Bridging

‘[I]f pastors are not ‘up to the job’ of distilling and understanding the writings of scholars in various disciplines, how will our laypeople do it? This is one of the things that parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and the pew. I’m aware of what a burden this is. I don’t know that there has ever been a culture in which the job of the pastor has been more challenging. Nevertheless, I believe this is our calling.’

Tim Keller, ‘Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople’

Defining Forgiveness

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Return of the Prodigal, Robert Barnum

Over the last months I’ve been thinking a fair bit about forgiveness. A couple of years ago, I preached on Jesus’s words about forgiveness in Matthew’s gospel, and the reaction surprised me (although it shouldn’t have). Folk are wary of forgiveness, mainly I think because of cheap and easy definitions of what forgiveness is – what you might call under-developed theologies of forgiveness. These theologies of cheap grace do not seem to to concern themselves with repentance for sin, or notions of justice, when it comes to forgiveness. It ought to at least give us pause for thought that God himself places responsibilities on offenders: ‘if we confess our sins’ writes John, ‘he is faithful and just to forgive us’ (1 John 1:9). There are ideas of repentance and justice right there. If our ideas of forgiveness don’t include these, they easily become charters for further cycles of exploitation, anxiety and damage.

At the other extreme are over-developed theologies of forgiveness that take away the challenge of forgiving the real people in our own lives who have offended against us. Jesus words are clear: if we do not forgive, we won’t be forgiven (Matt 6:15). We can place so many caveats on forgiveness that we are really just concocting get-out clauses for the painful business of forgiving those who have hurt us, damaged us, broken us.

You might put it like this: over-developed definitions of forgiveness produce excuses; under-developed definitions of forgiveness produce abuses.

So, I was really helped by a definition of forgiveness in Bryan Maier’s book Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach (Kregel, 2017). I reproduce it here:

To put it all in one comprehensive statement, my full exposition of “I forgive you” might go as follows:

Because of your repentance and the fact that the price of your sin has been paid (by God), the effects of your sin against me have been substantially healed, and your repentance has stopped the previously hostile messages to me, your sin can no longer damage me. Since you are taking responsibility for your sin I no longer have to make up distorted reasons why it happened, and that is good for both of us. Finally, our relationship is now different and I agree to treat you in light of this new relationship (p.115).

I think that’s really helpful, especially the focus on ‘hostile messages’ and the need for repentance and responsibility. The book sets out the challenge of forgiveness but also sets out, alongside, the need for a framework of repentance, healing, and importantly, safety.

 

 

Dangerous Christianity

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Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradzki

On Saturday, it was great to have around 50 folk gathered for the Conference and Open Day at HTC. At worship, I spoke on Dangerous Christianity.

Firstly, following Jesus Christ is dangerous for disciples in every age as they come into conflict with the world (‘a system organised in opposition to God’ in the words of FF Bruce) and must daily take up their crosses (a commitment to Jesus as Lord that must transcend the fear of death).

But when people follow Jesus it’s also dangerous for the world itself. Disciples are engaged in a Kingdom Struggle (to borrow the language of Marx). Christianity threatens the power-brokers of the world, not through the usual weapons of war targetted at flesh and blood, but through the word and works of the Gospel targetted at the philosophies, attitudes and structures which hold human beings in captivity. And of course, behind these rulers and authorities lie spiritual forces of evil (Eph 6:12), and the evil one from whom we pray to be delivered.

The Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ threatens the Kingdom of this World, because Jesus has overcome this world system (John 16:33), and the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4:4). So, Reformed Christianity is, or ought to be, a Christianity relentlessly engaged with the world of God’s good creation, and as part of that, with the world system which opposes God. We need to renew our confidence in Christ, and our focus on the task of destroying arguments and opinions that are set up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:4), as we seek the coming of the Kingdom of God.

To finish, I quoted Iain Provan of Regent College, Vancouver (from a Convocation Speech in 2013):

Be dangerous to those who worship money and material possessions – the idols of mammon. Lay bare the utopianism at the heart of modern economic ideology. Deride the universal expectation of more … be dangerous to all who, in the pursuit of [false] gods, damage other people, and damage God’s good creation. Be dangerous to the powerful who want to use and oppress the weak, and to the rich who want to use and oppress the poor.

Is Billy Graham Dead?

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Don’t speak ill of the dead. It’s good advice. It’s also advice that’s more theologically accurate than some things that have been written in the days following the death of the great evangelist Billy Graham. The dead are, after all, a real category of people.

The following quote was posted on The Gospel Coalition website with links to some of the reaction to Graham’s death.

“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

The quote went viral, for a time being posted every 15-minutes on Twitter (apparently) by all kinds of people. It’s been pointed out that the quote actually originated with 19th-century evanglist DL Moody, and that Billy Graham himself did re-appropriate it, which ought not to be a surprise. The quote seems defiant about death – it’s easy to see why it appeals. But, the quote doesn’t, to my mind at least, actually reflect a biblical view of life, death, and salvation.

I write with  great respect for Billy Graham and mindful of some of the ridiculous criticism of him that has appeared over the years. I’m thankful for Graham, for his matchless impact on so many people during his years of ministering the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, whose materials I’ve used in my own ministry. Even in his later years when his strength was failing, you couldn’t help but be impressed with his passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So, to take issue with a single quote is just a small thing – and I don’t want to be speaking ill of anyone. But, the quote going viral has really got me thinking (not for the first time) about how we speak about death – and what we believe about death.

