John Calvin: Our Gifts and the Church

Though wisdom and my recent less than prodigious blogging record suggests that I should not commit to any sort of writing project, with this post I am setting out on series of articles reflecting on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Reading through his tremendous work in 2017 proved to me the practical value of solid systematic theology, as I found myself drawing on it in pastoral situations as well as for preaching. In writing these posts I hope to impress that value upon my readers.

Under the headings below I have summarised part of Calvin’s teaching on the use of our gifts in the local church, which is strikingly embedded in a section on self-denial. The setting of gifts under the heading of self-denial will seem strange to many Christians today, since gifts are usually paraded about, elevating individuals in the believing community. This creates an ungodly discontentment with the gifts God has equipped us, along with an unhealthy elitism, both of which are unbiblical and far from the mind of Christ.

Our gifts are from God (3.7.4)

Calvin notes that God calls us to esteem others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4), applying ourselves to doing them good. God calls us to this because naturally we are only concerned for ourselves (Philippians 2:21). Furthermore, Calvin says, we long to tower over others, which we accomplish through unfair comparisons and self-flattery. We all serve the “kingdom in our breast.” Ironically we attempt this self-aggrandisement through the things we have received from God, the abilities that might set us apart from others. Therefore, alluding to 1 Corinthians 4:7, Calvin writes, “We are instructed to remember that those talents which God has bestowed upon us are not our own goods but the free gifts of God; and any person who become proud of them show their ungratefulness.” Calvin frequently picks this theme up throughout his Institutes, quoting Cyprian elsewhere, ‘We ought to glory in nothing, because noting is ours’ (2.2.9).

Our gifts are for others (3.7.5)

Because the gifts we have are not ours, Calvin writes, “Whatever benefits we obtain from the Lord have been entrusted to us on this condition: that they be applied to the common good of the church.” Our talents, abilities, wealth, skills, and time do not ultimately belong to us; they are given by God for his church. Calvin discusses our gifts under self-denial because without renouncing ourselves we will never give wholly to others, doing Christ’s works of love. “We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbour, and are required to render account of our stewardship.” God has been generous to every one of his children in the church, both saving them and equipping them with gifts (respectively Ephesians 2:8-10 and 4:11-16). So we must remember that we are accountable for what we do with what God has given us, all of it. It is to this point that Jesus told his parable of the tenants (Luke 19:11-27).

Our hearts determines the value of our gifts (3.7.7)

Under 3.7.6 Calvin touches on the image of God to convict us when we are slow to use God’s gifts in service of others. If we deem someone unworthy of our efforts, “the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image.” This, Calvin argues, means that the love we must show others requires that we look first to God, paradoxically, and not people. If we love him then we ought to love and serve those made in his image. This brings Calvin to a conclusion, in 3.7.7, dealing with our attitude as we serve others, not forgetting the two points above. There can be no pride when it comes to our gifts, nor arrogance in our use of them. Once we have properly understood that all gifts we possess are from God for others we should learn to give freely, not under compulsion. When we serve others we must refuse to consider those helped as indebted to us, since we are merely being generous with what God has given us (1 Peter 4:11). Finally, what limits should be set on service and the sharing of God’s gifts? Calvin says only the end of our resources and the rule of love.

Doodle: Constantine, the Caesars, and Jesus Christ

Bavaria Faith Religion Head StoneLast week I posted an article on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I argued that the birth of the early Christian church is more than a historical peculiarity, for it demands that we answer why despairing disciples became daring heralds of their crucified lord. Jews living in the Roman Empire saw many messiahs publicly killed, and every futile revolution left those who believed in it with a decision: seek out a new messiah or surrender any sort of hope. But those who followed Jesus did neither. Rather, as Paul Barnett writes in The Logic of History, “The early rise of Christianity as a movement close in time to Jesus is a fact of history. Someone gave impulse to the rise of that movement in the immediately preceding weeks and months”. Thus I argued that if we apply logic – and avoid sceptical presuppositions, or poor historical explanations – the resurrection of Jesus provides us with both a satisfactory and startling answer.

