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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.