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We’ve been reading through the letter of James in staff devotions at iServe Africa and a particular cluster of questions has arisen in our minds a number of times – How does this relate to the Reformation? Didn’t Luther hate James? Isn’t the great rallying call of the Reformation – ‘Justification by Faith Alone’ – against what James is talking about? Did the Reformation neglect the big New Testament emphasis on good works?

Three fairly brief thoughts on this and then a more extended quote:

  1. This was precisely the accusation at the time – by those from within the Roman church – that the Reformers were against good works. And it was answered numerous times by the Reformers, just as Paul had needed to answer the accusations against him that claimed that he was against the Law and good works (Romans 6-7). To give one example, in the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Lutheran theologians begin Article 20 (On Good Works), “Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding good works” and close the article, “Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine [faith] is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended because it shows how we are enabled to do good works. For without faith human nature can in no wise… call upon God, nor expect anything from God, nor bear the cross, but seeks, and trusts in, man’s help. And thus, when there is no faith and trust in God all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, John 15:5: Without Me ye can do nothing.”
  2. Luther did indeed dislike the letter of James. But a large part of the reason for that was that he thought it flatly contradicted Paul on justification. He could see no way that ‘faith justifies’ and ‘faith does not justify’ could be harmonised (Table Talk, 1532). Behind this seems to be an overly simplistic logical-grammatical-literal view of language. While Luther’s straightforward approach to the words of the Bible was brilliant for dismantling the linguistic gymnastics, subversions and allegories with which the scholastic Roman church had been torturing Scripture (see particularly Luther’s devastating On The Bondage of the Will), the same approach sometimes made him somewhat insensitive to the subtlety and variety of human language took him to some strange positions (e.g. his refusal to accept that ‘This is my body” could mean anything other than that the bread was Jesus’ body). In the case of James and Paul, Luther seems to assume that ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ have identical meanings across all Scripture rather than exploring whether James and Paul might mean rather different things by both ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ (cf. the use of ‘flesh’ by John and Paul).
  3. In fact Luther had a strong place for good works in his understanding of the life of faith. In one place, which I can’t locate, he speaks of the gospel taking the Law from being a stick to beat us to being a staff in our hand to help us walk along the way. In his commentaries and lectures Luther tracks the New Testament pattern of looking first to Christ as our substitute and then as our example; first gospel doctrine as the foundation, then good works built on top as the beautiful superstructure. Read for example his commentary on Galatians 5 or his Preface to Romans. In the latter, speaking of Romans 6, he says: “it is a freedom only to do good with eagerness and to live a good life without the coercion of the law. This freedom is, therefore, a spiritual freedom which does not suspend the law but which supplies what the law demands, namely eagerness and love.” And on Romans 12: “These are the works that a Christian does, for, as I have said, faith is not idle.” Sounds quite a lot like James.

Some Luther historians have noted a shift in Luther’s emphasis from an early tight focus on faith alone and sovereign grace to a later concern to address the antinomianism tangent of some of his followers and to assert more strongly the need for holiness. Perhaps that is true, but it should be noted that even his early works often had a strong (and beautiful) doctrine of good works. Here is a passage from a very helpful article in the Grace Theological Journal by church historian James McGoldrick:

“In his treatise The Freedom of a Christian (1520) Luther stated, “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” At first glance the above propositions may appear to be irreconcilable, but Luther found them fully harmonious-correlative truths. He explained by citing the dictum of St. Paul, “though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone” (1 Cor 9: 19 NIV). Luther held that genuine Christian faith always produces love, for faith must be active in love. Faith ascends to God, and Christian love descends to one’s neighbor and renders service to him as a fulfillment of the believer’s calling. The Christian does not need to work for his salvation, as the Romanists contended, so he is free to invest his life in the service of his fellow men. In the ultimate sense, one can do nothing for God, for he is utterly self-sufficient. Man, however, who has been created in the image of God, is constantly in need of spiritual and material assistance.

Luther stated it beautifully, “Faith is truly active through love. That is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with’ which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fulness and wealth of his faith.” Good works performed in faith do not bring benefit to God or to one’s self. They bring benefits to one’s neighbor. Although believers and unbelievers may perform exactly the same outward deeds, the works of the latter are not truly good.

In Luther’s understanding of the Christian life the believer’s self image as a servant is a fundamental motif. In the reformer’s words, “a Christian lives not in himself but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love” (Freedom of a Christian). To those who claimed to possess saving faith but failed to demonstrate an active concern for their neighbors’ needs Luther issued a warning about the “illusion of faith.” He insisted that emotional responses to the gospel are not necessarily evidences of genuine faith. Active love, expressing itself in good works, is the only reliable external index of faith. Such love, Luther held, would extend to sharing one’s earthly goods with a neighbor in need. Just as Christ emptied himself when he left heaven to become man (Phil 2:5), believers should sacrifice their possessions for the benefit of those in need. When illness strikes Christians should aid the sick, even at the risk of contagion to themselves. Luther did so himself by remaining in Wittenberg to minister to the sick and dying during an epidemic of bubonic plague.” (McGoldrick, Luther on Life Without Dichotomy)

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A danger was pointed out to me recently that simply being gospel-centred is not enough – for an individual, church or ministry.

Let me try to illustrate with a few diagrams.

  1. Gospel-centred but gospel-assumed rather than gospel-explicit

Gospel assumed

With gospel-assumed there is a lot of talk about gospel but we never quite get around to defining and spelling out exactly what we mean by the gospel. So very quickly not only are we not actually preaching the gospel to others (so no-one is being converted or built up), we start to forget it ourselves.

