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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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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.

nadab-and-abihu-are-killed-in-the-tabernacle-leviticus-1900

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.

cover-photo

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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Last week a large group from my church went to Spring Harvest up in Minehead. We were unable to go due to a family holiday in Wales, but I’ve been able to catch up with some of the people who went, and the teaching through the videos that have been posted online. The people I’ve spoken to spoke very highly of the worship, the seminars, the social aspect of gathering together outside of the normal setting with other believers. Very few people mentioned the actual teaching, instead referring to a vague notion of ‘unity’. It was only in watching the Archbishop of Canterbury speak at the conference that I got a firm handle on what was meant by this drive for ‘unity’.

And I was appalled.

Please don’t get me wrong. Unity among Christians is imperative. I agree with the words of John 17 where Jesus asks for his people to be one. That is not the issue. It’s what we’re being asked, through vast assumption and little discernment, to be united with that has troubled me. It is clear that what was meant by ‘unity’ was actually ‘ecumenism’.

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Ecumenism is the movement towards unity among Christian groups, however widely understood to mean unity between every group that self-identifies as Christian. I make the distinction because there are many groups and organisations that self identify as Christian and are not. Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses are two examples. I would add a third, which is where the contention of this issue lies for me, and it’s Roman Catholicism.

Christian unity is very, very important. I cannot restate that enough. The underlying question, however, is what is a Christian?

Is it simply someone who self-identifies as one? Or is there certain criteria we should expect? For instance, we agree that a Christian is someone who loves Jesus. At his speech at the recent Spring Harvest in Minehead the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, suggested such a definition. Therefore, let us use that simple definition for now – that a Christian is someone who loves Jesus.

woman-565104_1920Imagine if I were to sit down and explain how much I love my wife. I am so in love with her I think she’s the most beautiful person in the world. Her long, blonde hair, her tall, slim physique, her penchant for action movies and pre-19th century poetry all fascinate me. I could talk about her all day!

The problem is that’s not my wife. My wife is relatively short. She has shoulder-length brown hair and hates action movies. I doubt she’s ever read a pre-19th century poem since being forced to in school.

So imagine if I were to describe my wife in the first way, then you actually met my wife. You would assume two things. a) I’m lying or b) There is some misunderstanding, and we are talking about two completely different women. Either way, does it look like I love my wife if I’ve got so many details wrong about who she is?

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In the same way, simply saying we love Jesus isn’t enough. The question must be asked: who is Jesus?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Is he the sole mediator between God and man? 1 Timothy 2:5 or does he delegate that responsibility to his mother, priests, the Pope and saints?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does the Pope serve as “The Vicar of Christ” (the term ‘vicar’ comes from the latin ‘vicarius’ meaning ‘in place of’) or is Christ still active as the high priest for all believers as Hebrews 7 says he is?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Did Jesus die once for all (Hebrews 7:27) or is he to be continually sacrificed in the Eucharist (“The Sacrifice of the Mass is not merely an offering of praise and thanksgiving, or simply a memorial of the sacrifice on the Cross. It is a propitiatory sacrifice which is offered for the living and dead, for the remission of sins and punishment due to sin, as satisfaction for sin and for other necessities.” The Council of Trent, Session XXII, Sept 17, 1562)?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does Jesus save people by grace through faith (Ephesians 2) or does he save people after they perform meritorious works? Must the believer then maintain their own salvation through confession to priests and receiving the sacraments? (CCC 1131)

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does Jesus regenerate through baptism (section 1215 of the Catechism “This sacrament [baptism] is also called ‘the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,’ for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one ‘can enter the kingdom of God”) or does he do it through faith (Hab 2:4)?

1005d1f2f13adcd679bc9acb8caf6cbf_question-mark-red-clip-art-question-mark-clipart-png_198-299Does Jesus alone have the power to forgive sins (Psa. 130:4; Isa. 43:25; Dan. 9:9; Mic. 7:18; Acts 8:22) or is the only way to be forgiven by confessing to a priest and being absolved (CCC 1424)?

I hope I have demonstrated above that we aren’t dealing with minor peccadilloes but these differences go right to the heart of who Jesus is. What is being presented in both systems is an entirely different gospel, with different means of grace, different definitions of grace, different functions of the atonement and a different Jesus at its centre.