When I preached on Christ’s resurrection over Easter I joked that most of us only know who Julius Caesar is because we were forced to read Shakespeare at school. Furthermore almost none of us know his nephew, Augustus Caesar. Yet these men were considered gods. I mention Julius and Augustus because the latter was a contemporary of Jesus, and both were considered divine. Classicist Mary Beard writes in SPQR, “There were priests and temples, sacrifices carried out to them, not on their behalf, and some wonderful surviving images that literally put the imperial gods in the Olympian heavens.” But none of them are broadly remembered today, and they are certainly no longer worshipped. Strangely, on the other hand, the Jewish peasant who was publicly executed by the Romans has stubbornly endured.

Enter The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, faux historical research, Wikipedia, and conspiracy theories that make employees at Area 51 incredulous, to rescue us from believing Christianity was a significant presence in the Roman Empire before Constantine. These reputable sources have indubitably proven that prior to Constantine’s conversion Christianity was hardly worth mentioning. Upon gaining state support it, however, enjoyed meteoric success and growth. But that is to be a poor student of history, not to mention a gullible consumer of popular fiction. In his insightful work, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark writes, “Constantine’s conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress, not its cause.” This agrees with actual historians, not potboilers. A notable Christian sect must have existed in the Roman Empire in the 4th century C.E. Constantine did not venture into the religious marketplace in search of an obscure faith; he could not ignore the influence of a faith that was sweeping through his empire.

Those who would claim that Constantine is the reason for the season must explain what happened to Julius Caesar, supposed descendant of Aeneas, and his nephew Augustus, those first Roman emperors who had ascended, becoming imperial gods. Constantine’s state sponsorship of Christianity is thrown around as if it was the first occurrence in history. It is also ignorantly supposed that Constantine’s support of Christianity enforced exclusivity in the Empire. The reality is that a contemporary of Jesus enjoyed state support – of varying degrees – for over 300 years until Constantine’s conversion experience. Where are the imperial gods now? Condemned to the fading memory of history. Those who supposedly ascended to Mount Olympus and took their place amongst the pantheon of classical gods are all but forgotten today.

CaesarThe one truth we might draw out of this meandering post is the ephemeral nature of state sponsored religion, or perhaps just the shallowness of such faith. Christianity was almost certainly already a significant Jewish sect long before the 4th century. It held its own in that religious marketplace not because it had state backing, such as the worship of Caesar Augustus, but because Christians from the 1st century were convinced something incredible had happened. As Marilynne Robinson writes in Wondrous Love, explaining what gives the cross and resurrection such lasting power, “They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. So, as Gamaliel said about some of the disciples who were preaching Christ’s death and resurrection, ‘Keep away from these men for if this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39).

How the Early Church Proves the Resurrection

In her most recent novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson draws back the curtain on a character who, though present in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home, has remained fairly mysterious. She is the young wife of John Ames and Lila recounts her austere life as a migrant worker, dominated by loneliness and loss. But one day Lila finds herself in a church service, when she was only looking for shelter from the rain, “She was thinking how strange it was for them to be there singing songs to somebody who had lived and died like anybody.” Very few historians would dispute that there was a historical man named Jesus, who was remarkable at most but died nonetheless. And this means Lila’s bemusement is more than bare wonder, but a question we must all answer: how do we explain two millennia of singing?

A historical note

CrucifixionFirstly, because without it the resurrection makes little sense, we must look at the death of Jesus. “Crucifixion,” David Seccombe writes, “was designed to inflict as much pain as possible for as long as possible, in a manner that brought about the complete public humiliation of the victim…This was Rome’s way of exposing the foolishness of anyone with political pretensions. There was no honour or heroism in such a death” (The King of God’s Kingdom). For Jesus’ disciples, his death signalled a miserable failure and a familiar pattern. Jewish messiahs would gather devoted followings, appealing to the oppressed people with promises of God’s powerful liberation. None succeeded. Jesus fits this category: supposed Jewish messiah executed by the Romans. In dying Jesus was painfully ordinary, even predictable. He was not exceptionable and arguably not even the most popular messiah of his day. This was what happened. And, in addition to the Jewish people’s familiarity with disappointment, they did not expect their messiah to die and be resurrected (a point very well made by N. T. Wright). Therefore, historically, the Jesus story is very similar to the lesser-known stories about other failed Jewish messiahs. Strangely, Jesus’ story is remembered.