The solution: We go back to the Bible every day to remind ourselves of the good news from all over Scripture. We need to fill in the word with Bible detail.

For example in my Bible reading this morning I saw in 1 Chronicles 11 a little vignette of the gospel – one man standing against a whole army of Philistines ‘and the LORD saved’ (v14). And I see a tiny picture of the One Man who stood instead of us and triumphed over all our enemies – Satan, death, hell. And I’m reminded that the LORD saves – the most succinct summary of the gospel – salvation belongs to the LORD. His is the victory we will praise for all eternity (Rev. 7:10). I did not save myself. I was not one of David’s mighty men, I was more like a faithless Israelite or a hostile Philistine. I didn’t do a thing to move towards God. But he saved me. The Father chose me, the Son took my place on the cross, the Spirit grabbed me and united me to Christ. Sovereign grace grabbed me.

  1. Gospel-centred but gospel-small rather than gospel-big

Gospel small

With gospel-small there may be explicit regular mention of the gospel but it is a bit formulaic and anemic. I make sure I get into every sermon ‘Jesus died on the cross for us’ but that’s about it. So before long it loses its impact on our hearers or even on our own hearts. It starts to seem like a small thing and (if we’re honest) a rather boring message. So it doesn’t change lives.

The solution: we go back again and again to the Bible – all different parts of the Bible – Psalms, prophecy, letters, stories – to see the richness and depth and vastness and complexity and multi-faceted, multi-coloured beauty of the gospel from the detail of specific Bible texts.

For example in my morning devotion in 1 Chronicles 11 I see David finally acknowledged as king by his people. I see that he is of the same bone and flesh as his people (v1), that he is the shepherd of his people (v2), that he binds himself in covenant to his people (v3). I am reminded by the mention of Uriah the Hittite (v41) that this was not the perfect King. And my eyes are drawn to the Son of God who took bone and flesh that he could be the Second Adam united to his bride and the Second David, Goliath-slaying king over his people, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15) and makes incredible promises binding himself to his people (John 10:27-28; 11:25-26; 12:26; 14:3, 23; 15:7-8).

If I had longer I could try to explore the significance of the King winning Jerusalem for his people (1 Chron. 11:4-9), the pattern of taking advantage of something won for you at great cost (1 Chron. 11:15-10 cf. John 6:53), the need for a hero (1 Chron. 11:20-25. And this is all from one chapter. If we keep doing this from text after text we start to build up a rich, beautiful, big heart-capturing gospel picture.

It’s the difference between a little stick man picture and a 6” by 6” Klimt portrait.

Gospel small - pictures

  1. Gospel-centred but floating rather than rooted

Gospel floating

Gospel-floating is where we do a decent job of explaining the heart of the gospel but it is not rooted into the rest of the Bible text and systematic theology. The gospel is floating unmoored, unanchored, untethered. This is a subtle danger. We can appear to be ‘just wanting to preach the gospel’ and ‘just wanting to preach Bible’ but by failing to tie the gospel into broader biblical themes and doctrinal structures we can drift off into something less than orthodox and biblical. In times of increasing biblical illiteracy this is going to be a serious issue – we can’t take for granted the doctrine of God, doctrine of creation, doctrine of man.

Solution: We go back to the Bible and seek to do exposition which avoids both the danger of eisegesis (where we pour our systematic framework into every verse – a rather boring and dangerous form of exposition) but also the danger of preaching things from one Scripture that assume or are even deny the truths of other Scriptures. We need to go to the Scriptures with a view that it is one story with a consistent theology that we need to seek to learn as well as we’re able (though humbly accepting that no one of us will never see it perfectly).

For example, 1 Corinthians 15:1-10 – that great gospel summary – is actually leaning on a whole lot of stuff. That’s why it says ‘according to the Scriptures’ twice. The idea of ‘dying for our sins’ only makes sense if you know a) what sin is and b) how it is possible for one to die for sins. To really understand this gospel summary I’m going to need to dig into the Old Testament for a complex biblical understanding of sin, including particularly the fact that it is first and foremost against God and calls down the wrath of God. Then I’m going to need to unpack the sacrificial system and the whole idea of a substitute being burnt up in the wrath of God instead of me. And the same is true of ‘rising on the third day according to the Scriptures.’ I’m going to need to look at what resurrection really means – the end time, the judgment day, the need for this creation to be swallowed up in an imperishable holy new creation. Without a lot of biblical undergirding the language of ‘Christ died for you and rose again’ is almost completely meaningless.

Another example: When I look at 1 Chronicles 11:1 and think through the way in which Christ shared our human nature (bone and flesh) I need to connect it all the way back to Genesis 3:16 and the promise of one born of woman who would crush the serpent. I would also need to look forward to what the New Testament says about the human nature of Christ. I would want to be guided in that by the ancient creeds and historic confessions where the church has thought long and hard and come up with very carefully considered words to express the completeness of Christ’s humanity and the wonder of two natures in one person without confusion or separation. I might also want to think of Athanasius and Irenaeus and the huge importance of the incarnation, God becoming man that we might share in his divine nature. Then I might want to think about the ascension and the importance of Christ retaining his human nature there, right now calling me his brother.

One more example: When we read in the prophets of the LORD’s yearning for his beloved people, his heart being moved, his inmost parts (KJV: bowels) being disturbed (e.g. Jeremiah 31:20) then surely we are seeing the very spring of the gospel – the passionate love of God. I’m definitely going to want to preach that to myself and others. But at the same time I’m going to have to be careful I don’t deny the orthodox definition of God. I’ll want to give full force to the biblical language of affections but also keep respectfully in mind the ancient understanding that God is immutable, ‘without parts or passions’ and the biblical material that says that God is wholly other and ‘not like a man.’ Not to say that all this has to come into a pulpit. Most of it will stay in the study, but if I ignore this theology I run the risk of teaching fluff or heresy.

  1. Gospel-centred but DIY implications rather than Bible implications

DIY implications

Here we have a good, rich, well-rooted biblical understanding of the gospel, but when it comes to working out the implications of the gospel (for my own life or for church life) then I sort of ‘wing it’ – DIY – Do It Yourself. I assume a) that God is not particularly prescriptive about exactly how I should lead my life or how the church should be ordered and b) I assume that I am able work out for myself, from the internal logic of the gospel, how if should be applied in different areas of life.

For example I see that the gospel springs from the consistent other-person-centred love of God and so I think the implication of the gospel is ‘any stable, loving, other-person-centred relationship’. Or I see that the gospel is the salvation not only of our souls but also of our bodies and indeed the renewing of the whole creation and so I think an implication is that the church’s mission is, with equal emphasis, to a) care for souls and b) to care for people’s bodies, transform society and fight for the natural environment.

I was reading a good Christian book the other day by a fine author who knows and explains the gospel extremely well. Much of the book was excellent. But, as I read one chapter where he described the implications of the gospel for church life, I started to feel something was a little bit off. And then I realised that he hadn’t quoted Scripture for several pages. We were moving into deductions from deductions from deductions – DIY implications.

The solution: We go back to the Bible and find the implications of the gospel from the Bible itself. This is particularly clear in the Apostle Paul’s letters. Most of them (roughly speaking) start with a couple of chapters of gospel doctrine then move to a concluding couple of chapters spelling out the implications of the gospel in some detail.

Ephesians, for example, lays out the great gospel of sovereign grace – the Trinitarian God grabbing a people for himself – by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in the Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone (Eph. 1-3) – then Paul starts talking about the implications of that for how we live as this new community of God’s people (Eph. 4:1-5:21). Loads of detailed instructions about the role of church leaders, every member ministry, speech, sex, work, reconciliation. But even this is not specific enough. People could take ‘submit to one another’ (5:21) to mean that there is no longer such a thing as differentiation of roles or authority or respect. So then there is a section laying out how exactly different relationships should work – wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters (Eph. 5:22-6:9). In each of these relationships we can see that it is the gospel which is shaping the structure and manner of that relationship (in a beautiful way) but the point here is that God doesn’t leave us to guess how the gospel shapes these relationships he tells us.

The same could be said for the ordering of the local church (1 Timothy). Not that everything is spelled out – of course not. In loads of things we are free – it doesn’t matter what colour the curtains are. And yes there will still be lots of things where we will have to make gospel-hearted decisions about what is wisest for the advance of the gospel – how long will the sermon be? But in a lot of things – in fact all the important things – we’re actually given a lot of guidance by the Holy Spirit.

Why the detail? Because I cannot be trusted to work out all the implications of the gospel for myself. I will naturally use the right doctrine in the wrong way. Like people in Paul’s day I will take the grace of God and make it a license for sin (Rom. 6:1) rather than a spring of good works (Rom. 6:2-23). I need to be taught the right out-working of the gospel and the specific good deeds I need to do. I need both the gospel at the centre of everything that teaches me to say know to ungodliness (Titus 2:11-14) and I need someone (God) to draw the lines out from that centre to show me what true godliness looks like in detail (Titus 2:2-10).

 

Maybe this is all just another way of saying, let’s be expository. Let’s be gospel-centred and Bible-rich – getting our gospel from the Bible – a beautiful, big, detailed, rooted, worked-out gospel of Christ Jesus who came into the world to save sinners of who I am the worst.

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Grounding

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  • Your head is spinning with a thousand thoughts and fears.
  • You are in transition, experiencing cultural jet lag, unsure what is right and wrong or up and down.
  • You are at a crossroads of decision without a signpost.
  • You are overwhelmed with emotions and hormones.
  • You are tired and weary but restless and tense.
  • Do you know that feeling? That slightly dizzy feeling? You can’t think clearly. The world is spinning (or maybe it is your head that is spinning) and you just want to get off.

Grounding

When you are travel sick (in a bus or a boat), they tell you to look at the horizon. Look at something fixed and stable. When you are having a panic attack or you are feeling faint they tell you to get down on the ground or hold onto something solid. Look into the eyes of someone you trust and keep eye contact with them.

I think there is a Christian version of grounding. Sometimes it is a simple as one precious verse repeated until it gets from our mouth into our heart:

I have set the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. (Psalm 16:8)

A more elaborate grounding exercise is to rehearse to ourselves the Apostles’ Creed, the 10 Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the ancient pattern of Christian catechisms. Evidence from the early church (50-250 AD) suggests that catechesis involved teaching the 10 commandments and the Lord’s Prayer (Weinrich). The bulk of Cyril’s Catechetical Sermons delivered in Jerusalem in 348 AD are expositions of successive lines of the Apostles’ Creed. Luther’s Small Catechism (1529) unpacks the 10 commandments then the Apostles’ Creed then the Lord’s Prayer. The much longer Heidelberg (1563) goes through the creed (Q23-58), the commandments (Q92-113) and the prayer (Q118-129) while the later Westminster basically follows the same pattern. [For more on the development and value of catechesis see ‘Considering catechism for suspicious Protestants’ by Daniel Williams.]

