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DISCLAIMER: Many people who read my blog are people who know me personally and know parts of my story. I’ve no intention of naming individuals or places, but those who know me will probably be able to work it out for themselves. I’ve absolutely no desire to insult or hurt people’s feelings, rather to relay the danger as I have seen and experienced. Some might feel aggrieved at what I say here, others will be encouraged. If you are in the former group, please forgive me. It’s not my intention.

Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. – 2 Timothy 2:15

v1.bTsxMTIxNDgzNDtqOzE3OTQ5OzEyMDA7MTQ3MDsxOTYwIdiocracy is a 2006 science fiction film starring Luke Wilson. It is a satirical take on the projected trend of American society, where the main character enters into a cryogenic experiment, is frozen for 5 centuries and awakens to a world where everyone is morbidly stupid. Director Mike Judge intended it as a satire of how he saw things leading in America, with increased commercialism and anti-intellectualism being rife in public life and entertainment.

 

Growing up I was your classic nerd. Thick, milk-bottle glasses, skinny as a rake, with a list of hobbies that included watching Star Wars, playing chess and reading fantasy novels. The upshot of this was that throughout school I was often top of the class. I came out of the 11 plus exam with a grade A (the only person in my class to do so) and attended one of the top grammar schools in the country. During my first years in secondary school I was learning so much intricate, precise stuff about the geology of the Northern Scottish coastline, the procedure for solving quadratic and simultaneous equations, the work of Dickens and Shakespeare, the way that the cell divides and the ventricles of the heart work…

 

…whilst at the same time, in Sunday school, I was colouring pictures of Noah’s ark.

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Pretty sure that mouse in the umbrella is in trouble

I was one of the lucky ones, though. My parents encouraged me to read from an early age. My dad read to us the greats like The Hobbit and Hagbane’s Doom. When I started to branch out into reading for myself, that was when they started encouraging me to read the Bible. I still remember my tattered old NIV with the lifelike painting of Noah’s ark stretched across the cover. So much better than anything I could colour in.

 

Many people have posed the question about why young people, once they hit their teens, end up leaving the church. The answer is a lot more complex than this suggestion, I know, but it doesn’t help if children are being educated at a secondary school level from the age of 11, whilst at the same time having absolutely no education from the church. If that hour on a Sunday afternoon with a box of colouring pencils was all I had to feed my soul with, I doubt I would be where I am. I’m extremely thankful for the example my parents set me.

 

I attended a rather large church in my home city. That church and I, we went through an awful lot together. Major triumphs and heartbreaks. There were quite a few embarrassing moments I cringe at now, mixed with moments I truly miss looking back.

It was here I was taught to fear a truly awful creature. A terrible, troublesome beast who would mess everything up and ruin everyone’s spiritual life if they were allowed to have their way. They were like zombies – the living dead. Joyless, funless, lifeless, miserable wretches who just sat in darkened rooms dotting i’s and crossing t’s. I am referring, of course, to the Theologians.

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“Theologians” were openly derided from the pulpit. To be a theologian was to be a pariah, someone who spent all their time arguing about which end to crack an egg. Looking back, it was odd that much of the derision aimed against these wastes-of-space took on the tone, not of the concerned pastor, but of the McCarthyist bully. The message was clear: don’t be an intellectual. Intellectuals cause trouble. They are bad news.

 

It wasn’t long into my mid-teens that I realised the reason for this anti-theologianism was not out of a concern for souls, as was often said. What became apparent was that, from the pulpit to the Bible study to the Sunday Bible class the church was laced through with all manner of false teaching. Things like Oneness Pentecostalism, British Israelism and the worst trimmings of charismania were evident to those who got deep enough. There were those in the church who believed that black people were by nature slaves, that the British Empire was the embodiment of Christ’s throne on earth, that the doctrine of the trinity was a papist teaching “from the pit of hell”. Against this, it is little wonder that theologians were so anathema.

 

This came to my door eventually, when I openly disagreed with someone from the church on British Israelism. The discussion had been reported back to one of the senior pastors who relayed the message that, if I were going to continue to question this doctrine and “cause division” I would have to find another church. A second instance springs to mind, when talking to a young lady from the youth fellowship, she told me that a pastor at the church had advised her to “Ignore all that theology nonsense, just keep sweet for Jesus.”

I eventually ended up leaving that church and going to a different one about 5 miles away. It was my first experience of regularly being part of a worship team, and some of the guys I played with I dearly loved and still do to this day. The problem was that the church had split from my previous one. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with church splits. They are sad, but sometimes necessary (just ask Martin Luther). The problem here wasn’t the fact that they split from the old church, but that they brought the old church with them. Those theological issues were carried over from the previous church, and from the pulpit one evening the pastor’s wife said during a congregational prayer, “Lord, we don’t want anything to do with that theology stuff. It’s boring.” The same woman encouraged people to ignore everything in the Bible except for the red letters of Christ’s words, saying “that’s what we should be preaching from!”

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At this time I had been to university. I had achieved a postgraduate. I was making my first forays into teaching during which I was analysing and studying some of the greatest writers in the English language. Yet when it came to church, I was encouraged to “ignore” the study of God (that’s what theology means), because it was “boring”. Upon confronting the senior pastor about certain areas of his teaching (I think I used the word “Branhamism” at one point) I was asked to step down from every role I had in the church. Immediately.

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I would like to say I’d learned my lesson by this stage. But what I found, especially after moving to England, was that this anti-intellectualism was only to get worse. I began to lead worship again in a church not far from where I lived at the time. One morning, a dear group of ladies offered to pray for me before I was to go and lead. What followed was about 3 minutes during which not a single word of English was spoken. There was shaking, weeping, convulsing, one lady struggled to stand and almost fell over.

 

I just walked out.

 

Once I got married, my wife and I started attending church together. What struck me was how much I stood out as being the only person in the place who carried a Bible. It was then that I started to wrestle with the doctrines of grace, and wanted to hear more and more about how God’s sovereignty was the prime mover in all things – even in salvation. How could that work and at the same time man be held responsible for their actions?

At the same time, my minister was saying things from the pulpit like “Be careful about reading the Bible, because it has contradictions.”

I would be lying if I said all this wasn’t discouraging. Every time I heard a “knowledge puffs up!” or a “Answer that one, theologians!” or a “We can be so heavenly minded we are of no earthly use” really galls me. When a preacher can stand up in front of a congregation and tell them to “ignore theology” or to “just clear your minds and let God fill you with his love” or (so help me) “just stay sweet for Jesus” that preacher has failed his congregation. There is a divide between life outside the church, which seems to encourage us to grow and develop in knowledge from an early age, and the church, which seems to be on an intellectual race to the bottom.

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The book that I spent my childhood reading faithfully every night before I went to sleep, is now not to be trusted. Postmodernism has crept into the church so that to say the Bible is clear on anything is taboo. In the recent State of Theology survey, 57% of people in the UK who said they attended church “several times a week” agreed with the statement “The Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful account of ancient myths but is not literally true.” whilst 46% agreed that “Modern science disproves the Bible”. A whopping 65% of the same sample disagreed with the statement “The Bible has the authority to tell us what we must do.” We’ve just had the 501st anniversary of the Protestant Reformation a week ago, during which people fought and died for those who could not read the Bible because they did not have it in their language. We live in a time where we have the Bible in almost every langauge known to man, and we do not read it.

 

Against all this, the words of a 2000-year old preacher seems to fade in the wind, but here is the Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy again:

Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. – 2 Timothy 2:15

The Psalmist says:

9How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
10With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
11I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
12Blessed are you, O LORD;
teach me your statutes!
13With my lips I declare
all the rulesc of your mouth.
14In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
15I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
16I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word. – Psalm 119

God warns the people of Israel in Hosea 4:6

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
    because you have rejected knowledge,
    I reject you from being a priest to me. – Hosea 4

And then there’s the great commandment. Twice I’ve heard that this commandment is “really just telling us it’s all about love”. Again, it pains people to actually read the text to find out what it’s actually saying:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” – Luke 10:27

The church’s anti-intellectualism has to stop. In its efforts to embrace false theology, New Age (even Catholic) mystic practices and heretics, it has shut out from its midst those who would love and read the Bible. I love theology, because it’s the study of God, and I love Him. When we fail to teach theology we are cutting the church off at its knees. We are expecting people to go out into the world of information that is out there, much of it diametrically opposed to a Christian worldview, and expect them to engage the world with good feelings and coloured pictures of Noah’s ark.

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Today is Reformation Day!

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I should be writing about the amazing story of those brave men and women who chose to risk their lives and reputations. To stand against the apostate church in Rome. I intended to write about the wonderful story of Jan Hus. Of Martin Luther. Of Latimer. Of Ridley. Of Katherine von Bora and Ulrich Zwingli and Phillip Melancthon. Of the continuing fight to reform the church away from a doctrine based in salvation by works. Of the pressing need in our day to remind ourselves of the fact that we are saved by grace alone. Through faith alone. In Christ alone. To the glory of God alone. I should have written THAT blog.

 

It would have been awesome.

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But instead, there’s something that has been eating away at me recently. It all began with a cake.

