Monday, 5 December 2016

Greater Than John

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

Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?... A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Matthew 11:7-11

So far as we know, John the Baptist never left the land of his birth. He preached in the wilderness of Judea. He baptised people in the River Jordan. They came to him. He didn’t go on tour. His ministry was localised. And yet, his influence was still evident decades after his death.

When Luke introduces us to Apollos, we’re told he was originally from Alexandria (in Egypt) and ‘knew only the baptism of John’ (Acts 18:25). On arriving in Ephesus (in present-day Turkey), Paul encountered about twelve men who also had only received John’s baptism. Paul explained it was ‘a baptism of repentance’, and that John had ‘told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus’ (Acts 19:4). Still, their presence in Ephesus is a testimony to the lasting significance of John the Baptist, so many years later, so far away.

Perhaps we should expect that of one about whom Jesus said that ‘among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater’: not just a prophet, but the chosen herald of the Messiah. And yet, Jesus went on, ‘whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’.

The ‘greatness’ seems to do with John’s unique position in salvation history, standing on the cusp of a new era, with the law and the prophets giving way to the coming of the kingdom they – and John – prophesied. As great as John was – the greatest in fact – his ministry was preparatory to what has now arrived in Jesus. In this new era, even Jesus’ ‘little ones’ (Matthew 10:42), ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25:40, 45), are greater than John.

John’s greatness was bound up with his role in preparing others for Jesus. But the privilege we have in belonging to the new epoch in God’s dealings with humanity means we are able to bear witness to Jesus more clearly even than John could.

That’s encouraging for me as I head into this week – as pathetic as I sometimes feel when it comes to pointing others to Jesus, as hesitant as my witness can sometimes be. Here, if we need it, is another example of how God measures ‘greatness’ in categories different from the ones we tend to use. In this case, it’s our capacity, however weak, to point others to Jesus, the greatest of all.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies 1.1 (2016)

The Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies (JBTS) is an academic journal ‘focused on the fields of Bible and Theology from an inter-denominational point of view’, which is ‘concerned with presenting high-level original scholarship in an approachable way’.

Several of the essays from the first issue deal with issues related to Paul, the law, and the New Perspective, along with some interactions with Charles Lee Irons’ important work on ‘righteousness’ language in Paul.

Individual essays are available from here, or the whole issue can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Aaron O’Kelley
Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: Ecclesiology or Soteriology?
The new perspective on Paul places the doctrine of justification primarily in the category of ecclesiology, as a declaration of covenant membership that is common to Jews and Gentiles alike. However, Paul’s use of key terms in the realm of “righteousness” terminology, as well as the phrase “works of the law” indicates that Paul’s doctrine of justification belongs in the category of soteriology, referring primarily to the standing of individuals before God. Nevertheless, this traditional Protestant understanding of justification has significant implications for the doctrine of the church, which the new perspective has rightly pointed out.

David Burnette
The Cruciform Shape of Paul’s Kingdom Theology
Unlike Jesus, Paul is not often associated with the theme of the kingdom of God. While some scholars have claimed that the kingdom is insignificant for Paul, most have simply failed to examine it closely. This article highlights the significance of the kingdom by demonstrating that it is a foundational component of Paul’s proclamation of the cross. This thesis is based primarily on a close examination of 1 Corinthians 4:20, a verse in which Paul contrasts the talk of certain leaders in Corinth with the power of the kingdom. Based on the way Paul uses the term power (δύναμις, dynamis) in 1 Corinthians 1-4, this article contends that the power of the kingdom mentioned in 4:20 is a reference to the power effected through the word of the cross. Other Pauline kingdom references are cited to support this kingdom-cross connection, including Colossians 1:13 and Galatians 5:21. As with the Gospels and Scripture as a whole, Paul’s theology of the kingdom is bound up with a message that cuts against the grain of the world’s wisdom – the message of Christ crucified.

Joshua M. Greever
The Righteousness of God as “The Gate to Paradise”: A Review Article of the Righteousness of God by Charles Lee Irons

John Frederick
A Critical Review of Charles Lee Irons’ The Righteousness of God 

Charles Lee Irons
Response to Two Reviews of The Righteousness of God 

Book Reviews

Friday, 2 December 2016

Fred Sanders on Richard Rohr on the Divine Dance

With a film version of William Paul Young’s The Shack due out in March 2017, and with the recent publication by Richard Rohr of The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (Whitaker House, 2016), I’ve found it interesting and helpful to read a long review of Rohr’s book by Fred Sanders, available here.

