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Divine Nitpick Meets Salvation Service Provider

Dave Bish’s tweet reminded me of a conversation in the midst of the bible study prep at a recent camp leaders meeting.

At the meeting, for several of the participants, the goto gospel definition was: God’s standard is perfection, you’re not perfect, ergo you need Jesus. The fact that Jesus died for you shows you how good he is & you should repent and accept his offer of forgiveness. Queue emphasis on infinite perfection.

On twitter, an evangelistic video using this approach to explain the gospel failed to impress Dave’s friend’s 4 year old daughter, who, it seems, was taught Godwin’s Law at pre-school. And it didn’t impress Dave either.

I’m not about to call Christians who use the divine nitpick approach Nazis, but I’m definitely with the four year old on this one. She’s got a point. Why do so many of us favour a method of gospel presentation that is so cold, functional and qualitatively different from any preaching seen in scripture?

I’m guessing here, but perhaps:

  • It’s basically true.
  • Most of us are nervous when trying to explain the gospel and expect confrontation – so we go for the simplest formula we can find.
  • It’s a very familiar explanation – most of us have probably had it given to us at one time or other.
  • It’s very hard to pick holes in – so we feel “safe” that there are few areas for people to really push back.
  • We’ve seen it work in the past.

And yet I think there are strong reasons for revising our explanation:

The God You Don’t Want To Know

It portrays God as cold and distant to the extent that it undermines the climax of the gospel: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Rev 21:3.

If the primary characteristic of God is that he is a perfectionist, the response from earth to his coming is more likely to be “Cripes let’s hide – here comes the nitpick” than “Come Lord Jesus.”

We need to tell the good news about how good God really is. The God of perfect love and unapproachable light. The God whose beauty and grace take your breath away. The God we desperately want to know as well as we can possibly know anyone.

But Why Does The Actor Act?

The problem isn’t just that we do bad things – that’s just the symptom. The problem is that we are bad.

If I am born in a rebel stronghold in a time of rebellion, I am born a rebel. It’s not that I needed to go and burn the flag or poop on the king’s lawn myself – I was born into it whether I like it or not. I can sue for peace with the king, but I can’t treat my origin or the circumstances of my birth as if they are somehow neutral. They’re not – regardless of how many of the king’s laws I keep growing up, I keep them all in rebellion.

And sin is like that. We’re all rebels, born in rebellion. