Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Gospel’ Category

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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

cst07

“who has destroyed death” (2 Tim. 1:10)

valley-of-vision-resurrection

We were looking at Hebrews 2:5-18 about the Lord God becoming fully man, sharing our flesh, being family, so that he might taste death for us, disarm the jailer of the dungeon and free us from the bondage of the fear of death. It reminded me of the classic Easter sermons by Pastor Dev Menon on death [Part 1, Part 2] and of my two favourite movie illustrations of Jesus entering into death and blowing up the monster from the inside. Apologies for some rough language at the beginning of the first one:

.

Read Full Post »

atonementslider

In one sense the gospel is very simple.

Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Pet. 3:18)

The gospel is solidly centred on the Cross of Christ with the chief end being fellowship with God. As J I Packer put it: ‘adoption through propitiation’ (Knowing God, p. 241). John Stott was spot on that the core of the atonement is Christ as our substitute – the great exchange. That is not a ‘model’ – that is the reality at the very heart of the atonement. All the (valid) ways of talking about the atoning work of Christ are perspectives on that truth or metaphors to describe it or roads that end up there.

So in one sense it is quite simple. Wonderfully. The Son of God is punished in my place that I might be a son of God. A three year old can understand that. But then when you get thinking about it theologically you find that it is actually quite complex.

I remember preparing for a talk on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 a few years ago. As part of my preparation I read quite a bit of John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and a few other shorter papers. Suddenly I realised I was out of my depth in very deep waters. I started to wonder whether I really understood the gospel at all. Fortunately I did come out of the forest with something I was able to give to the student gathering but it opened my eyes to see something of how complex and deep the atonement is.

For example, how would you answer these questions:

  1. What role does the incarnation play in the atonement?
  2. What role does the resurrection play in the atonement?
  3. What role does the ascension play in the atonement?
  4. Did Christ die for everyone or for his elect?
  5. What was the most awful suffering for Christ on the Cross?
  6. How did that suffering deal with guilt, shame, law, wrath?
  7. How could God justly punish the innocent and justify the guilty?
  8. What was going on within the Trinity as Christ died? Who was punishing? Who was being punished? Was there a rupture in the Trinity? What was the role of the Spirit?
  9. Did God die?
  10. What were the chief ends/goals for which Christ died?
  11. How does Union with Christ relate to the atonement?
  12. How does faith relate to the atonement?
  13. How do the covenants of the Old Testament relate to the atonement?
  14. How does the theme of the glory and revelation of God relate to the atonement?
  15. How does the theme of wisdom relate to the atonement?

I am sure there are good and satisfying and wonderful answers to all these questions but my point is that they are not simple and some are very complex indeed. You’re not going to get a handle on some of these questions without a lot (perhaps a life time) of hard prayerful study.

To make a slightly different point, I have been getting very excited recently by the rich complexity of the ways in which the Bible tells the gospel. Just take Isaiah. Look at some of the different metaphors and imagery:

  • Scarlet sins being washed as white as snow.
  • Marriage, adultery, jealousy, divorce, wedding. God as husband. His people as the unfaithful bride. The prostitute is brought back as the faithful one.
  • Darkness and gloom to light of dawn.
  • God with us.
  • Beauty of the LORD, ugliness of sin, the marred man, new beauty.
  • The rock, refuge, shade from heat, refuge from rain.
  • Justice, injustice, judgment, righteousness, guilt, law court. The true judge redeems through justice.
  • Topography. Mountain of the LORD exalted. Hills flattened. Valleys filled.
  • Sick battered body. Beaten bruised body. Disease. Healing.
  • Joy and distress.
  • Dishonour, shame, honour. Pride brought low. Humility exalted.
  • Trees, bushes, stump, branches, vines. Growth, fruit, cut down, planting. Fertile to barren and barren to fertile land.
  • Sovereignty. The zeal of the LORD, the unstoppable plan, decree, will of the LORD to judge and save.
  • Architecture. City ruined and rebuilt.
  • Kingship. Human kings, divine king. Bad kings, good king.
  • Faith, trust, taking refuge in, relying on, looking to.
  • Scattering and gathering.
  • Eden. Curse to new Eden.
  • Exodus. Parting of the sea, column of cloud and fire, way through the wilderness. New Exodus from Exile.
  • Oppression and freedom. Removal of rod and burden of oppressor.
  • Fear and comfort.
  • Restlessness and rest.
  • Populous places left deserted. Deserted places filled with life and people.
  • Idols versus the true God. Idols smashed or thrown away.
  • Fire, burning wrath, sacrifice.
  • Warrior, battles, sword, bloodshed, victory, conquest.