The bottom line:

‘And my long – forgive me – review has one main point: it’s that The Divine Dance isn’t about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a book about an alternative spirituality of Flow, committed to a metaphysic that refuses to recognize a distinction between God and the world.’

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Knowing and Doing (Winter 2016)

The Winter 2016 edition of Knowing & Doing – ‘A Teaching Quarterly for Discipleship of Heart and Mind’ – from the C.S. Lewis Institute is now available online (here as a pdf), and contains the following articles:

Joel Woodruff
President’s Letter
Joel S. Woodruff, President of the C.S. Lewis Institute, suggests a simple way to bring unity among believers from different churches, races, political parties and professional backgrounds is to share our spiritual journey with others.

Randy Newman
The Gift of Music: Common Grace and Common Ground
Music is a great gift, with the power to take us to another world. Though music can move us so much, it makes a poor god! In this article, Dr. Newman expounds on both the common grace and the common ground that can be found through the gift of music.

Bill Kynes
Growing in Prayer Part 1: Hindrances to Prayer
A life of prayer is something to which we are all called and to which we should all aspire. Dr. Kynes discusses what it would mean for us to devote ourselves to prayer, to ‘pray continually’ as instructed by Apostle Paul.

Sandy Smith
Surprised by Belfast: Significant Sites in the Life of C.S. Lewis, Part 4, Queen’s University Belfast and the Surrounding Area
This final article in the “Surprised by Belfast” series focuses on an area that’s often referred to as the University Quarter. More specifically, Queen’s University Belfast is located in this sector – though C.S. Lewis did not study at Queen’s, his mother did. The fact that Lewis’s mother graduated from Queen’s and attended school at Methodist College is reason enough for Lewis enthusiasts to visit the University Quarter in Belfast.

Thomas A. Tarrants, III
Being Led and Transformed by the Holy Spirit
What does the New Testament mean by the phrase led by the Spirit? What is the fruit of His leading in one’s life? This article explores such questions on being led by the Holy Spirit.

Time with God: An Interview with J.I. Packer
This is an excerpt from an interview with J.I. Packer during a C.S. Lewis Institute event held September 26, 2008. J.I. Packer sat down and answered questions from C.S. Lewis Fellows and pastors in the Washington, D.C. area.

J.C. Ryle
What is True Practical Holiness?
In this excerpt from J.C. Ryle’s classic book Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots, Ryle presents twelve points to create a picture of practical holiness.

Learning from the Christmas Animals
This article highlights C.S. Lewis’s poem, The Nativity. We are reminded that, like Lewis, we should also seek after the strength, patience and innocence symbolized in the animals of the Christmas story as we approach this Christmas season. This is a reprint of December 2014 “Reflections”.

Joel S. Woodruff
Scrooges, Traditionalists and Nicholases
This devotional reminds us that this Christmas season, we are to remember that the Scrooges and Traditionalists are in need of a Savior. We need to commit to be more like St. Nicholas who shared his love for Jesus through both his words and gift giving.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Christian Reflection on Chastity

The latest issue of Christian Reflection, published by the Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, is available online, this one devoted to ‘Chastity’. The whole issue is available as a pdf here, and an accompanying Study Guide is available here. The main articles, with their abstracts, are as follows:

Robert B. Kruschwitz
At the heart of Christian sexual ethics is not a dour set of rules, but a fetching trait: the virtue of chastity. Our contributors examine how chastity is exemplified in married life and singleness, and why its beauty has become difficult for us to appreciate. 

Beth Felker Jones
Radical Faithfulness
Christians have always acknowledged two routes for embodying faithfulness in the way we have sex or do not have sex, two routes for publicly declaring – and displaying – that God is faithful: celibate singleness and faithful marriage. In both conditions, Christians testify, with their bodies, to the power of God. 

Wesley Hill
The Long Defeat
Within a sexually-sodden culture, the life of chastity may seem like a lonely, long defeat, especially to gay and lesbian believers. How can congregations provide the good company which celibate, same-sex attracted believers need for their Christian pilgrimage? 

