Stott on Living as the New Humanity

stottAt last Sunday evening’s service, and again on Wednesday night, I quoted John Stott on Living as the New Humanity. I promised to put the quote on the blog, so here it is. In the quote Stott uses the language of ‘new society’, but the meaning in the same – he also uses the language of ‘new humanity’ elsewhere. Anyway, here’s the quote…

We are God’s new society, a people who have put off the old life and put on the new; that is what he has made us.

So we need to recall this by the daily renewal of our minds, … thinking Christianly about ourselves and our new status. Then we must actively cultivate a Christian life.

For holiness is not a condition into which we drift. We are not passive spectators of a sanctification God works in us. On the contrary, we have purposefully to ‘put away’ from us all conduct that is incompatible with our new life in Christ, and to ‘put on’ a lifestyle compatible with it.

John Stott, Ephesians (BST), 193

Just Forgiven Sinners

confessionalWe’ve all heard it said from time to time:

Christians are not saying they’re better than anyone else, just that they’re forgiven.

I heard something very similar not so long ago: Everyone is a sinner; the only difference is that Christians are forgiven. To recognise that, so this particular argument went, is to give glory to God. Our continuing sinfulness shows that a Christian’s salvation must all be of God through the blood of Christ, because we, as sinners, can contribute nothing good.
 
It sounds so plausible, even obviously correct. But it’s not correct – something very important is being left out. And the end result is not good, and is damaging the church. What’s true in the statements are the following:

  1. Everyone is a sinner by nature. No-one is born with any fundamental difference in terms of how alienated they are from God. No-one is born without the moral problem that results from that alienation – they are unable to know and serve God.
  2. Christians are forgiven. God’s love for the world, for humanity, has led him to bring salvation. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven for our sins, which is just one part of what salvation means.
  3. We can contribute nothing to this salvation. Salvation is by God’s grace only – we don’t (and can’t) do anything to help us merit it in any way. In fact, no-one can merit salvation, because it doesn’t work on merit.
  4. Salvation is through the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus Christ died to take away sin – to bring forgiveness. His death was an atoning death and, when we believe, we are put right with God on the basis of what Jesus has done.

So, what’s left out?

 
What’s left out is that when we put our faith in Jesus Christ, our lives change. It’s called repentance. When we begin to follow Jesus, we become disciples; we start to think, speak and act in a different way. But how does that work, when we are unable to serve God? Because, most importantly of all, when we put our faith in Jesus, we receive the reality of the presence of Jesus in our lives through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  This transforming presence is what enables us to follow, and what effects a change in our lives (meaning our lives, not just the way we think about ourselves). Our actions change. We no longer do things that we did before we became disciples of Christ. Our whole worldview changes. We think in a different way. Of course, that doesn’t happen overnight, but the culture of the church in which we live ought to make the goal abundantly clear, and equip us to move towards it.

 
The radical change that attends our faith in Jesus Christ is expressed by Paul:

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. (2Cor 5:17)
So, there is a fundamental difference between sinners and Christians – it is most definitely not true that that the only difference is that we’re forgiven. When we read Romans chapter 6, we find Paul writing about this total realignment of our lives. And indeed there are so many places where this is so clear, it’s a wonder how it can be lost (Rom 12, 13; Eph 4, 5; Col 3; 1 Pet 4; 1 Jo 2…etc. etc.).
 
The results of this omission are serious. If Christians believe that they are still essentially sinners and that the only difference between them and non-Christians is that they are forgiven, then they carry the same expectations of falling into temptation and sin that they had before. They also sometimes adopt a twisted view of what’s called Christian liberty and live in compromise with the world. This is one of the reasons why some Christians seem so ill-equipped in their interactions with culture. They feel able to listen uncritically to the same music, drink in the same subliminal messages of the advertisers, watch the same TV comedies – all of which function as vehicles for a worldview with little in common with the Christian worldview. They incubate the same life-aspirations as others. They can do what everyone else does because, in the end, we are all sinners, but Christians are forgiven. So, after a dutiful feeling of remorse (often mistaken for repentance), at least they can sleep soundly at night. I’m not saying that these Christians are living debauched lives – but I am saying that this version of the Gospel is propagating low expectations for holy living, and hinders the development of a truly counter-cultural Christianity.

 
Our good works must follow our faith. To say that our sinfulness as Christians shows that salvation is all of God is a total confusion. Our good works do not negate the fact that salvation is from God alone. We are not saved by our good works, but we certainly won’t be saved without them.
 
Shall we sin, so that grace may increase (Rom 6:1)? No-one’s saying it so starkly, but some are coming pretty close to it. Sinners won’t inherit the kingdom of God…

And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:11)

James in a Nutshell

jamesTwo nights ago at our Bible Study in Lochboisdale we thought about how we would answer if someone asked:

what is James (the New Testament letter) about?

We came up with a suggestion for ‘James in one sentence’ – and it’s actually the second part of James 2:18…

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

The idea of our faith being intimately linked with our deeds runs through every chapter that we’ve studied so far. When I pass through trials, what do I do? Blame God, or trust the Father of creation who gives good things and purposes to bring redemption to all of his creation (Ch.1)? Religion is worthless if it is not about what we do: control our speech, care for the needy (Ch.1). When I see the world’s social stratifications in the church, what do I do? Perpetuate the injustice of the world, or express the values of God’s Kingdom (Ch.2)? If I am a teacher, what do I do? Act arrogantly, or lead and teach humbly (Ch.3)? In my relationships in the church, what do I do? Perpetuate quarrels out of envy, slandering others, or repent and seek the way of humility (Ch.4)? In the Reformed church faith and works have been held at too great a distance from one another. True faith is an obedient faith. Faith is about doing, not just thinking. Faith without works is dead (and so is works without faith).

The concept of wisdom is also important to James. It crops up in 1:5, 3:13, 3:15 and 3:17. But if we remember that wisdom is ‘living well in God’s good but fallen world’, we see that wisdom infuses the whole letter and underlines the same point about living out (through our deeds) the faith in Jesus Christ that we have embraced in our hearts. In fact, it is only those who follow Jesus Christ in faith who can gain this ‘wisdom from above’. We’ve noted at a few points in the chapters we’ve studied so far the closeness of what James is writing to the Sermon on the Mount. That, in essence, is a wisdom discourse from the lips of Jesus the wisdom teacher. Christians must reject the wisdom of the world (specifically here the jealousy and ambition of the world’s value system) and seek the humility of the wisdom that is pure and peaceable.

Finally, we discussed something else that has jumped out (for me at least) during our studies. This is a letter exhorting Christians to live out their faith in the context of the Church. Too often, an individualistic approach to, say, the control of the tongue is adopted when we teach this material. The context is the Church: leaders, teachers, the persecuted, the poor, the rich, the sick. And this is especially clear when we see that at the heart of the letter is an exhortation to those who have set themselves up as teachers: the ship is directed by a small rudder, and that rudder will bear a greater responsibility for its journey. May we who teach be given grace.

Holy Creatures

P1010070Just a couple more quotes that I’d marked in Webster’s Holiness. As an account of the human condition and God’s redemptive response, I like this. It’s an account rooted in our relationship with God as our Creator. The foundational place of Creation Theology in scriptures does not always feed into our accounts of salvation. The way in which Webster writes here places our status as creatures (made as the image of God in the physical world) at the centre.

Christian holiness is holy fellowship; it is the renewal of the relation to God which is the heart of holiness. To be a creature is to have one’s being in relation to God, for ‘to be’ is ‘to be in relation’ to the creator, and only so to have life and to act. To be a sinner is to repudiate this relation, and so absolutely to imperil one’s life by seeking to transcend creatureliness and become one’s own origin and one’s own end. This wicked refusal to be a creature cannot overturn the objectivity of the creator’s determination to be God with us, for such is the creator’s mercy that what he has resolved from all eternity stands fast. But the sinner’s failure to live in acknowledgement of the creator’s gift of life means that the creature chooses to torment and damage his being to the point of ruin, precisely by struggling out of the ordered relation to God in which alone the creature can be. (p84, emphasis added)