In listening to Justin Welby speak at Minehead he does address these differences very briefly. He calls them ‘really difficult things’ and ‘the biggest issues’. He does this in the middle of his point that unity is more important than these ‘really difficult things’ and ‘biggest issues’. What is implied here is that “the truth of the One God” and “blessing the other” is vastly more important than worrying about whether or not we are preaching a different gospel. It was at this point that I felt he’d be much happier if he simply tore Galatians 1 out of his Bible.

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He goes on to say that unity is the reflection of God’s holiness. Saying, “Disunity is sin. We cannot be holy if we’re not united.” In this he seems to be in ignorance of what the term ‘holy’ actually means. In the Hebrew scripture the term for ‘holy’ is ‘qodesh’, which means ‘separateness, apartness, set-apart”. The word literally means to separate. It was given to the portion of the offering that was set apart for God in the Levitical sacrificial law. Therefore, to be holy means to separate from that which is ungodly, or set against God as he is revealed in his word. To say that holiness means unity, even with beliefs that are set against the word of God, is mind-boggling.

Again, I am all for Christian unity, but I hold with Martin Luther who said “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.” It is my belief that Welby actually intends for us to commit to ecumenism rather than Jesus. This is no surprise, as he openly tells us that his spiritual director is the Roman Catholic monk Nicolas Buttet, and he openly praises the Catholic mystic Jean Vanier as an “extraordinary image of Christ” (Vanier in his book Essential Writings has previously identified the Hindu Mahatma Ghandi as “one of the greatest prophets of our times” and “a man sent by God” and called for all Christians to “open doors to other religions”). One article from a Catholic source said:

Justin Welby has no doubt that he is a Protestant who prays in tongues, whose religion is a Bible religion; but, thanks to P.Nicolas, he adores Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, goes to confession, and has been on pilgrimage to the Anglican shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.  Both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby break the mould that the past wishes to impose on them.

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After all this, Welby had the gall to reference Latimer and Ridley, two of the early English reformers, who were burned at the stake for having the courage to separate from the Roman Catholic church in the first place, as examples to support unity with the Roman Catholic church! So it is clear that, in calling for unity, Welby is asking us to disregard discernment, doctrine and the legacy of people like Latimer and Ridley and so many others who suffered for our faith, and using the dying words of Latimer to do it.

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I do not feel anger or prejudice against anyone, regardless of religious persuasion. We live in a pluralistic society where I brush shoulders with people of many different faiths every day. However, it is very clear to me in my reading of scripture and understanding of the gospel as passed down to me that no one who follows the teachings and practices of the Catholic church can rightly be called Christian. I believe that scriptures like Gal 1:8 are very clear on that point. I do not say this with any malice, or triumphalism, but with a heavy heart. I want to obey Jesus Christ’s desire that I love people, and in this case I love people enough to say that they are lost and in dire need of the gospel that actually saves.

Justin Welby intimated that the world is dying without Jesus, and that the only way we can show them Jesus is if we are united. The irony of that position is that he is standing alongside, shoulder to shoulder with, people who are dying without Jesus and affirming them in doing so. I would rebut this statement that the only way we can show the world Jesus is if we are united (yes, united) on who Jesus actually is, what he does, and how we can approach him. If we present not just social improvement programs but the gospel. The full, unadulterated gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone.

Love you all in Christ, Ryan.

I’m an avid Star Wars fan. Ever since watching Episodes 4, 5 and 6 on grainy VHS tapes with my dad and older brother, I was completely sucked in to the mythology and action and characters in a big way. To this day, my pulse still races at the sound of a good lightsaber battle. My ringtone is the fierce X Wing battle from the end of A New Hope, and my message alert tone is R2D2’s trademark beeping. On my wedding day, I walked down the aisle with a pair of Darth Vader cufflinks in my shirt.

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The catchphrase of, “Use the Force, Luke.” is also burned into my memory from watching and re-enacting that scene over and over where Luke pulls down the blast shield and blows up the Deathats-no-moon-1024x640th Star. The Force is considered to be this all-pervading…well…energy that flows through all things in the Star Wars universe. Jedi like Yoda and Mace Windu talk about it as if it has a will, one which is working behind the scenes, through the most dreadful of circumstances at times, to bring about balance.

