Rejoice in Adoption

When I was a child I remember feeling a sense of scandal when I found out that someone I knew was adopted. Perhaps the emotion was evoked because, more often than not, it was a fact kept secret; it was never public knowledge, it was never spoken about and many times the reality was even hidden from the children themselves. adoptionOver recent years however, I have come to meet and get to know many who have either adopted or been adopted and, my perception has changed drastically to an overwhelmingly positive one. Not only have I found adoption to be more celebrated in particular circles but I have come to understand that adoption in and of itself is one of the most beautiful expressions of love that we are able to witness or, for some of us, have the privilege to be a part of.

‘Adoption’ is a word we seldom come across in the Scriptures but the reality of it is taught and alluded to often. Our identity as children of God is one we regularly turn to and rejoice in but the doctrine itself is one that has been desperately ignored. As the arrogant and often disillusioned people we are, we are very quick to claim our right as sons and daughters of God but seldom consider how we are so. We are so by adoption. Not by any birth right that we could claim what is genealogically ours.

In the ancient Roman world adoption was a failsafe method of ensuring an heir where there was none and, when it was practiced it was only a privilege extended to those who had proven worthy of the family name. Adoption was earned, and only because a father had no alternative. If you were adopted, you were Plan B, and loved for your achievements or potential. This was most likely the context in places like Rome, Ephesus and Galatia that Paul addresses in his writings.

But something is different about our adoption into God’s family. When we are saved it is not simply a single solution but rather a beautiful spectrum of salvation. God calls us, he justifies us, he regenerates us and he adopts us. While we may experience many of these simultaneously, it is constructive to view each one in turn. R. A. Petersen helpfully points out how each gift of grace answers a different and specific need. He explains how justification, for instance, is a response to our condemnation, while sanctification is needed because of our contaminated nature. Regeneration is the gift of spiritual life to people who were spiritually dead and it is adoption that rescues us from our state of slavery (Adopted by God: from wayward sinners to cherished children). However, I would add that not only were we slaves and orphans but we belonged to the family of the devil and were by nature children of wrath. When God saves us he does not reboot or press rewind so we can start again and live better lives, but he addresses our every area of need and transforms us.

fistpumpIf we are astounded by our redemption and justification – Christ taking the place and payment of an undeserving and unlovable people – then consider one step further. Not only did God love his enemies and give his only Son to death, but he gave those rebellious and undeserving people His name and made us his sons and daughters. He adopts the slaves he sets free. It is not as if God has no heir to inherit the kingdom – Christ is the perfect son who was perfectly obedient to the Father. In fact it is not as if our eternal God would ever need an heir. And even if he did we would never qualify as candidates for divine adoption given our wretched states. We have never and could never live up to God’s standard to be honorable heirs of heaven.

How deep, how unfathomable and how great is the love of God that we should be called his children (1 John 3:1). Our adoption into the family of God is such an excellent display of the purest and richest love we could ever know.

I find it remarkable that we get to see glimpses of grace in the ordinary patterns we witness every day. As God’s people and as redeemed image-bearers of the Divine, we have the privilege of displaying it to those around us in our relationships: our marriages, our churches, our roles and responsibilities, our giftedness and in every relationship we engage in – and if you have adopted or been adopted, then delight in that picture of grace as well. I don’t pretend that all families have practiced adoption well, but in redeemed God honoring families, I’d invite you to look in and notice a divine parallel. Often people minimize the relationship to a sympathetic gesture or simply a solution to infertility, and often openly question their legitimacy as family members (shame on you). Would we say the same about our adopted status in the family of God? Adoption holds the potential of being a beautiful picture of the love God has for us. Our adoption into God’s family was a love choice, not some desperate desire for legacy. Children of God, rejoice in adoption!

Can Satan Grow the Church?

If Facebook has taught us anything it is that sensational titles are of paramount importance to being successful online. And I guess if this post were a video the title would run something like this: The Church Grew More Rapidly Than Ever Before, But You Will Not Believe How! “Can Satan grow the church?” The answer is a chilling, “Yes.”

Matthew 13In Matthew 13 we encounter a collection of what have been called Jesus’ ‘kingdom parables’, where our Lord warns his hearers that Satan would actively strive against the church. But notice one of the ways Jesus said he would do this, in the “parable of the weeds of the field” (13:36); Satan’s opposition is not ostentatious but insidious. In the parable, the enemy does not destroy the fields but sows weeds amongst the wheat (13:25). And these grow so closely intertwined with the wheat that the field owner tells his servants they cannot be separated, until harvest time. This parable can be understood to teach us a few things: the church visible is not the church invisible; on judgment day Jesus will vindicate his people whilst judging mere pew-warmers; and God is not deceived by Satan but fully aware of his designs. However, the point I hope to tease out in this short post, one which I do not think is regularly taught, is that Satan grows local churches. One of the ways that Satan deceives us is by growing the local church.

What got me thinking along this line was our recent series of posts on Jesus’ temptation, in Matthew 4. Reflecting on the temptations I had to conclude that they were not simply mock or pretend temptations. What we see in the verbal wrestling in the wilderness is Satan genuinely tempting Jesus with the spectacular rather than sacrificial service. While the episode legitimises Jesus’ steadfast obedience to his Father and self-giving love for those he came to rescue, it also presents us with a peculiar puzzle: how could worshiping being he created truly tempt Jesus? David Seccombe argues that Satan’s offer of dominion – through means other than the cross, resurrection, and ascension – was real, “[Jesus] saw just how easy it would be to win the kingdoms if he were to employ the armoury of evil tactics which have been used from time immemorial to achieve political power” (The King of God’s Kingdom, p132). Satan could give the Son what was deservedly his: all glory and honour and power. But due to the deceptive nature of that fallen creature, Jesus saw the relative hollowness of the offer in comparison to what the Father promised.

William BlakeTying the above together I want to address pastors, from all traditions, denominations and walks. Our adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And one of the ways that he can do this is through giving pastors what they rightfully desire: vibrant, impressive churches. If Satan can grow the local church then we should be wary of loading our confidence into the size of our congregations. Sam Storms, in To the One Who Conquers, warns against pointing to sizeable offerings and overflowing crowds as an indicative of divine approval, for the field may simply be full of weeds. Writing on Jesus’ letter to the Philadelphians (Revelation 3:9), Storms adds: “The greatness of a church is not measured by its membership roll or budgetary prowess, but by the size of its Savior, whom it faithfully honors and passionately praises and confidently trusts.” It sounds trite, but it is true. Satan is the surreptitious prince of this world, sowing weeds and causing us to look in awe at the size of churches. But we must remember, from Jesus’ encounter, that he can give what we know to be good and desirable, only through devious means or by deception. Pastors need to be aware of the temptation to adopt alternate means, as Jesus was, in achieving growth in the local church. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3, our work will one day be measured, only that which is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ will last.

Let me conclude. From Matthew 13 we see that Satan can grow the church; indeed, it is one of the ways that he deceives believers. Therefore we must be cautious about seeing the size of our congregation as an undeniable mark of God’s blessing or presence. I know of very large churches where Satan’s promises, not God’s as he has revealed them in Scripture, are preached; I have also visited many seemingly insignificant but faithful local churches that I am sure God is pleased with. In Matthew 4 Satan tempted Jesus with a right and desirous end, but the means were idolatrous. For us today, especially those in ministry, the difficult line to walk is between desiring growth in the local church while keeping that desire from becoming an idol. Our enemy revels in a church where attendance is the mark of faith and its leaders worship growth.

The Qualities that make a Gospel Worker

Many readers will likely know that if I can get the funds I need I will be doing a MA Theology (technically in Biblical Studies) in the States. One of my scholarship applications (which was rejected, read into that what you will) posed the question, “What qualities make someone a good minister of the Gospel and why?” I really enjoyed thinking through the answer to this question. Here is something of what I wrote – what would you say?

Love

LoveWhen asked, “What qualities make someone a good minister of the Gospel?” I immediately think the answer must be whatever characterised Jesus. Jesus not only ministered the gospel, he is the gospel. Love is probably the simplest answer at which to arrive but is undoubtedly undermined by the flippancy with which we say it. For Jesus, it meant self-giving sacrifice in the extreme, I think of 1 John 4 and Romans 5. I don’t think we can begin to fathom the depths of what love means.

The answer seems associated with the greatest commandments, to love God and our neighbours. Certainly a good minister of the gospel must love God above everything he could ever dream of. It’s difficult to measure someone’s love for God though, but it can often be seen in his/her love for others. It does seem like a bit of a cheat to say “love” though, it’s too general, too abstract. What does love look like?

Love seen in Humility.

Philippians 2 was the first passage that occurred to me and humility the first attribute. I suspect that’s because whenever I believe I have humility, I find it is like quicksilver in my hands. Even so, pride and arrogance in the ministry never turn the focus to God but to the minister and that is always worthless. Jesus exemplified humility and “[our] attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus”.

Love seen in Service.

