Doodle: Trite Comfort from the Sovereignty of God

Sovereignty of GodAs someone famously stated about the human experience, perhaps with just a hint of unhealthy cynicism: ‘life is hard, and then you die.’ For most, life is undeniably hard and for all death is unavoidable. But as a pastor I am convinced that God exalts the humble and is gracious towards the lowly; as Jesus promised, God comforts those who mourn. And one of most powerful means of God’s grace in difficulty is his church, those who are called to weep with those who weep and bear one another’s burdens. The latter end of 2018 has not turned out how my wife and I hoped, raising significant uncertainties over our future and ministry. In this time I have been overwhelmed by the support from my family in Christ, not to mention grateful to God for his wise provision of the church.

However, one of the recurring exhortations we have heard is to remember that God is sovereign. As one pastor has put it, Christians are always (too) ready to give the Romans 8:28 treatment, “Trust in God, because he works all things for the good of those who love him.” Now without going into too much detail, we must also remember that God’s sovereignty does not guarantee everything will work out for the better now, or even in this life. Trials are not the dark clouds pregnant with precious water, nor does suffering precede God’s best blessings. This is not what God has promised. As a good friend recently reminded us in his sermon on Romans 8, God is not doing something hard now in order to give you something better next. That is simply not what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty; it is in fact little more than baptised positive thought, the erroneous belief in the power of positive thinking.

God’s sovereignty does not diminish hurt, confusion or suffering. He is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort during those seasons. When we travel through the dark valley of sorrow and suffering it does us great good to cling to our sovereign God. A God who is powerless to order our world would not be worth trusting when it appears to be crumbling. However, merely stating the sovereignty of God can be little more than saying God is moving the pieces on the board from a distance. The true and living God, on the other hand, is an incomparable help and strength in trouble. So while I am not saying that exhorting someone to take comfort in the sovereignty of God is a platitude, in my own experience it tends towards being treated like that. Most Christians are convinced that God is sovereign over our lives, from suffering to unplanned joys to the frustration of failed plans. But if the first thing you want to tell a Christian who is hurting or overwhelmed by uncertainty is that they must remember God is sovereign: maybe don’t.

Ishmael AbrahamRecently I have been rereading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, where I came across a passage that perfectly illustrates this caution. In Gilead, John Ames is relaying a sermon he preached on Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac. Preaching that part of Genesis he reminded his congregation that despite the seeming cruelty of those narratives, “the child is within the providential care of God. And this is no less true, I said, if the angel carries her home to her faithful and loving Father than if He opens the springs or stops the knife and lets the child live our her sum of earthly years.” Only Ames cannot stop there, for no matter how many times he has preached on God’s sovereignty and providence he confides that his own answer to suffering has never even satisfied himself. “I have always worried that when I say the insulted or downtrodden are within the providence of God, it will be taken by some people to mean that it is not a grave thing, an evil thing.” Read that last sentence again. John Ames was uncomfortably aware that merely appealing to the sovereignty of God can seem to make little of the situation and diminish one’s suffering.

When I set out to write this post I did not have a specific point in mind. And please do not hear me suggesting that we should not encourage one another with the truth of God’s sovereignty. Just be sensitive enough to know that the person suffering is very likely struggling with God’s sovereignty over their situation; in other words, knowing that nothing happens apart from God’s will can make suffering all the more disorientating. God’s children are often confused by what their heavenly Father is doing. Far from letting go of God’s sovereignty we must treasure it. Only we must also be careful of reducing it to a trite statement of careless platitude. If my son suffers from a crippling fear of the night I must surely do more than remind him the sun will rise in the morning. Praise God, for it will. Only now we wait patiently and hope for what we do not see (Romans 8:25). So while we wait, wrestling with the sovereignty of God let’s encourage, support and help one one another, because as C. S. Lewis wrote in Perelandra, “God can make good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.”

Thank God for the Old Testament

Icon HabakkukHabakkuk opens with a question, “O LORD, how long shall I cry out for help and you will not hear?” But I imagine many people were asking another question as we started a three part preaching series in the book: “Why Habakkuk?” This was certainly the opinion of one older man in my church, proving that grey hairs are not synonymous with wisdom or maturity. But if you look at your Bible side on and split it at the page between the Old and New Testaments you will notice that the Old accounts for more than three quarters of God’s Word. Either God is a prodigious abuser of words and trees or he wants us to read all of Scripture.