God is not like this in most respects. He is not a vague energy, nor is he found in all things. That would be pantheism. At the same time, all things are through him, and by him and for him, to bring about his glory (Romans 11:36).

Now I know what you’re thinking: this sounds like Calvinism!

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And you’re right. It does link with Calvinism. I hesitate to say it is Calvinism, because it’s simply the bare words of scripture. If you wish to argue with it, simply go back and read Romans 11:36 again. Not satisfied? Give it another read. In that one verse is encapsulated the will and activity of God. What in this universe is for him? All things. What is by him? All things. What comes through him? All things. Why? For his glory.

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In a recent blog post, my friend listed his objections to Calvinism very clearly, and I would first like to address these and then look at the alternative which I feel should not go undefended. I intend to address each objection one at a time.

  1. Double predestination

This is the logical outworking of the belief in predestination. It follows that if God chooses some to save, he must choose to damn others. The objection to this is that it is incredibly unjust (my friend uses the word ‘ridiculous’ also). He posits the following analogy:

If your father said to you that your brother would inherit his whole will but you would get nothing, and that he had decided this even before both of you were born, would you not be insensed at such a ridiculous decision?

My first response is to say that the above analogy is unjust because both sons of the father feel they deserve an inheritance. It is expected that the just thing for that father to do is to share his wealth with both his sons. What my friend is saying here is that God owes all his sons and daughters the equal chance at salvation. That is only fair.

bible-neethling-efs1755mm-6232880-oLet’s look at what the reality of the situation is, however. Owing to man’s fall, sin entered into the heart of man to the extent that God never in the Bible describes the unregenerate people as his ‘children’. The paternal relationship of the analogy is non-existent in reality, due to the presence of sin. Instead, we are told that prior to conversion, unbelievers are ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3). It is only through faith in Christ that we become children of God via adoption (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:5, Ephesians 1:5). The analogy does not work because it assumes that everyone has that paternal relationship with the Father and therefore that God owes them a chance at salvation. The truth is that God owes us nothing, there is no mandate coercing him to offer anyone salvation.

What does he owe us? The concern of the analogy is about what is just for God to do. Therefore, what are our just desserts here? We are told in Romans 6 that the wages of sin is death, and that death spread to all men because all men have sinned (Romans 5:12). In an oft-forgotten piece of scripture, God through the Psalmist tells us that he hates all evildoers (Ps 5:5), this is corroborated in instances in Hosea 9:15 and Proverbs 6:16-19 among others.

bcgrnnqki-1To tinker the analogy then to make it a little more accurate (still not quite there I’ll admit), an old man is beset by two robbers who are intent on destroying him and stealing all his stuff. The old man manages to catch the two men in the act. What does he owe two guilty criminals? He owes them the full penalty of the law. It’s only in letting one, or both, go that he is actually acting in an unfair manner. I would urge my friend to be very careful, therefore, in determining that in offering salvation God should be just and fair, because just and fair means we all get hell.

2. My choice

This is an argument based on my friend’s choice to follow Jesus which can be pinpointed to a particular time in his life. Immediately my thought is that if we place our own personal experiences over the authority of scripture then we are on a slippery slope. The downfall of the modern day pentecostal movement is replete with people who interpret scripture in the light of their personal experience rather than the other way around.

I was speaking to a young person over the Summer who came to me with a problem. This was a very devoted, godly young man, who came to me and said that he wasn’t sure he was saved. Sometimes he felt saved, but at other times he didn’t (this young man attended a denomination with Arminianism at its core). He had spent the previous evening in a worship service on his knees weeping for God to let him know if he was saved or not. Imagine that? Imagine having to come to your Father and beg him to let him know if he loves you or not? Imagine expecting that to change based on your own performace? Yet this was the situation this young man was in.

I will lead my friend who wrote the blog through the same journey I took this young man. “Last night,” I said, “you were seeking God. Would you say that’s correct?”

The young man agreed.

“But if you look at Romans 3:20-21, it says that no-one seeks God. No not one. So how can you be seeking God if God says no one seeks him?”