Catechesis was obviously developed for children and enquirers to get them ready for baptism or a public profession of faith. But in the Christian life the way in is the way on. There is a tremendous stabilising effect in going over the foundations and essentials of our faith again. [This is presumably why Cranmer designed the regular order of Morning Prayer (1552) to include the public declaration of the Apostles’ Creed and the corporate praying of the Lord’s Prayer while the Communion Order includes the 10 Commandments, the Nicaean Creed and the corporate Lord’s Prayer.]

So try this is as a grounding exercise:

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Notice first this is about faith not works. There is nothing of me here. Nothing about my emotional or mental or spiritual or moral state, only that I believe; I look outside myself and openhanded grasp what is True. I take my eyes off myself and look to God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I shift my weight from the unstable confused little mess that is me and onto the great Rock and the rock solid unchangeable truths about Him.

Though my head (and life) might seem to be spinning out of control there is an almighty Creator God. He has everything in his hand.

Then there are the historical facts of the gospel – Christ came, suffered, died, was buried, rose, ascended. That happened. Long before I was born. Historical fact. It doesn’t depend on me. And yet he went through hell instead of me.

There is the presence of God with me right now in this moment. I believe in the Holy Spirit. There is the communion of the saints. Even if all other family desert me there is the rich fellowship of the new family. There is the forgiveness of sins. Oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin – not in part but the whole, Is nailed to His cross and I bear it no more; Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul.

And wonderfully I can know the future. Perhaps the short term future is very uncertain but the ultimate future is very clear: Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, we will all be raised bodily, we will truly live eternally with him who is Life.

Whatever is happening right now, these things are true.
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The 10 Commandments

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.

  2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

  3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

  4. Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

  5. Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

  6. You shall not murder.

  7. You shall not commit adultery.

  8. You shall not steal.

  9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

  10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

First and foremost these are commands to convict us, to cut us down, to show us that we are helpless foul sinners in desperate need of saving by and from a holy God. And that will probably be a key part of our grounding. We need to be like Job on the ground in the dust and ashes to truly see things rightly. This is where the gospel hits me afresh as the greatest news in the world.

And then, as Luther said, the gospel takes the Law from being a stick to beat us and gives it to us as a staff to lean on. We get up from the ground and the Law becomes the royal law of Christ, our guide to grateful living along the way.

I think it was the late Elizabeth Elliot who used to say, “Trust in God, obey him, and do the next thing.” Her point was that when you are in the midst of confusion and/or busyness and/or romantic turmoil and/or competing demands, the thing you need to do is simply to obey what God has set before you: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God; to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbour as yourself.

Matt Perman says a similar thing in What’s Best Next: if you lose all your complex productivity tools and calendars and lists and planners then all is not lost; you can move forward just asking What is the best thing to do next? And the key to answering that question is God’s commands.

So amid the confusion of an endless email inbox or multiple to-do lists there are actually only 10 things to do today (Trust, Listen, Hallow, Rest, Honour, Love, Cherish, Give, Witness, Rejoice) that all hang on 2 (love the Lord and your neighbour) which are really one. We can get up and put one foot in front of the other.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who is in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
now and forever. Amen.

Just remember – you have a Father who is in heaven. A Father who has sent his Son to die for you and the Spirit of sonship that you can call him Abba. A Father who is high and holy and yet dwells with the contrite and lowly (Isa. 57:15). A Father who controls the universe and yet is intimately concerned with every detail of your life. A Father far more keen to give than we are to ask. A Father so keen to bless us and commune with us that he has given us this prayer template so we would know what he would love us to ask him for and that we might have confidence to approach him.

As we pray the Lord’s Prayer we’re re-centred on the things that are most important – your kingdom come, your will be done – and we ask for what we will need as pilgrims on our way to the celestial city – manna, armour, leading.

We come as sinners to a holy Father and find forgiveness while simultaneously acknowledging there is a horizontal outworking of grace – as we forgive those who sin against us – a turn of the heart to peace and reconciliation (that may be a key part of our grounding).

And finally we acknowledge that the power, the kingdom and the glory belong to Him (cf. Rev. 4:11; 12:10). The power is not ultimately with us, with politicians or persecutors. There is only One who says, ‘I make known the end from the beginning… my purpose will stand and I will do all that I please’ (Isa. 46:10). He can and will work out all things for the glory of the Father and Son.

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I was going to finish the sentence with the word ‘rubbish’ but more recently I’ve been learning (rather too late) that in Kenya, particularly among older generations and those with more sensitive ears, the word ‘rubbish’ (Kiswahili takataka) comes across very strongly to the point of being offensive.

What I’m thinking of is the experience of finding everything just slightly frustrated.

  • When I attempt to put up a shelf in my house and it ends up just slightly off horizontal. Perhaps only I will notice that it is not level, or someone who looks very carefully, but I’m annoyed that it is not right.
  • You’ve proof read the manuscript twenty times but when it’s finally printed there’s a typo on page one.
  • The biscuits/cake/meal you’ve spent an hour preparing stays in the oven or on the stove just five minutes too long. It’s still edible but has that acrid taste round the edges.
  • You drop the new phone that you’ve been saving for and looking forward to for ages and it gets a scratch on the screen on day one.
  • The car has just come back from the mechanics, you’ve spent a lot of money, he’s assured you that everything is sorted but then the next day you hear another funny rattle and grumble under the bonnet.

