Archive for the ‘General’ Category
On the morning of Tuesday 24th March 2015, 150 people – passengers and crew – boarded Germanwings flight 4U9525. They were travelling from Barcelona in Spain to Düsseldorf in Germany. The flight took off at 9.01am. The final contact with air traffic control was at 9.30am. At 9.30am the autopilot was switched on. By 9.31am the aircraft was in a controlled descent over the Alps. There was no response at 9.35am when air traffic control attempted to make further contact, but the flight recorders picked up the sound of some kind of pounding on the cabin door. The last radar contact was made at 9.40am, with the aircraft about 2000 feet above the mountains; screaming can be heard on the recordings. Within moments the aircraft struck the ground at 430 miles an hour. All 150 people on board were killed almost instantly.
How do you respond to these events? Perhaps with shock, grief, anger or fear? As we survey these things, we have seen courage and dignity, pride and vindictiveness, pain and sorrow, anguish and bewilderment. We are reminded that we do not know what is in the heart of man, and we may never know all that took place in the aeroplane.
But what should you make of it? What lessons can we learn from such a tragedy? In the Bible, a king called David was writing about some of the triumphs that he had enjoyed and the mercies he had obtained. And then he strikes a thoughtful, sober note: “Lord, what is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:3–4).
In these words, mankind is seen to scale in a fallen world full of sin and sorrow. It puts my life and yours in perspective. These words remind us that life is a breath and a blessing.
Life is a breath
Why does the God of heaven have regard for mankind? These words suggest a comparison while they make a declaration. Breath is mere vapour, a puff of air, something that is empty. A passing shadow has no strength or substance – it is a shade that slips away. This is a picture of human life in a fallen world.
It speaks of frailty. Even a child knows that bubbles do not last and balloons do not endure. The life of a shadow depends on the passing clouds! When the aircraft struck the ground, humanly speaking, there was no chance of survival. The strongest, wisest, cleverest, fittest, richest, most gifted and talented people died just as suddenly as any others. King David enthroned in triumph acknowledges that his life is a breath. Assaults, accidents, diseases – all bring men and women to a quick end.
The language also communicates brevity, the shortness of life. Bubbles burst, breaths are exhaled. The longest lifespan of a shadow is a single day, and it leaves no trace behind. A man who lived to be 130 years old said, “few and evil have been the days of the years of my life” (Genesis 47:9). There was a seven month old baby who died. Sixteen school children were killed. And yet the longest life on that plane was a relatively short one.
Then we learn of the uncertainty of life. Perhaps no-one boarded that plane – perhaps one person did – thinking that they were in the last hour of their life. Those school children sent texts of eager anticipation at being home. We have heard reports of the expectations and ambitions, the dreams and the schemes of some of those who died. Those grand plans and efforts have now come to nothing. You and I do not know when or how our life on earth will end. The Word of God warns us, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1). So many people are ushered unprepared into eternity, imagining a longer life and making no preparation for death and judgment.
Have you considered these painful realities of human life in a fallen world? Such events – especially such tragedies – force us to face the frailty, brevity and uncertainty of life, and the fact that afterward there is a judgement. The Lord Jesus himself reminded people, in the face of various sudden deaths, that the people who suffered them were no worse sinners than any others. He used the occasion to warn us that “unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke’s Gospel 13:1–5).
These are painful lessons to us who remain. We are too often arrogant bubbles and proud shadows, quick to boast of our strength and to forget the fearful reality.
Life is a blessing
So what is our hope? If our lives are so frail, brief and uncertain, is there any prospect for us? Remember the words of King David: “Lord, what is man, that You take knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:3–4).
Here is an astounding fact: the Lord God Almighty takes notice of mankind. It does not mean that God is aware of our existence and sends a passing glance in our direction. It means that he plans and purposes with mankind in mind, he designs and determines to take account of sinful creatures like you and me. God is mindful of mankind with regard to both our weakness and our wickedness.
With regard to our weakness, life is given and sustained. Perhaps we presume our entitlement to life. We ought to be grateful for the gift. God is described in the Bible as the one who “gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts17:25). The tragedy is that we often live like another king from history who lived as he pleased and worshipped what he wanted, but “the God who holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways, you have not glorified” (Daniel 5:23). God ought to be glorified by you and all his creatures, “for of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever” (Romans 11:36). The gift of life is not to be used to pursue your sinful pleasures but to seek the glory of God who made you. Do you have any thought of God? Do you live with any regard for him? Do you serve him with your life or waste your hours on vanities? Our opportunities are so short, and our life is so unstable, and yet we live with no regard for God.
