Thoughts on Seeing a Lamb Killed on the Road


Disintegrated you will vanish,
Out of sight but not to perish;
In some form you will replenish
Nature’s stock,
Could reappear without a blemish
In the flock.

Chosen from among the creatures,
A lamb in our salvation features
With blood so pure that it can free us
From all sin.
Whose body broken down will feed us:
Christ our King.

Thoughts on Seeing a Lamb Killed on the Road, by the bard, the late John MacAskill of Blackpoint, Grimsay. A Christian of great faith, dignity, character and humour (1925-2018).


‘[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


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


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?


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.

The Work and Ministry of Physics

Hubble mosaic of the majestic Sombrero Galaxy

Earlier today I was thinking about the theory of cosmic origins known as the Big Bang theory. I’m no cosmologist, but the theory seems to correlate very well with what we observe in the universe (in three key ways: cosmic expansion, microwave background, and the abundance of less-dense elements). Many Christians seem unduly nervous about giving any credence to many of the insights of modern science, even where science is trying to interpret empirical data. Perhaps another quote I came across today will be surprising. It’s from Jean. Yes, that one.

Moreover, let us not forget that there are most excellent blessings which the Divine Spirit dispenses to whom he will for the common benefit of mankind…. He fills, moves, and invigorates all things by the virtue of the Spirit, and that according to the peculiar nature which each class of beings has received by the Law of Creation. But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth. (Institutes 2.2.16)

How we need to recover the expansive idea of Common Grace as Calvin construed it, and indeed the partnering concept of a Law of Creation.


htc3Two weeks ago, I preached my last sermon in Kilmallie Free Church as the Assistant Minister. A couple of Sundays before, I preached for the last time and presided over my final communion at Acharacle Free Church. As always I especially enjoyed being at Acharacle. The Lord has brought together a good number of solid and vibrant Christian people there, and I pray that he would add to their number those who are being saved.

In the last two weeks we’ve moved home, with all of the busyness that comes with that. But, there’s been time for reflection too. We came to Kilmallie & Ardnamurchan Free Church in August 2014. Three years and three months later (roughly), we’re moving on. There have been some wonderful moments during that time, but also some deeply distressing and difficult times. Pastoral ministry always has this mix I guess, but the last few months have been particularly tough. But God, through his grace, speaks into these situations and calls us onwards under his care and healing hand. My prayers are very much with the folk at Kilmallie & Ardnamurchan Free Church as they move into the future and a new chapter in the life of the congregation. I pray for good things under the Lord’s good hand.

For myself, and for Rachel and our children (who have their own lives now pretty much) it’s a new chapter too. In January, I take up the post of Lecturer in New Testament studies on the faculty at Highland Theological College. I’m humbled, and grateful, to have the opportunity to work in the academy. I’m looking forward to working for the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland’s newest university. I’m looking forward to working there in the service of the church. I’ve always prayed that my theological endeavours would be undertaken as worship, and that they would serve the everyday folk of the church. My prayer is the same now, as I prepare to begin teaching at my second, and most-loved (sorry Imperial College) alma mater. HTC holds a special place in my heart. So, entering that fine Dingwall building in January – although I’ve done it so many times before – will be a special moment.

But it’s daunting – I have hard acts to follow… My NT Jedi Master, Dr Mike Bird (now at Ridley College, Melbourne), taught me, one of his padawans (!), all of my undergraduate NT modules and laid a foundation for which I continue to thank the Lord. Dr Jason Maston (now of Houston Baptist University) supervised my PhD studies and modelled to me academic rigour. My predecessor, Rev Dr Alistair Wilson (who’s heading to Edinburgh Theological Seminary) loved HTC so much he did two stints! Mike followed him the last time he departed – so I really do have a lot to live up to! All of these are good men, Neutestamentlers of quality, and I hope myself in turn to be able to give a good account to the one of whom the New Testament most eloquently speaks.

God is Dead. We have killed him.

mitchell“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” Nietzsche, The Gay Science, The Madman.

