Social Justice as Obedience to God

You don’t polish the brass on a sinking ship. Though only a few Christians would explicitly say that, many implicitly endorse it in the way that they think and speak about social justice or mercy ministry. This particular theological bent is veiled behind statements like: “the church’s mission is gospel witness”; “financially support the state, who have the God-given task of social justice”; and, “mercy ministry easily becomes a distraction to gospel proclamation.” More often than not, it comes down to one’s eschatological position, which is wielded as an excuse for not involving oneself or the church in social justice. But we are certainly on dangerous ground when our theological system allows us to overlook clear biblical imperatives and expectations.

There is no way around God’s expectation that Christians will be generous towards others. This is explicit and pervasive in both the Old and New Testaments. Too often our emphasis on the great commission. “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:16-20) has been used to ignore other clear teaching from Jesus, especially regarding the poor. For example, after his parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Why do we hear the imperative in Matthew while ignoring Jesus’ other one in Luke? A few years ago I taught through the the Old Testament prophet Amos. One of the unavoidable conclusions in Amos is that even though Israel was guilty of idolatry and superficial faith, it was their mistreatment of the poor that received God’s severest upbraiding.

Of course, we must not confuse gospel proclamation with expressions of gospel belief and faith in Christ. In his very practical book Ministries of Mercy, Timothy Keller argues that generosity towards the needy is not part of the gospel but an inevitable outworking of believing it. As the authors of What is the Mission of the Church? importantly remind their readers: there is something better than human flourishing and something far worse than death—in other words, we preach Christ out of a desire to see people embrace his gracious love and escape his righteous judgment. Therefore our mission is to proclaim Christ in order that people might repent and believe. However, obedience to the gospel commission does not excuse disobedience to other biblical commands.

Perhaps one of the reasons for our suspicion and slowness toward mercy ministry is owing to our theological tradition. Most readers of Rekindle would consider the Reformers to be their doctrinal forefathers. At the Reformation, men like Martin Luther had to vigorously fight for the vital distinction between works and faith, or works righteousness and salvation by grace. But a dangerous overcorrection is possible here, which reduces people to souls in need of saving. The church has too often fallen into the ancient heresy of dualism: exaggerating the distinction between the spiritual and material. But we should remember that the Reformers (and their theological offspring, the Puritans) were devoted to caring for the poor. That devotion was the fruit of an unprecedented and emphatic commitment to the Bible.

Decriminalise sex workOf course, we can all think of examples where social justice has supplanted both gospel proclamation and commitment to Scripture. I recently wrote an article about Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town, whose commitment to a progressive liberal tenet of social justice caused them to muddy the teaching of Scripture on sexual ethics. Others might cite John Stott’s now infamous statement that gospel proclamation and mercy ministry are the two wings of a plane. Both are necessary for flight. These two brief examples, among a myriad of others, are not an argument against the church pursuing social justice and mercy—through an appeal to the slippery slope fallacy. With the above point about the Reformation, these examples remind us that without theological and biblical moorings we can easily drift.

Finally, in our thinking about mercy and the practise of social justice we must remember that we aren’t primarily doing it as a response to the staggering needs of our countrymen and even some in our church family. The reason we must care for the needy, providing material support for people and seeking to alleviate suffering and poverty is because we want to be obedient to our Lord and God. As St Augustine often noted, love of God is seen in loving our neighbours. We must passionately pursue obedience to God in all areas of our lives and not just a few. This applies to the church and mercy. Not forgetting our gospel purpose as the church we simultaneously cannot forget God’s call for his people to care for and love others, especially the downtrodden and needy.

Words of Eternal Life

After a particularly challenging sermon during Jesus’ earthly ministry we are told, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Some of Jesus’ followers found his teaching hard to hear and considered it an unbearable burden (6:60). After many of the crowd had left, Jesus invited “the twelve” to go with them (6:67). Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’ invitation is one that I wish I believed as firmly as the apostle clearly did. He starts by answering Jesus’ question with his own question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (6:68). But notice that Simon Peter is not merely drawn to some aspect of Jesus’ personality. He cannot envision departing from Christ because, as he continues, “You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).

Icon St PeterI wish I believed Peter’s words more often. Even now, as I am writing this blog post, it is the end of another day in which I have demonstrated that I do not believe God’s words to be significant, let alone the words of eternal life. Sure I am a full-time theological student, and I can ease my conscience by reminding myself that I spent the day poring over rich theology. But that does not mean I spent any time today treasuring Christ, or acting in such a way that imitates Peter’s convictions. Peter goes on to say, “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69). In the Gospels, despite his numerous failings and follies, Peter is a man devoted to Christ. In John 6 we see that his commitment to Christ brought with it a commitment to his words.