A little further along…

However, evangelical sanctification is not only the holiness that the gospel declares but also the holiness that the gospel commands, to which the creaturely counterpart is action. Holiness is indicative; but it is also imperative; indeed, it is imperative because it is the indicative holiness of the triune God whose work of sanctification is directed towards the renewal of the creature’s active life of fellowship with him. (p87)

Election to Holiness

P1010057Just a short excerpt from Webster’s Holiness… In writing about the holiness of the Christian, Webster reminds us that our holiness is a work of God, not our work: ‘the Christian’s holiness does not stem from the Christian’s decision.’ He continues (p80):

However, there is an important complementary truth here: election is election to a way of life. The condition of ‘being elect’ is not simply a state but a history; election to holiness is not merely segregation. Rather, election is determination, appointment to be and to act in a certain way. The movement of segregation is, certainly, indispensable, for consecration means difference. But segregation cannot be made absolute; what is established by God’s election of grace is not a state, but the consecration of the sinner for active service of God:

“[P]ractice is the aim of that eternal election which is the first ground of the bestowment of all true grace. Good practice is not the ground of election . . . But Christian practice is the scope and end of election. Though God does not elect men because he foresees that they will live holy, yet he elects them that they may live holy.” (quoting Jonathan Edwards).

Sometimes our presentation of the gospel de-emphasises our obedience to the gospel and leaves the impression that we are sinners like everyone else. We seem to think that grace is magnified if we leave out that the goal of election is not sinners, saved despite themselves, but holy saints, saved despite themselves, but transformed by God’s Spirit to and towards living righteous lives .

The Renewal of our Spirits and Bodies

P1010056In 1 Corinthians Paul perceives a now-and-not-yet in human salvation. Now, the redemption of our spirits, and in the future, but not-yet, the redemption of our bodies. It is part of Paul’s inaugurated eschatology. The contrast between the anthropos psuchikos (natural/unregenerate man) and ho penumatikos (he who is spiritual) in 2:14-15 expresses the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit. In 15:44, the soma psuchikon (natural/unregenerate body) is transformed into the soma pneumatikon (spiritual body). One body is animated by psuche, the other animated by pneuma. The categories applied to the inward transformation of the one who has faith in Jesus Christ are here applied to their bodily transformation. Both aspects are part of the same overall process and goal. The diagram on the right is an attempt to show this.

Hans-Joachim Kraus writes similarly in his Theology of the Psalms. In his chapter on The Individual in the Presence of God, he identifies spirit (ruah) and heart (leb) as synonymous descriptions of the inner being of humans. The ruah is ‘the wind, the breath of life, the life-giving power.’ It is equivalent to breath (nismah). So Psalm 51 contains a plea for a ‘clean heart’ and ‘a new and right spirit.’ It is a plea for a creative renewal of the human ruah, which can only be achieved through the intervention of the ruah of Yahweh himself.

ruah as a revivifying element of creation corresponds here to ruah as the divine power of new creation, or of its effect on the human spirit. The person who has been renewed in her or his ruah through Gods ‘holy spirit’ is the counterpart to the person who as God’s creature has been given life through ruah or nismah. Both aspects, however, are intimately related, because it is the will of Yahweh the Creator to renew his creation. This will is, however, first active in human beings in Israel. Here the human ruah is in need of God’s protection and guidance through the divine Spirit. ‘Let thy good spirit lead me on a level path!’ (Ps. 143:10).  p147.

What Paul sets out explicitly, we detect in God’s renewing, creative action in the Psalms. What I especially love about this quote is the salvation-historical clarity: the will of the Creator for renewal is ‘first active in human beings in Israel’! The same will of the Creator is today active in all the world! We are closer today to the goal: Behold, I make all things new!

The Task of the Disciple

road3

For those in the congregation, this post is a brief resumé of a sermon entitled The Task of the Disciple.

The Attitude of a Disciple

  • If you are a Christian, you are a disciple of Christ.
  • Jesus calls for a radical reconfiguration of our lives around a new priority. Luke 14: 26-27.
  • Discipleship requires a single-minded commitment. It is a journey, it has a beginning, an end. Luke 9:62.

