible, hope is not some vague wish-fulfilment. Hope involves looking forward to the future with confidence, because it’s a future that Christ himself has secured for us.

At the bottom line of it all, and the ultimate basis of Paul’s confidence, is God’s love – not merely shown to us, but ‘poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’, a sign of his ongoing commitment to us. It’s a love, Paul will say later, from which nothing can separate us (Romans 8:37-39).

If any of this was down to us, we’d have room for doubt. As it is, our confidence lies elsewhere. Peace, hope, love. Not maybe, but definitely.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Carl Trueman and G.K. Beale on Issues in History and Exegesis

Westminster Theological Seminary have gathered together some essays in what they are billing as ‘The Best of Trueman and Beale from the WTJ’, containing the following pieces:

Carl Trueman
Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Carl Trueman
Richard Baxter on Christian Unity

G.K. Beale
Can The Bible Be Completely Inspired By God and Yet Still Contain Errors?

G.K. Beale
The Cognitive Peripheral Vision of Biblical Authors

The collection is available as a pdf here.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Of Astrologers, Magicians, and Bungling Sorcerers

I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This is a lightly-edited re-run of a piece first written and published back in 2010.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
Matthew 2:1-2

The 12th day of Christmas falls on 6 January this year. In the Christian calendar the day is known as Epiphany, marking the visit to the young Jesus by... well, by whom?

We sometimes sing ‘We three kings of Orient are’. But Matthew calls them ‘Magi’, not kings. Magi were a number of things, but they were certainly not kings. Nor, probably, should we think of them as ‘wise men’.

By the first century, the term ‘Magi’ referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. So, think ‘magicians’. Think horoscope fanatics. Think those who claim to tell the future by reading stars, tea leaves, and chicken gizzards. In the Bible, think of the magicians in Egypt at the time of Moses, or the interpreters of dreams in the book of Daniel, or Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8.

So, for an early reader of Matthew’s gospel, the Magi aren’t just Gentiles (significant though that is); they represent the height of Gentile idolatry and religious wizardry. But it’s these star-gazing, horoscope-writing, would-be magicians who are the heroes in the story. They shouldn’t be there. They don’t worship the right God or adhere to the right religion or belong to the right race. And yet they are there.

It’s possible, then (according to Mark Allan Powell, Chasing the Eastern Star, Westminster John Knox, 2001) that we should see the Magi as bungling astrologers or sorcerers – more like the Three Stooges than the Three Wise Men! They go to the wrong place. They speak to the wrong person. When they give their gifts, it’s gold, frankincense and myrrh, which were elements used in their magic. And yet, by a mysterious combination of God’s loving grace and their faithful seeking, they are there – as models of seeking Jesus, believing in Jesus, and worshipping Jesus with what they have. God used what they knew – the stars – and gave them what they didn’t know – the Scriptures – to bring them to Jesus.

The story of the Magi shows us that God revealed the truth about Jesus to a bunch of pagan fools while those who were clever enough to work it out for themselves missed out. Their story reminds us that God shows his strength in our weakness, his glory in our humility, his wisdom in our folly – to make it clear that everything comes from him and not from ourselves.

Let’s celebrate that this New Year.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Word and World 2 (2016)

Word and World, published by IFES, ‘aims to promote conversation and reflection about God’s Word and God’s World’, seeking ‘to enable those involved in student ministry to be nourished by the gospel and attentive to the world that students inhabit’.

‘The theme for this issue coincides with the upcoming release of the African Study Bible, which pairs the New Living Translation with comments by authors from around Africa.. Two of the projects' leaders, John Jusu and Matthew Elliot, talk... about coordinating more than 350 authors to help us hear God's word in fresh ways, learning from how the Scriptures are received in Africa.

‘The remaining contributions explore how to read the Bible in other cultural contexts. Samuel Escobar relates what it was like to read the Bible in the early days of his ministry with IFES in Latin America as the ideologies of Marxism and right-wing totalitarianism prevailed. Charlie Hadjiev also deals with political context, demonstrating the difference that this makes when someone looks to the Bible to help them understand how to relate to authority.

‘Myrto Theocharous emphasizes the oppression that privileged contexts of interpretation have exercised over underpriviledged contexts, calling for equality and reconciliation between different communities of Bible readers. K.K. Yeo deals with the task of biblical interpretation as a Malaysian-Chinese reader, a sacred task enabled by the Holy Spirit.’

John Jusu and Matthew Elliott
The Africa Study Bible: God’s Word through African Eyes

Samuel Escobar
The Bible, Communism, and Totalitarianism in 1960s Latin America

Charlie Hadjiev
A Case Study on the Bible and Authority

Myrto Theocharous
Ethics, Context, and the Biblical Text

K.K. Yeo
The Sacred Task of the Bible Interpreter: The Method of a Chinese Christian

The entire issue is available as a pdf here.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Shepherds, Rejoice!

I’ve been reading a book on Isaac Watts recently, and wanted to post one of his carols for Christmas day. His ‘Joy to the World’ is familiar to many, but the one below is not so well known. I like that it tells a story of sorts. The first two stanzas are spoken by the angel Gabriel, then comes the response of the heavenly choir in stanza 3, followed by our call to praise in stanza 4.

‘Shepherds, rejoice! lift up your eyes
And send your fears away;
News from the region of the skies:
Salvation’s born today!
Jesus, the God whom angels fear,
Comes down to dwell with you;
Today he makes his entrance here,
But not as monarchs do.

‘No gold, nor purple swaddling bands,
Nor royal shining things;
A manger for his cradle stands,
And holds the King of kings.
Go, shepherds, where the Infant lies,
And see his humble throne;
With tears of joy in all your eyes,
Go, shepherds, kiss the Son.’

Thus Gabriel sang, and straight around
The heavenly armies throng;
They tune their harps to lofty sound
And thus conclude the song:
‘Glory to God that reigns above,
Let peace surround the earth;
Mortals shall know their Maker’s love
At their Redeemer's birth.’

Lord! and shall angels have their songs
And men no tunes to raise?
O may we lose these useless tongues
When they forget to praise!
‘Glory to God that reigns above,
That pitied us forlorn!’
We join to sing our Maker’s love,
For there’s a Saviour born.

Words by Isaac Watts (1674-1748).

Friday, 23 December 2016

Credo Magazine 6, 4 (2016)

The current issue of Credo is available, this one devoted to the topic of ‘Sola Scriptura’.

Matthew Barrett writes in the Editorial:

‘As he stood there trembling at the Diet of Worms, certainly it must have seemed to Martin Luther that the whole world was against him. Yet Luther could boldly stand upon the authority of God’s Word because he knew that not even his greatest nemesis was a match for the voice of the living God.

‘While our circumstances may differ today, the need to recover biblical authority in the church and in the culture remains. The next generation of Christians need to be taught, perhaps for the first time, that this is no ordinary book we hold in our hands. It is the very Word of God. In other words, if Christians today are to give an answer for the faith within them against those who would criticize the scriptures, then they need to be taught the formal principle of the Reformation: sola Scriptura – only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.’

The magazine is available to read here, and a 24.5 MB pdf of the whole issue can also be downloaded here.