Category Archives: Church and ministry

A Bolder Boulder

I orginally wrote this post for the Evangelical Alliance to support the launch of their new course on Public Christianity called SENT. You can find a copy here.

The workplace can be a tough place to be, often bringing with it demanding bosses, difficult customers and complex career paths. In this mix of success and frustration it can be hard to carve out your own path.

So it is that after another exhausting day I slouch into the fading blue train seat and wonder if this is really what I should be doing with my life. I look at my emails pinging in and ask myself some questions…What is my tiny role in God’s big picture? In my struggle to get through each day am I simply surviving or building resilience? What could I do to change the culture at work? If I got the chance to say something to improve the corporate culture in the UK, what would I say?

It is into this space that we went as a group of 12 or so Christian business people in the last few months of 2018. Through the materials provided by Evangelical Alliance’s SENT course, we piloted material seeking to shape our views of public leadership. To many of us it is hard to see ourselves as leaders, let alone think about deliberately putting ourselves in the public eye. The Evangelical Alliance asked us to intentionally explore the role of the workplace disciple in the public square.

Through four sessions we were taken on a journey through understanding our worldview, unpacking distinctive Christian leadership, building our leadership competency and becoming a force for change. As we journeyed together we started to share our insecurities and hopes, we started to pray into each other’s lives, inspiring each other to be more confident in our leading.

Through the course, I often reflected on what it takes to start a movement. How do we harness individual enthusiasm and prayerfully channel this into a city-wide passion for renewal? It is impossible to tell the exact moment when the boulder’s centre of gravity inexorably crosses the tipping point and the fall is inevitable. However, we quickly see the gathering momentum as a result. This course pushed a small group of us on the northeast coast of Scotland over the edge and into the mist beyond. On behalf of all the participants, thank you for the push!

https://www.eauk.org/resources/what-we-offer/courses-and-small-groups/sent

One faith; Two testaments; No prosperity gospel

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 11.22.50Book 2 Chapter 10 Section 1-23

We have reached the point where Calvin draws out the similarities between the covenants to show their common elements. The next chapter will look at the differences. The main thrust of his argument is that the main differences can be explained by a different mode of administration, but the reality and substance is the same.

Calvin summarises his main arguments for the unity of the covenants under three headings:

  1. That the Jews were invited to the hope of immortality, rather than purely temporal blessings
  2. That their covenant was founded upon the mercy of God and not on their merit (ref Book 3 Chapters 15-18)
  3. That they both had and knew Christ the Mediator (see Chapter 6)

It is principally the first point that Calvin addresses in this chapter. He spends a long time going through the life story of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob demonstrating that each of them, while receiving great and precious promises, did not seek fulfillment only in this present life. Rather the promises they were given were intended to lift up their thoughts to the hope of immortality and a future life.

Response

There is much to be learnt in this chapter about the prosperity gospel. The idea that the promises of temporal blessing given to Old Testament believers should be named and claimed by modern Christians in order to satisfy our material desires is the exact opposite of what God was trying to illustrate through the first covenant. They are a picture, or symbol, of the heavenly Jerusalem that is to come.

God was intending their physical blessings to point to a more fulfilling and permanent future blessing after death. Indeed, most of these faithful believers never saw even the material blessings, but they trusted that the God who would provide a land for their descendants would also find a resting place for their own souls.

Standing on this side of the cross we have a far superior view of our future inheritance. We can see the limitations of the material blessings provided under the old covenant and we have a much brighter view of our glorious inheritance. Indeed, the mystery of the ages, which was hidden from them, has been revealed to us. Why then do some become intoxicated with the loose change of earth, when all heaven is before us? If we have learnt anything from our journey through the Old Testament it must be to take our eyes off our present circumstances and look with the eye of faith for the future revelation of the children of God. For that day when we shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.

“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” Hebrews 11.39+40

Father, cure us of our intoxication with the things of this world, strip us of all that we rely on that we may cast our entire hope and security on You. May You show us that we are only pilgrims in a foreign land. That we have no enduring city and no reason to linger. Amen

Don’t stop buying the flowers!

Book 2 Chapter 7 Section 1-17

What relevance is the law to the Christian? If we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6.14) can we just ignore the law? Also, if some of the law clearly doesn’t apply (such as the sacrificial system), then how do we know which bits to ignore and which bits to keep today? It is to these questions that Calvin addresses himself in Chapter 7 of Book 2. He is setting the scene to ensure we have a correct understanding of the use and purpose of the law before we get to his exposition of the 10 commandments in Chapter 8.

Calvin outlines the office and use of the law in three parts:

1. The law brings knowledge of sin – like a mirror held up to our face, the law reveals our true nature. Though we are “blind and intoxicated with self-love” as long as we we measure ourselves with the standard of our own choice, as soon as we behold the perfect law we begin to understand our own sinfulness. In fact, of itself, this knowledge can only lead to a conviction of  a certain judgement. Thus, we can either rush headlong into despair, or cast ourselves on Christ for mercy.

2. The law curbs outward depravity – like  a bridle placed on the head of a horse to control its movement, the threatenings of the law can curb the natural inclinations of the wicked by the fear of punishment. While they may be restrained from external acts “they are not on this account either better or more righteous in the sight of God”. Indeed, “the more they restrain themselves, the more they are inflamed”. Their outwards obedience betraying their inner hatred. However, Calvin recognises that this “forced righteousness is necessary for the good of society”.