Furthermore, that life given is sustained. Though life in itself is frail, brief and uncertain, yet you are still alive to read these words! How many times have you been spared death? How many times has your life been preserved? Perhaps you can remember assaults, accidents or sicknesses when you almost lost your life. Perhaps there were risks and dangers about which you still have no idea. You owe to a merciful God not only the life you have but the fact that you still have it. That is true on the largest scale: God sustains this world and everything in it, all its reliability and stability in terms of days and seasons (Genesis 8-9). “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew’s Gospel 5:45). We all benefit from his kindnesses. It is true on the smallest scale, for our individual lives are all known to him. We can say that “in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them” (Psalm 139:16). A Christian can say with confidence that not even the smallest bird “falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew’s Gospel 10:29–30).
But God is mindful not only of our weakness but also our wickedness. You see, the problem is not merely that we are creatures, but we are sinful creatures. Though we have been given life, breath and all things by a mighty and merciful God, we live as if we were gods, as if we called all the shots in our life. And yet God is still mindful of mankind. In the face of our rebellions and sins, life is offered and assured.
Not only has God given us what we might call common mercies, he also holds out saving mercies. He offers us eternal life in his kingdom, so that one writer can say that “even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to be our peace, to make it and to proclaim it to sinners like us. He “remembered us in our lowly state … and rescued us from our enemies, for His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 136:23–24). Those enemies include sin and death – the only way to be prepared for our entrance into eternity is through Jesus Christ, whom God sent in love so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life (John’s Gospel 3:16). This is God taking knowledge of sinners so as to hold out salvation to us. The Son of God became a man and died on the cross so that sinners like us might have everlasting love (Philippians 2:5–8). This is God’s mercy to and pity for sinners, offering life to us though we are lost and helpless in ourselves. He has thought upon us and held out life in Christ.
And this life is assured. When a sinner trusts in Jesus Christ they obtain a life which death itself cannot end, and are given “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:4–5). Our present body can be likened to “our earthly house, this tent,” but if it is destroyed, a Christian can say that “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). There is nothing frail, brief or uncertain about that life! Your hope in life and in death hinges upon the saving mercies of God in Christ, grasped by faith. In the Old Testament, a prophet called Isaiah contrasted the person who trusts in empty things with the one who believes in God: “When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you. But the wind will carry them all away, a breath will take them. But he who puts his trust in Me shall possess the land, and shall inherit My holy mountain” (Isaiah 57:13). So those who trust in Jesus, according to the promise of God, “look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
Have you considered the frailty, brevity and uncertainty of your life? Let the dreadful events of recent days press these things home to your soul. And remember, in the face of all your weakness, and despite all your sin and your sinning, God has given and sustained the gift of natural life. Furthermore, in the face of all your wickedness, God has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, that you might have life in his name, and might have it more abundantly (John’s Gospel 10:10) – life everlasting!
The God of heaven and earth is marvellously, mercifully, mindful of mankind. This is your only hope in this world and for the next. The only answer to your frail, brief, uncertain life is the divine mercy and sufficiency.
I plead with you to think about the mercies you have already received in the face of your weakness and your wickedness. Your life is a gracious gift, and though it may hang by a thread, you still possess it. What thought – what gratitude, worship and service – have you given to the God who gives and sustains your life?
But think, too, of the mercies you are now offered in the face of your weakness and wickedness. Life is passing, but God has been mindful of you. Without Christ, you will die and go into judgement, and face the horrors of hell. But God has sent Christ as a Saviour, and has put this leaflet in your hand to warn you of eternal death and awful damnation and to hold out everlasting life in Christ. Christ says, “Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live” (Isaiah 55:3).
A few weeks ago I mentioned a CofE primary school in Crawley, West Sussex, called St Margaret’s, Ifield, that is in the process of seeking a new head teacher. The position has now been advertised. Perhaps you or someone you know might be interested? As you will see from the advert, the school is seeking a robust and faithful Christian who will be an excellent head teacher. Oh, and there happens to be a fine Reformed or Particular Baptist church not too far away …
The credits roll. The hero and/or heroine (fling in a plural or two as appropriate) mount their horses, or link their arms, or climb aboard, or do something else redolent of completion, and disappear into the sunset. Some measure of victory lies behind them, even if more battles might lie ahead.
It is what happens at the end of a thousand films or television programmes – not all, but most. Sitting on a long aeroplane flight, as was my recent situation, you catch a glimpse of it up and down the aisles. But review the programmes on offer, and a slightly more nuanced story emerges. The vast majority of films presume upon a painful, dystopian, or even (favourite phrase) post-apocalyptic setting for the action. Despite a succession of happy-ish endings (even temporary ones, where the hero[es] wander on to the next conflict in the dystopian haze) the working assumption is that man is a fairly miserable creature.