 

1405729530267_wps_1_Alan_Lewis_PhotopressBelfA few weeks ago, the long legal process of Ashers Bakery facing charges of discrimination came to a close. There have been many instances of this kind of situation ending very badly for the Christian involved. To be honest, this had all the hallmarks of a sad, familiar story. A gay rights activist had asked a Christian-run bakery to make a cake bearing the slogan “Support Gay Marriage”. The bakers refused, citing a conflict against their religious beliefs. At the time, you could have written the rest of the story yourself. Ashers would face a losing battle in court, they would be attacked in the public square. Their stores would receive a flood of bogus reviews. Their staff and premises would be threatened. Thankfully, not all that happened as predicted. On the 10th October this year, Ashers Bakery were acquitted of all charges of discrimination by the Supreme Court.

Regardless of what you believe about homosexuality, this ought to be cause to rejoice. The Supreme Court has set precedent here; the state cannot use power of prosecution to force you to support a socio-political cause you disagree with. However, there were angry reactions in the following days in some parts. This served to underline the fact that it was an agenda, not a justice concern, that was at play here.
 
In the main, though, most Christians seem to be happy with the decision. I am one of those people. Politics aside, Daniel McArthur is a personal friend of mine. I have known him for many years, and I’m thrilled for him and his family. They have been dragged through more mud than anyone should have to face.
 
I say most Christians, though.

 

There is a game that progressives like to play. Whilst discussing issues over traditional orthodoxy they will not directly debate any points made. They will not take umbridge with what orthodoxy says. Instead, they will object to the fact that their opponents hold those beliefs as certain. Yours is a way, not the way, they argue. Usually they come armed with a Bart Erhman, or a Rob Bell, or a Richard Foster and say, “See! Other Christians think differently!” The goal is not to disprove the orthodox position wrong. It is to wrestle the believer away from believing it with certainty.
 
And then they’ll preach their own position with certainty.
 
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Ashers case, an article appeared on Christianity Today by blogger (and family friend) Matt White. It is entitledAshers Bakery: The £500k cost of this Supreme Court case isn’t the only price to pay“. (emphasis mine). The implication here of saying that the £500k “isn’t the only price to pay” is that there is some other unwelcome consequence of this decision. Having read through the article, the only place I can find where this question is answered is in this paragraph:

The ‘winners’ claiming a victory for ‘freedom of speech and conscience’, the ‘losers’ now fearing for both the gay community and the wider implications for businesses and customers.

As we can see, the price is that the entire gay community are now to be “feared for”. As if they are in some mortal danger from this decision. This is despite the fact that many prominent gay rights campaigners, even Peter Tatchell himself, came out in support of Ashers’ right to religious freedom. In this article Matt White claims to reflect the fears of the entire gay community.
 
This, however, is not the point of concern. It begins with this paragraph:

The bakery’s owners don’t hold the Christian position on marriage equality, they hold a Christian position on marriage equality. It’s a position that is undeniably widely held by Christians across the globe but it is a position based on interpretation and it is increasingly being questioned in the same way people of faith have come to question previously widely held opinions on gender, class and race, among others. Ashers’ owners hold an opinion and set of beliefs on marriage equality but it is not definitive and neither is it indicative of what is or is not ‘Christian’. It is however theirs to hold and act upon and, in this instance, it has been judged not to be discriminatory.

It is clear that the writer disagrees with the McArthur’s beliefs on same sex unions. However, what follows is not a justification of that disagreement. That would place the writer in a defensible position. I have a lot of respect for people like Matthew Vines who have tried to defend their position on the issue and articulate it. I have a lot of time for that level of honesty and consistency, even if I believe they are wrong. As opposed to this, it is not that people like the McArthurs believe what they do that bothers White. It is that they believe what they believe is right.
 
What is being said here is that the McArthurs believe theirs is the Christian position, but it is not. That there are other voices to be listened to, other points of view to be heard, questions that need to be asked. White refuses to raise any of these voices. Or present any of these points of view. Or ask any of these questions himself. But he assures us they are out there and on that basis we must drop the pretence of certainty that the McArthurs represtent in this case. But again, to actually present these voices, or points of view, or questions would lead to a position that would need to be defended. It is much safer to say that they are out there in the ether and on that basis alone we should all reject our level of certainty.
 
It’s against this kind of rhetoric that the Apostle Paul takes no prisoners when he says:

1But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men. – 2 Timothy 3

Let me clarify a moment. This is not to say all these judgements fall upon people who follow this line of argument. Paul is not monolithic in his description as if all these vices apply to the one person. Rather, he is listing a full range of depravity that people will fall into. One of which is the constant opposition to the very concept of truth.
 
I faced this again recently in another thread on the Ashers case. I had made reference to the brilliant critique of Vicky Beeching’s book “Undivided” by David Robertson. My opponent, unable to dispute what Robertson had said on a Biblical basis, had this to say:

I’m not interested in whether or not the article’s author is correct or not in his argument. What I’m interested in is the way in which he talks about the people he’s discussing.

And later:

Yes, and again: this is *one* way to handle the contradiction. But you seem quite determined that your interpretation is the *only* interpretation.

For the record, I do think my interpretation is the right interpretation. (Why would I believe something if I didn’t think it was true?) I will go on believing that until such a time as I am convinced otherwise. Be that through the Spirit’s illumination of scripture or through reasoned debate. Then I will change my interpretation.
 
The plea from liberalism is that the truth of an argument does not matter. That to claim a position is objectively true is harmful and dangerously fundamentalist. Where once ‘fundamentalist’, ‘traditional’ or ‘orthodoxy’ were theological concepts to be strived for, they are now cardinal sins. The only thing that matters, in the absence of truth, is that we don’t make people feel bad. And telling people they are wrong makes them feel bad. The entire gay community are apparently to be feared for, because their activist was judged to be wrong. This all stems from the postmodern idea that truth is unknowable.

and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. – John 8:32

And here is the crux of the issue. It would be more genuine if the writers had said “I don’t know” or “I’m not certain“. In subsequent discussion with White on the topic he has graciously attested to being “a bundle of inconsistencies just muddling through the best I can”. If that were the end of it, then all well and good. It’s ignorance, but at least it’s honest ignorance.
 
It’s when it changes from “I don’t know” to “You don’t know” that it becomes something different. It becomes, what Don Carson once described as “imperious ignorance“. The accusation is that Christians cannot know for certain what the Bible actually says about an issue. Therefore, claiming to know is narrow and bigoted. It’s a more subtle jab at an oft-pummelled part of the Christian anatomy, that of faith in scripture.
 
As Christians, for centuries we have held to the authority and sufficiency of the Bible as our standard of truth. Jesus instructs us this way in John 17:17. It has been this way ever since the Reformation (I knew I’d get a reference to the Reformation in again!) where the Roman Catholic church’s response was to burn people at the stake. In Richard Wurmbrand’s book, Tortured for Christ, it was the Communist’s response to lock people up and brutally torture them for their trust in the truths of scripture. In North Korea today, people are incarcerated for simply having a Bible in their possession and shipped off to labour camps. It is not a sidenote that is easily cast aside. It is a freedom which has been, and continues to be, fought and died for across the world. The belief in the absolute truth that comes from scripture has been attacked in every age. This imposition of imperious ignorance from progressives is merely a subtler form of a long battle that has been waged for centuries.
 
This is not the end in and of itself. Rather, imperious ignorance is only as a means to replace orthodox beliefs with apostate ones. Further on in the Christianity Today article, it says:

What I do know is that when it comes to the table, if we’re really in the business of being ‘Christian’ we’re meant to be pulling up chairs not ‘closed’ signs. We’re meant to be building bridges not walls. We’re meant to be baking cakes and eating cakes and sharing cakes with everyone regardless of who they are or what they believe.

Notice that the language changes. Previously, we’ve been told that we ought to see Ashers as a Christian position, not the Christian position. To claim that people know what Christians ought to believe is a problem, according to White.
 
And then he tells us what Christians ought to believe.
 
Look at the implication here. The implication here is that the McArthurs are ‘putting up closed signs’. They are ‘building walls’. They are rejecting people from the table based on who they are and what they believe.
 
This is patently false. As has been explained several times (even as acknowledged by the Supreme Court) Ashers have not refused service based on a customer’s identity (Lee was apparently a long standing customer of Ashers’ before this took place and had never been refused). Instead, it was based on their opposition to the message they were being asked to promote.
 
In response to this, White seems to “know” what Christians are “meant” to do. When it comes to his own opinion, there is no uncertainty. There is no “this is aposition”. He is just as dogmatic as he accuses his opponents of being, just in the opposite direction. There is no problem with this, if there was honesty in allowing the McArthurs to make their truth claim without imposing ignorance. It’s both ungracious and disingenuous not to, but again: in order to fix it it would mean placing oneself in a defensible position.
 
