Saturday, 23 December 2017

Some thoughts on suffering, loss and witness at Christmas

We have some good friends who lost a husband/father/grandfather/friend this year.  We have prayed for them everyday since and we are praying for them extra much now that Christmas is near.  I remember what the first Christmas was like after my mom died.  My father, my sister and I (ages 16 and 18 respectively at the time) felt the emptiness and loss probably more at Christmas than at any other point in that first year.  And we continued to feel it subsequent Christmases also.

While the loss is felt at all times, at Christmas families have special traditions, special familial "liturgies" that are part of the culture of each particular home and family, and when someone is no longer there to participate in these liturgies, to play their part, we not only miss them as a person but there is a loss to the entire culture and ethos of the family.  At times when everyone is gathered together for special family celebrations, the loss is multiplied; everyone's loss is compounded and realized - as though each one is losing this loved one anew - as they come together, for part of that 'together' is missing, missing from each one and missing from the whole. 

Desiring God has some very timely thoughts about suffering and loss at Christmas time, and how to minister to those experiencing it here and here.

Also, from the same place, here is some good counsel from Charles Spurgeon on sharing the story of God's grace in your life through Christ at Christmas, here.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Like trying to roll up a steep hill

Alan Jacobs quotes C.S. Lewis, on the 'decline of religion' in modern society here.

When it ceases to be respectable or mandatory, when participation in religious institutions is no longer expected, then we can finally observe who really takes Christianity seriously...and that might not be such a bad thing.

Its easy to coast along under a vague and general societal and cultural Christian ethos, a bit like how its easy to roll down a gentle slope.  But the Christian life described in Jesus' and the Apostles' teaching, and as experienced by the church through most of its history, and still experienced by the majority of Christians in the world today - in places like China, the Middle East, or Islamic Africa, for example - is more like trying to roll up a steep hill: all kinds of forces are trying to pull you down backwards. 

The true test of genuine Christian faith in our secular society is not in advocating for the return to vague and culture-wide Christianish practices, participated in by everyone - Christian, nominal and non - like the return of prayer in school, the return of the 10 Commandments to court rooms, or for politicians to pray to a generic deity when opening a legislative session.  Rather, the test of true Christianity is steady, humble yet bold, public witness in word and deed to faith in Jesus Christ and submission to his lordship.  Individual Christians and the Church together must simply practice our faith in the midst of a culture that not only no longer recognizes once generally accepted Christian practices, but is frequently antagonistic towards them.  We ought to continue to practice our convictions amidst such a culture rather than wishing to go back in time or expecting the rest of the secular society to respect or reinstate previously observed Christian practices that used to be part of the generally accepted broader culture.

The West is increasingly post-Christian, which is a far more challenging mission field than merely non-Christian or pre-Christian.  The way modern post-Christian society views the faith is that it has been tried, disproved or found to be unnecessary or irrelevant, and rejected.  This has the effect of inoculating culture against the Christian faith.  So for Christians to long for or try to politically reinstate a bygone era of nominally cultural Christian practices is not the way to witness to the gospel in a post-Christian society.  Rather, effective witness will be when convinced and sincere Christians live lovingly but boldly according to Scriptural authority and the lordship of Christ, reaching out to their neighbours and co-workers who are struggling to find transcendent meaning in a self-centered and dehumanizing culture.  In such a culture, people living life consistently in relation with God and each other, looking not only to their own self interest, will look so very different. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

R.C. Sproul - February 13, 1939-December 14, 2017

Yesterday R.C. Sproul went home to be with Jesus.  Like so many others who are part of the evangelical reformed reawakening of the last thirty years, he has affected me in profound ways.  In particular, I remember wrestling with the issues of God's sovereignty and free will, of God's grace and my choice in salvation, of predestination and all things related, while at Bible college in 1995. I came across his books, The Holiness of God and Chosen By God.  I read them in two consecutive nights (all night, when I should have been writing a paper) and discovered that, although I had a free will, it was bent and warped to choose only that which matched my fallen sinful nature and could not naturally choose nor stand before a holy God, until the regenerating grace of God acted upon me, turning, drawing, converting my soul and freeing my will to choose Christ in return, clothing me in Christ's righteousness so I could stand before, and be a child of, a holy holy holy God (I can still hear his voice saying, "holy, holy, holy...").  In short, I learned that before I ever chose God, he had already, in grace, chosen me.  I also remember a professor/mentor of mine (Ian McPhee) inviting me to a Ligonier Ministries (a ministry started by Sproul) conference in the winter of '96, where not only did I enjoy stimulating theological talks but I also met some folks who became influential and lifelong friends.  Sproul wasn't my first exposure to reformed doctrine - my mother had read and recommended J.I. Packer's Knowing God years before, and I had read several of Francis Schaeffer's works already as well, and some John Stott - nor did I always agree with some of the positions Sproul took over the years.  Nevertheless, I certainly agree with him on far more than the few points of disagreement and I am so thankful for his faithful and tireless service for the gospel.  Sproul's books spoke to me at a time when I was wrestling existentially with how a holy God saved me, and I will always be grateful to God for his servant, R.C. Sproul.

