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(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.

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[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:

2ki_19_32-33-carolsfeld-theangelofthelordslaystheassyrianarmy

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

thor-ragnarok

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.)

thor-hulk-ragnarok-1024x451

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.

itwaswithyouallalong

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.

whatdoesdark

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.

How can a young man keep his way pure?
    By guarding it according to your word.

– Psalm 119:9

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So you’ve been to Soul Survivor.

You’ve had great banter.

You’ve had mind-blowing times of worship. You’ve seen the dancing, the bouncing, the lights, the screeching guitars, the euphoria. You’ve maybe even raised your hands a couple of times.

You might even have been one of the hundreds of people who walked forward at the end of the meetings. Praise God if you did!

And now you’re home.

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The tent is packed away for another year, the bracelets and leaflets and stickers and books that you guarded with your life now lie in the corner of your room. You have to get up for church on Sunday morning and…

…it’s just not the same anymore.

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Do you know ‘God’s great dance floor’?

There are no lasers. There are no crowds bouncing up and down. There are no euphoric swells and people dancing in the aisles and on stage. You’re lucky if there is even a drumbeat because the drummer had to decide between playing the drums and filling in for the bassist who’s not there and the old lady on the organ has no idea what a Rend Collective is (but it sounds painful). Your diet no longer consists of chocolate and pot noodles. You actually have to eat vegetables and get to sleep at a reasonable hour. You no longer are surrounded on a daily basis with people feeling the same thing, singing the same songs or even speaking the same language half the time (See this handy primer on Christianese). Instead, people in school, university or in the workplace are bitter, they’re sarcastic, they’re more interested in the latest gruesome death on Game of Thrones than the latest Housefires single. What’s worst of all is that you find it so much easier to go with the crowd around you, than to try and pull them up to your level.

You, my friend, are caught in the post-festival blues.

 

So how do we survive Soul Survivor?

 

  1. See it for what it is

 

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. – 1 Kings 19

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Elijah saw some amazing stuff on that mountain. Can you imagine the scene? The wind is so strong the mountains are tearing and shattering into pieces! Earthquakes causing the entire landscape to tremble. Fire bursting out spontaneously.

And none of it contained God.

You have to look soberly at your experiences. There’s a lot to be said about euphoria, good and bad. My personal slant is that God gives us the possibility to experience euphoria, and what better thing to feel euphoria about than the presence of God? But looking soberly, like I said, those experiences are not God.

God is in the low whisper.

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In comparison to mountains smashing and ground shaking and fire raging, that low whisper must have seemed rather dull to Elijah. You can just imagine him thinking, “Oh, I thought when God showed up it’d be a bit more…impressive?” But God was in the dull. He was in the simple, quiet communication of his word.

So you might have felt the very ground move at Soul Survivor, but see it for what it is. An awesome experience, but one that is not God. It is my experience that God does not often communicate in the mind-blowing, the euphoric, the earth-shaking. The times that I’ve most clearly had communication from God has been on my own, in my living room when no one else is around and I have my Bible open. God is in the low whisper.

 

2. You’ve worked on your public faith, now work on your private faith

 

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It’s so much easier to talk, shout or sing when there is a crowd around you doing the same thing. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to the high street, stand with your hands in the air and belt out “BLESS THE LOOOOORD OH MY SOUL!” and see how it feels. What I’m saying is that being a Christian seems so easy when you are surrounded by Christians. This can be great because it allows you to freely give voice to your beliefs and convictions in a safe place where most people won’t judge you. One of the hardest things, I believe, for a young person to navigate is how to publicly portray their faith honest and openly for the world the see and festivals like Soul Survivor can be a great way of practising that.

But, to take the song out of context a bit, there must be more than this…

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Obviously, this isn’t my car. For one, it’s clean.

You can polish a car so much that it gleams for everyone to marvel at, but at the end of the day, there has to be something under the hood to make the car go. No car goes around with its radiator and pistons hanging out, they aren’t aesthetically pleasing. But they are so crucial to ensure there is power in the engine for the car to move. In the same way, a public faith is just a façade unless there is something under the hood. We need our roots to go deeper if we are to avoid getting choked out by the weeds when that first trial comes along. I can’t teach you how to love God in your heart, that’s a work of the Holy Spirit. I can suggest some practical tips though for working on your ‘under the hood’ private faith though:

 

i) Read your Bible. Do it daily. Joshua 1:8.

