It is not particularly surprising but it is disappointing. Furthermore, it is dangerous. It is in some respects the typical kneejerk reaction to current events (by which I mean events over the last few months, even years, rather than merely weeks), and the typical danger that you can never be entirely sure in which direction the knee will jerk and the foot will strike. It is the continued assault on freedom in the name of freedom.
In the last week or so school inspectors in the UK gave an unseemly grilling to primary school pupils at Grindon Hall Christian School, where the impression was clearly given (even if not intended) of a real hostility – in the name of promoting “British values” – to the school’s distinctive Christian ethos.
Quite apart from the inappropriateness and intrusiveness of some of the questions asked by almost-complete strangers to young children (questions which, in any other context, might have been taken in an altogether distasteful way), it rather opened a window into the attitudes of some of those who are appointed guardians of freedom.
But time marches on, and new challenges are already arising. The government is now rapidly pushing forward legislation that will preserve our “British values” and combat anti-extremism. Among the consequences of this legislation would be the opportunity – even the requirement – for university authorities to vet the addresses and materials of visiting speakers. That is the context in which I first saw the warning given, but the consultation document is pushing it across the public sector at the very least, with a variety of services and spheres impacted. Effectively, a proactive and preventative demand for censorship would be imposed in a variety of key public settings and environments.
I am sure that the opportunities for those who believe that “British values” demand, or provide the opportunity to pursue, a sort of amorphous atheistic amorality will not be slow to use the weapon put in their hands. As so often, the latest two-edged Excalibur, offered as the key to defending freedom, may become the very means by which freedoms are curtailed.
Naturally, the government provides all manner of assurances about how such things are enforced. With regard to school inspections, for example, Department for Education guidance makes very clear that in advancing our ill-defined “British values” schools are not required to promote “other beliefs” or “alternative lifestyles.” However, this seems to be precisely the point at which pressure was applied to the school in question not only corporately but individually and inappropriately with regard to particular students. We can expect that the same will happen with these new powers, should they come into law.
So, while our politicians line up with their pens and pencils aloft to trumpet their allegiance to free speech, they are simultaneously – and in the name of freedom – preparing to crack down on freedom of speech. It is, it seems, OK to be Charlie Hebdo (not personally, one understands, that would be a little dangerous, but it’s fine for other people to be Charlie Hebdo), and be able to poke fun at the fundies of all stripes. That must be defended. But I suggest that it must be made clear that such swipes and skewerings are not the only expressions of freedom of speech.
Generally speaking, and despite media attempts to push us into the first of the following categories, true Christians are neither violent extremists (dogmatic conviction need not translate into militant physical aggression) nor extravagant satirists (willing and able to undermine and offend for the mere sake of it, and call it wit and art – never having read Charlie Hebdo, I cannot comment on whether or not or to what extent they fall into this category). The Christian’s only real offense should be the offense of the cross, though the rugged edges and sharp points of that cross have a habit of puncturing pride and pomposity wherever it is found, and pride is of the essence of fallen man’s sense of himself. The weapons of our spiritual warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. The armoury of God’s kingdom bears little relation to those of the kingdoms of the world. However, those without spiritual discernment are quite prepared to lump true Christians in with the violent extremists and deny them any of the privileges of the extravagant satirists. Indeed, the very nature of our message indicates that the gospel will be among the first and most aggressively pursued targets of those who – in the name of freedom – wish to silence dissent.
Only a fool would deny the difficulty of ensuring genuine freedom of speech and expression while at the same time preserving a measure of social order and cultural decency. But the response to terrorism, even Islam’s militarised religious supremacism, should not be to diminish all freedoms. That will not halt the terrorists, not least those driven by religionised hatred. In some respects, it will simply simplify their task.