It may be struggle and conflict. It may be sickness and disease. It may be disasters natural or man-made. It may be broken relationships of battered minds and bodies. Whatever it may be, the vast majority of these films seem to begin with evil in the ascendancy. Of course, they often end on a high note, but high notes don’t work when you need another slice of devastation and grimness against which to set your next hero. It is a matter of interest of me that no matter what denials our cultures cultivate against the fact of original sin and the depravity of our nature, it is what they assume when they begin to consider or anticipate the future.
What seems to be the norm is a fairly realistic (biblical) view of human nature, with a desperate desire for someone who rises above the norm and who can therefore overcome the dead ends into which our nature drives us. We struggle to argue overmuch with the first – it might at least give us at least some point of contact as we seek to expose the proud folly of sinful man. With regard to the second, it is a tragic case of fallen men looking in all the wrong places.
Those in the teaching profession might be interested to know that there is a CofE primary school in Crawley, West Sussex, called St Margaret’s, Ifield, that is in the process of seeking a new head teacher. I intend to draw attention to the advert when it is finalised and publicised, but perhaps you or someone you know might be interested. One reason for bringing this to attention through this blog is that we would be hopeful that the candidate will be a robust and faithful Christian in addition to being an excellent head teacher. If you are interested, or know someone who might be, please keep your eyes open through this blog or the usual channels. Oh, and there happens to be a fine Reformed or Particular Baptist church not too far away …
Here is your starter for ten …
You may be in the sad condition of not really knowing what you are missing by not knowing Fuller. One way to get a taste of the man as a preacher is a selection from his sermons providing a thirty day devotional. It may be a little late for the start the year, but I would like to think it would provide a real blessing to your daily spiritual routine at some point over the next twelve months. It’s dirt cheap, seems to be only available on Kindle, and you can grab it at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
One of the joys, if we choose to call it that, of the turn of the year is the “books wot I red” lists that emanate from bloggers left, right and centre. Some of them are simply crass arrogance – the “I read bigger, better, harder, higher, or simply more books than you” approach, a bit like those posts that slide out before the holidays suggesting the thirty tomes that the great and the good will be knocking back in their five days by the seaside. Some of the lists are genuine attempts to encourage and direct others in their reading or the well-meaning surveys of those who read more rapidly, more widely or in a more disciplined way than the rest of us. Some are combined with, or set alongside, the ten or twenty or fifty books that every Christian should read. So, for example, “The twenty books published this year that I read that every other Christian should read.”
But when you flick through a few of these, a pattern begins to emerge. Whether or not it’s your year-end or all-time lists, most of the books are often fairly predictable. What’s particularly disappointing is when the all-time lists include a significant majority of predictable authors from the same circles writing over the last ten years or so. I have seen a couple recently in which, having read the first five, I could have finished off the list for the chap in question, it being so clear the trajectory he was on.
I suspect that we are all prone to this (notice, I did not yet say guilty) to some degree. Most of us, either of necessity or habit or developed preference, have a measure of limit or focus to our reading at any particular time. If I am preparing a series of sermons, researching a particular person or period, or just enjoying something more than usual, my patterns of reading will reflect an element of concentration. Beyond that, we doubtless gravitate toward what we enjoy and profit from – reliable authors, favoured schools of thought, sweet places and stirring periods. That is fair enough, and understandable over time.
However, despite the Pavlovian salivation that occurs whenever anyone mentions the sainted Lewis, well-known for his critique of chronological snobbery in our reading, few seem to be taking him too seriously (whether or not they are confessed Lewis-slobberers). Indeed, the problem spreads beyond the temporal into the topical and the authorial and the geographical.
Too many of those lists show a narrowness and a shallowness that goes beyond the myopic and borders on the deliberately blind. Few contain anything more than a passing nod to anything too far outside the comfort zone. How will we ever test and assess and grow if we refuse to read anything that does not merely buttress or endorse our own preferred authors, preconceived notions, precious systems and protected memes? Some of these lists read like little more than exercises in how to pronounce ‘shibboleth’ properly.
I am not saying that we should indulge an appetite for pap or an itch for poison. Less mature readers usually need safer boundaries than more mature readers. But even the less mature could and should read beyond the hackneyed round of a few religious gurus. All should read those books which – without ever going outside the bounds of substantial orthodoxy – push us to think in ways we never otherwise would. Those starting out need to get into a groove, not drop into a pit. For most of us, it does us good to be stretched, challenged, engaged, taken out of our depth. If we are well-grounded in the faith, such a process can helpfully stir us, exercise us and ultimately strengthen us.