The young man was stumped, and it took someone else to say, “God is seeking you in the first place.”

The young man left that conversation with a newfound assurance and trust in the Father who loves Him with a steadfast, everlasting love (Jeremiah 31). That anyone who comes to the Lord shall in no wise be cast out (John 6:37). Why? Because as Jesus puts it:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him – John 6:44

The young man, just like my friend, had the perception that coming to God was his decision. Due to this, he had no assurance because he could easily just decide not to follow Jesus and would then not be saved. I had the same perception until I read the scriptures and found that I had only chosen God because the Father had drawn me to Jesus in the first place. What he has begun in me he is faithful to finish, and in that I have such assurance of my salvation. Assurance that lets me sing, “Thank you for saving me, what can I say?” because he is the one who does the saving, not me.

3. Hyper Calvinism

The objection here is over the sovereignty of God in all things. We’ve already seen that my friend places himself in opposition to Romans 11:36 here, but I think we can afford to nuance this a bit.

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If we consider the example of Joseph, we can see clearly the providence and sovereignty of God in even the darkest of circumstances. Joseph was thrown into a pit, sold into slavery, put in prison and left to rot until he was miraculously rescued. Not only this, but he saved the land of Egypt, and his family (the very brothers who threw him in the pit in the first place) from starvation. God, in his wisdom, used even the “free will” sin of Joseph’s brothers to bring about their salvation. The brothers willed to sell Joseph into slavery, but in all of it God was working his sovereign purpose to preserve the bloodline of the Messiah that was to come.

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Whose will was carried out that day? God’s? Or the crowd’s?

Jump forward a few thousand years and we see the same thing play out at Calvary. Judas has a “free will” decision to betray Jesus. Pilate has a “free will” decision to have Jesus killed or not. The crowd have a “free will” decision between Jesus and Barrabas. The guards had the “free will” decision to break Jesus’ legs or not. And through it all, every single decision that was made served to fulfil the prophecy God gave through Isaiah some 500 years before. In the midst of such seemingly random chaos, God’s pre-ordained plan was being filled out to the letter.

All things are through him, and by him, and for him. We can trust that, in the bleakest of circumstances, in the hardest of struggles, that God is still working in us his will and pleasure. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. 2 Corinthians 4:17.

Eph 1:3-6 ESV – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

My friend calls this sort of reading scripture “dogmatism”, which is merely a namecalling technique liberal people love to use when they want to dismiss an argument or opponent without having to face the argument. He even likens people who do this to ISIS fanatics who behead children, which would be hilarious were it not clearly offensive. In a rare moment of Biblical appeal, he gives three scriptures which apparently “undermine predestination”. These are

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Tim. 4:16)

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:36)

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:22)

Which seems to be explaining that salvation is secured through perseverance in the faith.

WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT CALVINISM TEACHES.

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I’d thank my friend to familiarise himself with the P in TULIP. Calvinism (in accordance with Romans 9:18) teaches that God elects those he will for salvation. Calvinism does not teach who those people are, because it doesn’t know. Rather, the only way we can tell if someone is truly predestined is if they persevere in the faith (1 John 2:19).

The pet complaint against Calvinism is that it paints a heartless, callous God who damns people to hell unfairly. Hopefully, I have addressed some of those concerns in this response, although it’s not intended to be an exhaustive list. I’m always open to discussing and debating finer points in order to get to the bottom of what the scripture actually teaches.

However, I find the God of Calvinism by far more preferrable to the God of Arminianism. I cannot accept a God who might love me today, but cast me out tomorrow based on my performance for him. I find that hard to reconcile with the idea of a good Father. Maybe it’s because I’ve recently become a Father myself, but I know that my little girl made no decision to be born to me, nor to accept my love and acceptance. I will certainly not raise her with the expectation that she is my daughter today, but might not be tomorrow unless she continues to please me. I tremble at the idea anyone could believe in a God like this.

I tremble at the idea anyone could believe in a God who is subserviant to the will of man. Often the charge laid against Calvinism is “Why pray then?” And my response is often, “If God is not sovereign in salvation, why are you praying?” Are we not, in praying for God to save someone, asking God to overrule their free will? How horrifying would it be if the answer came back, “Sorry, I’d love to save the crack addict, the prostitute, the drunkard, the abuser, but gosh darnit they don’t want to be saved!”

