Category Archives: The cross

Total Forgiveness

Amish-women-mournLast Sunday I spoke on the subject of biblical forgiveness from Matthew 18. The message is available to download here or listen online here.

The main theme for the sermon was how can God ask us to forgive everyone and yet, he requires reconciliation before restoring relationship, i.e. why do we have to say sorry before we can become part of God’s family? I also used the Amish shootings to try and understand what happens when someone doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Should we still forgive? The article I refer to at the end that was written about the incident can be found here.

We also touched on some of the practicalities of how this works in the church in the midst of our messy lives and unfinished characters. How can we live in unity whilst not overlooking areas of sin in the church family? It was a tough subject and worthy of much deeper study, but ultimately a vital issue to understand as forgiveness is one of the chief characteristics of a genuine faith. It is the litmus test of the reality of God’s grace in our lives. I pray it will be a blessing to you.

My A to Z prayer for 2013

walking_alone_on_long_road-other-e1343172538576My A to Z prayer for 2013

Always you Lord; I do not seek success today, I seek only you

Before all others, you are the one I seek first and constantly

Consciously I turn from all other loves and choose to love only you

Dependent upon your Spirit I ask only to hear your voice and be with you

Everything else fades away when I steadfastly seek your face, help me stay in your presence each moment

Father, I desire you when I do not understand you; I love you when I cannot see you

Great God of the whole universe, help me to trust you are guiding me home and be thankful for your blessings

Hardness of heart is my enemy; give me a tender spirit and a fresh love for others

I am resolved not to base your love for me on my achievement; you love me as I love my children – unconditionally

Just one thing I seek; a full heart of blazing love for you Lord

Knackered is what I am expecting to be for most of the year; help me to accept this is your plan

Life is short and death comes quickly; I have everything I ever needed because I have you

Measure not my life by my accomplishments, or abilities, or reputation but my nearness to you Lord

Nothing… is what I need to be content, fulfilled, at peace. Help me remember this in the bustle of life

Only one day at a time, do not fret about what’s to come or what’s been done…

Peace comes from acceptance and resignation; I completely surrender my life to your hands

Quietness and silence – help me to meditate on you and be still in your presence

Restless is my spirit until you remove all the distractions and I see only you

Spirit, come fill me, lead me, mould me, shape me, satisfy me; all that I desire is more of you

Turn my eyes from worthless things Lord; do not let them dazzle me

Use me as you see fit Lord, no holding back; I do what I do today for you only – show me if you desire something else

Very short is the time I have with my children, they grow so quickly; help me make the most of each day

Work will demand much of me, help me Lord to be strong and do my best every day

X, the sign of the cross upon me wherever I go; always with me, marking me as your property Lord

Youth is disappearing; help me to live each day without deceit, regret or vanity

Zero… the credit in my spiritual account; never more or less than a sinner saved by grace

This post was written for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers Association – click here

The Stench of Chronological Snobbery

God Is Not Great, Chapter 5

By chapter 5 Hitchens is well into his stride, his main thesis in this chapter is that religion only flourished in the past due to ignorance and superstition in times of “abysmal ignorance and fear”. In these less enlightened times people could (almost) be excused for believing in fairy tales invented to simultaneously comfort the masses and exert power over them. In an incredible demonstration of speed-assassination he rolls off tabloid-like sound bites on Aquinas, Augustine, Martin Luther and Isaac Newton. Each of these men were incredibly deep thinkers and spent years in seeking to understand the world around them through science and faith, but they are assigned to the intellectual scrap heap because they have a theistic worldview. Yes there are things they believed that we look back on now, with the benefit of hindsight, as primitive and simplistic. But to take this anomaly and assign it as a one sentence strap line, or more like epitaph, over their lives is downright dishonest.