An improbable hypothesis

That brings us to our next point, the quite incredible historical reconstruction put forward by sceptics. This popular explanation of the resurrection requires, in my opinion, a greater suspension of logic than the kind Christians are often accused of. For it says that a bunch of despondent and utterly disappointed followers, whose messiah was recently put to death, went about proclaiming his resurrection. Their teacher had just been horrendously executed and before that, as he was being arrested and tried, they were climbing over each other to dissociate themselves from him. Jesus was dead, going the way of every other messiah. So they decided to proclaim that he had been resurrected. Even though it had not happened. Indeed, no one expected it to, probably not even Jesus’ disciples. But in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and guaranteed ridicule as well persecution for proclaiming it, they go about preaching Christ’s resurrection. Again, the sceptic must face up to the difficulty that logic presents. What could possibly propel the disciples into the Empire that had recently killed their messiah, declaring that he was alive?

An unpopular explanation

ResurrectionFormer Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams proposes the incredible but altogether logical explanation, “Jesus appeared to people whose confidence in him had crumbled, not to believers. It was the resurrection that created the Church and its faith, not the Church that created the resurrection.” He makes two points: the first has been lightly touched on already, we might paraphrase Williams in saying that Jesus appeared to sceptics. In the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel we encounter two former followers of Jesus, pouring out their heavy hearts in the wake of Jesus’ apparent failure, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Now whether you consider the Gospels historically reliable or not, it is safe to assume that those two men accurately illustrate how Jesus’ disciples would have felt after his death. As Williams correctly says, their confidence in him was shattered and he would be assigned a place with all the other failed messiahs. But that did not happen, as Williams’ second point suggests; a new faith was born, which is hard to account for apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Their faith, their eschatological hope and longing for liberation, did not anticipate the resurrection of a single man. The resurrection created the church, for their fractured faith would not have created a resurrection.

A resurrection shaped hole in history

That unpopular, though logically credible, and in my opinion more probable, explanation answers the question we started with, the strange fact that people are still singing songs to Jesus. The answer goes beyond curiosity, to ask us what we make of Jesus, his resurrection, and the early church. American pastor Timothy Keller comments in The Reason for God that the first Christians knew that if the resurrection was true then they could no longer live their lives however they wanted to. He goes on, “If it happened, it changes our lives completely.” What will you do? How else do you suggest to expain the faith of the early church? Let me close with the now famous lines from C. F. D. Moule, in The Phenomenon of the New Testament, ‘If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes rips a great hole in history, a hole the size of the and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?’

Reflections on LeFouGate

LeFou - Beauty and the Beast 2017With the release of Beauty and the Beast around the corner and the (completely intentional, as far as I’m concerned) controversy over “LeFouGate,” I have been thinking (again) about the LGBTQ / SSA community and the church. The big question on my mind is one that has been asked many times before: how do we make both compassion and holiness our priorities?

It seems that one the major problems is that the idea of the church and its reality are two very different things. Although we say we are against all sin, what we do stigmatises sexual sin and brushes pride, greed and selfishness under the carpet. We say that the church is a community and that everyone is welcome – in fact we would say we are the best community – but in a small group I attended a gay friend once said the best experience of community that he has had has been outside of the church. I asked him what he meant by “best experience of community” and he explained “where I feel like people care about me and try to understand me.” So yes, once again we can say the church is failing on this front – if you’re reading this and you’re in the LGBTQ / SSA community, sorry for mucking this stuff up for so long!

Two responses that I don’t think are helping us are (1) saying “love the sinner hate the sin” – this response is definitely on the side of “love them with the truth even if it hurts.” Sure, there’s something to be said for this approach but the problem is that it stops far short of knowing “the sinner” and forgets how core of an issue this is with regards to self-identity. I think if we are going to be compassionate, this solution is going to let us down. (2) Reframing sin in terms of brokenness (which I wrote about that a while ago). Although this helps us to be compassionate by using language that is not condemnatory, it also turns us into victims of our own sin rather than wilful agents. This is actually more of a problem to the heterosexual community which seems to have gravitated toward this language because while sounding generous and loving, it excuses and plays down our own sin.

So what’s the solution? Well if you want a solution to a problem that has been plaguing the church for the last few decades and to which few people even gesture at answers, you’ve come to the right place – if you know me, you know that I don’t hesitate to give definitive answers to life’s difficult questions (*sarcasm people). But to suggest something rather than crash landing this post at this point, I will say two things.
Washed and Waiting - Wesley HillFirst, read (and this, by the way, is the only solutiony type thing I’m going to offer). In his Experiment in Criticism Lewis writes

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably something you already know – reading the words of people we don’t understand helps us sympathise with them. So I will recommend Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting to anyone who still hasn’t read it. Unfortunately nothing else that I’ve read is springing to mind that I want to recommend so highly (if you have suggestions, put them in the comments!).