This is not real suffering – bereavement, pain, trauma – it is just daily frustrations and annoyances. It’s good stuff gone a bit wrong. It’s the sort of thing that Alanis Morissette sung about in her 1995 song ‘Ironic’ (as many people have pointed out, what was genuinely ironic was that the song was not really about ironic things at all but simply about annoying things):

It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
A traffic jam when you’re already late
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

Why is it that things are never quite perfect? Even the best things? The most superb athlete has a blister which ruins his performance. The most beautiful house has a crack on the wall and a tap which doesn’t work. The shine is taken off the best works of gospel ministry by imperfections, mistakes and sin.

The book of Ecclesiastes has the answer. It calls it vanity, frustration. It is the curse of Genesis 3. Fallenness, decay, thorns and weeds. A heavy blanket over everything (Eccl. 6:1) frustrating every sphere of life and every human endeavour.

Four ways to respond:

Thanking God for spoiling the world to us

One of the most famous lines in Augustine’s Confessions is the thought that our hearts are restless until they find their true rest in the Lord. But Augustine is well aware that our wayward hearts can find a sort of rest in the pleasures of this world. So a recurring cry in his Confessions is thanks to God for spoiling the things of the world to him (relationships, entertainment, health) so he could not find rest in them:

You [Lord] being the more gracious, the less you allowed anything which was not You to grow sweet to me. (Confessions, Book 6).

Adelaide Procter, the Victorian poet, probably alluding to Augustine, expressed the same thought:

I thank thee more that all our joy is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours, that thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide, and not our chain.

I thank thee, Lord, that here our souls, though amply blesses,
Can never find, although they seek, a perfect rest;
Nor ever shall, until they lean on Jesus’ breast.

(From “My God, I thank thee”)

Longing for the better land

As Procter says, the shadows and thorns and frustrations are supposed to be our guide. They should make us long for a better country where there will be no more curse (Rev. 22:3). Romans 8 talks about the creation subjected to frustration (v20) and then gives the great mark of those who have the Spirit as a groaning eager waiting for the resurrection life (v23).

The New Creation is our great Christian Hope (Rom. 8:24). So let every sprained ankle and faulty laptop and dropped cake and torn dress be a little goad turning us to long for the place where there will be no more frustration, no more tarnish, no more thorns only perfection. And then may our thoughts continue on to the very greatest perfection and joy of that Land – the radiant King Jesus.

Courageously conquering the thorns

In the meantime, until we reach the New Creation, we need to be realistic that there will always be frustrations. But the great news is that these cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:35). Rather, all these things are being used for us – to inflame our longing for the resurrection and for our growth in Christ-likeness (Rom. 8:28, 31-32). And so in this way, as Piper has pointed out, we are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37) – the thorns and weeds harnessed for our good and growth.

Perhaps this is mostly about a change of perspective. As G K Chesterton observed:

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

I need to see the traffic jam or the papers dropped in a puddle as a faith adventure rather than a useless waste of time. There will be frustrations till we reach the heavenly kingdom but each of these mini-mountains can be scaled and overcome. The wise gardener doesn’t bluster at or get depressed by the ever growing weeds, he simply attacks them with gusto as part of the job.

Moving forward in mission

One problem with everything being a bit… imperfect is that it can paralyze us when it comes to moving forward in gospel ministry. I was talking to a brother a few years ago (now a senior minister of a Nairobi church) about mission trips he had done to S Sudan. He was explaining the frustration in not being able to speak the local language there and particularly the frustration that he suspected one of the translators had not been faithfully translating everything he was saying. This led onto a wider discussion about frustrations in gospel ministry. What do you do when things are not quite right? The church leadership structure is not quite right; the small group leaders are not very well trained; the quality of theological education is not brilliant; the resources are lacking…

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In response this brother gave the illustration of a battered, old, badly-maintained car. It’s wheels are all going in slightly different directions, it’s rattling and stuttering, but it will move. The thing is you can wait until everything is perfect – the perfect training programme, the perfect people, the perfect education, the perfect church, the perfect cross-cultural mission preparation, the perfectly crafted sermon – but it’s not going to happen. We’re in an imperfect world under the curse of frustration. That’s not a recipe for settling for poor quality or ungodliness or theological compromise or slackness or foolishness – we need to keep fighting those things and prepare as well as possible – but it is just to recognise that sometimes you need to say, that’s good enough for now, and put the key in the ignition and move forward with what you’ve got, hopefully improving things as you go.

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A lot has been written on the sanctification debate – how do we grow in holiness – and I haven’t got anything to add. My main conclusion is simply that it’s complicated… and yet our temptation is to try and find the silver bullet, the one thing that encapsulates everything that’s important to say about Christian growth and the fight against sin. Many of the books I’ve found most helpful on sanctification have tended to focus on one means or aspect of sanctification – perhaps future-focused faith or gratitude for the finished work of Christ for sinners – and those books are absolutely brilliant… until they start to suggest that this is the heart of the matter, the engine, the one thing you need to know.

DeYoung reminds us that there is not a singular motivation for holiness:

Jesus is the Great Physician… The gospel is always the remedy for the guilt of sin, but when it comes to overcoming the presence of sin, Jesus has many doses at his disposal. He knows that personalities and sins and situations vary… Jesus has many medicines for our motivation. He is not like a high school athletic trainer who tells everyone to “ice it and take a couple ibuprofen.” …The good news is that the Bible is a big, diverse, wise book, and in it you can find a variety of prescriptions to encourage obedience to God’s commands. (The Hole in Our Holiness, p. 56-57 emphasis added)

DeYoung then goes on to list 40 different motivations which, as he says, are not even an exhaustive list. So sanctification is a multifaceted thing. Partly because our sinfulness is horribly complex, partly because the gospel of Christ is beautifully complex.