But watch this space, for this is the brave new world. As mentioned in a previous post, to the humanist unbeliever who denies that he or she exists in their own tightly woven cocoon of a certain kind of ‘faith’, the Christian is just one of a range of dangerously nutty voices in the gallery of the fruitcakes. Indeed, the offense of the cross means that our gospel words will prove the pre-eminent spiritual red rag to the bulls of mere human reason and religion. But, if we are true to our convictions, we know that we echo the one voice of true reason, the single declaration of spiritual sanity, the alone hope of salvation, in an otherwise unstable and disordered world, wrecked by sin and riddled with its consequences. Unbelieving humanism is one among the range of rotten systematised alternatives to the truth as it is in Jesus. To whom else should we go? Christ has the words of eternal life.
We should expect that our freedom to make known the hope of the world will be deliberately (whether incrementally or more abruptly) assaulted and where possible eroded and removed by the very world that needs to hear it. The patients will assault the envoys of the only doctor with a cure for their condition. We must therefore ensure that our declarations and their accompanying actions are entirely consistent, that we bring with us everywhere the savour of Christ. As citizens of earthly kingdoms, we are entitled graciously yet firmly to assert our rights as citizens. But as citizens of heaven, we do not expect to find the warmest of welcomes in a hostile world. So let us brace ourselves against the storm, hold fast to the Christ who holds fast to us, speak the truth in love, call sinners to repent and believe, love our enemies, serve our Redeemer, and press on toward glory.
A couple of times a month, as God enables us, the church which I serve attempts to proclaim the gospel in the centre of our town, preaching in the open air, handing out tract-invitations, and engaging in conversation with those who have a few moments to spare. Today was one of those occasions, and it gave a fairly representative glimpse into the spiritual battleground on which we are fighting.
On our arrival, we found the Jehovah’s Witnesses established just along from our usual patch. They have been unusually active in our area recently, and have begun to employ some new techniques and hardware – well-designed portable leaflet stands which are put up in prominent or busy places (just outside bus, train and tube stations seem to be favourites, though obviously not limited to them) with a couple of well-spoken Witnesses manning their stations.
As we began to set up and hand out our invitations some distance away, a passing gentleman pointed out to me that we had a little competition. Trying to seize the opportunity, I plunged into what became a conversation with a French philosopher of sorts (literally French, philosophical by inclination), a thoroughgoing humanist for whom all was relative and death alone was absolute. We ranged hither and yon, with the usual shoal of red herrings as I tried to address his objections and bring him back always to the scriptural realities of sin and salvation. He parted with my contact details, and expressed a willingness to consider getting in touch so that I could speak with him further. I hope, too, that he will accept the invitation to come to our church services and to see what kind of people are true Christians, and so learn the character of the God we serve.
His claim that we had competition (to which I will return) was further and sadly enhanced by the arrival of another local group, wild-eyed Arminians with a thoroughly worldly programme and a range of heresies to proclaim and a great deal of health and wealth to promise. They saw us, sounded us out, got their gear out about twenty yards away and planted themselves all around us. Their basic approach is to set up something like a street party, invite people to another party, and then try to sweep people further into their clutches on a wave of emotions. There is a lot of Bible speak, but not a great deal of biblical truth. The noise of their contribution bordered on the overwhelming.
Interestingly, they were drowned out by about forty devotees of Hare Krishna who were making their way into and around the centre of the town with drums, bells and cymbals. We heard them coming a way off. Given that our Arminian friends had bordered on the aggressive in their locating of themselves, a troupe of orangey chanters trampling pretty much through and over them might have caused a snigger in less high-minded chaps than ourselves. One quick-witted of our number managed to get in amongst them and hand out a few tracts, but the poor fellow was almost drowned in the tangerine tide.
It did not appear, on the surface of things, to be our most successful endeavour. It certainly underlined to us the nature of the battle. As we prayed, we asked the Lord to save those who are trapped in these godless and heretical environments, and to bring all these systems of error to nothing. As one of our number pointed out, there was something Athenian in the situation: our spirits were provoked as we saw our town given over to idols (Acts 17:16) and so we tried to reason with them, preaching to them Jesus and the resurrection by means of tracts and conversations (less so by open proclamation on this occasion, given the nature of the environment). It is interesting that all the artwork I have found of Paul in Athens gives the impression of a rapt audience seemingly enamoured of a potent speaker who has his hearers in the palm of his hand. I wonder how near or far those images are from the reality? We are not Paul, we know that, but maybe it was not quite as neat and pleasant there as some of our imaginations make out.