Sadly, today many churches and those in them consider the Old Testament to be outdated, irrelevant, and too confusing to be of any real worth for living and following after our Lord Jesus Christ. This has lead to the call for the 21st century church to unhitch from the Old Testament. Others are less bold, expressing their low view of the Old Testament more subtly as a preference for the New Testament. This was clearly illustrated to me recently when someone thanked me for choosing to study James in our home groups after a trudging term in Amos. Unfortunately these attitudes are out of whack with Christ himself, who said in Luke 24 that the law, prophets, and writings (the Old Testament) testify to him. Very briefly, by looking at two New Testament passages and making two linked points, I hope to convince you of the God-given value possessed by the Old Testament, from Amos to Zechariah.

1. The Old Testament testifies to Jesus Christ

The apostle Peter writes in his first epistle, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11). The Old Testament speaks of Christ, both in anticipation and even by explaining aspects of his life, death, and resurrection. When we read the Old Testament one of the questions we should be asking is: ‘How is this fulfilled in Christ?’ or ‘How does this point to him?’ Peter goes on,  “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel” (1 Peter 1:12). Therefore, in God’s wisdom the Old Testament given to the nation of Israel is also for his church today, which brings us to our second point.

2. The Old Testament was written for Christians

Listen to 2 Peter 1:19, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Here Peter calls the prophetic message of the Old Testament as something we should pay attention to. At best, most Christians are happy to consider the Old Testament reliable, because what was promised about the future has reached a partial culmination in Christ. But that is to wrongly limit three quarters of the Bible to foretelling Christ, stripping it of any importance or relevance today, for the Christian church. This is a huge mistake, tantamount to confusing Nahum (an Old Testament minor prophet) with Nostradamus. We must not lose sight of the prophets as a light shining in the present to which we must look, which is how Peter describes them. It is for this reason that Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that the Old Testament is profitable or useful in teaching and equipping us how to live.

In conclusion, the entire Old Testament is inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). That explains the anticipation and promise of Christ but also impresses on us that it is for God’s people today. So let’s read it in order to have our faith in Christ enriched and learn how to live for Christ while we wait for his return.

What is 1 Peter all about?

1 PeterIn 5:12 we read, “I have written to you briefly, encouraging you and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand fast in it.” Peter gives us a threefold purpose for writing, to: encourage Christians; testify to the grace of God; and help us stand fast or persevere. Throughout the letter, Peter does just this. So under a few – far from comprehensive – headings we are going to explore how Peter achieves his purpose: encouraging, testifying, and strengthening.

We have a living hope

In 1:3 the letter opens by praising God who in his great mercy (see 2:9-10) has given us a living hope. What God has promised us is certain and can never be taken from us (1:5). The word ‘salvation’ is often used to refer to becoming a Christian, or being born again, but notice that in 1:5-6 we rejoice in our hoped for salvation that is still to be revealed. This is what Peter comes back to in 1:8-9, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Christians should rejoice as we await our glorious future, despite the shifting sands and struggles of this life. We must live in light of our sure salvation that is to come. And as we persevere in this life our faith is proven genuine (1:6-7; 4:12).

That hope is found in Jesus Christ

Peter suggests this a few times in his opening: “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3); “you believe in him” (1:8); and “the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1:11). But 2:24 is perhaps clearest, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” Christ’s death is our hope, for on the cross he bears our sins in order for us to be forgiven. Christians throughout the ages have called this the ‘wonderful exchange’. Something Peter lays out in 1:18-19, “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” Therefore we must confidently trust in that costly work of Christ on our behalf, for both forgiveness and our future.

But in 2:21-25 Peter says that Christ’s suffering does not only save us and give us real hope, for he also calls it an “example” (2:21; also see 4:19), an example of how we should suffer as Christians.

Suffering as Christians

Suffering is not inconsistent with our faith but part of the Christian life, while we await our glorious salvation (5:9-10). Because 1 Peter was written to churches that were suffering the letter has much to teach us about it: God commends those who suffer for doing good (2:18-25), going as far as calling it a blessing (3:8-17), since it is blessed to do good not evil; on at least three occasions we read that suffering fits within the will of God (3:17; 4:2, 19) explaining why it might be necessary for us to suffer for a time (1:6, see ESV); and similarly to Christ, all affliction, hardship, suffering, and grief will give way to glory (4:13; 5:1, 10). One of the dangers we face as those who are not persecuted for our faith, suffer little, and enjoy many first world comforts is that we forget that glory is yet to be revealed and fall into the trap of living for this world

Though it might be part of God’s will that we suffer, and suffering certainly has a place within the economy of God to test, strengthen, and ultimately prove our faith, we know that we have a living hope and the promise of glory if we persevere. That hope is found through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ alone. But, knowing all of this, how should we live as Christians while we wait?

Holiness

Coming back to the wondrous exchange that took place as Christ died on the cross (2:24), where he sets us an example for suffering, Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” God has saved us with purpose, which we will read more about below, and that purpose requires holiness, being noticeably set apart or distinct. We can no longer lived like we used to, when we were ignorant (1:13-14). We must pursue holiness (1:15-17), for we have been redeemed or bought by Christ’s precious blood (1:18-19), and should therefore “live as God’s slaves” (2:16). We are not our own; we belong to God. As Peter writes in 2:10, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Our salvation, past and present results from the work of Christ and a persevering faith. But Peter is warning us against accepting the mercies of God and not responding to them by becoming increasingly holy. Practically, this touches on all sorts of things: abstaining from passions of the flesh (2:11); obedience to God’s truth, his word (1:22-25); speech (2:1-3); serving each other as the people of God (2:4-10; 4:7-11); submission to authorities (2:13-15); and our relationships with each other (2:17; 3:1-7).

Why should we pursue holiness, purity, and transformed lives? Is it just because Christians are better people than everyone else? No, Peter gives two reasons, under the next two headings.

Purpose of holiness: witness

In 2:11-12 we are told to, “Abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (also see 4:4). There is an evangelistic edge to godliness. More than merely silencing the ignorant (2:15), our holiness, eager hope, and how we suffer can point others to Christ and the glory that awaits those with faith in him.

Our ultimate purpose: God’s glory

The word “glory” is frequent in 1 Peter. While we are promised to share in God’s glory, for that is an aspect of our future hope (5:1, 10), the purpose of final salvation, holiness in the present, and Christ’s work on the cross is foremost for the glory of God. On the day that he is revealed, our witness may be the cause of some glorifying God rather than being judged (2:11-12). In using whatever gifts God has given us we must readily acknowledge him so that he is glorified, not us (4:7-11). Even our suffering, so long as it is for good and involves persevering faith can be to the glory of God (1:6-7; 4:16). Christ’s death and resurrection, which we must place our faith in, meant glory for the Jesus (1:11, 21). Is this your perspective, your purpose? All that we do and don’t do can be for the glory of God.

Peter’s challenge to you

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (5:1-4).

Though this is often treated as a passage on those in leadership in the local church. It is almost an assumption in the New Testament that older or maturer Christians will be leaders in the local church. The responsibility is given to watch over and care for others in the church, like shepherds. There is no gain in this but the promise of glory for those who eagerly serve in humility and set an example of holiness for others.

If you enjoyed this overview I have written a few others like it: wisdom and works in the epistle of James; Exodus as the journey of God; and a series of posts in Galatians.

Bonhoeffer on Scripture: God’s True and Sufficient Word for Christians

BonhoefferA few weeks ago I started what I hope will be a series of posts developing a robust theology of Scripture. The first two articles looked at the writing of John Calvin: firstly challenging those who set their opinions about God above what he has revealed about himself; and, secondly, correcting the common error of separating the Spirit’s ministry from biblical truth. In this post I am going to do little more than quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer at length and append a few comments. But if the name Bonhoeffer is unknown to you then I encourage you to put this article aside until you have read a little about his life and writing. Below I have arranged four quotations from Bonhoeffer under three headings, two attributes of Scripture and our approach to it.

The Bible is true

Bonhoeffoer wrote, ”We have become accustomed to seeing religion as something that corresponds to a need of the human psyche, something that then satisfies this need. Something that is supposed to lead from the restlessness of our existence to calm, from the mad rush of our lives to tranquility. Something in which, quite removed from our jobs, professions and everyday lives, we can come to our true selves. Then we say religion is something beautiful, something valuable, something necessary for a good life. It is supposed to be the only thing that can make one truly happy in the depths of one’s being. Meanwhile we tend to forget the one decisive question, whether religion is also something true, whether it is the truth. For it could be, of course, that while religion is a beautiful thing, it is not true, that it is all a nice, pious illusion—but still an allusion. And the most furious attacks on religion have been sparked by the fact that people in the church itself have often talked as though the question of truth were only  a secondary question. But whoever so speaks only sees religion from the perspective of human beings and their needs, not from that of God and his claims.”

The Bible is sufficient

“We want to keep this firmly in mind: the word of God, as found in the Bible and as it sounds forth to us in the proclamation of the gospel, needs no decoration. It is its own decoration, its own glory, its own beauty. This is certainly true. But as is especially true of human beauty, the word of God cannot withdraw itself from the decoration of those who love it. As is true of decorating that which is truly beautiful, the decoration of the word of God can only consist of making its own inner beauty shine forth all the more gloriously—nothing alien to it, nothing false, nothing artificial, no kitschy trinkets and no cosmetics, nothing that covers up its own beauty but only what reveals and brings it to light.” Throughout the ages churches have been tempted to update the gospel message (you can read what Paul says about that). Christians have also sought innovative methods to reach people. But I have to agree with Bonhoeffer: Bible teaching has and always will be God’s means of growing his church, numerically and spiritually. The word of God needs no decoration, just faithful proclamation and a commitment to and confidence in the truth.

The Bible nourishes Christians

DevotionalIn an exposition on parts of Psalm 119, Bonhoeffer said, ”There is no standing still. Every gift, every increment of knowledge and insight I receive only drives me deeper into the word of God. For God’s word I need time. To rightly understand the commands of God, I must often ponder their meaning for a long time. Nothing could be more wrong than the kind of intense activity or emotional high that denies the value of hard thinking and reflection. Such engagement with the Bible is also not just the business of those who are especially called to this vocation but the business of anyone who wants to walk in God’s ways. Admittedly, it is often the case that God calls us to act quickly with no delay; but God also calls us to quietness and meditation. So I am often both permitted and required to halt for hours or days over one and the same word until I am enlightened with the right insight. No one is so advanced that he or she no longer needs to do this. No one may believe that he or she has been excused from this because of too many other active responsibilities. God’s word claims my time. God himself has entered into time and now wills that I give him my time. To be Christian is not something that can be handled in a moment, but demands time. God has given us the Scripture, from which we are to discern God’s will. The Scripture wants to be read and thought about, every day afresh.”

Conclusion 

The Bible is true and sufficient, able to make us wise for salvation and also shape us for service (2 Timothy 3:15-17). The Bible is God’s means for maturing believers, strengthening faith and correcting error. If we have understood this then it will show in our treatment of the Bible, for we will search and meditate on what God says. An unread Bible is not a sign of being too busy but a statement that hearing from God registers low, if at all, on your list of priorities. It is no wonder that our spiritual growth is stunted. The woman who refuses to refuel her car is not surprised when she has to stop on the side of the freeway. Listen to Bonhoeffer once more, “And those who love this word of God that has sounded forth for two thousand years have not let themselves be talked out of contributing the most beautiful thing they could make as its decoration. And their most beautiful work could be nothing else than something invisible, namely, an obedient heart, but from this obedient heart there springs forth the visible work, the audible song in praise of God and Jesus Christ.”

Four God Given Uses for the Bible

DevotionalI recently taught 2 Timothy 3:10-17, on two separate occasions, and found myself stirred by this familiar passage. While studying at college it was a favourite to cite among both students and lecturers concerning the doctrine of Scripture. Without going into any of that I want to unpack the four ‘uses’ of Scripture mentioned by Paul in 3:16, and how we might employ them in our own Bible reading. Paul writes “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable [or useful] for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. Below I will make brief comment on each of those and then suggest how they might inform your response to God’s Word, whatever passage you are reading.

Teaching truth

Firstly, the Bible is given to teach us, to inform our thinking and positively shape our doctrine. Since Scripture is given to us by God – which is at least one of the important implications of it being breathed out by him – we should allow it to build our theology. Too often we treat our Bible reading the same way we do motivational quotes; or, worse, the sum total of our Bible reading is cherry-picked and inspiring verses suited to fridge magnets but unable to inform our beliefs. God gave us the Bible to shape our minds and reveal himself to us. So the next time you are meditating on a passage of Scripture, one of the questions to ask is this: what can I learn from God and about him, what is he teaching me?

Challenging error

Correcting errorSecondly, and with a little more difficulty, we are told that the Bible reproves. The Greek word used here, along with the next, is a hapax legomenon, which simply means this is the only place it occurs in the New Testament. After you have finished impressing your friends with your newfound linguistic jargon, note that this is significant because it makes the specific sense of the word elusive. Technical discussions aside, commentators and translators seem to agree that it carries the idea of challenging false doctrine or beliefs. This would make it the negative side of our first use. While the Bible is profitable for building up true theology it also tears down wrong beliefs. So, applying this use to our reading of Scripture, we should ask: does this portion of the Bible challenge or correct erroneous ideas I hold?

Correcting sin

Thirdly, with the discussion above in mind, this word most likely refers to behaviour, making it the negative of the fourth use (below). The Bible is given to us by God not only to shape our minds and beliefs but also how we live, speak, work, rest and treat others. This is often done through teaching us truth. But since it is included in a list where that idea is already present we can assume Paul is speaking about morality or ethics—more simply, how a Christian honours Christ in all of life. God instructs us how to behave. When we listen to God’s Word it will result in repentance, putting off what God calls sin. For example, in James 2 we read, ‘Do not be partial’ (2:1). God calls out discrimination, on whatever grounds, and exhorts Christians to repent of racism and classicism, among other things. Thus, the next time you are reading your Bible, reflect on how God is challenging your behaviour, and allow his definition of sin to shape your life.

Training in righteousness

Finally, we are told that Scripture positively shapes our behaviour, training us in righteousness, creating people that please God. If the previous point moved us to ask what we should stop, then this word makes us ask: what should I start? Where is my Christian life, obedience, and love deficient? God does not only desire that we refrain from sin, hearing and accepting his correction, but calls us to practical and positive expression of our faith. I know for myself this is often the hardest application to make, not because we struggle to understand what God demands but because we do. God calls us to express our faith through righteous action.

Four questions to ask in your Bible reading

  1. How is my theology positively informed by this truth?
  2. What errors in my theology are corrected by this passage?
  3. What sins in my life does is God challenging?
  4. How can I positively respond in obedience to God as a result of this text?

Can I be Friends with Girls?

Let me start this post with two short anecdotes. Firstly, a couple of years ago I was rebuked by an older Christian man in my church after he saw me sharing a plate of eats with a female friend. His wife also chastised my friend, at another time. Why? Sharing a plate of food was something only a husband and wife could do and who knows how people might have perceived our breaking of bread. Secondly, two years ago I heard the testimony of a visiting pastor. Discussing his conversion he repeatedly mentioned a close friend who the Lord used extensively in bringing him to faith. They would meet up, go for coffees, and chat regularly over the phone. But after becoming a Christian, this pastor called his faithful friend up and said they could no longer be friends. Why? Because this friend was a woman and their close relationship posed a threat to his marriage.

Man and womanThis post is titled with a question: ‘Can I be friends with girls?’ But the more general question or issue I hope to begin answering is this: can we share an intimate friendship with someone that we might grow romantically attracted to? In my case, that is women. Returning to my two anecdotes, the first is little more than laughable legalism and I treated it as such. However the second is more in touch with reality and genuine Christian concerns about adultery or sexual sin. While that pastor shared this aspect of his testimony I felt that his decision was commendable but nothing to celebrate. For example, I struggle with anger on the soccer field and because of it I have periodically refrained from playing. But that is never where I want to stay, on the sidelines, for I desire to glorify God on the soccer field and not simply by avoiding it.

This brings us back to the question of this post, which I am writing as an extension of its predecessor: Six Obstacles to Friendship. After preaching on friendship recently (you can read a summary of that here) I was asked about mixed-sex friendships. And that was not the first time I have been asked the question. I also recently learnt that the question is not unique to our time and has tended towards legalism in the church. In Reading with the Reformers Timothy George paraphrases Martin Luther, “There are legalists who have so tightened the meaning of Jesus’ words against lustful gazing that they forbid all companionship between men and women…But Jesus did not call for such sequestration. He distinguished looking and lusting.” Luther went on: Jesus allowed “talking, laughing, and having a good time” with women. To George and Luther’s points I would add the fact that Jesus certainly had close female friends (John 11:5; Luke 8:1-3). Personally, I am with Jesus and – on most points – Luther.

Freudian mythI do understand the caution against intimate and vulnerable friendships between men and women, where one or both are married or even in the case that neither are. It is possible to become sexually attracted to a friend, but then it is also possible I will lust while walking through the local shopping mall. Yet I still go. Gerald Bray notes in God is Love that because Western culture is obsessed with sex there is a suspicion towards close relationships, “It is now much harder than it used to be to maintain friendships, not only between members of the opposite sex (which has always been difficult) but among those of the same sex as well.” In Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill goes further and challenges Christians who adopt what we might call the Freudian Myth, “The belief that sex wholly explains the depths of our most profound relationships.” Sex is not the ultimate destination, or trajectory, of love-filled and close relationships, intimate friendships or affectionate companionship. In other words, sexual intimacy is not the aim or outcome of all intimacy.

There is much more I hope to write on this question, because it seems to be one many people are unsure about. In conclusion, let me say again that avoiding deep and vulnerable friendship is a wisdom issue, not a matter of law. When pressed to the extent that I have encountered it among conservative Christians it becomes legalism. The idea that sexual attraction is the inevitable end of intimate friendship between a man and a woman is not a biblical one. Likewise, the desire for close relationships with women who are not my wife is not born from sexual desire. In the church God has created a wonderfully diverse community whereby the differences of its members are a blessing to one another. We should embrace that, with both delight and discernment.