So how does sanctification work? How does the gospel of grace relate to a life of obedience?

  • It’s about being who we are. Identity.
  • It’s about seeing the vastness of our debt and the costliness of our forgiveness and so forgiving others infinitely smaller debts.
  • It’s about seeing in the Scriptures the beauty of Christ and being captured by that better vision.
  • It’s about understanding and experiencing union with Christ. Growing in a marriage relationship.
  • It’s about wanting to please the Bridegroom.
  • It’s about a fear of the Lord.
  • It’s about godly sorrow.
  • It’s about joy.
  • It’s about submitting to a Kingly Saviour Lord.
  • It’s about knowing the sinfulness sin.
  • It’s about tasting the goodness of the ways of God and the Law of Christ.
  • It’s about waiting for Christ’s return, longing for him, hoping in a better and lasting possession and the work that springs from that eternity-focused faith and hope.
  • It’s about living as a beloved child of God. Adoption.
  • It’s about desperate dependence on the Spirit who alone can change us.
  • It’s about doing all this together, as a community of God’s people, rebuking, correcting, encouraging, urging, praying, preaching, singing.

It’s about all these things and more. It’s complicated.

One suggestion

The more I think about this the more I wonder whether the answer isn’t simply to preach the Word – to go through the chapters of the Bible letting God tell us how to grow in Christlikeness. For example – why not simply preach through Ephesians 4-5? We would find there all sorts of different motivations and means and imperatives and gospel logic (including many of those listed above) that just come straight out of the text and flow and mesh together in a way better than any of us could put it. Or how about preaching a series through Leviticus or Ezekiel or Hebrews where we are taught deep rich truths about sanctification through imagery and language that is extraordinarily powerful. Why don’t we just let our holy (complex) God himself teach us how to become holy as he is holy?

 

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Over the last few months I’ve been very struck by a theme in the New Testament that I don’t think I’ve properly recognised before:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37)

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me (John 8:42)

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23 cf. 14:15)

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15 cf. v16, v17)

…what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9)

If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. (1 Cor. 16:22)

Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. (Eph. 6:23)

Though you have not seen him, you love him (1 Peter 1:8)

I hold this against you: you have forsaken the love you had at first (Rev. 2:4)

The most wonderful gospel truth is not that we loved God but that God the Father loved us and gave his Son to be burnt up instead of us (1 John 4:10). And wonderfully, not only the Father, but Jesus himself loved us to death (Gal. 2:20) and loves us still (Rev. 1:5). Jesus loves me this I know…

But there is another, secondary truth which I fear I have downplayed in my concern to lift up the great gospel blessing of God’s love for us. That truth is that there must be a love for the Lord Jesus. Not a love for theology or a love for gospel ministry or a love for what Jesus brings with him, but a love for Jesus himself. This love is not mere emotion – there is an extremely common and tight connection drawn in Scripture between love and obedience – but neither can it be evacuated of feeling and affection. There is in love a desire for the presence of the other and a delight in the presence of the other (SoS 2:3,14; 3:1-2; 5:6-8; Psalm 27:4; 42:1-2). When my love has gone cold then there’s a big problem.

So I’m thinking this year…

How can I increase my love for Christ?

 

  1. Consider how far you have fallen (Rev. 2:5) – This will involve first looking through the spiritual wedding album, remembering the “devotion of your youth” (Jer. 2:2) and then acknowledging the slide – “followed worthless idols and became worthless” (Jer. 2:5) – the stupid double sin – “forsaken the spring of living water, and have dug cisterns, broken cisterns” (Jer. 2:13) – and the disgusting spiritual adultery of forgetting the Bridegroom, giving lip service and pretend-repentance while really loving and running after others (Jer. 2:20-3:10). I need to recognise the tragedy and outrage of this fallen and debased state. As Richard Sibbes puts it, I need”to be first sensible of spiritual wants and misery. The passover lamb was eaten with sour herbs; so Christ crucified, relisheth best to a soul affected with the bitterness of sin.” (Third Sermon on the Song of Songs).
  2. Repent (Rev. 2:5) – As Peter Mead has shown, repentance is a relational thing – it is a turn from God-hating and, crucially, a turn to God himself. In Jeremiah, amazingly, after horrific spiritual adultery, the LORD Bridegroom says:

    “‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord,
        ‘I will frown on you no longer,
    for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord,
        ‘I will not be angry forever.
    Only acknowledge your guilt—
        you have rebelled against the Lord your God,
    you have scattered your favors to foreign gods
        under every spreading tree,
        and have not obeyed me,’” declares the Lord.

    “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. (Jer. 3:12-14).
    So repentance will mean acknowledging/confessing my guilt and idolatry and adultery and returning to the incredibly forgiving, faithful-to-his-covenant Bridegroom.