Here is Al Mohler's tribute to R.C. Sproul.

Here is John Piper's tribute to R.C. Sproul.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

A.I. God and religion in the works...

 In the age of ultra technology, humanity still prefers to create our own gods rather than worship the God who created us.  Here's an article about a former Google engineer who is developing an artificial intelligence god and religion.

Isaiah 44:9-20 is about a man who goes into the forest, cuts down a tree, uses some of it for firewood to cook dinner and keep warm, and carves part of it into an idol to bow down to and worship, praying to it and asking it for deliverance.  How is that different from a man who makes a microchip and microprocessor, a tiny camera and touch-screen, a voice recognition device, and a wireless connection to the world wide web, and with part of this he fashions a smart phone which he uses to email, text, trade stocks and watch YouTube, and with part of it he fashions a god, prays to it, and hopes it will deliver him?

                                                        (Above image is from the final sequence of 2001 A Space Odyssey)

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Suffering Sovereign and Sutherland Springs

Tonight, before bed, our family prayed for the families affected by the mass murder in a church at Sutherland Springs, Texas, yesterday.  What do you tell your children when something like this happens (or the running down of people in NYC the other day)...when they ask the 'why' questions, or when they express fear that this might happen again, or in our church or neighbourhood?  Pious platitudes or mini-theology lectures will likely ring hollow in the imaginations of children, who have a huge capacity for putting themselves in another's situation.  Plus, it is not bare truth that questioning children need, or questioning adults for that matter, so hard on the heels of an event like this.  It is something more existential, more experiential, more relational that they, and we, need.  They don't need to be reminded of the nature of the sovereignty of God so much as the nature of the God who is sovereign.  I think it might be best to simply remind them that our hope, and the only real hope for a sinful and broken world, is in Jesus Christ, the 'suffering sovereign.' 

John Piper reminds us of what kind of saviour we have placed our hope in here.  I pray that those in Sutherland Springs experience Jesus' presence among them right now. 

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Creator and Redeemer

“Indeed, we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety…. In this ruin of mankind no one now experiences God either as Father or as Author of salvation, or favourable in any way, until Christ the Mediator comes forward to reconcile him to us.  Nevertheless, it is one thing to feel that God as our Maker supports us by his power, governs us by his providence, nourishes us by his goodness, and attends us with all sorts of blessings—and another thing to embrace the grace of reconciliation offered to us in Christ.  First, as much in the fashioning of the universe as in the general teaching of Scripture the Lord shows himself to be simply the Creator. Then in the face of Christ [cf. II Cor. 4:6] he shows himself the Redeemer.” 

                - John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.ii.1

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Martin Luther: Union & Christus Victor in the Great Exchange

Luther's salvation theology is often thought of as "the great exchange: Christ's righteousness for our sin."  That is certainly true, but that is not the whole picture.  In The Freedom of the Christian, he puts the great exchange in the context of (marital) union with Christ, as well as in Christus victor language.  Luther, like most theologians who get caricatured and thereby shrunken by later systematizers and summarizers, is richer and more nuanced than we often remember.

     "The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom.  By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32].  And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage—indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage—it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.  Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own.  Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits.  Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation.  The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation.  Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his.  If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his?  And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?
     "Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption.  Christ is God and man in one person.  He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent.  By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s.  As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all.  Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell.  Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.  So he takes to himself a glorious bride, “without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word” [Cf. Eph. 5:26-27] of life, that is, by faith in the Word of life, righteousness, and salvation.  In this way he marries her in faith, steadfast love, and in mercies, righteousness, and justice, as Hos. 2 [:19-20] says. 
     "Who then can fully appreciate what this royal marriage means?  Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace?  Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all this goodness.  Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him.  And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his,” as the bride in the Song of Solomon [2:16] says, “My beloved is mine and I am his.”  This is what Paul means when he says in I Cor. 15[:57], “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” that is, the victory over sin and death, as he also says there, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” [I Cor. 15:56]."

                                                      - Martin Luther, Freedom of a Christian

Happy (500th) Reformation Day! 

Monday, 30 October 2017

Thoughts toward Christian unity...

From Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ:

"We gladly do the things we enjoy, and keep company with the like-minded; but, if Christ is to live among us, we must sometimes surrender our own opinions for the sake of peace.  No one is wise enough to know everything.  So do not have confidence in your own views, but listen to the ideas of others.  If your opinion is right but you surrender it for the love of God and follow another, you will win great merit.  I have often heard that it is better to accept advice than to give it.  It may be that two opinions are equally good but it is a sign of pride and obstinacy to refuse to come to an agreement with others when it is required."
                                                                           - Book 1, Ch. 9

"Judge yourself, but avoid passing judgement on others.  In judging others, we spend our energy to no good purpose.  We are often mistaken and so we sin; but it is a beneficial exercise to examine ourselves.  Frequently, our personal feelings influence our judgment, and if we are encouraged by personal motives it may become a false judgement.  If God were the only and constant object of our desires, we would not be so upset when our own opinions are rejected."

                                                                            - Book 1, Ch. 14

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Thomas A Kempis on Chrisitian learning...

From The Imitation of Christ:

Those who wish to understand and appreciate the words of Christ must strive to model the whole of their life on Him.
What use is it for learned people to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity if they have no humility, and so displease the Trinity?  Learned words do not make anyone wise or holy; it is a good life which draws us closer to God.  I would rather feel deep sorrow than be able to define it.  If you knew the whole Bible by heart and the teachings of all the philosophers, what good would that be without the grace and love of God?
                                                         - Book I, Chapter 1

If I possess all knowledge in the world, but have no love, it will not assist me when God judges my actions.
The more complete and the better your knowledge, the stricter will be the judgement on you, unless you lead a holy life.
A realistic and humble attitude is the highest and most valuable thing we can learn.  The wisest form of self-understanding is to think little of ourselves and to think kindly and well of others.
                                                                - Book I, Chapter 2

Of what value is specious reasoning on deep and obscure matters, when we are not going to be judged by our knowledge of such things?  It is supreme folly to neglect things that are useful and vital, and deliberately turn to those that are curious and harmful.  Actually, 'we have eyes but do not see.'  What do origins and appearances really matter to us?
Ultimately it is the Eternal Word which speaks to us.  It is from that Word that all things come into being, and all things speak of Him.  It is the author of all things who speaks to us.  Without Him not one can judge anything rightly.  It is those who see all things as one, and who relate everything to the One God, and who see everything as in Him, who are able to remain single-minded and live at peace with God.
All achievements in this life contain a level of imperfection.  All our speculations include an element of darkness.  A humble self-understanding is a safer way to God than a profound knowledge of academic disciplines. Learning in itself is not to be blamed, nor can we despise the acquisition of knowledge (for true learning is good in itself and comes from God), but a good conscience and a holy life are even better.  Because people prefer to acquire knowledge rather than to live well, they often go astray and so bear little fruit.  If only such people were as concerned to uproot vices and replace them with virtues, as they are to share in learned discourses, there would not be so much dissolution and scandal among us, nor slackness in Religious Communities.  On the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done; not how eloquently we have spoken, but how holy our lives have been.
                                                             - Book I, Chapter 3

We should seek food for our souls rather than subtleties of speech, and we would do well to read simple devotional books rather than those which are very intellectual.  Do not be influenced by the importance of the author, whether that person has a great reputation or not, but by the desire for the truth which attracts you.  Do not ask, 'Who said that?' but pay attention to what is said.
                                                             - Book I, Chapter 5

These critiques must have come as a slap in the face to the excesses of Roman Catholic scholasticism of A Kempis's day, yet they are hardly less applicable to many parts of the evangelical church of our own day.  

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Marvellous mixture of well-being and woe

    During our lifetime here we have in us a marvelous mixture of both well-being and woe.  We have in us our risen Lord Jesus Christ, and we have in us the wretchedness and the harm of Adam's falling. Dying, we are constantly protected by Christ, and by the touching of his grace we are raised to true trust in salvation.  And we are so afflicted in our feelings by Adam's falling in various ways, by sin and by different pains, and in this we are made dark and so blind that we can scarcely accept any comfort.  But in our intention we wait for God, and trust faithfully to have mercy and grace; and this is his own working in us, and in his goodness he opens the eye of our understanding, by which we have sight, sometimes more and sometimes less, according to the ability God gives us to receive.  And now we are raised to the one, and now we are permitted to fall to the other.  And so that mixture is so marvellous in us that we scarcely know, about ourselves or about our fellow Christians, what condition we are in, these conflicting feelings are so extraordinary, except for each holy act of assent to God which we make when we feel him, truly willing with all our heart to be with him, and with all our soul and with all our might.  And then we hate and despise our evil inclinations, and everything which could be an occasion of spiritual and bodily sin.  And even so, when this sweetness is hidden, we fall again into blindness, and so in various ways into woe and tribulation.  But then this is our comfort, that we know in our faith that by the power of Christ who is our protector we never assent to that, but we complain about it, and endure in pain and in woe, praying until the time that he shows himself again to us.  And so we remain in this mixture all the days of our life; but he wants us to trust that he is constantly with us, and that in three ways.
    He is with us in heaven, true man in his own person, drawing us up....And he is with us on earth, leading us....And he is with us in our soul, endlessly dwelling, ruling and guarding...."

                             - Julian of Norwich, Showings (long text), 14 Revelation, Ch. 52