So, are we in competition? Are we, as my Gallic interlocutor suggested, just one of a range of equally valid voices all clamouring for attention? As I pointed out to him, we are not.
First of all, we do not compete in terms of method. We are not going to attempt to out-suave, out-dance, out-shout, and out-beat those who come with their empty messages and vain offers. We are not playing that game and we do not need to. Just because the world suggests that we are one among many in the marketplace of ideas does not mean we have to prostitute our message with the same froth and filth as everyone else. We are not competing in terms of our method.
Second, as I made clear, we are not merely offering another alternative to a range of spiritual or intellectual placebos. In that sense, we are not competing in terms of our message. Every other offer he was hearing – indeed, his own notions and his own system in which he so ardently believed – called out to mankind to look to themselves, to work harder, do better and climb higher. Ultimately, and in many cases sooner rather than later, every other one of those systems and claims will crash and burn. Ours is the one distinctive message: a call to look out and up, to look to Christ who has accomplished all, finished the work, having climbed down to save his wretched and rebellious creatures by suffering and dying in their place, exhausting God’s curse against sin and providing his own righteousness in order that we might stand before him with peace and joy. We call men away from everything else to the one true and living God, and to his Son, who loved us and gave his life for us, and rose from the dead in triumph on our behalf. We see and feel and loathe and mourn the clamour of falsehood and idolatry that swirls around us, but it is not a competition between parallel vanities. It is a battle between the truth of God and the range of damnable errors and heresies and emptinesses that masquerade as hopes for the hopeless and helps for the helpless.
May God grant that within and without the walls of our church buildings, he would give us grace to give earnest, winsome and unflinching testimonies to the truth as it is in Jesus, demonstrating in our lives the truths that we confess with our lips! May God’s message and God’s method prevail, and may the light overcome the darkness!
It is too easy to make our witness to Christ programmatic and mechanical. There is no doubt that some measure of order and organisation is often profitable. There are many right and proper endeavours that demand structure, planning and management in order to do them well. People must be gathered and equipped, instructed or trained or encouraged, informed where to be and what to do, and so the programme begins. I am by no means suggesting that all such endeavours need to be culled – far from it!
However, could it be that too often we think of doing evangelism rather than simply being evangelists, of being fully and readily evangelical? We are, after all, gospel people, are we not? We are the ones who have been called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light in order that we might proclaim his praises (1Pt 2.9). In a sense, our witness to grace ought to be the most spontaneous, instinctive, natural thing in the world.
There are times when – because of fear, weariness, laziness, busyness, sickness, doubt or other reasons – we have to take ourselves in hand and stir ourselves up and spur ourselves and others on. Nevertheless, we should not need to be beaten into testifying of the grace of God in Christ. It bubbles out of a man like the apostle Paul under a variety of motivations, but it rarely seems to need to be drawn out, only directed as it flows.
Again, it is worth bearing in mind that we might wish to ensure that when speaking to unconverted men and women of the Lord Christ and his death and resurrection there are certain truths that we strike each time, every time, and time and time again over time. There is a certain core of truths that needs to be held up and pressed home. Here once more is something of fixed substance. But at the same time, there need be no rigidity, no dry formula, in speaking of him whom not having seen we love. It should be a ready, cheerful and unforced testimony – the sort of enthusiasm which we would struggle to quell in almost any other sphere.
And how do we cultivate this relatively artless and effortless expression? By meditating much upon the person and work of Christ, by walking closely with him, communing with him, and delighting ourselves in all he is in himself and to us.
Let us be less about doing evangelism and more about being evangelists. Let the truth flow from us readily as we go about our business. “Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2Cor 2:14–15).