Second, to loop back to LeFouGate, watching Beauty and the Beast is not going to help you sympathise. The media’s approach to gender identity is going to be to affirm and to normalise which will make us conservative types recoil all the time (until the normalisation takes effect). We need stories about people who are struggling with their own identity because in their stories we learn sympathy. Imitation Game (about Alan Turing breaking Enigma during WWII) is one example I can think of, a more recent one – though not as good an example – is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the latest in the Harry Potter world) – watch Credence (the adopted son).

Let’s be clear, these movies are normalising identity struggle and I’m confident that their objective is to normalise alternative sexualities but they do also depict the internal struggle that I think Christians all to often fail to appreciate in the people around us – people around us who we are called to love. I think whatever loving means, it’s going to involve some sort of understanding. Whatever you decide to do in response to LeFouGate, let’s remember that Beauty and the Beast is a story in which love transforms the unlovable and our decisions and actions communicate to those around us – what we say and what we do need to correlate.

Some Misgivings about Andrew Heard’s Lifeboat Analogy

In a recent conversation about the latest Generate Conference, a friend shared his reservations about an analogy Andrew Heard deployed in almost every session. If you are unfamiliar with it, the idea is this: an unprecedented maritime disaster has struck and you are the captain of a rescue vessel sent to the affected area. The bottom line for measuring the lifeboat’s success is the number of people on-board, souls saved. As Heard repeatedly emphasised: you should never reach a point when you are satisfied with how many have been rescued. And if people are dying you cannot be too concerned about the comfort of those already in the lifeboat. Rather, each person brought up from the waters needs to join in the task of rescuing others.

Texas Sept 2013There are undoubtedly many positive uses of this analogy, and Heard utilises it fluidly, from challenging Christians in the church who grumble when evangelism is persistently urged, to pastors who have become heroically pessimistic and satisfied with underperformance, stagnant ministries whose battle hymn is: ‘We are being faithful.’ The analogy provides a much-needed reminder of what is at stake: those who have not come to Christ will die without him. We must be more concerned for those still in the water than those who have already been rescued. Perhaps its most valuable application is its stress on the activity, read ministry, of those on-board. We should not rely on an exhausted team of workers, inches from burning out, when we can join in the operation, making it further reaching and far more successful. But I worry that an overdependence on this analogy in articulating the identity and purpose of Christ’s church could be harmful.

My friend expressed hesitation toward the analogy on the basis that despite the litany of analogies found in the New Testament that describe the church – body, temple, household, and family, to name a few – we do not find one remotely similar to the lifeboat. Therefore, as a preliminary point, it cannot be our primary analogy for describing the church or understanding its mission. Yet, for Heard, the analogy seems to influence and express his thinking at a number of points. While everyone knows that metaphors are pliable, I think we would do better in understanding and employing the numerous biblical metaphors about the church. Metaphors are also admittedly imperfect, meaning their use can be unhelpful, even misleading. So below I want to highlight a few of my misgivings.

Rescued souls need care

As I argued in another post, Can Satan Grow the Church?, exploring Jesus’ analogy of the field and the weeds: the size of a church can be very misleading. A church can be bursting at the seams, yet full of those who do not actually belong to Christ. What Heard’s analogy subtly implies is that we simply need to get people on-board, into the church and committed to reaching others. Yet this overlooks the fact that many who have been brought in will be in desperate need of further resuscitation, attention and care. It is no use having a boat full of: spiritual corpses; barely living and bedraggled souls crawling back towards the waters of sin and death; and others whose only appearance of life is their zeal for those not yet in the boat. To add to the analogy, the deck needs to be packed full of paramedics checking the vitals of those rescued, issuing care, and strengthening them for the task.

Rashly appointing the ill-equipped

Building on my previous concern, fixing our focus on those not yet in the boat will mean viewing those in the boat as little more than tools for that task. But tools need to be fashioned, after they have been cared for. In fact, people are more than mere tools or pragmatic partners in reaching the dying. Though Paul’s restriction in 1 Timothy 3:6 against appointing new converts concerns elders, I believe that it can function as a more general caution against hastily placing people into ministry roles, since even those who are being assessed to serve as deacons must be tested (3:10). If we overemphasise the need for reaching outsiders we will fail to prepare our people for that task or – and this might be worse – we will cease seeing our people as partners and begin to treat them like tools.