Earlier in the same section, Jesus said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6:63). Of course, the Bible teaches us, as this passages does, that this life is tied to the work of God the Father (6:65), as well as the Holy Spirit (6:63). This observation should challenge Christians who imagine the Spirit to work separately from God’s Word, which I have done elsewhere. We could also make a Trinitarian observation here, that the work of the three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – are inseparable. But these segues would only distract us from the topic at hand: Jesus’ words give and sustain life; or as Peter understood, Jesus had the words of eternal life.

DevotionalUnfortunately, as is evident from my own experience and many readers’ too, I am sure, we struggle to appropriate this truth in at least two ways. The first is not a little ironic, we allow the busyness of life to keep us from the words of eternal life. Years ago I would frequent a second hand Christian book store not far from where I lived. The owner of that shop traded in the embarrassing acronyms sadly associated with Christians. One of his favourites was Bible: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. I still shudder thinking about it. Peter was not hanging out with Jesus hoping for a couple of helpful throwaways and guidelines—certainly not acronyms. Peter clung to Jesus because his words were eternal life, spiritually sustaining and life changing in the present. I imagine if we told Peter that our lives are too busy to mediate on Jesus’ words he would be confused because those words are life.

Another way I often show I do not share Peter’s evaluation of God’s truth is when I am faced with other options. Unlike the above point, this occurs when I have too much rather than too little time. For example, it is Saturday afternoon and my son and wife are taking a nap. The way our weekends go it is likely that this is the only time I will get to myself on any given Saturday. What should I do with that time? I regularly struggle to give up that time because I wrongly turn to other life-giving things: recreational reading, exercise or blogging. Yes, those things are good gifts from God, and you likely have your own, but if Peter and Jesus are correct in our passage, are we overlooking one of God’s greatest gifts? Let us say with Peter, “You have the words of eternal life”. Then let us delight in them, be sustained by them and desire to know God better through his Word.

Jesus’ Resurrection and the Christian Life

Albrecht AltdorferThough the reference eludes me, C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A man can’t always be defending the truth; there must be a time to feed on it.” In the past I have written posts defending the historical veracity of the resurrection: the first argued that the most convincing reason for the existence and expansion of the early church is Christ’s bodily resurrection; the second compared Christ with the Caesars, asking why an itinerant Jewish rabbi is remembered as a god while his contemporaries, worshipped in the Imperial Cult, are all but forgotten. Following Lewis’ dictum, my aim in this post is to offer a few theological points on the resurrection that I hope will encourage and exhort believers. Come and feed on the resurrection, let it nourish your soul.

Through the resurrection Christ earned absolute trust

Jesus told his disciples, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (John 10:17). When we slow down and reflect on these words we cannot but be in awe of Jesus. His power matches his promises. The resurrection is no parlour trick. It is the validation of all that he said he would do. Elsewhere Jesus is recorded saying that he would give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Therefore at the resurrection Jesus is not merely vindicated as a martyr or misunderstood zealot but confirmed as God’s Messiah. His work is powerfully presented as complete. What does this mean for us? It means that Christ can be trusted. His word can be believed. We can depend on him for the salvation he promised. It is here that a biblical definition of faith emerges. If Christ died and three days later took his life up again then there is something more certain than death and taxes: our own resurrection.

In the resurrection our lives gain real meaning

In one of his autobiographical works, titled Confessions, Tolstoy admitted that he seriously considered taking his own life, as he suffered from severe melancholy. As he did so, he was haunted by a question, ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’ Despite his monumental achievements and influence the crushing conclusion he drew was that death brings an end to all of them. A similar sentiment can be read in 1 Corinthians 15:32, where Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’”. Frighteningly, such outlook can not only be widely observed today but is celebrated. Importantly, however, while gallantly expressed with a drink in hand among friends it is far more sobering to reflect on quietly—and alone. We should do so, since we will all face death alone.

ResurrectionEarlier in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (15:14); and a little later, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (15:17). Part of Paul’s argument in this chapter is that for the Christian life is not vain and death is not final. Apart from the resurrection we only have only death to look forward to, when everything we spent our lives pursuing is lost. In the resurrection, on the other hand, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (15:54). Though this life is besotted with blessings it labours vainly for meaning if death has the last say. For the Christian even though death is inevitable it does not destroy. One of J. I. Packer’s regularly quoted verses is John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” To know Christ means eternal life has already begun. To know his resurrection means this life is not futile.