 

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This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

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ii) Get some solid Bible teaching. Listen to it. If you are in a church where this is a bit scarce, do what I often do – there are some great podcasts I can recommend, but they won’t suit everyone. I’d suggest:

  • The Village Church
  • Renewing your mind
  • (For the girls) Sheologians
  • (Also for the girls) Flower Mound Women’s Bible Study
  • Daily John Piper
  • Sermon audio
  • Radical with David Platt

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iii) Read a book for once! Learn as much as you can. It is a lie from the pit of hell that theology does not matter. It totally does! As soon as anyone opens their mouth to speak about God they are being theological. Chances are if they don’t know any theology it’s just bad theology they are speaking.  Start off with a good study Bible (I’d recommend ESV or Matthew Henry, but there are other great ones). Some other great books that have profoundly impacted me include:

  • The Pursuit of God – A W Tozer
  • The Holiness of God – R C Sproul
  • The Reason for God – Tim Keller
  • The Explicit Gospel – Matt Chandler
  • The Mortification of Sin – John Owen
  • Scandalous – D A Carson

 

3. If you aren’t enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it

 

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Best Jamaican-bobsled-based movie in history. FACT.

One of my favourite movies is Cool Runnings. That bit at the end where they (spoilers) carry the bobsled across that last stretch and everyone starts slow clapping and the guy’s dad is there and he’s wearing the t shirt…gets me every time.

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Hang on. I need a moment.

Okay. But there is one particular scene that always stands out to me the most. John Candy’s character (Irv) is a washed up bobsled champion who cheated once and was banned from ever competing again, but is hired to coach the Jamaica team. The driver of the team, Derice, is talking to Irv and asks why he did it. He was already a champion, why did he feel the need to cheat all those years ago?

Irv: [telling Derice why he cheated] It’s a fair question. It’s quite simple, really. I had to win. You see, Derice, I had made winning my whole life, and when you make winning your whole life, you have to keep on winning, no matter what. Understand?

Derice Bannock: No, I don’t understand. You won two gold medals. You had it all.

Irv: Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.

Irv had tasted the euphoria of winning a gold medal and had become so fixated on it that he was prepared to break every rule to get it again. In a moment of self-reflection, he admits that he didn’t feel like he was enough without it. Not only that, but once he had it, he still wasn’t satisfied.

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. – Ecclesiastes 5:10

Idolatry happens when you take a good thing (like money, gold medals, euphoric experiences, etc.) and make them the whole focus of your satisfaction and justification. As Christians, all of our delight and satisfaction is found in God alone.

For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things. – Psalm 107:9

God knows that the only way you will be satisfied, the only way you will receive true joy, is in Him. He will not allow you to find it anywhere else because it is nowhere else. Not even in those things that we use to praise him, like dancing and singing and raising our hands and shouting and feeling the euphoria of collective worship. This is starkly evident when the children of Israel turned from following after God in the book of Amos. The crazy thing is that they are still meeting, still singing songs, still making their sacrifices but God says:

21“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen. – Amos 5

So we can’t look to these things to be our ultimate satisfaction. This frees us up to appreciate any and all styles of worship, knowing that we are not dependent on fog machines and lasers to encounter God any more than Elijah was dependent on the mountains tearing in two. Miraculous signs and experiences are wonderful, but they aren’t what God ultimately wants for us. He wants to give us Himself.

The Jews watched as Jesus fed the 5,000 in the wilderness, and we’re told in John 6 that loads of people followed him because of this.

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. – John 6:26

Jesus is quick to deter them, however. He tells them that they were settling for bread that easily perishes and does nothing for the state of their souls. All the while God wanted to give them the bread from heaven that never perishes.

For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. – verses 33-35

Here is the one thing that will satisfy. Not the bread that perishes. Not the bread that will do nothing for their souls. Not the dancing, the lasers, the sound system, the high tempo music that is gone when you leave Peterborough. Those things, in and of themselves, will do nothing for your soul. Christ is the bread of life. If you aren’t satisfied without all those things, then I urge you to examine whether or not you have truly known Jesus – or are you just following the temporary fulfilment that comes along without him. Is it enough to know that you belong to Christ?

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

[Deu 18:9-12 NIV] 9 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD; because of these same detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.

 

Introduction: What do we believe?

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In the Middle Ages, the Romand Catholic church had been the predominant church throughout Christendom. They had started out as the pure defenders of orthodoxy, but around the time of Pope Gregory I (540-604AD) that began to change. The church began to teach that, while the Bible was authoritative, it was not authoritative alone. Rather, special revelation, given to the Pope direct from God, was necessary in interpreting the will of God. At first scripture was kept in Latin and only the priesthood were able to read it. Then others began to see the benefit of having a Bible that they could read in their own language. 3fb6327e491356f66979f1c475f5ff77-william-tyndale-wolf-hallPeople like John Wycliffe (who was declared a heretic) and William Tynedale (who was burned at the stake) sought to bring God’s word to the vernacular. The Roman Catholic church responded with aggression and violence, executing many others who attempted this.

Then in the early 1500s The Reformation happened, and one of its central tenets became known as ‘Sola Scriptura’. As Christians, we affirm what the Catholics believe that the scriptures are authoritative over the Christian’s faith and practice. However, unlike Catholicism, we affirm that scripture alone is authoritative over the Christian’s faith and practices. We believe that there is nowhere else we can look to tell us what we are to believe and do as Christians. Consider the following verse:

[2Ti 3:16-17 NIV] 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Notice that the Bible testifies about itself that it is useful to equip the servant of God for every good work. That is to say, the Bible is sufficient to train us in righteousness, teach us, rebuke us, correct us and equip us.

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Therefore, if there is any practice that we cannot justify from the Bible, then we ought to discard it as unbiblical and wrong. This was true for the reformers when faced with paying indulgences, prayers to Mary, transubstantiation, et al, and it is true for us today when we are faced with apostasy of our own. In particular, the focus of this article: Contemplative prayer.

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What is contemplative prayer?

Contemplative prayer has come into fashion in some areas as a means of ‘listening to God’. Its proponents say that it is a way for God to directly contact the believer in a real and powerful way. At a recent service we were told that it is a ‘deeper’ form of prayer, one that gains us greater unity with God.

It begins with choosing a “centring word”. According to Rick Warren (an open practitioner of contemplative prayer) this should be a short word or phrase that can be uttered in a single breath. Normally, something like “Jesus” or “God” or “the grace of God” is suitable. This is done in order to help the believer empty their mind in order to receive communication from God.

Is it biblical?

Support for contemplative prayer is often cited from Psalm 46:10a ““Be still, and know that I am God.” From this, it is said that this is a prescriptive for how the believer is to meditate.

In a recent meeting, the examples of Jesus separating himself to pray (eg Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16 etc.) was used in support of the practice. Also used was Elijah’s experience in 1 Kings 19 where he heard the “still, small voice” of God.

Notice, however, in none of these passages does anyone have to repeat centring words, empty their minds or enter into a trance-like state in order to hear from God. The Biblical reference do not depict the exact practice they are supposed to support.

What does the Bible actually say?

“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. – Matthew 6:7

Here you have Jesus specifically telling people not to perform useless repetitions in prayer. The practice of repeating ‘centring words’, according to Jesus in this verse, is something a Christian should not be doing. Why? Because it’s what the heathen do (I’ll come back to that later).

What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. – 1 Corinthians 14:15

In this verse Paul is addressing some of the craziness going on in the Corinthian church where people are praying openly in tongues with no interpretation and it is causing confusion. Here Paul has to address this and say that prayer, while it is done ‘with my spirit’, is done ‘with my mind also’. The practice of contemplative prayer, however, is focused around the process of emptying the mind, not using it. Here again we see a direct Biblical contradiction of the practice in the words of Paul this time.

In fact, any time the act of prayer is mentioned in the scripture, it is always referred to as the conscious act of making communication with God. Asking (Matt 21:22), petitioning (Dan 9:3), pleading (2 Sam 12:16), interceding (1 Kings 13:6) and making requests known (Phl 4:6). There is no mention of repeating mantras in order to clear one’s mind.

So where does it come from?

The practice of contemplative prayer in Christendom can be traced back to the Middle Ages and to Roman Catholic mysticism. Remember the doctrine of sola scriptura was as a response to the propensity of the Catholic church to adopt teaching and practices that were outside of what the Bible taught. In his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero references two of these mystics: Teresa of Avila and Thomas Merton.

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Teresa was a Caremlite nun who, through practicing contemplation, claimed to experience physical pain and sexual pleasure. She practiced asceticism, which was the belief that closeness with God can only be achieved through separating oneself from the world and suppressing the natural desires of the body. She also claimed to have levitated during the Mass.