Real danger of unbiblical measurements

This last point is one that I hope to develop at another time. Fruitfulness in the Christian life, from my reading of the New Testament, is rarely tied to conversions but is almost always about character and Christlikeness. My fear for the lifeboat analogy is the unbiblical evaluation of Christians: pragmatism over personal growth. If we believe that the church is first and foremost a means for saving souls then that will be how we evaluate souls on board, by their usefulness in the mission. While maturity results in making the gospel attractive, it cannot be reduced to service and must certainly not be restricted to a Christian’s evangelistic zeal or efforts. We should desire transformation, godliness, opposition to sin, and lives of worship.

Church underwaterThis post is written generally as a caution against making any metaphor a controlling one, especially when it is not explicitly found in Scripture. But, more specifically, I am writing this post as a call for discernment. Is the church primarily a lifeboat with the mission to rescue as many people from death as possible? I am not sure that it is. Especially not when the result is an emphasis on those outside of the boat at the expense of those within. I do not have an analogy to offer in place of the lifeboat, but we would do well to start with those provided for us in the New Testament. Nor do I think we need to throw this analogy overboard. It is useful, especially to illustrate some of those things mentioned at the opening of this post. But, in my opinion, it is not the best or most helpful analogy for understanding the identity and purpose of Christ’s church.

Praying for your Church with Joy

writingThe book of Philippians opens with a lovely greeting and prayer for the church, as we see in so many of Paul’s other letters. But there is one word which this letter particularly emphasises. Joy. It is subtly seen in this greeting, not demanding much attention but, considering the overall thrust of Philippians, not to be overlooked. As per usual, Paul’s greeting is filled with many encouraging words making it difficult to notice if there’s any particular point. Here’s the opening…

I [Paul] thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your [church] partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he [God] who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me [Paul] to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me [Paul & church] of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I [Paul] yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my [Paul] prayer that your [church] love may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment, so that you [church] may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, [church] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

It’s a busy greeting, which well describes the busyness of church. Paul prays for the church with thanks and joy. The church is encouraged to grow in love. The church must be discerning and wise. Both Paul and the church are working and suffering for the gospel. Paul feels a deep affection and love for the church. Both Paul and the church need grace to face the trials that come with gospel work. Looking ahead they anticipate the day of Christ and so pursue their sanctification.

Reflecting on joy, John Piper writes, “One of the reasons I am the kind of Christian I am, with the theology that I have, is that I know the Bible requires of me things that I cannot myself immediately produce by my own power. I am fallen. I am sinful. And yet I know I should be feeling the emotions the Bible expects me to feel. I know myself guilty.”

The question is, how can we feel this joy? How can we pray with joy for a church so erratically engaged in ministry, meetings and, most volatile of all, people. We know we must pray, we know we must rejoice always. But how?

Here is the answer. It is that among all the happenings there is one most comforting assurance that we see in verse 6. It is God’s guaranteed work. “I am confident of this: That he who has begun a good work in you shall bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”. As with all matters pertaining to joy, it is and can only be found in Christ.

church2Although Paul & the church are striving for the gospel, thank God that the assurance of that work is God himself. What is progressing and growing, what emotions of affection you feel in your heart, what strivings of bitterness and hardship you endure and what prayers of joy you cherish, they are all the work that is being brought to completion in Christ Jesus. It is the erratic activities of the church functioning within the assured work of the divine.

Joy is such a deep seated emotion, rooted in something far more certain than our own feeble hearts. It is found in the soul, activated by the Spirit, and initiated by Christ and his work. The work that Paul so delights in is that, in the church itself, he can see a work being done for the gospel. But this is not just a church work, it is a Christ work which will continue to progress until completion. That is how we can share in this joy.

But the question that naturally follows is, do we? When we see the church engage in gospel work, do we feel joy? Do we pray for the church always with joy? We can often become over-critical of church, trying to find the perfect blend of fellowship, discipleship and evangelism based on our own meter that we overlook what work Christ is doing. May we never fall into such blindness that we see church as a group of people who do things for Jesus, but always see that Christ is the primary doer making the church joyously worth praying for.