Take a few minor examples: you are a dyed-in-the-wool right wing reactionary of the sort who believes that the injunction to be subject to the governing authorities is somehow suspended in some way when speaking of and dealing with the Blairs and the Obamas of this world. Read a little Christopher Wright, and the first time you come up against his (let the reader understand) sentimental promotion of a left wing agenda of social (read socialist!) justice in the name of the Lord and Anglicanism you shy like a startled mustang. Fine, but once you calm down, you need to ask yourself where his notions and convictions come from, and go back to your Bible, and sieve his conclusions through the grid of Scripture, and assess and learn and argue. At worst, you have tested your own convictions against the convictions of another, and decided that – though you may have a little extra nuance – you see no particular need to shift your most fundamental anchor points. You might even wonder if you have been reading the Bible with one eye closed, and become determined to be more honest with Scripture and with yourself, even if you still can’t see what Mr Wright sees. Or, you are a high Presbyterian who believes that Baptists cannot be considered covenantal theologians, let alone in any way Reformed, and so you insist on referring to them as Anabaptists and dreaming of the day when a properly established Christian state is once again free to persecute such. It might not hurt you to read through some of the material recovering, interacting with and rehearsing some of the seventeenth century material and its underlying convictions, so that in the future your invective is marginally less marred by ignorance. Or, you are a persuaded cessationist, steadfast in your proper conviction that the apostolic gifts ceased with the office of the apostles while still delighting in and relying upon the continued operations of the Holy Spirit. Fair enough, but what about reading your differing brothers at their most intelligent and reasonable, so that you can at least understand why they believe what they say, can see the differences between what is claimed to be the case and what usually happens when someone lays claim to such gifts, and can more thoughtfully and graciously expose the exegetical flaws and practical dangers of their position?
Whatever our particular anchor points, it often does no harm to consider why someone would drop their anchor some little distance from our own. If nothing else, it might get your blood flowing. Who knows, you might even learn something? Better still, we should be deliberately searching out those who have gone before us with reputations for genuine godliness and sacrificial service who shake us out of our crassly comfortable little ruts and make us wonder whether or not we have ever grasped the greatness and the glory of the Lord.
So, let us get outside our own century and our own circle. Let us have lists with a little of a patristic flavour, with a few of the best medievals, a dose of the Reformers, a shot of the Puritans and their successors, a fillip of the eighteenth century men, a snack on the best that the nineteenth has to offer, and a smattering of the twentieth, as well as the low-lying fruit of the twenty-first. Let the breeze of the centuries waft over your souls. Roam the world where the truth has taken root – let the theologians of Europe and Africa and Asia and Australia, and perhaps even America, expand your sense as they wrestle with and apply theology in a context utterly unlike your own. Are you more of a historian? Read some biblical theology! Systematics your thing? How about some missiology? Linguistics float your boat? Dive into a few more biographies. Love your new Calvinists? Read some old ones – get into the Puritans! More of a Genevan? Have a dig around in the Calvinistic Methodists. Stuck in the sentiment of the Victorians? Take a bracing dose of a scholarly Scot. Mired in the multiplied divisions of the Puritans? Shake yourself loose with a canter through the church fathers. Plodding through the Princetonians? Dive into the Particular Baptists. Drowning in the Particular Baptists? Get stuck into the English or Continental Reformers.
As you think about your reading for the coming year, might I suggest that you take up something, early on, that is very much not what you would incline toward. Sprinkle a little seasoning into your reading, slide something spicy into your bland book pile, and add a little zest to your nightstand. Range righteously but rigorously through time and space and opinion. And perhaps, next year, you will produce some truly refreshing ‘best of’ lists that – in addition to blessing your own soul – will introduce the rest of us to a wider and more spiritually stimulating world.
A number of pastoral issues have arisen recently which have brought home to me some particular truths and some particular emphases arising from them. Many of these situations are on the fringes of church life or outside it (though I sincerely hope that some of them might, under God’s gracious influences, come within it in due course). How much we need to grasp spiritual realities with scriptural definition! It is a great distress to see how often false religion dismisses the former and degrades the latter, but even more grievous is to see professing Christians mishandle matters of central importance. (Please understand that these are not veiled critiques of events in the Christian stratosphere, but observations about concrete situations in local churches, or at least those places which call themselves churches. But you are wise, and may apply it.)