3. The law presents a perfect pattern of righteousness – the law is our schoolmaster or teacher to bring us to Christ. This works on two levels, firstly to humble those who have “excessive confidence in their own virtue” and secondly once they are believers to “learn with greater truth and certainty what the will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge”. Calvin argues that if the law “contains a perfect pattern of righteousness, then unless we ought not to have any proper rule of life, it must be impious to discard it”. Indeed, “there are not various rules of life, but one perpetual and inflexible rule”, and if David exhorts us to spend our whole like meditating on it (Psalm 1.2), “we must not confine to a single age, an employment which is most appropriate to all ages, even to the end of the world”.

Calvin finishes off the chapter by considering how we distinguish between what parts of the law have been fulfilled and thus no longer apply and those parts that remain in force (sections 14-17).  He reminds us that we are not under the curse of disobedience to the law. This is Paul’s point in the Romans passage quoted above. The demands of the law have been fully met in Christ.

He then turns his attention to the case of “ceremonies” of the sacrificial system, which have been fulfilled in their use, but not their effect. For “as these ceremonies would have given nothing to God’s ancient people but empty show, if the power of Christ’s death and resurrection had not been prefigured by them – so, if the use of them had not ceased, it would, in the present day, be impossible to understand for what purpose they were instituted”.

Response

Reading the mosaic law in the 21st century can seem very bewildering at times, particularly the laws about ceremonial cleanness and unclean animals.  Many laws obviously do not apply for new testament believers and the discussion in Acts 15 regarding circumcision is a good example of believers working through the implications of their faith against traditional Jewish culture and laws. We also know that Jesus and the NT authors reaffirmed many of the old testament laws in their teaching, often with a fuller explanation of the spirit of the law.

What Calvin is arguing for here is that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Although we rightly see the fulfilment of many types and patterns by Christ in the law, what remains is an expression of the character of God. If we want to find out what pleases the Lord, as we are exhorted in Colossians 1.10, then where better to learn what He desires than by studying His commands?

What God’s people have recognised throughout the ages is that we do not try to keep these laws in order to gain acceptance with God, but rather that by them we learn that we need His mercy. And if we have received the Spirit of obedience (Galatians 5.16) how can we not seek to keep those laws that we know will please our heavenly Father out of a thankful heart? Should love not be a greater motivation than fear, particularly now that our wills have been released from bondage to sin?

It reminds me of when I was dating my wife. I would buy her flowers and presents and make myself look presentable in order to impress her and win her love. Now that I know she loves me should I not bother buying her flowers? By no means, my gifts of flowers are one of the ways I express my love for her, not as an act of duty but an act of love.

“Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight “- David. Psalm 119.35

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” – Jesus. Matthew 5.17

“We know that we have come to know Him if we obey His commands. The man who says “I know Him” but does not do what He commands is a liar and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys His word, God’s love is truly made complete in Him” – John. 1 John 2.3-5

Images of the invisible God

invisible-man4Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter XI Section 1-16)

In this chapter Calvin addresses the issue of idolatry and, interestingly, includes in the discussion his thoughts on the appropriate use of images in the worship of the church. Calvin begins by considering God’s opposition to any representation of Himself in Exodus 20.4 and how God “makes no comparison between images, as if one were more, and another less befitting; he rejects, without exception, all shapes and pictures, and other symbols by which the superstitious imagine they can bring him near to them”.

Following this, Calvin exclaims how absurd it is when mankind tries to represent the invisible, omnipresent Spirit by a visible, inanimate piece of wood or stone. God Himself is at liberty to manifest His presence by signs – but each of these point to His “incomprehensible essence”. For example the cloud, smoke and flame on Mount Sinai and the Shekhinah glory over the ark of the covenant, both illustrate His unapproachable and awesome nature. Other manifestations of God in the bible include the figure who had a form of a man walking in the fiery furnace (which may be a theophany – or pre-incarnate appearance of the Son of God) and the dove at Jesus’ baptism.

For the remainder of the chapter Calvin addresses the issue of images and pictures in the church. He traverses many topics, including statues, crosses and pictures (either historical or pictoral). He concludes that only the historical pictures, which “give a representation of events” are of some use “for instruction and admonition”. In fact he is in favour of having no representations of any kind within the church, pointing to the success of the early church in its first 500 years when there were no images in the churches. Moreover, he points out that the church already has two “living symbols, which the Lord has consecrated by His word”, ie baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Response:

It is sad to think that while God was manifesting His presence at Mt Sinai, Aaron was leading the people in the worship of a golden idol. Moreover, even the ark of the covenant, which represented God’s presence among the people, became something of a lucky charm to the people. They believed that it would lead them to victory irrespective of their covenantal backsliding.

Although I may draw the line on what images and pictures are acceptable in the worship of the church in a slightly different place to Calvin, I agree with his principles on imagery. In driving the Reformation away from the intense pageantry that had been associated with the worship of God he called for a clearer statement of what was essential. In examining the two images that are essential we find that they are also are most instructive. We ourselves become part of the living illustration of Jesus’ death and resurrection (baptism) and His coming again (communion). Let us not neglect these symbols that have been given to us as divinely appointed reminders of God’s redeeming work.

“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal? Says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens; who created all these?” Isaiah 40.25+26

Father, grant us to make use of the symbols you have given us to illustrate your great love and forgiveness. Help us to remember and be thankful for the opportunity to demonstrate our obedience and love for you in our act of baptism and fellowship around the Lord’s table. Amen.