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Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who (again, in a contemplative state) had visions of himself performing the duties of a Buddhist monk. Later in his ministry he became fascinated by Zen Buddhism, and wrote extensively on uniting the practices of Buddhism with Christian orthodoxy.

What Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:7 that vain repetitions are to be avoided because it’s what the heathen do. Neither Teresa nor Merton were around at the time Jesus is speaking – so to whom is he referring when he says “heathen”?

The fact is that the practice of contemplative prayer, whilst found nowhere in scripture, is found almost identically in the ancient Eastern mystic systems of Buddhism and Hinduism. Kundalini yoga is based around the practice of achieving an altered state of perception through repeating mantras and clearing one’s mind. This has all been popularised through the New Age movement in recent times, and introduced into Christian practice through organisations such as the Emergent church. It is also little surprise that it is rife throughout the ecumenical movement.

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So what do I do?

The Bible is clear about God’s attitude towards adopting the practices and beliefs of pagan religions (Deut 18:9-12). If you find yourself performing, or being asked to perform this practice, flee from it. It is right and proper to desire to hear from God, and God has given us all the means of doing so. It’s called the Bible. Read it, asked for illumination as you do. Pray about it. Seek God regarding it. Wrestle with it. Fill your mind with the truth and resist the enemy that would fill it with anything different.

If you are teaching this to people, repent. Those who teach are subject to stricter judgement (James 3:1), and the Bible is replete with warnings about what happens to those who teach false doctrine in the name of God. Repent and turn to Christ, trust his word and come out of new age mysticism before you are deceived any further, and before you deceive anyone else.

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

A meditation on 1 Corinthians 1

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An old fisherman walks into a pub and he’s downcast. He’s been out on the lake all the previous night and not caught a single thing. He steps up to the bar and there’s a young fella in the queue ahead of him. The young fella motions to the barman and exclaims that he’s just caught his 50th trout that week. The bar erupts in appreciative applause, and the old fisherman for a moment is happy that he’s getting a free drink in hard times. But deep down there is a nagging jealousy that this youngster has caught so many fish while he has been labouring endlessly with no result.

During the course of the night the two get to talking and the old fisherman finally gets his chance to ask about the young man’s catch.

“What bait did you use?” the old man asks.

The young man wipes away the flecks of foam from his top lip, “Cheese.” he says.

The old fisherman is stunned, racking his brain trying to figure out how cheese could ever tempt a trout. “Wh-how…?”

“Easy,” the young man says, “I use a little wooden block with a metal trigger. I set the cheese at one end, the trout swims up, nibbles the cheese and WHUMP!” he bangs his fist on the table, “The critter is crushed in the trap.”

Sensing something wrong with the story, the old fisherman asks, “Do you mean…a mousetrap?

“No,” replies the young man, taking another swig, “a trout trap.”

“Well…okay…” the old fisherman raises one eyebrow, “where do you catch them?”

“Round the back.” the young man says, thumbing at a nondescript area behind him.

“Round the…back?”

“Aye,” the young man says, “out in the alley. I lay the traps down at night and in the morning they are heaving!”

“Could you…could you show me what you mean?”

“Sure.” The young man whips out his phone and scrolls through his pictures. Finally coming to a stop he flips the screen towards the old fisherman.

The old man looks at the picture, then gives a puzzled look at the young man, then back at the screen. “Son,” he says, trying to stifle a bemused laugh, “that’s a dead mouse.”

The young man sniffs and pulls his phone away. Indignantly looking down his nose at the old man he says, “Well, that’s your interpretation.”

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The church in Corinth was a church that had let go of the brakes. It has massive issues all throughout it from the lay people right through to the leadership. They were permissive of sexual immorality and refused to practice church discipline. They used the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the wrong way, causing confusion among the congregation and the world outside. There were some who even stirred the people up against Paul and his message so that he had to write twice to them to try to turn the ship around.

The predominant issue Paul is going to address, however, in the passage is the issue of divisions. We are told in verse 10-14 of 1 Corinthians 1 that the church has broken off into self-defined groups. One group prefers the teaching of Apollos. One prefers Simon Peter. Another group champions Paul. One particularly hyper-spiritual group even divides themselves by calling their faction ‘of Christ’. This is the situation Paul is wading into in this letter, and so in his opening address he pleads for them to unite around a common ground.

Paul, however, is very clear about what that common ground must be. It is actually a very narrow definition of what should unite them. He doesn’t call on people to simplify their beliefs down to “God is love” and “God wants you to be united”. Even though both of these are true, they both leave room for each faction to reinterpret to their own presuppositions. No, Paul calls them to unite around one, central theme, and it’s that theme which is the focus of this study.

Verse 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

v22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, v23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentile, v24 but those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

See Paul never calls for unity for unity’s sake. This is the call of the ecumenical movement: that matters of the atonement, salvation and justification don’t matter so long as there is unity. This opinion has been championed of late by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in recent days, among others. But the Bible does not call for unity for unity’s sake. In fact, as you read Paul you will see that there are times when God clearly calls for division from certain things and certain teachings (Galatians 1:8-9, Romans 16-17, 1 Timothy 1:3-5).

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Therefore it matters infinitely not just that we have unity in the church, but what we are being called to unify with. In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul is abundantly clear. We are to be unified in our message, and that message is Christ and him crucified.

And nobody wants to hear it.

That’s what we get from verse 22. See the dilemma Paul is in here. The people outside the church in Corinth don’t want to hear the message Paul is preaching. What do they want instead?

22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom

We’ve already seen how the church had started to pride themselves on their great teachers like Apollos, like Peter, like Paul and even Jesus. This is what has brought division. Casting aside the explicit message of the gospel they taught Paul, Apollos, Peter and Christ as if they were another one of the great philosophers. “Come hear Apollos: the next Aristotle!” “Cephas: the heir to Socrates!” “These are people,” they’d say, “who can teach us the way of wisdom!”

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And so the message of the gospel is replaced with a how-to manual. How to live “Your Best Life Now”, how to be “Purpose-driven”, “You too can be like David if you follow these 5 steps!” There are entire churches and ministries today who are based around this message – and it comes from a denial of sin in the heart of man. Gnosticism teaches us that man’s salvation lies in his education, that the way of knowledge, of enlightenment, is the true way to God. That mankind is essentially good and just needs to be taught the right path. The Bible does not teach us that the root of mankind’s problem is a lack of wisdom, or of purpose, but it is that they are wicked sinners in need of a saviour. “Ryan that’s foolish,” you might say, “people don’t actually believe that anymore! We know men are essentially good. They need helped from their brokenness and poverty and hunger. Preaching against sin is just silly!” And you would be just like the Gentiles who tell Paul that the preaching of the cross is ‘foolishness’.

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There is another group Paul is preaching to who want something else. This is where it got interesting for me when I was examining the text. The Jews, we are told, demand a sign. Just like they did back during Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 2:18) they will not believe unless they see a sign. This has led the Corinthian church to make a public spectacle of their use of the miraculous gifts that Paul is going to address in chapters 11 through to 14.

“But it’s what they want!” the church might reply, “It’s how we can get them into the church, Paul! What’s wrong with giving them what they want?” It is true, in fact the gospel without some sort of miraculous sign is a “stumbling block” to them. They can’t make that leap between what they hear and what they can’t bring themselves to believe.

Notice something very striking here.

Paul refers to two people groups. The Jews and the Gentiles. From his perspective in the world of the early church, there is no one else. This is 100% of Paul’s audience: Jews and Gentiles, and neither of them want to hear the gospel. Paul identifies both as a way of referring to everybody in the world at the time. Do you see the conflict here for the early church? They are tasked with preaching a message which, on the face of things, looks like everyone is rejecting. Neither the Jews nor Gentiles want the message of Christ crucified. “Wow us with miracles, instruct us with wise words, but don’t convict our hearts with the cross of Christ!”

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Do you feel the pressure the church is under? You can almost understand them sitting down in a meeting and saying, “Look, nobody is buying this. Why don’t we start by finding out what they want us to give them, and then meet that need and by that way we’ll see people come into the church. Our message would be more effective if we just became a little more seeker-sensitive.

Just like the young fisherman in our story, you can hear his condescension when he admonishes the older man just to change his bait, and his location, and then he’ll catch loads of fish! The problem is that the young man is not catching fish at all, because he’s actually the one using the wrong bait. On the face of things his methods are extremely effective, but they are wrong.

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My favourite panel in all of comic book history

Yet Paul, rather than embrace this, stands resolute against it. You can see this is his repetition of the clause here and in chapter 2, “but we preach Christ crucified“. Paul has no interest in being ‘seeker-sensitive’. On the battlefield of evangelism he is not budging one inch away from his original message. He has no intention of changing the bait. He is more concerned with remaining obedient to his calling (verse 1) than to gaining a following.

This is not the first time God has done this either. Back in Isaiah 6 we see the prophet Isaiah confronted by the glory and majesty of the Lord so much so that he is completely undone. Then we have the well-preached passage where God asks for someone to go for Him and Isaiah replies “Here am I, send me!” and everyone wipes away a tear and goes out and joins the mission field and hurrah! Only I’ve rarely heard a minister finish that chapter. What exactly is the mission that God gives to Isaiah?

And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

“‘Keep on hearing,[c] but do not understand;
keep on seeing,[d] but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,[e]
    and their ears heavy,
    and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”

I mean, you can just hear the gulp as Isaiah listens to this commission. Imagine a new pastor hearing this mission, “Go and tell people to keep on being deaf and blind. Make their hearts dull and their senses useless in case they turn and repent and be healed.”

Isaiah has enough in the tank at this point to ask, “How long do I have to do this for?” To which God replies in verse 11:

“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is a desolate waste,

 

The news just doesn’t get better. Isaiah’s mission, his job, is to preach to a people none of whom will accept him. None of them will repent right up until God destroys the land and takes them off into slavery. In this commission, Isaiah’s job is not to get bums on seats. His success is not measured by how many people come forward at the end of his rallies, because God tells him from the start that no one will. Isaiah, like Paul, has been given a mission from God and his success depends on his faithfulness to it – nothing else.

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Church, have you sacrificed the preaching of the gospel of Christ crucified for popularity?

There are whole church movements who are built around this – performing signs and wonders to attract the unbelieving world. “Doing the stuff,” as John Wimber would call it. “Power evangelism” as Robbie Dawkins would say. “Manifesting the power of God” as Bill Johnson would say via Smith Wigglesworth. What they mean is operating the miraculous gifts of prophecy and healing (and several other things not found in scripture).

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Notice, however, that in our chapter there is a distinction made between “signs” in verse 22 and “the power of God” in verse 24. Paul will also mention this phrase (“the power of God”) in Romans 1:16. In both passages Paul makes the case that signs and wonders aren’t what he means when he says “the power of God”. I am sorry to disappoint Messrs Wimber, Dawkins, Johnson, Wigglesworth et al., but Paul describes the gospel of Christ crucified as the power of God, not signs and wonders. How do we “manifest the power of God”? We preach the gospel. How do we conduct “power evangelism”? We preach the gospel. How do we “do the stuff”? We preach the gospel.

 

“But this is totally ineffective,” you might say. “Everyone either thinks it’s really stupid, or can’t understand it. At least with signs, or with wisdom people can actually see the benefit of what we are doing. How are we ever going to get people into church if all we do is preach Christ crucified?”

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The answer is found in verse 24. Paul says in 23 that the Jews in general think it’s a stumbling block, the Gentiles in general think that it is foolishness, but Paul doesn’t leave it there. He goes on to say in verse 24 “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (emph. mine) That is the reason that Paul preaches Christ crucified! If he were to merely perform signs, or teach wisdom, he would get loads of people to come, but not have them transformed by the power of God. If he preaches Christ crucified, he gets fewer people to come, but they are transformed by the power of God! Who are these fewer people? They are those whom God has called. They are those given to the son from before the foundation of the world, the elect, the ones the Father has chosen to show his mercy to. They are saved by the power of the gospel and nothing else.

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So we preach Christ crucified. We do not waiver from the message that our sins have been cleansed, we have been forgiven of our rebellion and treason against the most high God of the universe by the broken body and shed blood of his son Jesus on the cross. We are all drawn nigh to God through his shed blood alone. There is no more dividing partition between ourselves and the Father. No pope, priest, prophet nor anyone else stands before God for us – we are welcomed in through the blood of the lamb, and at the same time sent out to be messengers of this great love that we have been shown. That love that caused a perfect, sinless lamb of God to willingly lay down his life for those who cursed his name, spat on his face and nose-dived towards a lost eternity before he stooped to save us. The riches of his grace and mercy that he lavishes upon his elect to be called sons of the living God. The blessing of being trusted with his gospel to go out into the world and roll back the darkness wherever it may be found in the hope of a promised eternal inheritance.

 

Compared to that, signs, and wisdom, seem pretty cheap.

 

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

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“The Bible is pretty clear when it speaks to this issue.”

 

“Yea. But the Bible was also used to condone slavery.”

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I can’t count how many times I’ve come up against this argument. It’s the trump card of the liberal atheist and progressive Christian alike whenever anyone brings up what the Bible actually teaches versus what they feel is right. It’s that, because of the Bible’s stance on slavery, the Bible’s moral authority is questionable and can be rejected. This is to be expected from hardened atheists who can neither understand nor want to the full counsel of God revealed in scripture. What has worried me in recent years (since moving to England especially) is the sheer amount of professing Christians who also have this view.

It’s what some commentators have called “Post-Biblicism”. It is the systematic casting of doubt, challenging and redacting scripture in order to make it fit with our own socio-cultural sensibilities. Famous proponents of this have included Steve Chalke, Brian Zahnd and John Pavlovitz who love the phrase “through the lens of Jesus” to describe the process of throwing out all scripture that doesn’t sound like the liberal stereotype they have created Jesus to fit into.

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Sooner or later, in debate with these people, chances are they will throw out something similar to the line at the start of this article, “But at one time the Bible was used to condone slavery.”

And they are right. There’s no doubting that fact. The kidnapping, transporting, enslaving and abuse of Africans from the 15th to the 19th century was indeed justified by some in Biblical terms. As Harvard Divinity School’s Jacob Olupona said:

Christianity was deeply culpable in the African slave trade, inasmuch as it consistently provided a moral cloak for the buying and selling of human beings.

This is a black eye on the face of Christianity only made better by the fact that this evil practice was abolished not by the secular humanists of the day, but by Christians like Wilberforce, Newton, Oglethorpe and the rest of the Clapham Sect.

However, there is a deeper problem underneath all this. What those who argued in favour of slavery did was so convincing (in saying that the Bible condones the practice of slavery) because it is partly true.

The Bible does condone slavery.

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Now it’s important to clarify at this point the distinction between what the Bible condones as slavery, permits as slavery, and what we think of as slavery in the modern day. The issue is still so raw in the public consciousness because the moment we hear the term ‘slavery’ we think about the evil, wicked practice of forcibly taking Africans from their native land, chaining them up in ships, transporting them in hellish conditions and forcing them into labour against their will.

The Bible, contrary to popular belief, condemns this practice quite clearly. The Slave Trade was built on the beliefs that Africans were not equal to their lighter-skinned counterparts through religion (many early sources refer to them as ‘the heathen’) or ethnicity (others referred to them as ‘children of Ham’). However, Genesis 1:27 establishes, right from the first chapter of the Bible, that all men are created in God’s image. This (what theologians call ‘The Imago Dei’) is why we treat people with equal dignity and respect, because we have all been created in the image of God.

Clearer than this is the Biblical condemnation of kidnapping anyone for the purposes of foced labour, Exodus 21:16 saying: Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. This message is reinforced in 1 Timothy 1:8-10.

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What is clear, therefore, is that the Bible for a time was used to condone the African Slave Trade. However, it was not an abandoning of Biblical authority that led to abolition. We didn’t learn to ‘interpret these passages metaphorically’ or see them ‘as poetry’. No, abolition was not born out of abandoning Biblical authority, but turning towards itBy allowing the Bible freedom to speak from its full counsel into the situation to convict hearts and change minds like only the word of God can do.

400px-mosaique_echansons_bardoSecondly, there is a practice of slavery found in the Bible that is never condoned, but is not opposed either. If anything, it seems to be permitted by God to occur. This was the practice of Rome to take slaves from defeated nations and those in debt. Everything from domestic servants, accountants, teachers, physicians and manual labourers were often slaves. However, there are also records of slaves being expoited sexually (prostitutes were often slaves), subject to torture or summary execution and they had no right to legal personhood in the Roman system. It is in this same system that the majority of the New Testament lives and breathes, and fails to breathe a word against the practice. In fact, slaves are urged to obey their masters in three separate instances, Ephesians 6, Colossians 4 and 1 Peter 2.

This proves tricky for Christians to address because it certainly seems like Paul is pro-slavery here. It’s only in examining and understanding the text in context we get some idea of what is going on here.

The book of Philemon centres around the story of a slave who has escaped – run away from his master and subsequently has surrendered his entire life to Christ under the ministry of Paul. Paul, it is believed, is sending this slave back to his master with this letter (the master’s name is Philemon and we are to believe that he too is a Christian) in which Paul urges the slave to be accepted back not just as a servant, but as a brother and an equal.philemon-18

no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. – Philemon 1:16

This sentiment is echoed throughout the New Testament where Paul says that both the slave and master have a Heavenly Master who judges rightly and therefore masters are to treat their servants justly, knowing they will both answer to the same master (Ephesians 6:9). In one of the most startlingly counter-cultural verses in his letters he declares that there is no slave nor free among those who belong to Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

So it is clear that the New Testament does nothing to say that slavery must be brought to an end. However, we can see through the counter-cultural attitudes the gospel brings about that God is intending to change this system as a kind of side-effect of bringing people together with him in the gospel. Those who believe the gospel obey their masters, because in so doing they are honouring Christ who suffered for them. In the same token, however, those who believe the gospel treat their workers with respect, knowing that they have been saved not because of their worth but because of the loving grace of God when they too were wicked, filthy slaves to sin. They are both now equal in the gospel.

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Spartacus tried to free the slaves and it ended in bloodshed. Paul preached the gospel and changed the hearts and minds of the people to honouring and protecting their workers.

The third type of slavery in the Bible is the one that is not just permitted, but openly prescribed by God. Its instructions are found in the Levitical law given to Moses in the Old Testament. This was provided as a way for a person or family to work themselves out of debt. For a poor, nomadic people, state welfare was not as proficiently supplied as it is today. There was no way for impoverished person to feed themselves or their family and therefore they sold themselves (or their family members) into slavery to repay that debt.

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The book of Exodus also contains the clearest example of slave liberation in the whole Bible.

The Levitical law also gave strict rules around the treatment of these slaves. In the surrounding nations, slaves had no rights, not even to be regarded legally as a person. It was not so with the Levitical law. Under God’s law:

  • Slaves were still allowed the right to own property, have a family and be provided for by their masters.
  • They were protected from being killed by their masters.
  • Family members were allowed to be purchased back by their family once the debt had been accounted for.
  • Every 7th year, all slaves were freed among the children of Israel in what was known as the ‘Year of Jubilee’. This protected any slave from becoming enslaved for life.

This kind of service we still find in shadows today in our working lives. Due to the way that slavery is set out in the Old Testament has led many scholars to argue the term ‘slave’ should be better translated ‘servant’. In that sense, ‘slavery’ in the Old Testament was more akin to willing service rather than what we might attach to the term ‘slavery’ today.

After this long explanation, I reach the title of this post. The Bible condones slavery. It does not condone kidnapping, it does not condone forced labour. It does not condone an endless servitude or loss of personhood, because everyone is created in the image of God.

 

But it still condones slavery.

 

A different type of slavery.

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Throughout both examples of Biblical slavery, Old and New Testament, we get a picture of slavery that God actively seeks. God seeks slaves.

 

In Exodus 21:2-6 we get a picture of the Year of Jubilee, where God decrees that all Israelites slaves are to be set free. However, there is a loophole. Say a slave actually loved his master. The text says that the master has taken in his wife and children and the slave is happy to keep them all in slavery under the roof of this “beloved master”. That master would have to take that slave to the judges, then take an awl and pierce the slave through the ear. From thenceforth that slave would remain with that master for the rest of his life. He is no longer obligated, but a slave out of love for his master.

In the New Testament, we get this stark reminder that once we were slaves to sin in Romans 6. What we thought was freedom was actually slavery – causing us harm, abusing us and degrading us and leading us to destruction. Into this picture steps Jesus and pays our ransom – he literally buys us for a fee. The first words of 1 Corinthians 6:20 are emblazoned across our salvation “YOU ARE BOUGHT WITH A PRICE”. We are no more our own than what we were under the lash of sin. We were purchased for the Master. For the King. As Romans 6:18 puts it “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

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Therefore, there is a mark of slavery placed on each one of us. It involves the shedding of blood. The piercing of flesh. The judgment of the One Righteous Judge. That judgment, that piercing, that blood was shed by Jesus himself on the cross, that he might declare his purchase of us not as indentured servants, not as begruding slaves, but as slaves of love. That we might serve Him because we love Him. That we trust Him to be good where all other masters of drink and drugs and greed and self-reliance and lust and pride have let us down. That we not only trust Him for ourselves, but for our families as well. That is serving Christ, literally becoming a bond slave to righteousness, we might find fulfillment and joy. That we can trust Him, and love Him, because He first loved us.

 

The Bible condones slavery. What’s more it encourages it. I couldn’t be happier about that.

 

The freest man on the face of the earth is the one who makes himself slave to a perfect master. – Paul Washer