  3. Behold Christ in the Word – “Do the things you did at first” (Rev. 2:5). What are those first things? Well it could include a lot (probably most of the points below) but the very first thing we did was to look to Christ. “Behold the Lamb of God!” To put it another way, the first thing we did was to hear the word of Christ (Eph. 1:13; 4:22; 5:14 Col. 1:6). To hear is to see (Gal. 3:1). “Show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely” (SoS 2:14). I need to search the Scriptures to see the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:6). I need to have that heart burning experience of the Emmaus road disciples as they saw Jesus not physically but in the (OT) Scriptures he opened to them (Luke 24). I need to dwell on awesome portraits of Christ like those in the Book of Revelation. I need to be dazzled by the Scripture pictures of Christ as creator, king, warrior, Holy One, radiance of the glory of God.  Before even considering God’s love towards us, God’s people “first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious, and their hearts are first captivated with this view” (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections).
  4. Savour his love – “your love is more delightful than wine.” (SoS 1:2). As Sibbes puts it, “love draws love” (First Sermon on the Song of Songs). This unconditional love which embraces the prodigal and the prostitute and the leper. This covenant love which unites me with the Son of God so that “My beloved is mine and I am his” (SoS 2:16). This sacrificial love with sweated in the garden and endured the searing pain of Godforsakenness. This love which actually, amazingly, genuinely desires and delights in the object of salvation (SoS 1:15; 4:1-14; 5:2; 7:1,10); which sees us as ‘lovely,’ ‘flawless,’ ‘overwhelming,’ ‘captivating’ (4:7; 5:2; 6:5; 7:5; 8:10) and actually wants to be with us for eternity (John 17:24). To the extent that we experience this extravagantly loving forgiving embrace, to that extent we love Christ (Luke 7:47). And we best come to experience this love corporately – “together with all the saints” (Eph. 3:18).
  5. Savour his name – “Your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you!” (SoS 1:3) Notice the logic. The reason for the love is the fragrance of the Name. You know how you feel when the name of your best friend comes up in conversation. “The very naming of a good man casts a sweet savour” (Sibbes, First Sermon). How much more so of Christ. How sweet the name of Jesus sounds… As John Newton, that hymn’s author, explains, the ‘name’ stands for the whole person (Rev. 3:4,5). “The name of Christ includes the whole revelation concerning him, who he is, what he has done – all that we read of his love, his power and his offices make a part of his great and glorious name. The soul that is taught by the Word and Spirit of God to understand a little of these things receives such a sense of love and joy that the very sound of his name is sweeter than music to the ears, sweeter than honey to the taste.” (Newton, Sermon on SoS 1:3) So I would do well to return regularly, as many Scripture authors do, to the great declaration of the Name in Exodus 34:6-7. I would do well to delight in this character of our God as it is unfolded in the stories of Scripture. I would do well to meditate on the great ‘names’ of Christ in the Scriptures – The One Who Sees Me, The Shepherd, The Bridegroom, The Friend of Sinners, The Banquet, The Light of the World, The Life. And I would do well to listen most to the supreme declaration of the Name at the Cross. Newton again: “The precious vessel that contained this precious ointment was broken upon the Cross – the savour of his name, his love, his blood, poured out from every wound [in] his sacred body. See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down… When we desire a new savour of this ointment, let us turn our eyes, our thoughts to Golgotha. To behold him by faith as he hung bleeding and dying, with outstretched arms inviting our regards and saying, ‘See if any sorrow was like to my sorrow.'”
  6. Sit under Christ-ful preaching – “Everything that bears the name of preaching – if it does not diffuse the knowledge of this good ointment [the fragrance of the name of Christ] – is dry and tedious, unsavoury and unprofitable.” (Newton, Sermon of SoS 1:3). As Sibbes’ says, preachers, as the friend of the Bridegroom (John 3:28), are to “woo for Christ, and open the riches, beauty, honour and all that is lovely in him” (Sibbes, Second Sermon). Often I can’t, on my own, get my heart excited about Christ, but, in the company of God’s people, with a preacher opening the Scriptures and wooing for Christ, jabbing his finger in the Bible and saying “Look at this thing about Jesus; isn’t he amazing?!” – then I get excited about Jesus. And that seems to be the way God wants it to be.
  7. Partake in the Lord’s Supper – This is the other main, regular means of grace alongside the ministry of the Word, whereby I feed on Christ in my heart by faith with thanksgiving. This is where I’m reassured (as I recently read in a reformed confession I think) that as surely as the bread is pressed into my hand, so Christ has been given to me; as surely as I am receiving the wine, so surely Christ’s blood was shed for me and atones for all my sins. As Carl Trueman (if I remember rightly) describes it, just as in our marriage we live together and have a continual love relationship with our spouse but we still make special ‘dates’ where we can meet together and express our love for one another and grow in our love for one another and be reassured of our love for one another, so the Lord’s Supper is the time and place Christ has ordained as our ‘date’ where he promises to specially meet with us and reassure us of his love and inflame our love.
  8. Sing of Christ – As many have noticed through the ages, music and song have a special ability to express and inflame the affections. It is notable that the Song of Songs is… well a song! One of the best things for my soul is to be in the congregation of God’s people as we sing to one another and sing to God true words about Jesus. Let’s make the most of the songs that have been written down the ages and more recently that do what the Song of Songs does – address either ‘the friends’ or the Bridegroom and tell of His goodness. How sweet the name, When I survey, I stand amazed, There’s not a friend, Soon and very soon, Sovereign Grace, Emu
  9. Praise Christ – “We rejoice and delight in you; we praise your love more than wine.” (SoS 1:4) As C.S. Lewis would say, the latter (the praising) completes and increases the former (the rejoicing and delighting). As the beloved enumerates the specific, superlative, wonderful attributes of the Bridegroom (SoS 5:10-16) – her joy and love is increased. This works not only in prayer-praise and in song-praise but also in witnessing-praise to unbelievers. Have you ever had that joy of sharing with someone how wonderful Jesus is and as you do that you start thinking, Yes – this really is true – Jesus really is wonderful! Even if the other person wasn’t helped, I go away with a deeper appreciation of the good things I have in Christ (Philemon 6).
  10. Accept suffering as a means of refining love for Christ – God is sovereignly working to perfect us and the older authors (like Cranmer, Sibbes and Newton) recognise that much of that will be through the painful pruning of difficult circumstances. Through suffering he will work to loosen our grip on and weaken our affections for the passing things of this world that we might reach more for and rejoice more in Christ. What is required of us is an acceptance – a patient endurance (2 Cor. 1:6; Heb. 12:7) rather than an impatient rejection; a trust that this is a means of God inflaming my love for Christ.
  11. Be around people who love Jesus – I find this one of the most helpful ones. You’ll have noticed how the corporate, churchly dimension intersects almost all of the points so far. We grow in love for Christ among others who love Christ. As in the old illustration of a coal placed in the fire with glowing coals – the warmth and burning of others stirs me up to glow. To change the metaphor, the Proverbs speak of one man sharpening another. Often we think of this in terms of critical thinking but it is also true of love for Christ. Sibbes talks of “that which hinders the sharpness of the [spiritual appetite], that dull and flat the edge of it… and take away the savour and desire of heavenly things.” The evil and cold banality of the world and the company of those who have no interest in Christ dampens our love for Christ like a wet blanket. On the other hand the “company… of such as ‘labour for that blessed food that endures to life eternal’ provokes” us to a sharper appetite and greater feasting on Christ. I need this every day (Heb. 3:13) and especially need to make use of the Sabbath pattern to meet with God’s people and delight in him together.
  12. Pray – Perhaps this should be the first point. We need the Spirit of Conviction that we would see how far we have fallen. We need God himself to grant us repentance (Acts 3:26; 11:18). Otherwise, like the people in Jeremiah’s day we will not repent, we cannot repent (Jer. 13:23). We need the Spirit to remove the veil and open our eyes to the glory of God in the face of Christ in the pages of Scripture (2 Cor. 3-4). We need to pray that God would enlarge our hearts, give us new desires and new taste buds to crave and enjoy Christ. Sibbes notes from SoS 4:16 that unless the Spirit of God blows on us we do not even want to pray for more of Christ. So let us pray desperate prayers for greater love for Christ – come to his Word and come to church praying for our love to be inflames – knowing that even that desire to pray is a gracious gift and token of his love.