Closely related to humility is service. I pick service because it is something identifiable in a person. Again, Philippians 2 characterises Jesus as a servant and it is in service that we see Jesus’ self-sacrificial love at work. If we love people as ministers of the gospel, it will be a delight to serve them even when serving them is unpleasant because ultimately we are serving Christ.

Holiness

HolinessPerhaps holiness should precede love. In any case, it is loving holiness and holy love that characterised Jesus and that should characterise a minister of the gospel. Of course the gospel is for the sick but it’s not the gospel if it never heals them. An indication that the gospel is at work in anyone’s life is a growth in holiness. Holiness, therefore, must be present in the life of a gospel minister. This is what Paul means when he looks for a man “blameless” or “above reproach” in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3.

Prayer

Prayer Prayer doesn’t really fall under holiness or love and yet it is tied to both because it is a matter of relationship just as holiness and love are. I could be wrong, but the only thing I recall the disciples asking Jesus to teach them is how to pray (Luke 11). Apparently disciples recognise the need to pray. It is also instructive to read Paul’s epistles and note how his prayers pervade his discourse. Prayer strikes me as a hallmark of a relationship with God.

Of course, Paul enumerates a number of other qualities. What qualities would you say make a someone a good minister of the gospel? What are the qualities you would look for?

Spurgeon on Church Gatherings

Lectures to my studentsIn February I plodded my way through Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students and found it to be an immense store of practical but gospel motivated advice for those who teach and preach in the local church. Throughout the collection, Spurgeon comes across not merely as an influential luminary and iconic leader but as a man who loved the Lord Jesus and longed to see God’s people properly shepherded. There is unfortunately no summary of the work that will adequately substitute for reading the lectures yourself, which I heartily encourage you to do, and in this post I simply want to pick up on a few of Spurgeon’s passing but invaluable points about church meetings, corporate gatherings, “Sabbath services”, or whatever else you want to call them.

Hearing God’s Word preached is an act of worship

“Rightly to listen to the gospel is one of the noblest parts of the adoration of the Most High. It is a mental exercise, when rightly performed, in which all the faculties of the spiritual man are called into devotional action. Reverently hearing the word exercises our humility, instructs our faith, irradiates us with joy, inflames us with love, inspires us with zeal, and lifts us up towards heaven”. Many Christians today foolishly distinguish between aspects of our meetings that constitute worship, for which we have a “worship leader”, and others whereby something else is happening. Spurgeon continues, “True preaching is an acceptable adoration of God by the manifestation of his gracious attributes: the testimony of his gospel, which pre-eminently glorifies him, and the obedient hearing of revealed truth, are an acceptable form of worship to the Most High, and perhaps one of the most spiritual in which the human mind can be engaged.” The sermon does not only inspire worship, responding in hymns and prayer; hearing God speak to us through his Scriptures and by the work of his Spirit is an event in the life of the church where Jesus’ name is magnified and our hearts are moved to praise. Surely that is worship. As D.A. Carson writes in Basics for Believers, “The sermon is not un-worship; it is part of our corporate worship, both a sign of it and a profound incitement to it.”

Weigh each aspect of your service 

C.H. SpurgeonContinuing from the previous point, Spurgeon calls us to “feel very deeply the importance of conducting every part of divine worship with the utmost possible efficiency”. Just as we fall into the error of distinguishing worship and listening to God, so we sometimes fail to consider how each aspect of our corporate gatherings can declare the gospel, not only the sermon. Spurgeon calls us to remember that the salvation of a soul may hang on the choice of a hymn. Yet most Christians are more caught up with the style of their music rather than content. He challenges us to reflect that “God may very especially bless an expression in our prayer to the conversion of a wanderer; and that prayer in the unction of the Holy Spirit, may minister greatly to the edification of God’s people, and bring unnumbered blessings down upon them, we shall endeavour to pray with the best gift and the highest grace within our reach.” Yet we stupidly think prepared prayers unspiritual and lifeless. Lastly, Spurgeon says, “In the reading of the Scriptures comfort and instruction may be plenteously distributed, we shall pause over our opened Bibles, and devoutly seek to be guided to that portion of Holy Writ which shall be most likely to be made useful.” Yet I have visited numerous churches where Bibles are little more than stage props. Removing the public reading from Scripture from our meetings robs people of hearing from God, in his living and true word. We must prayerfully consider every element in corporate worship, for each has the potential to proclaim the gospel and encourage faith.

Vary the order of service

Still discussing the service as a whole, Spurgeon warns: “In order to prevent custom and routine from being enthroned among us, it will be well to vary the order of service as much as possible”. Spurgeon entreats us to allow the Spirit to work through innovation, not being in bondage to tradition and fixed rules as modes of worship. He also notes the irony where liturgy is vehemently resisted yet other prescribed rubrics reign over church meetings. “We claim to conduct service as the Holy Spirit moves us, and as we judge best. We will not be bound to sing here and pray there, but will vary the order of service to prevent monotony…Irregularities would do good, monotony works weariness.” It would be easy to highlight the charismatic churches’ repetitious singing at this point, but in my own Anglican tradition that makes frequent use of the Book of Common Prayer we are in grave danger of stifling our services with structure, both in week to week monotony and in the lack of space given to unprepared sharing, testimony and prayer. Being enslaved to an order of service can dissuade people of the liveliness and significance of God’s gathered people.

Direct all public prayers to God

C. H. SpurgeonFinally, I want to draw an incisive point from Spurgeon, as many preachers tend to treat their closing prayer as an “oblique sermon”, powerful rhetoric designed to stir their hearers’ emotions, or an opportunity to summarise their message. He smarts, “It is little short of blasphemy to make devotion an occasion for display,” for “the Lord alone must be the object of our prayers.” He then goes on, quite unsettlingly to state that, “Fine prayers are generally very wicked prayers.” While we might aim through zeal to excite our hearers, “every word and thought must be Godward…look up, look up with both eyes.” This does not excuse embarrassingly personal or specific prayers. A prayer should harmonise with the rest of the service – from our songs to the sermon and even to confession – but this is to be done wisely, not slavishly, always remembering that God alone is the object of our prayers. I would add, in conclusion, that if it is God’s gospel of grace that we proclaim through our preaching, accept and find assurance in during confession, celebrate in our songs, and through which we humbly approach God in prayer, then not only would we be kept from falling into this trap uncovered by Spurgeon but it would be unthinkable that our prayers be directed to anyone other than our gracious heavenly Father.

What is Expository Preaching?

Expository PreachingI suppose the type of person who reads this sort of blog would, in general, be sympathetic to the notion of “Expository Preaching”. All the cool kids are doing it these days. All the people the cool kids listen to say it’s the only way to be faithful to Scripture and preach the full counsel of God. I must say, I pretty much agree (I’m cool like that). It seems, though, that the term and its meaning have become somewhat removed from one another.

Popular Parlance

When I hear the words “expository preaching”, the idea that is usually being expressed is that of a pastor preaching section by section (perhaps even verse by verse) through a chunk of the Bible – whether that chunk be Jude, Isaiah or Genesis 1-12). The point is, expository preaching is defined by what the sermon was on last week and what it will be on next week.

It’s great to do series through books. It can truly help people understand what the book as a whole is really about and knowing what’s coming could (in theory) enable people to read and think ahead for sermons that are still to come. That sort of engagement is, and would be, fantastic but honestly, it’s rare.

infrequentSomething for preachers to consider is the fact that today people consider themselves regular church attendees if they go once in six weeks – twice every three months. That’s not going to do much for continuity. What’s more, among those who attend every week, how many can tell you what the text of the sermon was from the previous week, never mind the main points? It’s terribly naive to believe that the average member of your congregation is reading ahead because you’re moving consecutively through a book.

Technical Meaning

What may be a surprise to many is that, technically, expository preaching is actually not about preaching section by section consecutively through a book or portion of Scripture. It’s not about what came last week and what will come next week. In actual fact, “expository” preaching is about “exposition”.

“Exposition” means that if you arrive at my sermon today and never hear anything else I preach, you should go away understanding this passage. Exposition is about presenting and explaining the idea or message embedded in the passage of the day. Exposition is an attempt to read the Bible in such a way as to understand it correctly.

Mary Poppins: I Never Explain AnythingIf we open our Bibles to Jeremiah 29:11, good exposition will guard us against thinking that we are ancient Israelites living in Babylonian exile. Good exposition will, however, also move us to the theological significance of a passage that promises prosperity. Good exposition will make sense to us today of a promise given thousands of years ago to a nation of people living in exile.

That means that if we’re wondering whether preachers (or even we ourselves) preach expositionally, the question is not, what was the sermon on last week. The question is, does the sermon make sense of the passage in the context of its place in the book and its place in the Bible and is whatever application stems out of that. The key is that such application is grounded in the meaning and message of the text.

Expositionally Topical

I often hear derision at the idea of topical sermons. I think we have even used to use preaching styles (expository vs topical) as a litmus test; demarcating conservatives and liberals. To be fair, “topical” preaching can be a facile excuse for an appalling use of Scripture. Essentially though, “topical vs expositional” is a false distinction. We could hear a series of sermons on humility (a topic!) taken from John 13, Philippians 2 and Jeremiah 9:23-24 and be listening to excellent exposition because humility is a major teaching point when each text is rightly understood. In contrast, I have heard plenty of sermons from consecutive passages that hardly dig into the meaning of the text at all, whose applications have little or nothing to do with the text in its context. However, “biblical” that sort of sermon may be, it’s not helping me understand the Bible.

The real question to ask of our preaching and our preachers is whether or not they are helping us understand the text. Exposition is an attempt to do exactly that: beware of false imitations.

Prince Caspian: Conflicting Stories

Narnia - C.S. LewisSimilarly to The Horse and His Boy, in Prince Caspian we see the uncertain tension of life between Aslan’s victorious death and his decisive defeat of evil in the future, The Last Battle. For those with ears to hear, Lewis is using narrative to evoke in his readers what it feels like to inhabit the Christian story and encounter the Christian God. However, all is not well when we enter Narnia with the Pevensies: the alluring enchantments of Narnia, talking Beasts, and even Aslan have been forgotten as the Telmarines’ reign strangles the once magical lands. Early on in the novel we see conflicting stories being told about the past, as the Telmarines attempt to change Narnia forever, creating it in their own image. “The sort of History that was taught in Narnia under Miraz’s rule was duller than the truest History you have ever read and less true than the most exciting adventure story” (p408).

When Miraz broaches the topic of Caspian succeeding him on the throne of Narnia, the latter wistfully mentions the Old Days of Narnia, “When everything was quite different. When all the animals could talk, and there were nice people who lived in the streams and the trees” (p335). Miraz is quick to dismiss these “fairy stories”, claiming they are for children and not kings. When Caspian reveals that he has heard much about the Old Days and Aslan, from his nurse, she is promptly sent away (though not from the story entirely, see p409-410). Doctor Cornelius replaces her, becoming Caspian’s tutor. And following a far from insignificant astronomy lesson, Cornelius confirms the stories Caspian heard from his nurse but was kept from believing (p338). We also discover that the Telmarines “silenced the beasts and trees and the fountains…killed and drove away the Dwarfs and Fauns, and are now trying to cover up even the memory of them. The King does not allow them to be spoken of.” The stories of old carry great power, and the Telmarines know this.

Prince CaspianMore than being weary of the old stories, the Telmarines create new ones and distort others to keep people from knowing the truth. When Caspian is told that he must flee the castle through the Black Woods he baulks for fear of what lives there. Cornelius assures him, “Your Highness speaks as you have been taught. But it is all lies. There are no ghosts there. That is a story invented by the Telmarines. Your Kings are in deadly fear of the sea because they can never quite forget that in all stories Aslan comes from over the sea” (p340). We might draw a parallel with the Tarkaans, in The Horse and His Boy, who speak about Narnia as, “Chiefly inhabited by demons in the shape of beasts that talk like men, and monsters that are half man and half beast [and] a demon of hideous aspect and irresistible maleficence who appears in the shape of a lion” (p258). Young Caspian has grown up hearing conflicting stories, as we all have. These stories are fashioned to counter and discredit others, functioning as powerful vehicles of persuasion. But which stories should we believe, which contain the truth?

I have answered that question elsewhere, discussing philosophy, but in the Narnian narrative Lewis’ characters are wrought with uncertainty, embodying a variety of positions. Some abandon hope and selfishly favour evil power instead, such as Nikabrik (see p392-4); others, like Trumpkin, dutifully follow orders though full of disbelief (p360); and still others remember the stories of old rooted in their past and full of effective promise, like Trufflehunter (p352, 359). As readers we are drawn into this milieu of conflicting stories. But we are invited to do much more than merely observe the characters’ struggles to make sense of their own world, for Lewis wants us to consider our own world and the stories we believe.

Narnia - C.S. LewisAs approach the end of Prince Caspian we are meant to hear a note of tragedy amidst the mirth at everything being put right, as a son of Adam is enthroned as the king of Narnia in submission to the High King of Narnia (p411, 416). The poignant note is Aslan permitting the Telmarines to return to their own world (p415-7). They had inhabited Narnia, encountered Aslan, and experienced the old story’s triumph but in the end choose to leave it all behind, suffering the consequences of deeply ingrained stories that kept them from believing another. It is true that some of the younger Telmarines entrust themselves to Aslan and pledge allegiance to Caspian, the new king of Narnia, but the Telmarines that return to our world reveal the dangerous power of stories to keep us from knowing the true story. Listen to Aslan, earlier in the series, full of regret and deep sadness, “Oh, Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good” (p98).