This is not even an exhaustive list. The point is that each of these metaphorical schema are ways in which the gospel can be told – and is told in Isaiah. Each one is like a different palette of colours which Isaiah can use to paint the atonement. So he might use the blacks and browns and yellows and oranges of the darkness/light theme to show how the dawn of Christ has broken into the darkness and gloom of sin. And then he might turn to the greens of the horticultural palette to paint the gospel in terms of fruitless trees cut down and then a new branch growing up. And then he might take up the red and orange and white of fire/sacrifice to paint how the fire of judgment will sweep through but be absorbed by a perfect sacrifice. Sometimes (in fact often) he picks up two or three palettes at a time and blends imagery – e.g. of city and marriage and beauty and joy.

ca20d859c1ff063d9482a56d9be19574

Let’s start to appreciate the beautifully complex way in which the Bible tells the gospel. Let’s not reduce it to ‘Christ died for you’ every time. Let’s preach the passage of Scripture in front of us and see how the atonement is painted there. Is it sacrifice? Is it law court language of guilt and justification? Is it warrior langauge of a hero overcoming our enemies? Let’s preach the gospel in the variety with which it is presented. Not only will that mean that we don’t need to fear that ‘preaching the gospel every week will be boring’ – we will also see how the Cross of Christ deals with all the multifaceted ugliness of sin and opens out into a multifaceted Christian life.

Read Full Post »

dontknow1

As Pentecost Sunday approaches I was reading through Acts in our church community group and was struck by this verse:

And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” (Acts 19:2)

For a disciple not to have heard about the Holy Spirit seems to be Not A Good Thing.

For those of us who are concerned to emphasise (I think rightly) the priority of preaching Christ and him crucified and who see the Spirit’s role mainly as (to use J.I. Packer’s expression) a ‘spotlight ministry’, drawing the attention to Christ not himself, this stress on the Spirit in Acts is an important thing to reckon with. Is there a danger that those of us who would think of ourselves as ‘conservative evangelicals’ might be so keen to distance ourselves from the excesses of hyper-Pentecostalism and unhelpful (or downright non-Christian) pneumatologies, that we might leave people with no doctrine of the Spirit at all? “If it’s not all about tongues, how do I know whether I have the Spirit?” I was asked recently. Where does the Holy Spirit fit into our proclamation and church and the Christian life?

Acts 19:2 makes me think:

  • Presumably preaching the gospel usually included mention of the Holy Spirit and his work. Acts 2 is a great example. The focus from beginning to end is on Christ but all the persons of the Trinity are mentioned: the exalted Christ has received his Father the Spirit to pour out (v33). (A gospel outline like 3-2-1 can be helpful in making sure we talk about the Trinity early on and don’t leave it till later as an embarrassing bolt-on.)
  • Presumably the invitation to receive Christ and to be baptised usually mentioned the Holy Spirit. Again, that’s what happens in Acts 2: baptism-forgiveness-Holy Spirit. Baptism is into the name (singular) of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). When Paul reminds the Galatians of their conversion he appeals to them as ones who clearly knew that they had received the Spirit at that point (Gal. 3:2) – that was not debate – that was obviously what had happened – he wants to remind them how they received the Spirit – i.e. by hearing and believing the gospel of Christ crucified not by Law keeping. It also seems the Galatians knew their Christian life had begun by the power of God’s Spirit (Gal. 3:3), the question is whether they will go on that way.
  • Presumably the early discipleship of believers would have been full of reminders of the gospel including explanation of the Spirit’s role in their salvation. You certainly see this throughout the apostles’ letters to the young churches. They are constantly reminding believers of what has happened to them so they grasp the enormity of it and live in accordance with it. Their focus is always on Christ and him crucified but wherever they talk about justification by faith and salvation through the blood of Christ, the Spirit is never far away. Ephesians 1: The Father chose you before Creation, the Son died for you on the Cross, the Spirit sealed you as you believed (cf. similarly 1 Peter 1:2). Titus 3:4-7: Father, Son and Spirit; justification and regeneration. Romans 8: stellar chapter interweaving the glorious gospel of Christ and the true work and marks of the Spirit.

Putting this altogether it seems that for the apostles to speak about Christ was inevitably to speak about the Spirit-anointed Christ. To speak about his death and resurrection would have inevitably led to talking about the Spirit who unites us with Christ to make the benefits of his death and resurrection ours. They would have left no one in any doubt that without the Spirit of Christ they are dead and that from their first breath of faith to their final good work, all would be the Spirit’s work in them. They would have talked about how God sent his Son to redeem us and the Spirit of Sonship into our hearts that we might be swept up into the Son and cry out to the Father as our Father. They would talked of our natural blindness and desperate need every day for the Spirit to open our eyes wider and wider to Christ.

Is that my message and life?