So what’s the solution? As Christians, what I do know is that we ought to hold to the truths of scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-18), not jettison them for fear of proving unpopular. We are meant to cherish him above all things (Colossians 1:18) even though it will lead the world to hate us (John 15:18-25). We are meant to preach the gospel to souls who are lost (John 3:16) not form ways to excuse people from their need to repent (2 Peter 1:16). Most of all, we love people, all people, based on the love that God has for them, that if they believe in Him they will not perish but have everlasting life.
 
Most relevantly, though, we allow people to voice opinions and viewpoints that differ from our own. Whilst resting in the sure and steady foundation of the truth of God’s word. We recognise with humility that truth lies outside of ourselves. That our job is to align ourselves with it, rather than discard it when it doesn’t fit the socially progressive fashion. Sola Scriptura (Happy Reformation Day!)

Preamble: recently my pastor contacted me and asked if I would be interested in answering some questions that had been asked by a Muslim via email. The questions were quite deep, focusing on issues of faith, salvation and who God is. I’m touching up the grammar, but here’s what they were:

1. Who can receive salvation?

2. How does someone become a Christian?

3. Why did God send Jesus?

4. Why did God create man?

Below is my response. I haven’t yet heard back from Isaac (his name) and there remains question marks over whether his appeal is genuine, but I thought I’d post my answer here in case it helps someone else.

Yours in Christ, Ryan

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Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.com

Hello Isaac,

These are really great questions to ask, some of which I think deserve much more detailed discussion than what I can give you here. I would encourage you first to examine the things I’m about to say for yourself. Read the Bible for yourself, I think the books of Genesis, 2 Samuel and the gospel of John would be a great start for what you want to know.

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah and said: “I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Isaiah 43:6‭-‬7 ESV

In this passage, God is saying that the reason he created man was for his own glory. Therefore, the purpose for which you and I were made is that we might glorify God. That in bringing glory to God, we find satisfaction and purpose. The Westminster shorter catechism puts it like this: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

So who is God? He is the eternal creator of the universe and of mankind. (Genesis 1&2) He has designed the world to work according to his will. He is also holy, infinitely good and perfect. In his presence no evil can exist.

The problem is that we, as mankind, are not holy. We are not perfectly good, in fact we are very often evil, selfish and prideful. Most of all, we design our lives to bring ourselves glory instead of the purpose we were made. An example of this can be seen in Genesis 11:1-9 when man tried to build a huge tower reaching to heaven and God scattered them in confusion.

And so this holy God, holy and good, must punish evil. If he doesn’t, then he isn’t just. If he isn’t just, then he isn’t good. It’d be like watching a man brutally beat a child and doing nothing to stop it. If God is good, he must take action. He does this time and time again in scripture, for example where he punishes the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19) or floods the world in Genesis 6, or burns Nadab and Abihu to death in Leviticus 10. God is full of wrath against those who disobey him, the Bible calls that disobedience ‘sin’.

The problem is that every one of us, you and me, every human being in the world disobey God. We all have broken God’s laws many, many times, and so God would be right to destroy us too like he did to the people in the flood. The fact that you wake up in the morning is an act of tremendous grace from God.

Different religions have different answers for how to fix mankind. Usually it is a set of rules to follow, like the Torah, or the five pillars, or the Hadith, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the teachings of Buddha, Confucius or Mohammed. If we follow these, religion teaches, then we might reach paradise/Brahma/nirvana/valhalla/etc.

Try that in a court of law. Imagine you stood guilty for murdering someone. The judge found you guilty. Would it make any difference if you told the judge that you cut your neighbour’s grass? Or that you help old ladies to cross the street? No. Good works don’t change how guilty we are. Without some kind of intervention, we are all doomed to judgement by God. There is no law we can start to follow that will make us clean in God’s sight.

But God himself has stepped in. Where his people, who he created for his glory, had gone astray into wickedness and evil, God hasn’t given them a great teacher or prophet to tell them how to get to heaven by themselves. No, he gave us Jesus. His only son. We had an enormous debt, death itself and separation from God, to pay, but God has placed that debt on Jesus so that, if we trust in Him and His sacrifice, we can be forgiven. Not because we deserve it, but because God has loved us by sending us his Son to pay the penalty for our sin and bring us back to God.

If we trust in Him, he will give us the power to turn away from our sin, to be in relationship with him and to bring him glory by the lives we live. He wants us to find our joy and satisfaction in loving and serving him. True joy and satisfaction is found no nowhere else.

God bless, Ryan

 

There’s a son in a far off country
Coming home to see his dad,
“I’ve got great news!” the son says
His face is beaming. Glad
tidings ringing, a thousand choirs
shining in his eyes as he looks at his father
and sees expectancy in every second he stands there.

“Tell me, what is it son?” the father can’t resist.
The wry grin upon his son’s lips
As he mouths the words in barely concealed
Joy and tenderness.

“I’m getting married!” the son exclaims.
The father reels him in.
The shouts of joy and shakes and laughs
Makes an almighty din.

Picture the grin in that Father’s face,
Admiration in his eyes.
“Who’s the lucky lady, son?”
The son shrugs.

“I dunno.”

“Whoever says yes, I suppose.”

“Now dad don’t look at me like that;
I love all women the same.”
Imagine that father’s reaction to
his son’s pathetic claim.

“They all are free to say yes to me,
They are all free to refuse.”
“Son,” the father says with a sigh
“I think you are confused.

See you use that word – ‘love’ – so precious
So honest and pure it is.
That such a word should be placed
So lightly on your lips.”

Now imagine that boy got his way
For the first girl to say yes.
They walk the aisle and with a smile
They seal it with a kiss.

But this is tragic. For in that girl’s mind
The thought would surely be,
“Am I the focus of his love
Is it just for me?

Or see, was I just the lucky one
The first one to say yes?
How precious is love so flippantly
So cheaply giv’n as this?

I chose the veil, I chose the dress
And yes I chose the groom.
But was I chosen? Not really me
Or any other I assume.”

I tell this story to illustrate,
not to cause division.
Love without object is not love
By any definition.

And here’s why it matters…

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t come
My sin, it stank of death.
I was Lazarus in the tomb
Who could not draw a breath

but to curse my maker. To withdraw
All glory that I could:
Ungrateful, wasteful, defiling, defiled,
A lifeless block of wood.

And this is why it matters…

I did not lift myself to Christ,
He descended to me.
I did not shake off these chains of hate
But Jesus set me free.

See he loved his bride, not just any
Who walked through the door.
Who smelled the best, who wore the dress,
Who glided on the floor.

Sure, he could have adoring angels
But he chose to stoop so low,
To cry to the dead man, “Come forth
and be as pure as snow!”

My purity, security, expectancy is in him
For he has chosen me.
For if I had to choose, of my own free will
All my hope would be nil
For it would be in me.

And here’s why it matters…

My glimmer of hope in the darkness
Is in knowing the one who reached into the darkness
And caught me up in my darkness
And was not restricted by my darkness
But set me free from darkness
Out of the belly of hell
Out of the mouth of the beast
Out of the storm I cried
Unable to save myself
From the darkness
And you
You had been there the whole time
Holding me, in the darkness
In the darkness, holding me

The Saviour who will not save
Until I give permission,
The Saviour who will not save is not
A Saviour by any definition.

And here’s why it matters…

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night.
Mine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free.
I rose, went forth and followed thee.
MY CHAINS FELL OFF, MY HEART WAS FREE
I ROSE, WENT FORTH AND FOLLOWED THEE

And here’s why it matters…

Grace, grace, amazing grace,
Grace so pure and free.
Favour that is all of God
And does not rely on me.

See, if I must work to earn his love,
If I need to buy favour from above
With my filthy rags? Forget that stuff!
I couldn’t do it.
I’m not good enough.

For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory
Of God, sovereign over all territories.

My will begs me go, grace begs me come.
My will begs me earn what grace has already won.
Every blessing is now mine: justification by faith,
Sanctification by his spirit, glory at the end of the race
And all to the praise of his glorious grace.

And here’s why it matters…

‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far
And grace shall lead me home.

GRACE ALONE, WHICH GOD SUPPLIES!
STRENGTH UNKNOWN HE WILL PROVIDE!
CHRIST IN US, OUR CORNERSTONE!
WE WILL GO FORTH BY GRACE ALONE!

And here’s why it matters…

The Son pays the debt, the Father declares us free.
The Spirit indwells and transforms us to see
Christ in all his glory, his beauty, his magnificence.
Our eyes behold the wonder of his splendid radiance.

As Peter, who stood on the mountain that day
Looked at Christ in glory as the veil was torn away
And he said: what we have is now more
We have the Spirit within us when we confess Christ is Lord.
2 Peter 1:16-21

To confess this is true, that he did all this for you
That his love for you is unwavering and true
But now the rest is up to you
Is absurd. There’s no other way of saying that.

Actually there is. Wicked, evil, abusive
to think the Father casts away those for whom he died.
Blood shed, debt paid, set free and then
Placed back in chains when we step out of line.

And here’s why it matters…

“You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save
his people from their sins.”
His people – right – who is that
Is everyone welcomed in?

Did Christ, the God Incarnate save
every human being in the world?
Did the blood he shed set free each one
is all sin overturned?

There are two ways of looking at this:
1) “His people = everyone who ever or ever will live.”