One area where this has cropped up recently is in the matter of grace, what Matthew Henry somewhere describes as “the free favour of God and all the blessed fruits of it.” In common Christian parlance, grace seems to have become a catch-all noun to describe a certain kind of softness and carelessness with regard to sin. When acts and patterns of sin are exposed, we are encouraged to be gracious, but that grace is often not defined or ill-defined. When criticisms are made of certain acts and their actors, the rebuke is readily offered, “That is not gracious!” Grace, apparently, can ignore the sin that calls forth the critique, but not the sin of critiquing it!
So, for example, when there is gross sin in the church, we must show grace. When someone is acting wickedly, it is gracious not to condemn it. When a lie is told, grace will ignore the matter. When leaders fudge matters of righteousness, ignore God’s truth, and expose God’s flock to harms because they will not deal with transgressors, they are showing grace, and we must show grace by not charging them with any failings.
But this nebulous notion of grace is very far removed from the spiritual reality with scriptural definition that we find revealed and displayed in our Bibles. Gospel grace does not excuse or ignore or neglect sin. Gospel grace is never casual or careless with regard to transgression. Gospel grace, whether patterned in God or echoed in man, never pretends sin is not sin. Gospel grace does not expose the flock to harm because it will not identify error and heresy and defend against errorists and heretics, even in the name of love. Gospel grace suffers long, but it is not a disregard for iniquity that is dishonouring to God and dangerous to men. Gospel grace does not call evil good, and good evil; it does not put darkness for light, and light for darkness, or bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Is 5.20).
Gospel grace always faces and addresses sin, though it does so in a gracious way. If you want a seasonal example, think of that just man, who did not want to make the woman he loved a public example, despite what he was legitimately persuaded was the growing evidence of heinous sin, and “was minded to put her away secretly” (Mt 1.19). Grace took no delight in parading sin, but it did not pretend that it was not (as far as could reasonably be determined) sin. When Joseph was enlightened concerning the reality of the situation, would he not have been relieved that he did not have an immediately ungracious response, and make of Mary the most public example he could? Grace prevents us making errors born of harshness, and allows for the easy correction of mistakes.
Remember that fervent love is commanded among the saints, a love which will cover a multitude of sins (1Pt 4.8 cf. Prv 10.12), but consider that such love recognises sin as sin and chooses that, for good and proper reasons, it will be discreet in dealing with it or covering it. Again, to quote Matthew Henry, this love “inclines people to forgive and forget offences against themselves, to cover and conceal the sins of others, rather than aggravate them and spread them abroad.” We read that “the discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression” (Prv 19.11) – he decides, as appropriate, that this transgression is not something that needs to be dealt with immediately and publicly, though he still recognises it as transgression, and there may come a time when a pattern of transgression requires him to stop overlooking and start acting. We do not pull one another up on every slip of deed and word, but take account of our frailties and failings as sinful creatures, creatures with remaining sin even as redeemed men and women. This is the grace of God as Father, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103.8–14).
Notice here the hints at the greatest expression of grace: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in coming into the world to die on the cross for his wretched and sin-wrecked people was at once the clearest recognition of sin and the highest expression of mercy. God did not pretend that there was no sin; he saw it more clearly than we ever shall, but put it away by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. The cross is at once the revealing of the sinfulness of sin and the demonstration of the graciousness of grace.
Gospel grace does not revel in the public exposure of sin and aggressive shaming of sinners, like a church boasting of how many cases of corrective discipline it has handled recently. But neither does it sweep sin away as if it were of no moment. True gospel grace, patterned in a gracious God and echoed in gracious men, always faces sin head on. It is patient and kind, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, but it is also fiercely committed to the glory of a God who is holy and to the good of those who are called to be holy just as he is holy. It calls sin sin, and it considers the nature, occasion and consequences of any particular sin and responds appropriately.
Grace is not, then, an excuse to downplay or dismiss sin as if it were of no consequence, to go on neglecting to deal with it. Grace does not make sin of no account. Grace is the most honest in dealing with sin. Grace always takes account of sin, it looks sin in the ugly eye and – one way or another – it puts it away, sometimes at great cost to itself, dealing fairly and even tenderly with those in whom that sin is discerned, as occasion demands.
Grace, ultimately, is Godlike. It is not a commodity, a mere thing, but an expression of the heart of God in Christ Jesus his Son. If we would have a pattern for gospel grace, we must find it in Christ crucified. Bring all sin into the light of the gospel, put all sin under the shadow of the cross, and there you shall find wisdom in how to deal with it. Deal with it graciously, but deal with it you must. There is nothing gracious about pretending otherwise.