The Goal of Discipleship

  • Why does Jesus call us to follow? Why does God want us to obey?
  • Is God a mean task-master, who needs to be kept happy with slavish obedience? No.
  • The goal of discipleship is freedom. The truth sets us free. John 8:31-32.
  • We cannot gain this freedom from within ourselves, it must be bestowed upon us from outside. John 1:12.

The Task of the Disciple – Add to Your Faith

  • Many NT texts speak about the task. For Peter, it is summed up in 4 words: Add…To…Your…Faith. 2 Peter 1: 3.
  • Peter gives a list of virtues that should increasingly be ours. This is our task.
  • The task is a journey. The journey is long. We have to walk. There are no short-cuts. It is a journey of freedom and to freedom.
  • This list of virtues is book-ended by references to our knowledge of Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1: 3, 8.
  • As in John 8:31, where Jesus calls us to persevere in His word, we cannot be successful in our task without teaching & learning.

The Task of the Disciple – Is Driven by Teaching & Learning

  • The writer to the Hebrews is convinced of the need of Christians to become mature in their understanding. Hebrews 5:11-6:3.
  • Teaching and learning is fundamental to discipleship.

The Task of the Disciple – Leads to an Effective Church

  • The Apostle Paul sees that God has given prophets, apostles, ministers to the church to teach, so that every member can be equipped for the task of the Church. Ephesians 4: 11-13.
  • A church where each person is serious about the Task of Discipleship is an effective Church.

The Task of the Disciple – The Challenge

  • Jesus calls us to reassess our priorities.
  • All of our life-aspirations, plans and ambitions exist under one over-riding heading: I am a Disciple of Jesus.
  • We must learn by making the most of opportunities to be taught.
  • We must together be a community of disciples, equipped and being equipped for works of service to the glory of God.

Filled with Sin

rubbishIs it true to say that Christians are as much sinners as anyone else, and that the only difference is that they’re forgiven sinners? Every now and again I come across ministers and others saying things like:

  • Christian’s lives are filled with sin: “we confess our lives are filled with sin”
  • everything we do as Christians is sin: “our best is sinful in God’s sight”
  • even our church worship is filled with sin: “our worship today is filled with sin”

I really hope that these people aren’t right! If Christians lives are really filled with sin, then they are as much sinners as anyone else, and then large parts of the New Testament seem to be mistaken.

Jesus teaches that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven(Matt 5:20). The Apostle Paul teaches that sinners will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 7. 9-10). John wants Christians not to sin (1 John 2:1). Peter wants our good deeds to be seen (1 Peter 2:12). The prophets and apostles all take the same view: God’s people are chosen and called for obedience. Under the law, this calling was not achieved (Rom 8.3). But in Christ, by his death and his power realised through the Holy Spirit, a God-pleasing obedience can be a reality (Gal 5:19-24).  Jesus Christ did not pay the penalty for sin on the cross so that we would go on being full of sin (Rom 6: 1-4).

The NT urges us to realise the obedient lives of mature disciples, but of course sin is a reality in any Christians’ life. The Apostle John is realistic: we all fail, we all sin.  But we need to remember that we have an advocate in Jesus and a loving father who forgives if we do sin. (1 John 1:8 – 2:1)

But we need to be biblical about what is, and what is not, sin.  And we need to acknowledge not only the reality of our sin, but also the reality of our good deeds. A reckoning of good deeds as sin dishonours God, dishonours the work of Jesus and dishonours the Holy Spirit. A belief that Christian’s lives are filled with sin denies the reality of repentance, the power of Christ’s death, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the reality of our adoption as sons and daughters.

Perhaps the people who say the things at the top of the post would sit down over a cup of coffee and agree with what I’ve written – perhaps their words are mere rhetoric, perhaps they’d claim it’s ‘cultural’. But, when Christian leaders and teachers foster the kind of attitudes at the top of this post, there is a psychological cost to Christians. An expectation of failure and sin defeats the Christian before she or he gets out of bed. A communal focus on failure renders churches ineffective, and holds Christians back from growth towards maturity.