Instead, I believe in a God whose mission in Christ Jesus was not just to make it possible for some people to be saved if they want to, but to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). That salvation belongs to him alone (Jonah 2:9) and he is able, beautifully able to save (not just a little bit and wait for us to do the rest, but) to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25) and never cast them out (John 6:37).

I love Star Wars though.

I was in Queens University studying for my English Literature degree in 2002 when I was crudely introduced to Friederich Nietzsche. I was sitting in the Student’s Union coffee shop talking to a group of fellow students who had come to an informal debate/discussion group a few friends had set up. I distinctly remember one person (though for the life of me I can’t remember his name) at one point of the discussion smugly informed me that “God is dead, and we have killed him.” To my shame I perhaps did not react with the grace I should have, nor with the wit to say something like this:

 

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After researching this, I found the source to be Nietzsche’s ‘The Parable of the Madman‘. It’s always super annoying when you spot the hole in someone’s argument only after the argument takes place, and when I read through Nietzsche’s essay it became apparent what my friend’s mistake was. Nietzsche did not write “God is dead” with anywhere near the smug attitude my friend had adopted. The whole quote is as follows:

 

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

 

What my friend failed to understand was that Nietzsche was not writing a victory speech, but a lament. Without God, paraphrasing, where is our standard? Who is in charge? How do we define morality, truth or reality? Make no mistake, Nietzsche was no theist, but even he saw the ramifications of there being no God. In the phrase “God is dead”, what Nietzsche is referring to is the death of the world system that saw The Church as the pinnacle of moral and presuppositional truth. The madman’s lament is that the death of this authority leaves a vacuum, a chaos from which man must fabricate new rituals, new ‘games’ in order to maintain some semblance of human society.

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The following year Nietzsche posited an answer to his own question in ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra‘, and the concept of the ubermensch was born. Where Christianity saw social and moral authority coming from an otherworldly source (God), Nietzsche’s ubermensch was a ‘this-worldly’ source of authority. A ‘superman’, one capable of restoring order to a damaged and chaotic void.

 

Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died,
and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now
the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher
than the meaning of the earth!
  Once the soul looked contemptuously on the body, and then that
contempt was the supreme thing:- the soul wished the body meagre,
ghastly, and famished. Thus it thought to escape from the body and the earth.
  Oh, that soul was itself meagre, ghastly, and famished; and
cruelty was the delight of that soul!
  But ye, also, my brethren, tell me: What doth your body say about
your soul? Is your soul not poverty and pollution and wretched
self-complacency?
  Verily, a polluted stream is man. One must be a sea, to receive a
polluted stream without becoming impure.
  Lo, I teach you the Superman: he is that sea; in him can your
great contempt be submerged.

 

This idea of the ubermensch has a vast sphere of influence. Adolf Hitler was widely known to have read Nietzsche avidly, and his goal of creating the master race is straight from the pages of Zarathustra. DC Comics’ creation of Superman, which went through many initial changes, is clearly influenced as well.

 

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And this is where it gets really interesting. Superheroes play into this idea of an ubermensch: a vastly-talented, almost supernatural being (but still this-worldly) who rises up to be the Saviour of mankind. Usually, the hero overcomes his or her struggles by looking within themselves for the hidden power that they can unleash to vanquish the forces of evil and liberate humanity. Is this not something we have seen more and more in modern entertainment? Starting with the Iron Man films, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America I and II, Thor and Thor: The Dark World (with Ragnarok on the way), The Spiderman movies (future and terrible past ones), Ant Man, Ant Man and Wasp Girl, Avengers Assemble, Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, X-Men, X-Men II, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse, Wolverine: Origins, The Wolverine, Superman Returns, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman vs Superman, Wonder Woman, the upcoming Justice League movie and the going-to-be-huge Infinity War. Not to mention the TV shows (present and future) like Arrow and Daredevil and The Flash and Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and Legion and The Punisher – (gasps for breath) – our society is fascinated by superheroes! These (often ordinary) people who are able to rise up out of humanity and inspire, rescue and lead us. We, in the western world, are crying out for a saviour.