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 …
Hopefully there will be a couple of things from the Walker quill forthcoming this year – one longer work on the pilgrim life and one shorter booklet on the topic of repentance. I hope to offer more details soon, but I thought I might at least let you know.
It may have been ever thus, but there seem to be an increasing number of books – often from the fields of biblical or systematic theology – that present themselves as having discovered or provided the overarching theme of the Scriptures as a whole, the lens through which the whole should be read and interpreted. At other times, there is a supposed historical precedent which, we are informed, must govern the way in which we handle not only uninspired texts, but even the Scriptures themselves. Perhaps there is even an experimental approach: we have had such-and-such an experience, therefore it must be validated by the Word of God.
Every other theme or text is then shoehorned into the grand scheme, trimmed and hammered until the squarest of pegs slide into the roundest of holes. Sometimes, there is something that is compelling about such presentations, and much light is shed on the Word of God. One might still not accept the demand that this be the point at which we stand in order to change the world, while appreciating the help given in seeing this as a weighty theme or principle. At other times, I am concerned at how blunt or even crass that process is, with some shallow little epithet becoming the cookie cutter into which every text or doctrine must be forced. We end up reading our Bibles with a combination of myopia and tunnel vision, and not just those that come of being fallen creatures.
At the same time, most of us are probably accustomed to reading the Bible through a certain set of lenses. We come to the Word of God with certain notions, and these – consciously or unconsciously, possibly even subconsciously – inform our hermeneutics. This is largely inevitable. We open the Bible with certain presuppositions, a certain system influencing if not governing the way in which we read.
As a result, we tend to find in the Scriptures what accords with our own convictions. You might recall John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan’s attempt at self-definition: “I’m first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.” I wonder if (with necessary adjustments and extensions, depending on our beliefs) we also read the Bible through those kinds of lenses, in more or less that order?
So the key question must be, who makes the lenses and sets them in the frames? Here is a great challenge for us if we are to be faithful and humble readers of the Scriptures. Prayerfully dependent on the Holy Spirit, we must adjust our lenses and our frames to ensure that the Scriptures come into focus as they are, and not adjust the Scriptures so that they can be read through our lenses and frames.
This, I think, is one of the particular things that I appreciate about the expositions of Calvin and some of the other older writers. Please understand that I am not seeking to set up a Calvin versus the Calvinists dichotomy, or necessarily trying to endorse the system that often goes by the name of Calvinism. Rather, I am talking about the way the man handles the Bible. And I think he handles the Bible humbly and faithfully. There is no doubt that he reads with certain presuppositions, as do we all. But when he reaches a given point in his handling of a text, and noticeably where it is something which pushes his system – starkly and mechanistically considered – out of shape, he does not start trying to kick the text into shape, but he takes off his shoes, for he is standing on holy ground. And that is something we all must do.
Spurgeon once said, “Brethren, we shall not adjust our Bible to the age; but before we have done with it, by God’s grace, we shall adjust the age to the Bible.” If we are to do that, we must also ensure that we do not adjust our Bible to the system, but the system to our Bible. As we read, we must allow every line to have its full and honest weight, to be interpreted historically and and linguistically and grammatically in accordance with righteous standards, and to submit to whatever we find. To be sure, we do not and cannot come nakedly to the Word of God, and it would be folly to suggest that we do and can. But let us be done with shoehorning the Bible, in the whole or in part, into a preordained system. If I find it in my Bible, I must believe it. If I do not, then I am not bound by it, and neither can I bind anyone else to it. We cannot use the Bible to legitimise what we have already decided must be true. If God’s Word declares it, I receive it and embrace it, even if – where reason fails, with all its powers – there faith prevails and love adores. We worship even when – perhaps especially when – we cannot fully comprehend. Let us make sure that – whatever we start with – we are continually adjusting our frames and refining our lenses to ensure that the fixed points of the Word of God inform everything else that we believe or do, and live and worship accordingly.
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.