This means that Christ has failed to save his people, as everyone who ever or ever will live are not saved.
Christ has set out to save them in Matthew 1.
Failed in Matthew 27.
Sent them to hell in Matthew 25.

2) “His people = his elect”

>See the lens come into focus<
>On the ones that he must love<
>See the Father’s heart unfolding<
>In relentless affection from above<
>See the shepherd leave the sheepfold<
>See him leave the ninety nine<
>For he knows the one who wandered<
>Over whom he has called, “MINE!”<
>See the neverending loyalty<
>Devotion through the squall<
>See him stoop to wash the feet<
>When Peter wants his all be clean<
>When Peter feels he must be clean<
>Please God let me be clean<
>See Christ cry, “You are clean<
>for I have made you clean!”<

See the Father’s wrath poured out in floods
Upon an evil world.
See his justice burning like the sun
On Sodom’s shameful streets.
See God raise up an evil nation
Smashing, gouging, carrying away,
Hear the songs by the rivers of Babylon as they weep.
See the pool with a hundred sick beside
And Christ opens the eyes of one.

AND
GOD
STILL
SAVES
HIS
PEOPLE

And his purpose will overcome.

Yes, Christ will save his people
and his purpose will overcome.

And this is why it matters…

God is in the heavens and he does all that he pleases
The God who strikes down Uzzah dead
Is the God we find in Jesus.

His glory is the fixed goal, it is his one fixation.
No one can steal it, none diminish
Nor stop its true completion.

His glory was there in the beginning
With his creation master plan,
His glory will be at the end, with all singing
Worthy is the Lamb.

And this is why it matters…

I didn’t go to Kenya for Kenya.
Carey didn’t go to China for China.
You don’t speak to your neighbour
For your neighbour.
We reach out because the name of our God
Should receive honour
And glory.
That at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,
Every tongue confess that Christ is Lord.
That in Kenya, China, or across the street at number 35
Christ should be glorified.
Christ should be known as beautiful.
Christ should be known as majestic.
Christ should be known as all in all magnificent, resplendent,
name above all names, to the glory of God.
Forever and ever. Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria
That’s why it matters.

(This was written in response to a Facebook post by a friend of mine defending the Wesleyan interpretation of Romans 9)

 

About two weeks ago I was sitting in a Bible study when the minister brought up an issue that had come up in the news a while before that. It was the story of the pastry shop Greggs and their Christmas advertisement. This advertisement had caused a bit of offence and some people to be up in arms over its tasteless representation. The ad showed a typical nativity scene, with Joseph, Mary, donkeys, stable, etc., but in place of the baby Jesus lying in the manger, there sat a sausage roll. The minister then went on to make the point that these “Christians” were getting up in arms about a sausage roll whilst legions of people are starving in the world and they remain silent.
I point out first of all that there is absolutely no reason to believe that people either care about sausage rolls or the hungry but not both. That is a false dilemma. What is really meant by the minister’s objection is to point out the apparently absurdity of those who complain about a sausage roll in an advertisement.

I was reminded of American Christian speaker Tony Campolo, who in an address once made the point, “There are thousands of people in the world today who will die of starvation, and you don’t give a <rude word>. And what is shocking to me is that you care more that I just said <rude word> than that there are thousands dying of starvation.” Again, the attempt of Campolo was to point out the absurdity of those who would complain about the use of <rude word> more than starvation.

What struck me as I was listening to this minister was the sudden thought that these people who complained are perhaps not so absurd after all. Rather, what we see playing out again and again in many different forms is a battle which has taken place since the dawn of creation with Adam and Eve and the serpent and the garden. The lie of the serpent was, “[Gen 3:4-5 ESV] 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The serpent is tempting the woman to place herself at the centre of the universe, instead of God. Essentially, she wanted to be like God – defining good and evil for herself. In that, she attempted to rob God of his place in the universe and be able to dictate what is right and good for herself. Ignoring what God said, she was tempted to consider the meanness and injustice of God’s restrictions placed upon her and she felt that her autonomy had to be respected and honoured and centralised and her natural inclination caused her to rebel.

The failure of Greggs, the failure of Campolo, the failure of Eve and Uzzah and Nadab and Abihu and Herod and Ananais and Sapphira was the refusal to acknowledge God’s place. Yes, God is love, but that is by no means the central motivation of God in scripture. The central motivation of God in scripture, the one transcendent characteristic he gives to himself, the one thing he will be revered and honoured for throughout eternity is that he is holy. Lest we start to think that the angels repeat day and night as they surround the throne, “Love, love, love is the Lord God Almighty.” (Isa 6:3, Rev 4:8). He is motivated by the reverence due to his name. It is the reason:
He showed mercy to Israel: Ezekiel 20:9
He leads us in righteousness: Psalm 23:3
He hardened Pharaoh’s heart: Exodus 14:4, 8
He forgives sin: Psalm 25:11
He made Israel great: 2 Sam 7:23
He did not let Israel be completely destroyed: Isaiah 48:9-11
Jesus does what he does: John 4:34, 7:4, 18
Jesus dies: John 12:27-28
We are saved: Ephesians 1:3-6
We are to do all things to the glory of God: 1 Cor 10:31

What Campolo, and Greggs, and you in your description of God’s characteristics of “love, justice and mercy” miss out is that God is a holy God. Such a central characteristic which is understandable from a secular organisation like Greggs, but for ministers of the gospel to omit it entirely is striking. What is worrying is that no one really has a problem with God being loving. No one has a problem with God being merciful. We love that stuff. Technically no one has a problem with God being just (so long as we get to define what justice is and isn’t). Everyone has a problem with God being holy.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. – John 3:19

Those people who complained at the Greggs advertisement, or who balked at Campolo using the word <rude word> did so, not out of a sense of being ignorant or pernickety, but out of a desire to preserve the due reverence that ought to go to a holy God. This is why we see throughout scripture God’s command not only to be praised and adulated, but to be feared (Deut 6:2,24, 10:12,20, etc.). People are even killed for not fearing him (2 Kings 17:34, Malachi 2:2). We are met with examples of people who came into contact with God’s glory and their immediate reaction was one of terror (Isaiah 6:1-5, Matthew 17:1-6).

So why does God’s holiness fill us with a mix of hatred and terror? It is because a holy God must by nature detest sin. Yet we, by nature, love sin. That places us, not as the objects of God’s love, but of God’s wrath – and he is completely in the right:

[Jhn 3:36 ESV] 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
[Rom 1:18 ESV] 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
[Rom 2:5, 8 ESV] 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. … 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
[Eph 2:3 ESV] 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
[Col 3:6 ESV] 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
[Rev 6:16 ESV] 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.

Due to this being such a difficult thing for people to hear, we want to ignore it entirely. The sinful heart of human beings loves the idea of a God who loves them because in their mind what is not to love? They love the idea of a God who is merciful because that means they can be excused from whatever pet sin they love to do. They love the idea of a God of justice because they also think certain others do not deserve mercy. They hate the idea of a holy God, because they are wretched sinners who, if God is holy, deserve his wrath for their wickedness.

So what do people do? They turn to idolatry. At the foot of Mount Sinai, once the Israelites saw the smoke and fire on the mountain we are told they were afraid. They felt like they couldn’t even touch the mountain, where God came down to meet with Moses, or they would be killed instantly. So what did they do? They formed a new god. A gentler god. A little calf that could be easily moulded and nurtured and could be shaped to fit what they wanted.

I can’t stress this enough: faced with the terrible reality of the presence of the holy, just God of the whole universe, they rejected it – preferring a gentle, pliable little golden calf instead. For that reason, God had 3,000 of them killed.
Therefore it is of no surprise to me that you echo the sentiments of Wesley when faced with this God as shown to us by the Apostle Paul in Romans 9. “It looks like it means that, but it can’t mean that!” Because the God presented in Romans 9 seems terrible, seems harsh, seems horrible. So we create a little god who is all love, mercy and justice, but is incomplete from the God of the Bible – we ignore his holiness.

However, in doing so, we are also faced with the problem of what to do with the word of God. With texts that spell out God’s wrath of unbelievers, his hatred of those who do evil (Psalm 5:5), his tormenting the wicked forever in hell (Rev 14) and, in our context, with God’s sovereign election and reprobation in Romans 9. What people tend to do, what Wesley does, is places himself as arbiter over scripture, defining for himself who God is, what God means by ‘love’ and ‘justice’, and what passages like Romans 9 certainly do not mean. In essence, Wesley makes himself the voice of God, giving in to that lie of the devil that would seek to have us in the judgement seat instead of God. What usually happens then is that we carefully curate what we allow people to hear from the word of God, over-emphasising his mercy and compassion and (either implicitly or explicitly) ignoring those parts we disagree with. If that is untrue, then I invite you to tell me when was the last time you preached on Romans 9:13?

And so, because we are afraid that our God is a hard, unjust man, reaping where he has not sewn and gathering where he has not scattered seed, we bury the gift of his word he gave to us (or at least part of it). And what will the master of the vineyard say when he returns?

It is for this reason that I want to cling to the scripture, the whole scripture, even the parts that other people say are distasteful and insufferable, because I want to know him. At the foot of Sinai I don’t want to be the children of Israel cowering in fear and turning to their own created god. I want to be like Joshua, eagerly trying to edge up the mountain to get closer and closer to the God that I love and serve.

With that in mind, we must examine the text of Romans 9 objectively, as God’s revelation of his character to us without impeding our judgement based on preconceived notions of who we wish God to be. As CS Lewis wrote, he is not a tame lion, but he is good.

Romans 9 follows on from the Golden Chain of redemption at the end of chapter 8, and the great promise that there is no separation from God’s love for those who are the predestined mentioned in 8:29. The message is that God has chosen them, therefore they are secure. At the beginning of Romans 9, he addresses a possible objection to this teaching: that God made similar promises to the Jews, and later rejected them as his people. The accusation is that the word of God in electing a chosen people is not, in fact, secure and therefore Paul’s audience can have no assurance of their ongoing salvation. Paul’s response is:

[Rom 9:6 ESV] 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,

He points out that God’s promise wasn’t to the geographical nation of Israel, because not everyone who belonged to that nation by birth are ‘true Israel’. Instead, it was the children of the promise (v18). To illustrate this, Paul uses the story from Genesis 18 where God promises a son to Abraham and Sarah. Notice the two promises are linked here: the promise of God’s election and the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah. Paul is drawing a parallel between the two of them. By natural means, Abraham and Sarah, being 100 years old, had no way they could ever hope to reproduce. It was only through the miraculous intervention of God. God made the promise and God fulfilled it. Even so, by natural means it is impossible for us to be born again. God makes the promise and God fulfils it. Paul will come to this conclusion in a few verses’ time.

In verse 10, Paul uses a second illustration of the twins born to Isaac and Rebekah: Jacob and Esau.

[Rom 9:10-13 ESV] 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls– 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Here Paul clearly lays out God’s divine election in sovereignly choosing individuals and rejecting others. Nothing would need to be added to these verses, we ought to close the discussion here and conclude that God’s divine election is Biblical fact. But, us being us, we need to object. Therefore it has been said of these verses that Jacob and Esau are not representative of individuals, but two separate nations. In Malachi (where Paul is quoting from) they are used as symbols of Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau). God, so the objection goes, uses these as symbols to show that he punishes Edom because of their wickedness and rewards Israel because of their righteousness. It is not an arbitrary election.

And the only problem is that that’s not the argument Paul makes.

Paul points out in verse 11 that God made the decision when “they were not yet born” and “had done nothing either good or evil”. This not only shows us that he is talking about the individuals and not the nations, but that God did not make the decision on the basis of either’s moral performance. Rather, he made the decision “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls”. Therefore we have a clear example of God choosing a particular individual and rejecting another before they were even born.

The second point to be made here is that Paul is directly referencing Malachi 1:2 in his judgements on the house of Israel. Within the context of the Old Testament, God makes abundantly clear that he has not chosen Israel because they are righteous, or because they have the right faith. In fact he explains right from the outset in Deuteronomy 7:7, 9:5. In truth, both Jacob and Esau were sufficiently wicked for God to reject both. However, he chose, before the boys were even born, one over the other.

Genesis 25:23 And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”

Finally, if we are to accept the Wesleyan interpretation of this verse (13) that it only refers to God’s punishment of the wicked and his preserving the righteous, then it makes sense to conclude that God fits with our conception of justice. We can easily accept that. We can rest easy, knowing that we believe God is fair to everyone.

So why then does Paul need to ask the question in verse 14?

[Rom 9:14 ESV] 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!

For if Paul only means that God rewards the righteous nation and punishes the wicked nation, why does he foresee the objection that God is unjust because of this? Paul anticipates the question because he knows the natural conclusion to God’s divine election is “This is unfair!” If we accept the Wesleyan interpretation, this objection is nonsensical. If we accept the Calvinist interpretation, then Wesley is the one making the objection in verse 14, to which Paul responds.

Notice what this means. It means that Wesley is not arguing with me. He’s not arguing with Calvin. He’s not arguing with Whitefield nor Spurgeon nor Augustine. He’s the one in verse 14 arguing with Paul.

Paul’s response is to go back to the Old Testament again (Exodus 33:18) and point out that God’s stance has always been to have mercy on whom he will have mercy and compassion on whom he will have compassion. Notice the pronoun ‘whom’ refers to a person, rather than an impersonal plural ‘those’ which would indicate a nation. God is talking about choosing individuals.

In verse 16 Paul comes to his conclusion:

[Rom 9:16 ESV] 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

The Greek uses the term ‘thelo’ to indicate that, in the context, Paul is talking about “the one who wills”, and ‘trecho’ as “the one who runs” – from which we can conclude that Paul is again referring to individuals. This fits with the rest of the verse, nations do not act with one “human will”, nor do they “run”. Only individual people do that. This is confirmed in verse 18 where we are told that God has mercy on *whomever* he wills, and hardens *whomever* he wills. The indicative “who” indicating not a nation, but a person.

So faced with this argument, we have a choice. We can either accept the divine election and sovereignty of God, made before any good or evil has taken place so that God’s purposes might be fulfilled, or we can be like the objector in verse 19 who still cries foul. But just like the last objector, they aren’t arguing with Calvin, they are arguing with Paul (and ultimately the word of God). The only fitting response to which it seems is:

[Rom 9:20 ESV] 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?”

 

And God is in the habit of doing this – he is very reluctant to be placed in the dock to answer for how he designs things to work. We see this at the end of Job where Job calls for God to answer him. God shows up and sets things straight:

[Job 38:1-7 ESV] 1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

…he goes on into the next chapter like this…and finishes with:

[Job 40:1-2 ESV] 1 And the LORD said to Job: 2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

Job interjects, and then God goes on in the same vein for yet another two chapters like this:

[Job 40:7-10 ESV] 7 “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 8 Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? 9 Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? 10 “Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendour.

 

To which Job finally, like a rabbit caught in the crosshairs, replies:

 

[Job 42:1-6 ESV] 1 Then Job answered the LORD and said: 2 “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

I pray you’ll do the same.

God bless, Ryan.

[Mat 1:19-21 ESV] 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

father-and-son-couch

An elderly father is excited to see his young-adult son come for a surprise visit. As soon as the son bursts through the door the father can tell that he is very excited about something. The son has a smile that stretches from ear to ear, there is a lightness in his step, and a sparkle in his eye. Finally, the father asks his son why he seems so excited.

“Well, dad,” the son begins, barely able to hold back his jubilation, “I’m in love.”

The father gives an awkward, puzzled smile, “What?”

“I’m in love!” The son repeats with greater emphasis, then hastens to add, “And I’m getting married!”

“That’s,” the father stammers, rising to congratulate his son, “that’s wonderful, son! Such happy news! But…”

“There’s going to be a wedding,” the son continues, “and everyone will be there, and we’ll exchange vows and be together forever!”

“Yes, but…”

“And there’ll be flowers and cake and dancing and eating and drinking like you’ve never seen!”

“Son!” The father shouts, stopping the boy dead in his tracks.

“Yes, dad?”

“Who’s the bride?” The father asks with a note of exasperation.

“Who’s the bride?” The son replies with a look of bewilderment.

“Yes,” laughs the father, “this lady you are in love with. Who is she?”

The son looks his father in the eye and smiles. “I don’t know.” He replies. “Whoever says yes, I suppose.”

confused-old-man

Christmas is fast approaching and with it, many people wait with fierce anticipation for one thing.

The John Lewis advert.

I remember in 2014 it was the famous penguin ad. The one where the little boy is so fixated on his little toy penguin and in the end gets another one (the message being that one John-Lewis brand penguin is not enough, you guys. Toy penguins get lonely…). Over the advert is played a droning version (who does these sad cover versions all of a sudden for adverts?) of John Lennon’s ‘Real Love’.

 

See, it’s Real Love because it is focused on a particular object. The little boy did absolutely everything with his beloved toy penguin (at upwards of £99 on eBay these days rightly he should). There wasn’t room for the toy giraffe, nor the etch-a-sketch, but all of his focus and affection was given to this one little penguin. If it was no different than the time and attention he gave to anything else, could we still call it love? Or ‘Real Love’, according to Lennon? No, love by definition is exclusive. It is limited to the beloved. One might have a general feeling of goodwill to all people, but it ought to be a different feeling altogether from that which one has for their spouse.

 

At Advent, we see the realisation of a plan which began centuries before (and further back) in the mind of God. There were hints of it given to us through the Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah when he said:

[Isa 54:8 ESV] 8 In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer.
[Jer 31:3 ESV] 3 the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

The love letter was sent. It was clear. God had fixed his love upon his people. Not only this, but he had done it from eternity past. His is an everlasting love for the people he has been given. Jesus is speaking to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane when he says:

[Jhn 17:23-24 ESV] 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

And so these are the same people Jesus came into this world to save. As our text in Matthew 1:21 says, his very name is a herald of his mission: to save his people from their sins.

To save.

His people.

From their sins.

 

Jesus, with his people in mind, came to earth in order to actualise salvation for every one of his people. It was a mission that was completed on the cross when he bowed his head and cried “It is finished!” The Greek term is derived from the term ‘tetalestai’ meaning ‘paid’ or ‘paid in full’. In his death on the cross, Christ’s mission was echoed throughout all eternity past, present and future as a resounding victory! His people, whom he set his love upon from before the foundation of the world, were saved from their sins. Jesus paid it all! All to him I owe! Sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow!

paid-in-full

However, there are whispers in some corners (shouts in others) that this redemption is not fair. Surely, they say, surely Christ died for absolutely everybody? Surely Christ set his love on absolutely everybody? Surely absolutely everybody is chosen by Christ for salvation? God can’t choose a particular people for himself, that’s unfair!

If we were to believe that ‘his people’ found in Matthew 1:21 refers to absolutely everyone in the world who ever existed or ever will exist, that makes God seem a lot more warm and fuzzy. I’ll agree. Had I been ignorant of the Bible’s stance on the atonement, I’d be much more comfortable believing that also. However, whilst it may make for a more palatable God, it throws up a few difficult challenges to get our heads around.

Primary among them, if God chose absolutely everybody – why isn’t absolutely everybody saved?

matthew-1-21

Matthew 1:21 is clear. Jesus’ mission was not simply to make salvation possible, but to actively save his people from their sins. If we are to believe that there are (a vast majority of) people whom God has set his everlasting love upon from before the foundation of the world, for whom Christ died in order to save them from their sins who have still died and will still die in their sins and spend eternity in hell, then we are faced with a paradox. God loves them from eternity, determines to save them, but doesn’t, and they go to hell instead. The same God who says they will be saved from their sin in Matthew 1 sends them to hell as “accursed” in Matthew 25.

In essence, it is the belief that Jesus’ mission was a spectacular failure. Not only this but that he covers this up by sending those same beloved people to hell.

[Mat 25:41 ESV] 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

But, the objector will say, God has given us free will! He would not violate our free will to save us!

Again this is a reasonable belief – that God would not violate anyone’s free will – except when you read the Bible and discover that violating people’s free will is a common occurrence for God. Two examples:

abimelech_restores_sarah_to_abram_bbl85-98

Abraham and his wife Sarah are travelling through the kingdom of Abimilech, and Abraham suddenly notices that his wife is very attractive. This is a bad thing to Abraham, as he reasons that the people are going to take one look at his wife, kill him and take her. His plan makes no sense, to tell everyone that she’s his sister, but Sarah plays along with it right up to the point that she’s assimilated into the king’s harem.

Immediately a pestilence strikes the land, and God appears to Abimilech:

[Gen 20:3 ESV] 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.”

Abimilech is completely non-plussed, and God gives him credit for this, saying:

[Gen 20:3, 6 ESV] 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.

I don’t know if you caught that phrase, but God just told someone he did not let him sin. Abimilech – wanting to sin, God – not wanting him to sin. Result: God doesn’t let him sin.

Let’s go again:

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Sennacherib is leading an Assyrian army against Israel and is steamrolling the land. Assyria is one of the world superpowers of the time, and it seems like nothing can stop them from sweeping through the land and destroying the nation of Israel in their wake. That is until God intervenes, working against Sennacherib’s will as it says:

[Isa 37:36 ESV] 36 And the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.

Again, to look at the scoreboard for a moment: Sennacherib – wants to destroy Jerusalem, God – doesn’t want Jerusalem destroyed. Result: the Syrians are supernaturally slaughtered in their sleep by an angel of the Lord.

We believe in a God who loves, a God who acts, a God who intervenes on behalf of his people in order to save them in both Old Testament and New, and the will of no man is able to stand in his way. This can only be understood rightly if God has a particular people in mind – for those are the ones he intends to love. It is not loving to simply throw a rope to someone drowning, then go ahead and push them under when they fail to climb out. It is not loving for God to simply make salvation possible and then cast people into hell for not saving themselves.

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We believe in a God who loves us. A good father who rescues his children, his people. A successful Saviour who has saved us from our sins.

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

6“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 7

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I normally like to start these meditations with a narrative to create a picture of what I’m trying to illustrate. However, I feel if I were to do that here I’d be in danger of breaching so many copyright laws. You see, this is a narrative that pervades our culture and I’m going to use a single example to illustrate.

I went to see Thor: Ragnarok two weeks ago. Aside from it being awesome (seriously, best Marvel movie in a while) it was the first time I noticed something. Marvel has been owned by Disney since 2009, and what struck me when I thought about it this week is that the film isn’t far off from a typical Disney movie. (Warning: Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet you might want to skip the next paragraph.)

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Thor is a cocky, self-assured, unperturbed hero whose world is suddenly thrown into chaos by the death of Odin, the return of his half-sister Hela and the destruction of his hammer, Mjolnir. Weakened, deflated, adrift, he winds up in a backwoods place merely existing until he realises his purpose again and, with the help of some fellow disillusioned-turned-good companions realises that the power was within himself all along, not in the hammer.

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I know, right? This is a plot lifted straight out of classic Disney, and our culture eats it up. The struggles in our lives, the problems that we face, the obstacles we have to overcome can be overcome if we just summon up the power that is within all of us. The magic, the Force, the ability to love again, it all (and more) can be found within ourselves and we love to be told that it is so.

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In Western thought, there have traditionally been two ways of thinking about human nature. One was explored by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who said that the life of man, in its natural state, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Therefore, according to this philosophy, evil is an internal component of the nature of man. The role of education, law, politics and even religion then is to restrain man’s natural instincts towards savagery.

1200px-jean-jacques_rousseau_28painted_portrait29The other way of considering human nature was explored by Jean-Jacques Rosseau in his treatise “The Social Contract” where he stated that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. He posited that man was born not morally good, but born morally innocent.  It is then the role of education, law, politics, religion, etc., simply to help him towards choosing the good and shunning the evil. In this worldview, evil is a result of misery, of oppression. Some of the great social reformers throughout the last century were students of Rousseau philosophy. If we accept that mankind is by nature innocent, then our task to prevent evil is to encourage happiness and security and comfort for people so that they won’t be swayed into the misery that leads to criminality and evil. People have the good inside them, they just need to work on making themselves happier and more fulfilled in order to bring it out.

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The Bible not only sides with Hobbes, it goes further than Hobbes in some places. When the ruler addresses Jesus in Luke 18 as “good teacher”, Jesus responds with:

[Luk 18:19 ESV] 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

This throws our Rousseauian culture out of sorts. This is one of the main reasons why people hate the gospel and it’s perhaps one of the main reasons why not a lot of people preach it. Our first instinct in any situation is to see ourselves as the injured party. Whenever anything goes wrong we want to shift blame. This was true for Adam in the garden of Eden and it’s true for Harvey Weinstein today. We are shamelessly and easily deceived by our heart’s ability to self-justify, or as God put it through the prophet Jeremiah:

[Jer 17:9 ESV] 9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

We want to be the hero of the movie. The one who yea, struggles a bit, has some foibles that make him relatable. My crude comments make me a bit of a lad, but that lady I work with’s incessant jibing makes her unbearable! We are all waiting for that spark that is going to set us at the top, and we’re all looking within ourselves to find it like the Disney corporation said we should.

And what do we find instead? A wicked, deceitful cesspool that desires glory for ourselves and has no notion of ever seeking help.

 

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Courtesy of Adam4d.com

 

[Mic 7:2 ESV] 2 The godly has perished from the earth, and there is no one upright among mankind; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts the other with a net.

[Rom 3:10-18 ESV] 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

This, according to the Bible is our state before God, and for it, we deserve nothing but his wrath.

[Psa 5:5 ESV] 5 The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.

[Psa 11:5 ESV] 5 The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.

[Eze 18:20 ESV] 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

So bad is the situation that God says that even those of us who do good things, even the most upright of people who are charitable, feeding the hungry, poor, visiting the sick and afflicted shall not earn any reprieve from the just wrath of God for their sin:

[Isa 64:6 ESV] 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

It’s against this painful backdrop that God has decided to shine his light. The Almighty Judge of Heaven and Earth has stepped down from the bench. He who could burn us up simply by a word of his mouth and be completely justified in doing so has chosen to show mercy. Not just to show mercy to helpless, oppressed victims like we pretend to be – but to show mercy to odious, rebellious, sin-loving creatures like you and me. There is absolutely nothing in us that could attract a holy God to us, yet, in his mercy, he has decided to save us.

[Rom 5:10 ESV] 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

This is what is blessed about assurance. This is what is amazing about grace. This is our utter helplessness before a holy judge who has chosen to take our penalty and our punishment instead. Right from the Old Testament, in our reading in Deuteronomy 7, God makes it clear to the Israelites that they have been chosen not because they are of any value as a people by number or virtue – in fact, the story of Israel is one of almost constant failure in that department – but because God has loved them. We do not choose to love God, he first loved us. Not many wise, nor many powerful nor many noble are chosen. Just us – poor, blind, wretched sinners whom God in his grace has chosen to love despite our complete undeserving of it.

[Rom 5:6-11 ESV] 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die– 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayeda thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18

Two men are shipwrecked in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

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The first man has a fully-inflated life jacket. He is terrified, panicking that any second a huge wave is going to drag him under. He keeps checking the horizon for the next massive breaker to sweep over him. Each time a huge wave comes, however, his lifejacket (safely secured) pulls him upwards, keeping him on the surface.

The second man swims casually alongside. “You fool,” he says, “if only you learned to have more faith, like me.” The second man turns over and does a few laps of the backstroke, spouting a little fountain of water out of his mouth.

But,” the first man splutters, “where is your lifejacket?

I don’t need one,” the second man replies with a huge grin, “I’ve got this.

In his hand is the remote control for a TV.

At the heart of the gospel is a conundrum that is spelt out by Jesus at various stages in his earthly ministry. He laid out several times the way that someone can earn their way to heaven. These are found in Matthew 5:48, as well as Mark 10:17-27. In both these accounts, The Sermon on the Mount and the account of the ‘Rich Young Ruler’, Jesus offers a very clear way that we may work our way to salvation.

19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” – Mark 10

48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5

That’s it. That’s all God wants. For you to be perfect. For you to have all the commandments. For you…to…have…

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See, many people today will openly claim to have never sinned, but few of us will ever claim to be ‘perfect‘. To be perfect would mean to have never done anything or said anything or thought anything that we could possibly ever be called into question over, or feel ashamed of. It would mean that everyone, everywhere, at all times and in all places did not match up to the standard Jesus requires. The logical conclusion is, therefore, that if we stand before God tomorrow and give an account of ourselves, not one of us match up to the standard God demands.

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[Psa 24:3-5 ESV] 3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. 5 He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

And so Jesus in Luke 18 shows us two people who approach this problem in two very different ways. They are identified as a Pharisee and a tax collector. As far as casts of characters go, you could not get two people of more opposite standing.

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phariseeIt becomes clear through reading the parable that, if God’s standard is perfection, the clever money for those listening to Jesus is on the Pharisee. The name literally means “holy one” or “separate one”. By their very name, they were the epitome of perfection. And this guy in the parable is really impressive. He is outwardly moral and just, he fasts twice per week and he tithes absolutely everything he owns. He’s even thankful to God for it. If people listening to this are picking teams for the Holiness Brigade, this guy is first picked.

zac307Then there is his mirror opposite – the tax collector. The scum of the earth. The traitor, the colluder with the oppressive foe. To give you an idea of just how terrible it could be under Roman rule, a story is told to Jesus in Luke 13:1 where the Romans had murdered some people in Galilee who were worshipping in the Temple. They had not only stopped there but in a fit of real cruelty, took their blood and mixed it with the very sacrifices they were making – and there was nothing done to stop it. Tax collectors were working to pay these people. On top of that, they were notorious for skimming off the top of the extortionate rates they charged. You can just hear the crowd boo and hiss as Jesus even mentions the man. In the contest to see who is accepted before God, who matches up to the perfect standard, this man is dead last.

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Yet something incredible happens – the tax collector also prays. You can see him trembling, unable to lift his eyes, and he beats his breast and cries, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

And the result comes in, and it is the tax collector who is justified.

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It’s important to note what the term ‘justified’ means so that we can understand the gravity of this declaration from Jesus. Here are two men, one whose basis for coming to God is his own perceived sinlessness, but the word tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The other one, he has absolutely no basis for coming to God. He is in sin right up to his eyeballs! There is no mention of him having given up his tax collection, his extortion, his swindling. Yet something has occurred in his heart that has led him to cry out to God for mercy. In that moment, God declares him righteous. God justifies him. The man who was so full of sin as he walked in, Jesus declares that God has found him guiltless as he walks out. The Pharisee, who trusted in his own goodness left no different than when he came in: dead to his own deficiency and need for mercy. It is the tax collector who now meets the standard of perfection in the sight of God.

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How is this possible? How is this just? A fiend like him asking for mercy and receiving it without condition, without even so much as an, “I’ve got my eye on you!” from God? How can God both be just, yet justify people simply for believing in him?

Romans 3:23 is used often in apologetic circles to take people down a peg (and sometimes it is needed). However, the next 4-5 verses are so crucial to our understanding of what is going on here in this dilemma. They are so crucial that one preacher has called it “The Akropolis of the Christian Faith.

[Rom 3:23-26 ESV] 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (emph. mine)

God can justify those who cry to him for mercy because he has purchased their salvation? How? Jesus. Jesus lived a sinless man, obeying the law no one could obey so that, in his death, we might receive all the merit from his sinless life as if it was ours.

 

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Called ‘imputation’.

 

Where people might look at our sin and see cause for our condemnation, where we might look at God requiring perfection from us and feel despair at our wretched condition, God offers us salvation in the form of a substitution (as the word puts it ‘propitiation‘). This is so that when God looks at us, looking for that standard of perfection, he sees the perfect righteousness of Jesus.

21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5

So we can echo with Paul as he exclaims in wonder “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What can separate us from God now? When we receive Christ we are perfect in his sight! We meet the standard!

So the question is, how do we receive this marvellous gift? It is clear that the Pharisee, for all his amazing resume in Luke 18, does not receive it. All his goodness has not earned him any favour with God. Only one man leaves justified, and that is the one who approaches God with his faith planted firmly and surely in the merciful character of the creator! It is faith, and faith alone that saves him.

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If you could stop both men on the way into the temple, if you could look them in the eye and tell them that the one way they could be accepted before God was by faith, which guy do you think would agree? The Pharisee would probably nod his head and boast of his great faith; Of course he is accepted! He would be absolutely assured that God loved and accepted him. Can you not see the blessings that have been poured out on him? Can you not see all the great deeds he does for God?

And yet, his faith in his goodness is as about as useful as holding onto a TV remote in a raging storm.

Do you see how it works? Some people like to talk about faith like it is a commodity to be bought and sold and to save and store up. “I’d be happier if I had more faith.”

“I’d be happier if I had more faith.”

“You’d be more blessed if you had more faith.”

“You too can be healed, if you had more faith!”

What’s more many today base the validity of someone’s salvation on the sincerity of their faith. According to these people salvation can come through performing sacraments, or praying to Mary, or following the teachings of Buhdda, or praying five times towards Mecca just as much as trusting in Jesus. What justifies them, apparently, is the sincerity of their faith.

However, our analogy serves to show that it is not the strength of our faith, nor the amount of faith we have, but the object of our faith that saves us. We can be very sincerely clinging to a TV remote, fully believing it will bear our weight, it won’t change a thing. Only when we put our faith in the right object can we be saved. As Jesus says in John 14:6 “no man comes to the Father but by me.” So if we were to ask the Pharisee, he might sound very sincere, but he would be sincerely wrong.

Yet the tax collector, dejected and in despair, might respond, “I think I believe, but I am such a sinner. I can’t be sure of God accepting me on any other basis than that he is merciful. That is the only thing I’m holding onto right now.”

And no matter how much he flounders, no matter how panicked he is, he is just like that fearful man clutching for dear life to the only thing that can keep him afloat in the storm – his lifejacket – the mercy of God through Jesus Christ.

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

emotionally-healthy-spiritualityThe book ‘Emotionally Healthy Spirituality’ has been widely acclaimed from all sides of the ecumenical spectrum and has been set up as favoured by the Willow Creek Association among others. It is focused on trying to address what the author sees as a shortcoming of modern Christianity – a failure to recognise the importance of emotional growth in the Christian life. The book sees this failure as being at the root of many of the problems that face Christians today: from marital strife, church splits, bitterness and more. The following quote must be considered:

“Emotionally healthy spirituality is a universal approach to spiritual and religious life … Spirituality is concerned with becoming one with God or the true Self.”

So the focus of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (both the book and more explicitly the day by day course guide) is concerned with improving religious life by looking inward at ourselves. The only problem is that the above quote wasn’t taken from Scazzero’s book. It was taken from Hindu yoga mystic Swami Atma.

 

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Swami Atma

 

12 These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. 2 Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. 3 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.

4 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. – Deut 12

The above is an example of God directly speaking to the people of Israel and explaining his feelings towards adopting the practices of pagan religions and using them to worship God. We understand that we no longer live under the Old Covenant with its laws and procedures to protect national identity and purity. The New Covenant has extended grace and mercy to those who are God’s people, and a common grace to all. We know this because God no longer requires us to stone rapists, or kill witches, or disobedient children. However, we also recognise that doing so did not make rape, witchcraft or being disobedient to parents morally justifiable in God’s eyes. In the same way, even though we no longer are called to burn down pagan temples and break down their altars, we can still see the clear attitude God has towards those who seek to worship Him using the practices of pagan religion.

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This was also clearly seen in Leviticus 10, where the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, lit the altar with ‘strange fire’ and were immediately consumed in God’s wrath. Again, this is not to say that God is necessarily going to consume anyone who offers the wrong practice as worship to Him, but it demonstrates how seriously he takes the way in which he is worshipped in accordance with the instructions he has already given to us. God’s response to Aaron after this incident was:

“‘Among those who approach me

   I will be proved holy;

in the sight of all the people

   I will be honoured.’” – Lev 10:3

That word ‘holy’ in the Hebrew is the word ‘qadash’ – which among the uses of the term it holds connotations of being set apart, separate and consecrated. God proclaims himself to be set apart from all systems and sources – he is unique and singular (Isaiah 42:8, 44:6, 46:5). It would then stands as justifiable that seeking to treat him as yet another one of the pagan gods would be an offence to his holy character as if what works for Buddha will work for God.

The book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality opens with a series of personal anecdotes where the writer experienced burnout in the face of various strains and disasters. He goes on to describe what for him he claims was a revelation of sorts. On page 55 he states that his “inner world was not in sync” with his “exterior behaviour”. He identifies this as what Jesus called “hypocrisy” – the state of not being true to one’s inner, emotional self. His call on page 65 is “to know God you must know yourself”.

The problem here is that it is factually incorrect. Jesus refers to the Pharisees as hypocrites, but he never explains that it is because they are not in touch with their inner, emotional selves. In Matthew 6:2, 5 and 16 he uses it to refer to those who make an outward show of religious piety but inside they are rotten to the core with sin. I put sin in italics because it is very telling that it is a word that Scazzero never uses to describe the many terrible situations that he lists at the start of the book. He doesn’t put the problem down to the sinful heart’s desire to sin against God and therefore needs to repent (looking upward) but as man’s inability to tap into his emotional self (looking inward). Inadvertently, Scazzero has told us that all the problems in our lives are to be solved by looking inwards to ourselves, rather than all the sin (for that’s what he’s actually talking about) in our lives being dealt with by looking upward to God. He sees the remedy as “the inward journey” to consider “the forces and motivations beneath the surface of our lives” (page 72). Where God (through the prophet Isaiah) would see the remedy for sin as “Look unto me and be ye saved” (Isa 45:22) Peter Scazzero seems to suggest the remedy is “Look at yourself and be ye emotionally healthy.” Where Jesus would say “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also.” (John 14:7) Scazzero would have us believe “To know God you must know yourself.” (page 65).

It is this refusal to identify and acknowledge sin that leads to several other troublesome statements throughout the book. For instance, on page 168 we are told that “God’s approval is without conditions”. This could possibly be reinterpreted to an orthodox level of acceptability if what he is referring to is the fact that once saved God gives his approval to his children based not on their performance but on their status as redeemed and blood-bought sons and daughters of God. But my eyebrows are further raised when he starts referencing noted Universalists like Thomas Merton and other emergent writers that seem to suggest he actually believes that God approves of absolutely everyone without conditions, Christian or no. And it is in examining the practical side of his guide to being emotionally healthy that we see this faulty line of reasoning worked out: specifically in chapter 6 where he endorses the mystical practice of contemplative prayer.

Be attentive and open. Sit still, sit straight, breathe slowly, deeply and naturally, and close your eyes or lower them to the ground.” (page 160). Scazzero suggests that we repeat a ‘centring word or phrase’ in order to block out our busy thoughts and allow God to speak through his Holy Spirit. At a recent evening service when this practice was clearly taught to the congregation at our church, similar instructions were given for anyone who wanted to ‘listen to God’. Stray thoughts were to be discarded or pushed aside as distractions – clearly the message was that clear minds were to be achieved in order to “allow God to speak to us”. It was described as “the deepest” and “highest form of prayer”, scriptural support came from Matthew 14:23, 26:36 (Jesus find a place to pray alone) and 1 Kings 19 in the cave with Elijah. Apparently, “even Jesus needed to find time to listen.”

Except what Peter Scazzero, and the lady preaching, say when they describe this “deepest form of prayer” and what the Bible clearly depicts are two completely different things. Not in Matthew 14:23, 26:36 nor in 1 Kings 19 (nor in any other place in scripture) do we see anyone “repeating a centring word or phrase” to clear their mind, neither Elijah nor Jesus sat in silence, pushing their thoughts aside in order to “allow the Holy Spirit to speak to them”. The precise practice is not found anywhere in the pages of scripture.

In Luke 11, Jesus’ disciples approach Jesus with a very particular request. They ask him “teach us to pray”. Doubtless, a lot of them knew what prayer looked like. Some of them had perhaps been into the synagogue or temple a few times in their lives, but there was something different about the way Jesus prayed, and they wanted to know the right way to pray like Jesus did. What was Jesus’ response? If you’ll forgive the parody:

“And Jesus replied to them, ‘I will teach you the highest, deepest form of prayer. First, you sit still, back straight and breathe deeply…repeat my name over and over again until all your distracting thoughts are gone and then…”

No. The passage doesn’t read like that. The one portion of scripture where Jesus is directly asked how to pray and he says: “And he said to them, “When you pray, say:” We have no other instruction from Jesus on how we are to pray. This is it. When you pray – say! Open your mouth and employ your brain function to communicate, not shutting it down completely. The point is that, if we are to believe that this is “the highest” and “deepest” form of prayer, Jesus doesn’t teach us it.

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In fact, elsewhere the scriptures will warn us against this practice. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:15 says that, whilst he will pray ‘in the Spirit’, he will pray ‘with his mind also’. Jesus, when rebuking the behaviour of the Pharisees clearly forbids the use of centring words when he says “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do” (Matt 6:7) The term ‘vain’ here meaning empty, or meaningless.

Notice as well that Jesus identifies this as something ‘the heathens do’. To what is he referring? ‘Heathen’ is a catch-all term used by the translators to describe the pagan Gentiles. Therefore the question is raised: what ‘vain repetition’ is he talking about?

I believe that, with perfect divine knowledge, Jesus is referring to the ancient Arabian, Hindu and Buddhist practice of mystical meditation, in which a mystic would chant, over and over, a mantra in order to allow themselves to enter into a trance-like state. They did this in order to receive mysteries, enlightenment and “unity with Brahma”.

“Buddhist meditation is an invitation to turn one’s awareness away from the world of activity that usually preoccupies us to the inner experience of thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

For Buddhists, the realm of meditation comprises mental states such as calm, concentration and one-pointedness (which comprises the six forces: hearing, pondering, mindfulness, awareness, effort and intimacy).

The practice of meditation is consciously employing particular techniques that encourage these states to arise.”

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/customs/meditation_1.shtml)

This practice was then brought into Roman Catholic monasticism by the likes of St Teresa of Avila and lately Thomas Merton, both of whom Scazzero cites as authorities in the book. These are our examples of how we could be led into emotionally healthy spirituality if Scazzero is to be believed. So who were they?

Teresa of Avila was an early 16th century Roman Catholic mystic who was a regular practitioner in what would be known as ‘contemplative prayer’. Through these mystical practices, she claimed that she had endured physical intimacy with (and married) Jesus, claimed she had regular visions of hell, claimed she could levitate and more. This is the example of emotionally healthy spirituality we are to follow, according to Scazzero.

Thomas Merton was a Roman Catholic Trappist Monk who claimed to have visions (sent from God) of himself as a Buddhist monk performing rituals. He devoted the rest of his writings to uniting Christianity, Confucianism and Zen Buddhism into the same belief system (Mystics and Zen Master 1967).

And the links between Zen Buddhism and Scazzero’s book are clear. According to the BBC article on Buddhism – “Meditation is a mental and physical course of action that a person uses to separate themselves from their thoughts and feelings in order to become fully aware.” This ability to detach oneself in order to achieve ‘awareness’ is mentioned throughout the text. Scazzero tells us in page 132 “detachment is the great secret of interior peace”, and he continues on page 133 “those who are most detached on the journey are best able to taste the purest joy in the beauty of created things.

I could mention other things about the book that are troubling (ancestral curses, factual inaccuracies about the Bible, etc.) but I feel I would be beating a dead horse by this stage. Scazzero says that “Most Christians today are struggling spiritually” (page 1 of the 40-day course guide book), and he tries to plug that gap with a mix of Roman Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist mysticism. Whereas Jesus, the word and the Holy Spirit, regarded as sufficient throughout church history by faithful orthodoxy, are cast aside.

If the teaching is a) not found in scripture, b) actively opposed by scripture and c) finds its origins in pagan religion then the words of Deuteronomy ring true even today:

4 You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. – Deut 12

In short, Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, identifies the wrong problem and posits the wrong solution. It is a dangerously heretical text with clear aims to introduce pagan mysticism into the practice of the church.

 

Verse 1

Well I’ve heard a thousand stories of what they think you’re like.

But I have read my Bible and it tells me what you’re like.

For it tells me you gave your son for those who trust in You.

Chorus

You’re a good, good Father

It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are

And I’m loved by you

Not for who I am, but who you are, who you are.

Verse 2

And I’ve seen many searching for answers far and wide.

But I know we’re all searching for one thing only you provide

for you know just that we need Jesus before we say a word.

Bridge

You are perfect in all of your ways

In my suffering and in my good days.

You are perfect in all of your ways

For your glory.

Verse 3

Mercy so amazing I will always speak.

Grace so undeserving I will always think

On the way you draw me deeper

and deeper into your word.