In Surprised by Joy CS Lewis reveals his prejudices about the past: “Here were gods, spirits, afterlife and pre-existence, initiates, occult knowledge, meditation. “Why — damn it — it’s medieval,” I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse. Here was everything which the New Look had been designed to exclude; everything that might lead one off the main road into those dark places where men are wallowing on the floor and scream that they are being dragged down into hell. Of course it was all arrant nonsense. There was no danger of my being taken in.”

The preconception shows itself by a scoffing at anything older than we are, “how less educated they were back then, how foolish” we say. But this attitude forgets two things – firstly that if we had we lived back then our intellectual capacity would have been dwarfed by the names mentioned earlier and secondly, that in 100 years generations to come may well look back on us and wonder how we could have believed such primitive ideas that we think are the height of sophistication today. A little more humility and a great deal more balanced critique of these historical figures is required if our analysis is to stand the test of time. I cannot say it better than Lewis when countering his friend Barfield who had become an Anthroposophist:

“Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

It was at this point that I wondered if Hitchens’ one-liners betrayed his journalistic roots – not taking the time to present the case in its entirety – just lifting certain facts to suit the argument. Hitchens seems content to sacrifice a longer piece of even-handed commentary to the quick flashes of an eloquent assault. I began to wonder if Hitchens is only ever able to skim the surface of the arguments, scoring quick points in a tae kwon do style attack, but never plumbing the depths of an Augustine to find the real person behind the fictional caricature. He sums it all up by saying that “we have nothing much to learn from what they thought, but a great deal to learn from how they thought.” Granted, he thinks it is mostly learning from their mistakes!

But wait! There is someone who Hitchens would hold up as a critical thinker of a past century. William Ockham lived in the early 14th century and is most famous for his “Ockham’s Razor” which bears his name – this view describes the attempt to “disposing of unnecessary assumptions and accepting the first sufficient explanation or cause”. Essentially this means he sought to use logic to understand cause and effect behind religious faith. Thus, Hitchens presents Ockham as an orthodox, if controversial, Christian thinker who challenged the religious thinking of his day. In his search to simplify his preconceptions and find a logical explanation to his faith, Ockham realised that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved. Moreover, in being obsessed with tracing back the cause and effect of each assumption he eventually comes to the wonder “Who created the Creator? Who designed the Designer?” This is music to Hitchens’ ears –a religious philosopher who unwillingly exposes the problem of the origin of God.

However, what Hitchens and Ockham fail to realise is that the “natural law” of cause and effect is not law which binds a free God – it is the expression of a created logical world.  Just as within a jigsaw there are inbuilt rules over which piece will fit with which neighbouring piece, but the designer of the jigsaw is not limited by these rules. So too God stands outside of our laws of nature and philosophical assumptions. Yes, within his created world, he has appointed cause and effect to underpin the world, but he is not bound by such spatial-bound sequential laws.

It’s the same with time – it is pointless to ask who or what existed before God, for he stands outside of time, as an eternal being. Yes we can use logic and reason to understand something of God and his world, but at one point we must put down these primitive tools and accept the knowledge of God through his self-disclosed revelation. Not that this divine revelation is illogical or unreasonable, but that logic and reason are limited in their ability, they can only take us so far. It’s a bit like using a step-ladder to reach the stars – it’s in the right direction, but ultimately futile. So our use of logic is good and proper, but they are not sufficient in themselves.

We need to realise that our knowledge of God would have been extremely limited had he not chosen to reveal himself. As Paul reminds us in Romans 1.20, the world around us testifies to his divine wisdom and unlimited power. But it is unable to reveal his character and attributes, for that we needed him to break the silence and speak to us. But even as God reveals that he is “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34.6), he is still unknowable on a personal level due to our corrupted spiritual hearts. For the knowledge of God must be both experiential and doctrinal, and like oil and water, a pure and holy God and impure, unholy people don’t mix.