Matt Fradd
Chastity as a Virtue
Chastity is not a teeth-gritting ability to avoid violating the sexual rules but a habit of reverence for oneself and others that enables us to use our sexual powers intelligently in the pursuit of human flourishing and happiness.

Donna Freitas
A Good Samaritan Response to Hookup Culture
What college students living within hookup culture need most is a listening and sympathetic ear. They need someone who sees them for who and where they really are, and who sympathizes with their uncertainties, their confusion, and, sometimes, their regret and loss. 

Stacy Keogh George
Beyond the “Ring by Spring” Culture
The “ring by spring” culture at Christian colleges and universities can pressure students to become engaged or to marry before they graduate. This may muddle their perceptions of marriage and vocation, and deflect them from receiving more formative preparation for marriage. 

Terry W. York and Kurt Kaiser
Intense the Love God Molded

Amber Inscore Essick
Worship Service

Heidi J. Hornik
Mary’s Worthy Suitor
Raphael, Marriage of the Virgin

Heidi J. Hornik
Love in Control
Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur

Heidi J. Hornik
A Couple’s Intimacy
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebekah 

Other Voices

Mary S. Hulst
Relationships with “More than Friends”
Mary Hulst’s college students, like all of us, are regularly exposed to many lies about dating, singleness, sex, and marriage. Walking with them through the basics of why to date, how to date, and who to date, she counters some of these lies with the truths of the gospel.

Lauren Taylor
Sexuality and Spirituality in American Adolescents
Both adults and young people are hesitant to discuss the topic of faith and sexuality. Research in the three books reviewed here suggests ways to address this silent stand- off, bridge the generation gap, and start the conversation.

Julie Morris
Christian Sexual Ethics in an Age of Individualism
On the surface the three books reviewed here are about sexual behavior, but on a deeper level they address healthy and holy relationships with self, others, and God. The authors care deeply about community and intimacy and about how to cultivate them in a culture that promotes disposable relationships.

Monday, 28 November 2016

James K.A. Smith on the Spiritual Power of Habit

I wrote the following mini review for EG, the quarterly magazine produced by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016)

Written with verve, and with insight on every page, this is a distillation of work published more fully elsewhere, but all the more useful for the conciseness of its expression here.

According to Smith, who and what we worship shapes our lives. We’re defined not by what we know but by what we desire, and what we desire is formed by habits acquired over time through routines and rituals. Smith helps us recognise the shaping power of everyday culture (his analysis of the shopping mall is brilliant) and shows how being immersed in the practices of Christian worship recalibrates our hearts in ways that are directed towards God and his kingdom.

This is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the overlapping circles of worship, church, discipleship, spiritual formation, and living well in today’s world.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Life on Mission

This article was first published in the September 2016 edition of EG, the quarterly magazine of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

As a young Christian lad, it was easy to be inspired by stories of William Carey, one of the first western missionaries to India, often seen as a pioneer of the modern Christian missionary movement. It wasn’t just his desire to bring the good news about Jesus to people who might otherwise not hear it. I was also struck by his work as a translator and publisher – of the Bible, yes, but of Indian literature, grammars, and dictionaries too. He also campaigned for agriculture reform, introduced savings banks to tackle the lending of money at excessive interest, founded dozens of schools for boys and girls of all castes, started a newspaper, pioneered lending libraries, and more besides. All of these activities I could see as flowing out of his faith in Christ.

But it was all something that happened ‘over there’, not ‘over here’. And it was about what someone else was called to do, not what I might be able to do. It has taken some shifts in my own understanding to see mission as being ‘from everywhere to everywhere’ and as involving every one of God’s people, in every situation of life.

Where do we start? Right where we are.

Our Missional Context

In their book, Everyday Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis invite us to imagine that we wake up one day to discover we’re missionaries in a foreign land, where the language, culture, worldview, and values are unfamiliar to us. In such circumstances, we’d have to get to know the people and their customs. More than just learning a new language in order to communicate, we’d want to be able to connect with people at a relational level. We’d need to explore how the Bible and its message of good news interacts with the outlook and way of life of our friends and neighbours.

But here’s the thing: this is the context in which we find ourselves! We are in a ‘missionary’ situation, with the need to take on the posture and practices of missionaries in order to engage others with the good news about Jesus.

In part, then, being a missionary follower of Jesus involves understanding the context in which we live. This includes the macro context in which the church no longer has a privileged place in society, where religion has been reduced to the private realm, where God is viewed as a personal lifestyle choice. But it also includes any number of micro contexts, the places we find ourselves every day – this workplace, this family, this street, this neighbourhood, this town. And we get to know the people in those places – their stories, their values, their worldview, the things they hold dear. For it’s only as we do so that we’ll be able to use the language and categories of our culture in a way that presents Christ as the one who subverts but also supremely fulfils the fundamental commitments and aspirations of the culture.

We do this not by cutting ourselves off from our neighbours or colleagues, but by living out something of our missional identity as those sent by God himself.

The Missional God

For yes, we are sent. Except that it’s all too easy to focus on the ‘command’ element of the commission passages in the gospels without noticing the promises which accompany them, promises which reflect God’s amazing plan for the world.

Mission doesn’t start with Christ’s commission to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). It has always been God’s mission to bless all nations. We see it in his original design for creation, in his promises to Abraham, and his calling of Israel – later reiterated through the servant figure in Isaiah who is chosen to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 43:10; 49:5-6). So it is that Jesus tells his disciples after his resurrection that the Scriptures promise not only that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise again, but that repentance and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:45-48). The biblical story both points to Christ as the one who stands at the centre of it and nurtures the missional identity of the disciples as they take their place ‘as witnesses of these things’ in the forward movement of that story, God’s ongoing plan for the world.

This is the unfinished story Luke starts to tell in Acts, which begins with a restatement of the disciples as Jesus’ witnesses. Here too, Acts 1:8 – ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ – is not a command so much as a declaration, a promise even. In line with Isaiah’s prophecy, they are God’s ‘witnesses’, the servant community who will bring the message of salvation not just to Israel but to the ‘ends of the earth’.

For us too, our mission is an extension of God’s mission, and being witnesses is less an assignment and more an identity – the overflow of the gift of grace to us and, amazingly, the means by which God reaches others.

A Missional People

All of this suggests that mission is not an optional activity we do, or that some of us do, but an integral part of what it means to belong to the body of Christ, a people who exist for the sake of the world.

It’s in this light that we best understand how the life and ministry of the local church fit into God’s mission. Like the rhythm of breathing in and out, our ‘gathering’ and ‘scattering’ go together. One of the outcomes of our participation in the practices of the gathered church – in worship and fellowship, in prayer and preaching, in bread and wine – is to be formed and equipped to be God’s scattered people on our everyday frontlines, the multiple spheres and arenas in which we live and work.

It’s precisely in those sorts of places that Christians through the centuries have evangelised others, in a way that’s organic and relational, which extends over time, which may nudge someone towards Christ through any number of mini-decisions. But the mandate to make disciples means not only bringing people to faith but nurturing their growth in relationship with God and others, and teaching them obedience to Jesus in every area of life. And this is exactly as it should be, for the gospel is the announcement of God’s kingly rule over all things. ‘Your God reigns’, declares the herald of Isaiah (52:7), redeeming men and women, yes, but also restoring all creation.

Seen this way, evangelism is not a ‘bolt on’ Christian activity, but is organically connected to the whole of life – a fusion of presence and proclamation, the message of our lips matching the message of our lives – the outflowing of who we are in Christ, equipped and sent by him as witnesses in his ongoing mission to the world.

Going Further

Mission Matters: Love Says Go
Tim Chester (IVP, 2015)
With a focus on world mission, the book unfolds in four parts, looking at the God of mission, the story of mission, the scope of mission, and the challenges of mission.

Introducing Christian Mission Today: Scripture, History and Issues
Michael W. Goheen (IVP, 2014)
A large but accessible textbook, which provides a great introduction to key concepts and conversations in mission.

The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission
Christopher J.H. Wright (Zondervan, 2010)
Sees mission as the all-encompassing purpose of God to restore creation – which embraces all that his people are called to be and do in the world.

The Whole of Life for Christ: Enriching Everyday Discipleship
Antony Billington & Mark Greene (IVP, 2015)
‘Life on Mission’ is one of several themes explored in this book. Produced in partnership with Keswick Ministries, the seven Bible studies offer individuals and groups the opportunity to explore whole-life discipleship more deeply.