 

Read Full Post »

Thank God for Friday

Man of Sorrows! what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Lifted up was He to die;
“It is finished!” was His cry;
Now in Heav’n exalted high.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

When he comes, our glorious King,
all his ransomed home to bring,
then anew this song we’ll sing:
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

[Philip P. Bliss, 1875]

Read Full Post »

Total Church

Tim Chester and Steve Timis, Total Church: A radical reshaping around gospel and community, IVP: 2007.

The thesis of Total Church is summed up well in the subtitle. It’s a thesis that has grown out of a) the authors’ reading of the Scriptures, b) their reacting against forms of contemporary evangelicalism that either forget the gospel (fluffy emergent church) or forgets community (stuffy conservative church) and c) their practice of actual church planting and church living in The Crowded House in northern England.

It’s readable, fresh and punchy. As Ian Coffey says in the foreword, you may well not agree with all their arguments and conclusions but it makes you think about the things that matter most.

A number of things really struck home, helped and challenged me:

1. The emphasis on deep, genuine, love relationships within the church – interconnectedness.

The core point of the book is that the gospel creates community – Christ saves a people for himself (Ttus 2:14) not just individuals – and that this church/people/community is one marked not only by devotion to the Word but also by radical love for one another.

“this cross-love is the primary, dynamic test of whether or not we have understood the gospel word and experienced its power. Not our doctrinal orthodoxy, as important as that is. Not our ingenious strategizing, as fascinating as that is. Not our commitment to preaching, as vital as that is. Not our innovative approach to planting, as radical as that may be.” (p. 54)

The text of Total Church contains a number of boxes with testimonies and real life stories and interestingly, the first of these testimonies is from a Kenyan who spent some time in the UK. She talks about the differences between her Kenyan church background (a big church of thousands of people and multiple services) and her experience at The Crowded House in Sheffield:

“At first I’d squirm. When we were so close together my sins seemed so much more apparent to others. Back home if you fell out with someone you could always sit on the other side of the auditorium and never had to see them again.” (p. 33)

2. The question of whether our churches are segregated by class or truly reflect the gospel.

In their fourth chapter the authors highlight the priority of Jesus to reach the outcasts and ‘sinners’; the pattern that God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). We are to invite to the banquet the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind (Luke 14:12-13).

“We are not to prioritize our rich neighbours… Indeed part of our evangelism to the rich is our evangelism to the needy. We subvert their preoccupation with power and success as they see us loving the unlovely. We expose their self-righteousness and selfishness as they see us eating with outcasts.” (p. 71)

What they’re saying here is that if we create churches that are pitched at the upper middle class, where upper middle class people feel completely at home and comfortable, where the setting and interactions and constituency mirrors perfectly their workplace or social circles, where there is never the challenge and potential awkwardness of relating to someone of different class, where there is never a need to get beyond class barriers and see ourselves and others through the eyes of Christ, as brothers and sisters because of the Cross of Christ – then we are not really doing anyone any favours because there we have attendance without community, attendance unchallenged by costly sacrifice, attendance without an assault on pride, attendance without the sort of relating to one another which demands the gospel.

3. Spirituality rooted in the Word and community.

Chapter 9 is a very provocative appeal to a context like ours where individualised ‘spiritual disciplines’ of silence and solitude and fasting are elevated and seen as the key to unlocking blessings and getting to a higher level of spiritual life. Total Church argues (I think persuasively) that true spirituality is not about listening for the still small voice in the silence but listening to God written Word and it is not fundamentally a solo pursuit but a corporate one – reading the Word together, praying together, encouraging one another daily (Heb. 3:13). Read the chapter and see what you think.

4. Apologetics flowing from a theology of the cross not a theology of glory.

Following the lead of Paul, Luther and Pascal, in chapter 11 Chester and Timmis outline an approach to apologetics which doesn’t lean on natural theology or an assumed ability of unregenerate man to reason his way to God but which instead takes seriously a) the fallenness and rebellious heart of man; b) God’s hiding of himself from the wise and revealing himself to those he chooses (an epistemology of grace); c) the genuine challenge of postmodernism in exposing the coercive power often behind truth claims; and d) the need to proclaim the True Truth, the gospel reality, truth which “is not a function of coercive power, but of sacrificial love” (p. 169).

5. Children’s and youth ministry that is Word-driven and community-integrated.

“It is easy to suppose that attractive activities are the key to successful youth work [and] that the corresponding measure of success is weekly attendance. But God does his work through the Word. The key to successful youth work is the Bible.” (p. 180)

And in relation to integration with the rest of the church family:

“Of course, it is only natural for young people to default to spending time with other young people, but the church is not a ‘natural’ agency.” (p. 182)

6. What is success?

“It is actually not that difficult to create a large congregation. Paul tells us how.”