We think knowing something is as simple as firing up Google or Wikipedia, but what if I asked you how it felt to win an Olympic gold medal? Do you know how it feels to win a gold medal? Some do, but it’s not something I can know unless I put in the effort, compete and win – there are conditions to be met before we can experience that knowledge. So too with God, we are spiritually incapable of knowing him until he cleanses us and repairs our hearts. This is what Jesus was doing on the cross – making it possible for sinful corrupt creatures to know a holy and pure God. Wining the medal for us, competing on our behalf, and as we become united with him, we come to know what it feels like to win.

It’s not enough to understand and even believe the facts about God (for even the Devil does this), we must experience an awakening of our spirit to a new relationship with him – to be born again in our mind, soul and spirit. Logic and reason can help us to begin to fathom how he made it possible for us to know him, but they can never bring us into that relationship. Only the Spirit of God acting in the humbled heart through the mediatory work of Jesus can create such a knowledge.

The merit of Christ’s death

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 11.44.01Book 2 Chapter 17 Section 1-6

In this short and complicated final chapter of Book 2 Calvin is wrestling with the merit of Christ’s death. In what seems at times theological hair-splitting Calvin is addressing a very specific question that was apparently put to him by Laelius Socinus in 1555. The topic is absent until the 1559 edition and scholars believe that it was inserted following the correspondance between the two men. Socinus asked Calvin “how God could have been determined (by this he seems to mean “bound”) by the merits of Christ (i.e. his redeeming work on the cross) if redemption was solely a matter of God’s free and sovereign decision. If God is sovereign there would appear to be no need of any intermediate.”

In the words of Alister McGrath “Why is Christ’s death on the cross sufficient to purchase the redemption of humanity? Is it something intrinsic to the person of Christ, as Luther had argued?…Or was it that God chose to accept his death as sufficient to merit the redemption of humanity? Was this value inherent in Christ’s death, or was it imposed upon it by God?” (from Reformation Thought by Alister McGrath). The question posed to us is “does mercy require means?” Was the death of Christ of such a nature that it had to wash away the sins of the elect, or was it effective because God had ordained that this was the means by which redemption would be granted?

Calvin argues that the two things are not necessarily contradictory and that “the free favour of God is as fitly opposed to our works as is the obedience of Christ.” Calvin goes on to explain how we see both the chief cause (the love of God) and the secondary cause (faith in Christ) play out in scripture. The most obvious example is John 3.16 “God so loved the world (chief cause), that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him (secondary cause) might not perish.” Calvin argues that “by his obedience (Christ), truly purchased and merited grace for us with the Father…if Christ satisfied for our sins, if he paid the penalty due to us, if he appeased God by his obedience; in fine if he suffered the just for the unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent to meriting.”

Response

Whether God had to accept the sacrifice of His Son for the redemption of humanity or whether He chose to is a tough nut to crack. In the beginning of time God was perfectly free to create whatever future He so desired, to hypothesise at what could have been done different seems the sort of speculation that Calvin normally avoids. For His own good pleasure God chose to set in course a series of events that would eventually lead to the cruel death of His one and only Son. This is the one and only way of salvation that has been opened up to us. Let us run to Christ and cling to Him for rescue without becoming pre-occupied with the means He used.

The elderly women rescued from her burning flat would be viewed with astonishment if, as she is about to be lifted from the smoking room, began to ask the fireman whether she had to be rescued through this particular window, or whether the one in the living room could have been used instead. We have a means of escape before us, let us run to our Saviour and allow Him to know the hidden depths of His choices.

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” 1 Peter 1.18-20

The curse of the cross

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 11.25.37Book 2 Chapter 16 Section 1-19

Having spent a good few weeks now meditating on the incarnation, person and offices of Christ, I feel as if that there is enough mystery in these truths to spend the rest of our lives in wonder and study and still never plumb their depths. And yet this is only the beginning of the story. It is as if we have been going through the first few chapters of a biography and have only covered the scene-setting for what is to come as the main part of the life story.  We all want our lives to mean something, to have some greater significance, but we have here a man who lived the first 30 years of His life in obscurity. A man who knew the most significant act He would do would be His death – He really lived to die.