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Cutting wisdom from Carl Trueman:

I am increasingly convinced that pride is the root of problems among students. I was convicted recently by a minister friend quoting to me 1 Timothy 1:5-7:
“The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.”
My friend made two observations about this passage. First, the drift into dubious theological discussion is here described as moral in origin: these characters have swerved from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith; that is why their theology is so dreadful. Second, their desire is not to teach but to be teachers. There is an important difference here: their focus is on their own status, not on the words they proclaim. At most, the latter are merely instrumental to getting them status and boosting their careers.

Thus, what concerns me most is that students may simply desire to be teachers. If that is their motivation, then they have already abandoned a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith, and their theology, no matter how orthodox, is just a means to an end and no sound thing. It is why I am very sceptical of the internal call to the ministry as a decisive or motivating factor in seeking ordination. Nine times out of ten, I believe that the church should first discern who should be considering the Christian ministry, not simply a rubberstamp act as a putative internal call which an individual may think he has.

Further, such students whose first desire is to be teachers are more likely to try to catch whatever is the latest trendy wave. Orthodoxy is always doomed to seem uncreative and pedestrian in the wider arena; if the aim is to be a teacher, to be the big shot, then it is more likely that orthodoxy will be less appealing in the long run – though there are those for whom orthodoxy too is simply a means to being a celebrity.

If a prideful desire to be a teacher, to be a somebody, is the fundamental problem, then one other aspect which is increasingly problematic is the whole phenomenon of the internet. Now anyone can put their views out for public consumption, without the usual processes of accountability, peer review, careful editing, timely reflection, etc., which is the norm in the scholarly world and has also been the tradition in the more theologically responsible parts of the Christian publishing industry. The internet has few quality controls and feeds narcissism. Again, I have a friend, a minister in a North American Presbyterian denomination who says that, as he reads many blogs, his overwhelming feeling is one of sadness as he sees men seriously undermining their future ministry through the venom they pour out on others. I think he is right.

Of course, all young theologians and aspiring church leaders say stupid and unpleasant things. I still blush about comments I made fifteen or twenty years ago which now seem arrogant and offensive, and certainly unworthy of a Christian. But for those of us who are older, the sins of our youth are thankfully now long vanished from the public sphere; yet such sins committed today can live on indefinitely in cyberspace. I shudder for those who have not yet grasped this basic fact and who say some frightful things on the internet which will come back to haunt them the very first time a church googles their name as part of doing routine background checks on a potential ministerial candidate. But more than that: I shudder at the kind of self-appointed arrogance among ministerial candidates and recently-minted graduates which the internet can foster and intensify.

Paul’s words to Timothy seem prophetic in times such as ours. Students should cultivate pure hearts, good consciences, and a sincere faith. That way they will safeguard their theology from becoming idle speculation.

[interviewed by Martin Downes in Risking the Truth: Handling error in the church, Christian Focus, 2009, p. 31-33]

Related resources:

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