 

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Fun fact: I am Batman

 

I don’t normally cite Slate.com as an authority, but when they and I end up agreeing with one another, that’s when I take notice. In July of this year, they published an article entitled “Is 2016 the worst year in history?” Where the writer doesn’t reach that conclusion, it still touches a nerve with people who feel like, this year especially, the world has gone to the dogs. War in the Middle East causing one of the biggest refugee crises in living memory, the surge of support for far-right nationalism across Europe, the string of celebrity deaths and the vote for Britain to leave the European Union.

7f27743ce057f08eac0c1a7dc0145aa7One of the most fascinating of these bemoaned events from my point of view was the election of possibly the most disliked presidential candidate in history, Donald Trump. The newspapers and speech writers right up until the very night of the election were preparing to publish the news of Clinton’s landslide victory, and many reacted with shock and horror when the vote said otherwise. Trump had won, fairly and legally. Sour grapes were flung, toys were thrown out of the pram and liberal and celebrity alike threw themselves to the floor kicking and screaming, “Not my President! Not my President!” In all of it, people were baffled by how a man like this could be elected as the next head of the most powerful nation on Earth. This is mirrored in places like France, Italy and Austria who are standing on the verge of far-right nationalism and wondering how they got to this point. The answer?

Change.

Donald Trump represented change. Rather than Clinton, who largely wanted to keep things as they were, Trump fed off a growing discontent among a large number of voters who saw government’s inability to effect meaningful change and saw him as someone who could actually do something. Regardless of how that would happen (through Trump’s own pigheadedness no doubt), they bought the line that Trump would ‘Make America Great Again’. The working class man and woman, devoid of vacuous elitism, saw Donald Trump as one of them. A hard working American who had risen above them and they could look to as a beacon of hope for a better future.

An ubermensch.

A superhero.

A saviour.

 

donald_trump_6905693

 

What this all gives us evidence of is a deep-seated discontent in the heart of man. We are the madman screaming for someone to tell us which way is up and which way is down. We are begging for someone to come and comfort, atone and save us. There is something broken in our world and we desperately want someone to fix it. Victoria Coren Mitchell, in her column in the Guardian, explains that things like Aleppo happen every year in all sorts of places throughout history – this is not something which is limited to this year alone.

 

nativity

 

It is over and against this that we stand in the middle of Advent. As Christians, we are reminded of a world that sat in darkness once before, and awaited the arrival of a Saviour. They too thought that he would bring this-worldly justice and peace, vanquishing Israel’s captors and reinstating the Throne of David (‘make Israel great again!’). And yet, their redemption, their salvation, their freedom came in a much more profound way than any of them could have imagined. It came from God himself. It came in the form of God himself. He who forged the worlds with the power of his words, He who will tear the sky open and declare the end of all things, it was Him who would come. He did it, He came into this world, and He did it as a speechless, helpless baby.

 

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone. – Isaiah 9:2

 

The world that sat in darkness awaited the arrival of the light. The Saviour. Only it wasn’t the one they expected. In the same way, today, the world groans for a Saviour to come and set things right. To come and deliver us from our discontent and our suffering. We have had centuries of trying to fill that void with Princes, Kings, governments and rulers, actors and characters, politicians and poets, and to this very day we are left empty, staring into the howling void of a world strewn with false and broken idols. Yet approximately 2000 years ago God gave his answer, and he has proved a ballast and strong tower to everyone who has put their trust in him since. He has brought us peace, peace with God, and rescue from sin. Where people want the external world fixed, Jesus Christ has fixed the internal heart for those who believe.

 

isaiah-9-21

 

This Advent, we remember when the world sat in darkness and saw a great light dawn, one which has not been extinguished by Nietzsche nor Nero. Today, the world sits in darkness, and we await the arrival of our great Saviour, before whom Trump and a million other rulers will bow, who will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or sorrow, no more mourning fathers on the news, nor pained families awaiting the message that their loved ones have perished in the sea, for death will be swallowed up in victory. Christ will conquer.

missions11This Advent, I choose to look back on a difficult year of suffering with hope. I do not place my hope in any Nietzschean superhero, but in the sovereign God of the universe who is reigning still.

 

Yours in Christ, Ryan.