Thus, in this chapter Calvin describes the impact of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Calvin describes the following important aspects of Christ’s death:

1. His voluntary subjection. Of His own free will Christ came to earth, laid down His life and gave up His Spirit (John 10.15+18, 19.30). Christ chose to come, He chose to go to the cross, He chose to be a willing sacrifice. The Father did not force Jesus to do anything, He acted in willful submission to the divine will, for it is impossible for their to be any disunity in the Trinity. Christ cast away all care of Himself that He might provide for us. He even “submitted to be condemned by a mortal, nay a wicked and profane man” – in the form of Pontius Pilate. Although He could command all the legions of angels to His defense, instead He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, silent and submissive before a blasphemous mob.

2. Condemned as a criminal. Calvin makes the point that “in order to remove our condemnation, it was not sufficient to endure any kind of death. To satisfy our ransom, it was necessary to select a mode of death in which He might deliver us, both by giving Himself up to condemnation, and undertaking our expiation. Had he been cut off by assassins…there could have been no kind of satisfaction in such a death. But when He is placed as a criminal at the bar, where witnesses are brought to give evidence against Him, and the mouth of the judge condemns Him to die, we see Him sustaining the character of an offender and evil-doer.” Calvin concludes that “thus we perceive Christ representing the character of a sinner and a criminal, while at the same time, His innocence shines forth, and it becomes manifest that He suffers for another’s and not His own crime.”

3. A propitiatory victim. Here Calvin focusses on the method of Jesus’ death – the cross. He died a death that was cursed in Jewish tradition – “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21.23). He was the fulfillment of the sacrificial system, which had been established as a purification for sin. By bearing the just punishment for all our sin, and even becoming sin for us (1 Peter 2.24), Christ through the imputation of our wickedness was offered to the Father as a propitiatory victim. But Calvin reminds us that we should not think that the curse of the cross overwhelmed Him, but rather “by enduring it He repressed, broke and annihilated all its force.”

Calvin concludes by lifting our eyes to the wonder and glory of the cross, for rather than it being the reason for our defeat, it is the centerpiece of our victory. For “faith apprehends acquittal in the condemnation of Christ, and blessing in His curse.” The Apostle Paul even celebrates the triumph which Christ obtained upon the cross “as if the symbol of ignominy, had been converted into a triumphal chariot.”

Response

We are now at the heart of God’s plan to rescue His children from their rebellion. The death of Christ describes the means whereby God was able to both judge sin and forgive sinners whilst retaining His integrity. In the first few chapters of Book 3 we will learn how this act becomes effective in reconciling us to God through the channel of faith.

Unfortunately some Christians today feel uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus’ death being a wrath-appeasing sacrifice.  I admit that it is a difficult truth to comprehend. How could the Father ask His only Son to undergo such pain and suffering? How could He think to sacrifice His only Son – the uncreated for the sake of the created? But this is the true love of God, the costly, self-sacrificing love of God.

Looking back to what God asked Abraham to do in sacrificing Isaac, what appears to be madness suddenly becomes a clear picture of what God Himself was going to do – sacrifice His only Son. What Abraham was asked to do but stopped from completing, God the Father carried through to its conclusion.

It seems to me that we should not question God’s actions as a Father towards His own Son. We who are fathers sometimes have to make impossible decisions that no one else can make. But if we being imperfect reflections of the divine Father seek to do what is right, then will not the true and perfect Father always act with the utmost honour and integrity? Rather than cast doubt on what the bible clearly teaches we should recognise our distorted view of love and confess our wonder that the Father, Son and Spirit would go to such lengths for creatures such as us.

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Colossians 2.15

Father, we praise you that you were willing to give up your one and only Son to the disgrace of the cross and Jesus we praise you that you were willing and obedient to do all that the Father asked. Help us to cling to the victory you gained by becoming a curse for us. Amen.