It’s a stark reality that, after so many years of life and service, Billy Graham, like DL Moody (and contra their shared quote), is dead. Those who have died are dead.

Now, don’t get me wrong: that’s not to say that the dead are not existing in some way (that’s why they can be called ‘the dead’). Neither is it to say that they’re not in the presence of God in some sense – I don’t have a problem with that part of the Graham/Moody quote. But it is to say that, according to biblical categories of understanding human existence, they are dead. They are not living, and certainly not ‘more alive’.

[As an aside, whilst writing this I recalled a very powerful sermon almost 20 years ago by evangelist Mike Mellor. He mentioned some of the great Christian preachers of the past, followed by a reminder (in loud and abrupt tones) that they are no longer around… George Whitfield? He’s dead!… John Wesley? He’s dead! Mike Mellor’s point was that for all the talk about these heroes of the faith, we need heroes for our own day. Anyway, I commend Mike on his robust theology of life and death!]

Jesus and the apostles speak consistently about God’s answer to death in the Gospel:  ‘resurrection from the dead’ (e.g. Luke 20:35), or the ‘resurrection of the dead’ (e.g. Matt 22:31). Resurrection is either from the dead (the Greek preposition carries the idea of out from among the dead) or it’s of those who are dead (literally, the dead ones, who receive resurrection). Either way, resurrection is God’s action to bring those who have died back to material life. The idea is so familiar in the New Testament that I don’t think I have to list all of the data here.

The resurrection of Jesus is at the centre of the proclamation of the apostles. For them, Jesus has been raised from the dead (e.g. Acts 3:15). Again, a lot of data. God has, according to Peter in his Pentecost sermon, not allowed the Messiah to remain in Hades (the grave, or the realm of the dead – a point made through the recollection of Psalm 16).

At the return of Jesus Christ it is, according to Paul, the dead in Christ that will rise first (1 Thess 4:16). Those who are alive will meet him at his return (1 Thess 4:17). There are clearly two categories of people here: those who are ‘alive’ are physically alive, not people who have died. People who have died are ‘the dead’. It’s obvious really – but, astonishingly, it needs spelling out.

At the return of Christ, it’s the dead who will be ‘made alive’ – that’s clearly Paul’s understanding of resurrection (1 Cor 15:22). Jesus Christ assumes the role, at his return, of life-giving Spirit (1 Cor 15:45) bringing the dead to life (Paul draws here a striking analogy with God breathing into the nostrils of the cold corpse of Adam in the Genesis account). God is the God of the living (Matt 22:32), and that’s why he raises the dead (2 Cor 1:9).

The New Testament data clearly demonstrate that it is people who have died (Paul sometimes uses the metaphor of ‘falling asleep’ or ‘sleeping’) who are categorised as dead, and that these will remain dead (in a state of death, you might say) until the appearing of Jesus Christ.

For those, like me, in the Presbyterian tradition, it’s good to know that the Westminster Confession shows the usual clarity in its own use of categories at this point:

At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever. WCF 32.2

So, given the data (and I’ve only just given the quickest of summaries), why do we persist in explaining away, denying, or remaining silent about the abiding reality of death? Why do we want to convince ourselves that someone who’s died is, in the words of DL Moody,  more alive than ever? I’m not sure about the whole answer to that. In part, it’s the influence of Platonism in Greek philosophy, through mediaeval Thomist theology, through to modern Roman Catholic and some baptist theologies – where there is still the idea that this world is a transient state of affairs after which we attain a different level of existence. In part, it reflects present-day folk beliefs in the afterlife, and a refusal to accept our creatureliness. In part, it reflects the totally-understandable desire to avoid the reality of death. In the Reformed tradition it’s a result of the influence of Pietistic dualism. And, I also think that our misunderstandings of death are in some way the mirror image of our misunderstandings of life and what it means to be human.

Anyhow, you can see clearly this kind of view in the Christianity Today article that I’ve already linked to:

When it comes down to it, this quote is a 19th century (and later 20th century) paraphrase of … Paul’s characterization of death in 1 Corinthians 15:54: When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

I entirely disagree with this mis-exegesis. Paul is quite clearly referring in this passage to a future event (‘the saying…will come true’). The consistent position in 1 Corinthians 15 is that the dead will be made alive at the return of Jesus Christ. That’s when death will be swallowed up in victory.

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:22-26 ESV, my emphasis).

The New Testament is starkly open about the problem of death. It doesn’t describe it as life, or as being more alive. Paul softens things a little with his language of being asleep. But neither Jesus, the apostles, or the other authors flinch from it. It is a problem; it’s a problem answered in the person and work of Jesus Christ; yet, it is a problem that awaits its ultimate and glorious final answer. The dead remain dead until the parousia of Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, will the final enemy be defeated, and those in the grave will hear his voice. And the dead will be raised to life.

George Whitfield, DL Moody, Billy Graham and a vast number of women and men will, in that day, be more alive than they’ve ever been. Mortality will then be clothed with immortality. That is the bliblical Christian hope, and it’s much more hopeful, life-affirming and glorious than belief in a ‘spiritual’ afterlife.

Inauthentic Church

“The last ten or fifteen years, hospitality has been the buzzword for evangelism or church planting, as a way of getting people in the door. A tool, you could say. A trick, you could say. Where it’s like, ‘Don’t you want to be one of us? Aren’t we cool?’ … Hospitality isn’t a trick, it’s not a tool. It has to be genuine. It has to be authentic.”  Pointed, but insightful comment from Jayme Reaves, author of Safeguarding the Stranger speaking on Nomad Podcast N166.