By the resurrection we are set free from sin

In 1 Corinthians 15, mentioned above, Paul makes the point that Christ’s death means we need not fear God’s judgment against sin. As Paul puts it, ‘Death has lost its sting, which was our sin.’ We are free from the power of sin in the future. But in Romans 6 Paul mounts a different argument: Christians are free from the power of sin in the present. It reads,“We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (6:2); “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:4); and “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (6:6-7). Paul’s point, which is worthy of much more reflection and rereading is that objectively the power of sin is broken in the life of the Christian. Therefore when we sin we do so freely and not under compulsion. Sin is our decision to submit to a defeated power. Our sin denies the work God has done and defies the work he is doing.

A few verses later Paul offers one of the first imperatives in the book of Romans, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (6:11-12). Echoing Paul I say this as much to myself as I do to you: the resurrection broke the power of sin, which means you are no longer a slave. Stop choosing slavery; stop choosing sin. We have been raised that we might live a new life, a life no longer marked and defined by sin. I know that I often do not believe this, particularly when I struggle with sin and temptation. But according to these verses in Romans 6 when I sin it is not because I was powerless to do otherwise. When I sin it is because I am not standing with conviction and resolution in the power of Christ’s resurrection. Go and sin no more, as you go with the confidence found in Christ’s finished work.

Doodle: Did Jesus Decriminalise Sex Work?

Decriminalise sex workJust over a year ago, Central Methodist Mission (CMM), in partnership with a local organisation for sex workers, printed and hung a large yellow banner that read: ‘Jesus was the first person to decriminalise sex work (John 8:7)’. In case you are wondering, the verse goes, “As they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’” As a student of theology I have encountered a fair share of embarrassingly specious proof texts yet this is arguably one of the best—and by “best” I trust you know I mean worst, not to mention one of the most laughable. Yes, I am aware that a church that officially offers outspoken support of prostitution is almost certainly unconcerned about what the Bible actually says. Yet I worry that their misreading of the biblical text and misappropriation of Jesus in support of something unequivocally unbiblical has resulted in some confusion. Briefly below I intend to offer some clarity to an issue where ideology and virtue signalling has eclipsed the truth about Jesus Christ. This will be done by thinking a little more about John 8:7.

Firstly, John 7:53-8:11 is a canonically disputed text. In other words, many of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts either do not include it or place it elsewhere, in both John and Luke. I know that issues surrounding manuscripts are prickly for those in the know and bemusing for those who are not. Basically, there are questions around the authority and place of this text. This should immediately cause us to raise questions over its use. But we might ignore these textual critical squabbles. If we treat the text as not only historical – which it might be – as well as inspired can we argue from it that Jesus decriminalised prostitution? When we look at the text and read it as a whole we arrive at a second important point. In John 8:3 we are told that this woman was “caught in adultery” explaining why this text has traditionally been called the pericope adulterae. We might infer from the text that she was a prostitute but the argument is weak because the New Testament has another word for prostitute (see Matthew 21:31-32; 1 Corinthians 6:16). That word is not used here. Thirdly, and the reason I used the word “laughable” earlier, in the last verse of this section Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (8:11). Yes, Jesus does not condemn the woman. However, even if she was a prostitute – which is unlikely – Jesus does not condone her lifestyle; he calls it sinful. One of my favourite authors often refers to “delicious irony,” and I am sure that citing John 8:7 to support the decriminalisation of sex work qualifies for that honour. By loading the text with very improbable details the end result is Jesus calling sex work or prostitution a sin that must be stopped. Remarkable.

This post is longer than I initially set out to make it. For that I apologise. Please allow me to make one final point, in conclusion. Writing in the 20th century, German theologian Karl Barth referred to God’s action as “disruptive grace.” It is an arresting phrase. Today grace seems to be treated by many as something God sprinkles over our lives, however we choose to live them. We think of it as a dismissive wave of the hand, granting permission while expressing love. But that could not be further from the biblical doctrine of grace or the effects of God’s love. If we hold that John 7:53-8:11 belongs in Scripture then we should not miss the narrative’s climax. Jesus disbands the mob, bent on justice against a known sexual sinner. Whether she was a prostitute or simply promiscuous Jesus wants something better for her. But this is no mere escape from narrow-minded moralists; it is a story depicting the love of Christ that disrupts both the crowd and this woman’s life. As much as God’s love is not indifferent to how people are treated neither is he unconcerned with how you live. Jesus demonstrated an incomparable compassion and love, throughout the Gospels and ultimately at the cross. It is a sickening sleight of hand to reduce that love to unconditional affirmation . God loves us too much to let us go our own way, living in destructive sin. His grace is disruptive. His love is directive. “From now on sin no more.”

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.

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.