I thought of Nietzsche’s well-known quote as I came across an article by David Mitchell in the Observer last month. The basis for the article was something said by Neil MacGregor, who is following his highly-successful and fascinating series A History of the World in 100 Objects, with another series: Living with the Gods. MacGregor has proved himself an able art historian, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s qualified to set out a history of religious belief. I heard him on the Today programme a couple of weeks ago, describing the series, and using ‘belief’ and ‘habits’ interchangeably, which is precisely the kind of imprecision that will get you into bother with a history of religions.

Anyway, MacGregor had made a really important observation, an observation that everyone should take seriously. It’s candid, and perceptive. MacGregor had said about Britain in 2017:

We are exceptional. It’s important to know that we are different. We are a very unusual society. We are trying to do something that no society has really done. We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time. Our society is, not just historically but in comparison to the rest of the world today, a very, very unusual one in being like that.

Mitchell picks up on the significance of this statement. So should we all. Read that again – let it sink in. After reflecting on it in his usual sardonic manner, Mitchell concludes:

To change so quickly from a society where most people took comfort from the establishment telling them, loudly and clearly, that death is not the end, to one where many proclaim that it is, and few are totally convinced otherwise, will have had an incalculable impact on our state of mind. It’s not a development I regret, but it’s a more persuasive explanation than smartphones or commuting of why we feel so stressed.

So, here’s Mitchell putting together 21st Century Britain’s rejection of it’s Christian metanarrative, in a way no other nation quite has, with the rise in anxiety which so many people feel. There are all kinds of social statistics that suggest that British society is not particularly healthy (whether rates of prescription anti-depressants, teenage pregnancy, or lower measures of happiness and well-being). Then, there’s the evidence from the recent hand-wringing reckoning around abusive and exploitative sexist behaviour in Westminster (which reckoning is the socially acceptable iceberg-tip for the reckoning that no-one – mostly no-ones who are men – wants in their own workplaces or homes or clubs on a Saturday night).

So, put Mitchell’s connection together with a story that appeared about the same time in the media. Esther Rantzen appeared on a number of TV slots to speak about a 15-20% rise in calls to Childline prompted by suicidal thoughts. Why this alarming rise? Was there an explanation? Well, the usual suspects were brought out. I’m sure social media is part of it. I’m sure the objectification of women and a highly-sexualised society are part of it. I’m sure that casting our goals in life within the framework of aggressive consumerism and an immoral capitalism – yes, part of it too.

Rantzen pointed out something very important: when you compare children’s happiness across the developed nations, the United Kingdom does particularly poorly. And that’s when my thoughts went back to Mitchell’s article. Why is our culture like this? You can bring out the usual suspects, but one suspect not in the identity parade, but skulking in the shadows (as Mitchell realises), is The Murder of God. Our exceptional experiment, our swift, ignorant and hubristic rejection of a 2,000 year tradition of thought and belief that has formed the pillars of European culture. Our rejection of Christianity. Who will wipe this blood off our hands?

David Mitchell might not regret the Death of God in our culture, but I regret it. Yes, I regret it personally, because of my intellectual convictions about truth. But I regret the cost to our society, and especially to our children.

Bonhoeffer for Reformation Day

Dietrich Bonhoeffer“Faith – this means, naturally, that no person or church can live from the greatness of their own actions. They instead live solely from the great act that God himself does and has done. And (this is what is crucial) the great acts of God remain unseen and hidden in the world. Things in the church are simply not the way they are in the world and in the history of nations, where it is ultimately a question of being able to point to great deeds.

The church that tried to do that would have already long since fallen to the laws and powers of this world. The church of success has truly not been the church of faith for a long time. The act that God did in this world, and from which all the world has since lived, is the cross on Golgotha. Such are God’s “successes,” and the successes of the church and the individual are like that when they are acts of faith. That faith abides means that it remains true, that human beings must live from what is invisible, that they live not from their own visible work but from the invisible act of God…

And so it is with the Reformation church. It never lives from its deeds or from its acts of love. It instead lives from what it does not see and yet believes.”

‘The Acts of God, Hidden in the World’, I Want to Live these Days with You, 315 (DBW 13.400)