Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Resolved #4: To Do Good to All People

This is a lightly-edited re-run of one of a post from January 2011.

Whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Galatians 6:8-10

We like to reap results from our resolutions – some indication that the fitness regime is paying off, that the boxes are being ticked on our ‘to do’ lists, that the bank balance is moving in the right direction. We sometimes forget, however, that ‘sowing’ and ‘reaping’ require hard work. What’s more, there’s a considerable stretch of time between the two activities that demands patience – not easy for those of us who want to see the outcomes of our labour before it’s ready to be reaped.

Here, Paul shows a delicate pastoral balance between the confidence that as we sow to please the Spirit we will also reap ‘at the proper time’. Here is an implicit reminder that this way of living is to characterise our daily lives until that moment, and the encouragement not to lose heart in the process. Crucially, though, the sowing and reaping are not the things that bring us personal benefit, but helping others in need – ‘doing good’.

Interestingly, the exhortation to do good is not contradicted by the emphasis on faith throughout Galatians. In fact, Paul has already made it clear that, as well as being entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel, the apostles encouraged him to remember the poor – the very thing, Paul says, he was ‘eager to do’ (2:10).

All this resonates with what Scripture says elsewhere – that while our primary responsibility is to those in the family of faith, our ‘neighbour’ is anyone in need. As Tim Keller points out in Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2010), the doing of mercy to others is indicative of our grasp of the gospel and the scope of its application.

Paul leaves unspecified what ‘good’ he has in mind, which allows us to reflect on its scope – not just the needs around the world, but in the street where we live, the place where we work, the church we attend. And, as Keller reminds us, the mixture of responses required allows for some things to be done by the church as the church, and for other actions to be carried out by individual Christians in their places in society – as we go about our business in the world, seeking to be a living demonstration of the mercy we have been shown by God himself.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Lausanne Global Analysis 7, 1 (January 2018)

The latest issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, from The Lausanne Movement, is available online from here, including pdf downloads.

In the issue overview, editor David Taylor writes:

In this issue we examine the example of persecuted Christians in Egypt in witnessing to the gospel through forgiveness; we suggest why Christians should engage with supporters of the Gülen Movement; we ask why and how we should get involved in international student ministry; and we look at Polycentric Missiology: twenty-first-century mission “from everyone to everywhere”.’

Monday, 22 January 2018

Resolved #3 – To Fulfil the Law of Christ

I contributed this week’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 one from January 2011.

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
Galatians 6:1-2

Popular wisdom suggests that fresh resolves – at new year or any other time – often fall prey to the fatal flaw of ‘going it alone’. They focus on individual self-improvement to the neglect of relationships through which support might be given and accountability expressed.

Likewise, it’s possible to mistake the fruitful Christian life for private Christian experience. For sure, we walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 25), but we do not cultivate his fruit alone. We need each other in order to exercise patience, kindness and gentleness. The change we aspire to is a communal process – at the heart of which is love.

Paul has already made this clear. Those who have been freed from the law now become ‘slaves’ of one another through love (5:13). Those who walk in step with the Spirit are empowered by the Spirit to live a life of love (5:22). Such love – far from doing away with the law – actually sums up the law (5:14). In fact, the law attains its primary reason for existence in churches of Christ when its members become loving servants of one another.

Paul’s concrete example is love expressed in restoration. Even those who have been set free and who seek to walk in the Spirit are still caught out by sin in unanticipated ways. Here, however, is an opportunity for people of the Spirit to display the fruit of the Spirit in gentleness, enabling correction without arrogance or anger – where the goal is restoration. And we do so, Paul reminds us, fully realising our own proneness to stumbling, and our own dependence on others. I who help to restore you one week may need your gentleness the following week.

So it is that we carry each other’s burdens. Beyond suffering the consequences of a specific failing, burdens might be physical, emotional, practical, financial... What, then, might we be able to do for someone this week – a visit, a conversation, a meal, a cheque, a hand with the children, a cup of cold water? Whatever the case, shouldering a load with someone requires distributing the weight between us, lightening the load of the other in the process, demonstrating love in action.

Thus it is that we follow the example of Christ, the supreme burden-bearer. Thus it is that we fulfil the law of Christ.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Preaching With Convictions

I recently wrote two short articles on preaching, as possible alternatives to go on the LICC website. This is the one that wasn’t selected! The other one focuses on Scripture, and I’ll post it here when it appears on the LICC website.

John Stott said of preaching that ‘the essential secret is not mastering certain techniques but being mastered by certain convictions’ (John Stott with Greg Scharf, The Challenge of Preaching [Carlisle: Langham Partnership International, 2011], 13). That rings true. It seems somehow appropriate that the starting point in preaching begins not with ourselves as preachers, or even with our congregations, but with convictions about God himself – his gospel, his word, and his mission.

1. We see a vision – the gospel of God

What’s in mind here is a big picture view of the gospel – which involves not only the rescue of men and women from judgment, but the renewal of God’s relationship with humanity, and the restoration of creation itself. The good news of what God has done in Christ carries zoom-lens implications for the personal redemption of individual men and women, and wide-angle lens implications for the cosmic reconciliation of all things. As such, it’s a whole-life gospel. It shapes our attitude and approach to even the mundane things of everyday life, like washing the dishes and walking the dog.

So, as preachers, we first and foremost proclaim the gospel. We declare the good news of what God has done in Christ for the sake of the world. And in doing that, the purpose of the sermon is not to send people away with a list of things they must do, but with a reminder of what God has done – in Christ and through his Spirit – and with a different way of seeing God and the world and themselves, flowing out of the reality of Jesus as Lord over all things.

Then, our perspective on preaching will also be shaped by our convictions about Scripture, God’s word.

2. We hear a voice – the word of God

In some traditions, the reading of the Bible ends with the statement, ‘This is the word of the Lord’, to which the congregation normally replies: ‘Thanks be to God’. That declaration and response capture something significant about the Christian confession of Scripture – that the Bible is the very word of God, God speaking to us. And it’s to be received with gratitude – ‘thanks be to God’ – which isn’t always easy, perhaps, depending on the passage!

Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that Scripture is breathed out by God, and that it makes us ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’, and is useful for ‘teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’, so that God’s people ‘may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’. And he goes on to say to Timothy: ‘preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction’ (4:1-2).

God has spoken in the Bible, and continues to speak through what he has spoken. That gives us great confidence as preachers. We preach what was being said in the biblical passage, so that the same instruction, encouragement, commission, warning, or promise is passed on to the congregation. And we trust that the same Spirit who inspired the text will press it home to today’s hearers.

Our conviction about the Bible as the word of God means we see it as that through which God speaks to his people today and equips us to live out the salvation brought by Jesus.

But equips us for what? Which leads nicely to our third conviction – preaching and the mission of God.

3. We receive a call – the mission of God

Mission doesn’t start with Christ’s commission to ‘make disciples of all nations’ in Matthew 28. It has always been God’s plan to bless all nations – and the whole Bible tells the story of God’s mission, which comes to its culmination in Christ and in the sending out of the whole church in the power of the Spirit.

The Bible tells the story of God’s mission, but also equips us for God’s mission. That means we can ask questions like: how does this passage help us understand God’s mission in the world? What kind of people does this passage call us to become in order to embody God’s purposes in our everyday lives?

So, if John Stott is right when he says that the secret of preaching is not mastering certain techniques but being mastered by certain convictions, what might it mean for our preaching to be mastered by convictions about the gospel of God, the word of God, and the mission of God?

It leads us to be confident about preaching in the way God works, because we’re able to see that a Christ-centred, Spirit-dependent preaching of Scripture forms the gathered people of God, a people who are then sent into the world to testify in word and deed to the presence of God’s reign, bearing witness to what God has done in Christ.

Friday, 19 January 2018

9Marks Journal (Winter 2017) on Church Discipline

The latest issue of the 9Marks Journal, available from here in various formats and here as a pdf, is devoted to the topic of ‘Church Discipline’.

In the Editor’s Note, Jonathan Leeman writes:

‘Just as it is a parent’s job to discipline his or her children, so it is your job, Christian, to participate in the discipline of your church. Did you know that? This is as basic to being a Christian and a church member as it is for a parent to discipline a child. It is part and parcel of following Jesus...

‘Why do we discipline? The Bible, that counter-intuitive and counter-cultural book of ours, contests that God disciplines us “for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness.”...

‘Discipline helps to draw the line between church and world. It clarifies the witness of the church and its power as a distinct society and counter culture.

‘The purpose of this Journal is to help you grab hold of this job responsibility of yours, whether you are a church leader or member. The practice can be abused. Move very slowly. Take every case on its own. Be sure to only act in love. Err toward grace. But move forward in obedience, knowing that all the ways of the Lord are righteous and good.’

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Mission Catalyst 1 (2018) on the Supernatural

The current issue of Mission Catalyst, published by BMS World Mission, is now available. This issue is devoted to ‘The Supernatural’, asking the question, ‘Have we rationalised it out of Christianity?’

Mission Catalyst is available as a free subscription, or can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Resolved #2 – To Walk in Step with the Spirit

I contributed this week’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 one from January 2011.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh... If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law... Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:16, 18, 25

How are the resolutions looking this far into January?

Surveys show that among the most common new year’s resolutions are the determination to enjoy life more, lose weight, get fit, learn something new, find true love, get a better job, pay off debts, and reduce stress. And yet, ongoing research confirms something we already suspect – perhaps from personal experience – that the majority of us will abandon our resolves by mid-January, with many of us not making it beyond the first week.

Still, the making of resolutions at least implies a felt-need for transformation of some kind.

Reframing resolutions – with the help of Paul’s letter to the Galatians – begins with a reminder that Christ has set us free (5:1, 13). But the freedom Christ gains is a freedom to live in the Spirit.

Those who walk by the Spirit (5:16) and are led by the Spirit (5:18), who live by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit (5:25) are no longer under the authority of the Mosaic economy; nor are they bound to ‘gratify the desires of the flesh’, that way of life marked by alienation from God and each other. Instead, the death and resurrection of Christ and the giving of the Spirit have ushered in a new era in which the Spirit animates our ongoing covenant relationship with God, just as he promised through his prophets.

Of course, as Paul notes, there is conflict and struggle. Fruit needs to be cultivated; lasting change does not arrive overnight.

And that’s why the walking metaphor is so apt. Unlike the dramatic moments of decision or fresh resolve we sometimes make at this time of the year, walking suggests a more regular pattern – ongoing, mundane even – a process which takes place in the everyday where we live and where we work – on the commute, in the home, at the office, on the squash court, in the checkout queue.

In such contexts, we discover, it’s the consistent, everyday actions that make a difference, as we continue to walk step-by-step – our lifelong process of transformation into the likeness of Christ through the ongoing work of the Spirit.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Jonathan Tame and Luke Tame on Reimagining Social Welfare

The latest Cambridge Paper from the Jubilee Centre is available online (here, from where a pdf can be downloaded), this one by Jonathan Tame and Luke Tame:

Here is the summary:

‘Britain’s social welfare system is facing a long-term crisis in sustainability, particularly due to the size of the government’s unfunded pension liabilities. On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation we look to Geneva as a case study in an approach to social welfare shaped by Christian principles. We examine how Calvin and the city-state set up an integrated system for welfare provision through the General Hospital, and poverty prevention by strengthening families and education. Five main themes are drawn out, which provide some historical distance to our own challenges regarding social welfare. The paper then considers how marriage and extended families could be strengthened, and local churches and Christian organisations can become welfare advocates in their communities.’

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Resolved #1 – To Stand in Freedom

I contributed this week’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 one from January 2011.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery... You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
Galatians 5:1, 13

The start of a new year prompts thoughts about new beginnings: new diets to keep, new regimes of exercise to follow, new patterns of study to adopt, new determination to show more appreciation to colleagues, new undertaking to spend quality time with the children, new commitment to work on the house...

Human beings have habitually marked what has been seen as a ‘new year’. And the resolve at such times to ‘do better’ goes back at least to ancient Babylon. Something about the turn of the calendar carries with it a pervasive and powerful desire for a fresh start, a clean slate.

Indeed, many wise Christians down the centuries have encouraged the discipline of renewed reflection and fresh resolve at this time of the year. And we should celebrate genuine change where it occurs. But church history and practical experience warn us of the dangers of trying to secure ‘salvation’ through keeping a set of ‘rules’ or following a certain ‘code’, with the risk of looking down on others who don’t quite make the grade, or despairing with ourselves that we can’t manage it either.

To such people comes the message of freedom. It’s a message the Galatians needed to hear. And in a first-century Roman context, it would have conjured up images of being freed from slavery. Christ has set us free! For the start of a new year, then, comes a reminder that the heart of the Christian faith is not mere potential for self-improvement, but freedom, won by Christ – that we are free from the pressure of having to do things to gain favour with God, free from trying to prove ourselves to ourselves and to others, free to submit to the rule of Christ.

Like Eustace – the boy-turned-dragon – in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we will give up in frustration if we try, by ourselves, to remove our ‘dragonish’ scales. Only as we submit to the sharp claws of Aslan will we discover what it is like to be set free from our old skin, to be made clean, and then dressed in new clothes.

May this be the year not when we discover our own capacity for self-improvement, but when we discover afresh Christ – and the freedom he brings.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Preaching and Worship Resources

Although currently in a Beta version, Preaching and Worship, billed as ‘curated resources for preachers’, looks helpful in providing links to exegetical notes, sermon outlines, suggested illustrations, etc. It’s a collaborative project of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Christian Classics Ethereal Library/ From my scan, several of the links lead to articles which are also linked to at ‘The Text This Week’, which is also a valuable resource.