We’re all on the edge of our seats now!

“You give people what will ‘suit their own desires’ and say ‘what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Timothy 4:3). Entertain the congregation each Sunday with a good performance. Do not focus on the depth of their sin, nor the cost of cross-centred discipleship. Whatever you do, do not challenge the idolatrous desires of their hearts. Instead offer them sermons on how to realise those desires and find success in life.”

But Paul gives Timothy another model of success – preach the gospel Word in view of the return of Christ as judge of the living and the dead (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

“This may well make us less successful, but only if we measure success in terms of numbers. If you view success in a biblical way – as faithfulness to Christ and his word – then being gospel-centred becomes the very definition of success.” (p.189)

There are loads of other things that could be mentioned from this book – the emphasis on church-based training and raising of new leaders (which meshes very well with the iServe Africa emphasis on ministry apprenticeships), the convictions about the church and the Word being sufficient to deal with pastoral issues in contrast to the professionalization of counselling and medicalization of problems (which connects with Rosaria Butterfield’s testimony), and many more.

So basically I love Total Church. Highly recommended. I’ve just got a few minor quibbles and caveats:

  • As mentioned above, the authors are (quite self-consciously) reacting against certain tendencies in the UK evangelical scene around the turn of the millennium. E.g. “Obviously most large evangelical churches remain faithful to the gospel.” (p. 189) Perhaps that’s true in the UK but not necessarily in Kenya. This UK context means that there is perhaps slightly more emphasis on ‘community’ than on ‘gospel’ in Total Church. For our culture context of East Africa I would want to reverse that emphasis and spend a huge amount of time on getting really clear on the gospel of Christ taking the wrath of God in the place of sinners to bring them to rejoice in him and in the Father.
  • There are a couple of pages (p. 112-113) where the authors argue against a church focus on pulpit ministry and argue instead for a more varied view of Word-ministry. Much is helpful here – we do want to value and encourage one-to-one and group Bible study – but I think that can still happen with a focus on the special place of public Bible preaching. I’m not convinced by the biblical and sociological arguments the authors give against pulpit primacy. Christopher Ash has answered them well in The Priority of Preaching.
  • I love the emphasis on community in Total Church. I think that is a really important biblical emphasis and really needed in our churches. But I hesitate at the idea that the church’s community life of loving one another is “the hermeneutic of the gospel” (p. 56, quoting Leslie Newbigin). I’m increasingly unconvinced that John 13:34 and 17:21 (and 1 John 4:12) are straightforwardly evangelistic – the love and unity of the church could just as well convict the world and lead it to hate the sons of light as much as convince it and lead it to want to join them (John 3:20; 9:41; 12:37-48; 15:19-16:11 cf. Philippians 1:27-28). Historically speaking, the love of Christians in the early church for one another led to accusations of incest as much as admiration. I’m not denying that our love for one another can adorn or discredit the gospel message but my fear is that evangelism could drift into a dependence on sociological mechanisms of community inclusion (see the very scary video by Bart Campolo on the power of community building) and away from a dependence on Word and Spirit. I completely support the emphasis on the loving, inter-dependent church community but my question would be how does someone get into that? Is it a) through seeing a loving community, is it b) through the loving invitation of a loving community, is it c) though community plus gospel proclamation, or is it d) first and foremost through gospel proclamation plus the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s d) that seems most to fit the book of Acts but c) that fits the Total Church chapter on evangelism (though this seems to be in tension with what they say in the chapter on apologetics about God’s sovereignty in hiding or revealing the truth to helpless sinners and the need to preach the gospel).
  • A final concern, which is really outside of the text of the book itself, is that the very strengths of the Total Church / Crowded House movement – gospel wedded to community, small churches, authentic relationships – could become a new and subtle source of pride. The authors would hate such a response – the gospel should humble us to the dust – but the human heart is terribly good at finding new ways to look down on others and it would be very possible for someone who has experienced the warmth of a Crowded House-type church to begin to despise other churches, larger churches, more liturgical churches, more wealthy churches.

Total Church – great book. May it take us back to the Bible, back to the gospel, back to community, back to Christ and the Cross, back to the God who saved us (plural).

 

Read Full Post »

All hell distilled

…shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me? (John 18:11)

All hell was distilled into that cup and he must drink it to the last drop…  He alone of the sons of men had the measure of the sin he must take upon himself.  He alone knew sin in its every reach and extent, and the absoluteness of God’s wrath against it, seeing in the cup all the fullness of sin and the Father’s holy judgment against it… to be cut off from communion with God his Father as if himself a sinner… when he before the world’s creation was eternally enfolded in the Father’s love… (McDonald, H. D., New Testament Concept of Atonement: The Gospel of the Calvary Event, Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1994, page 30)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »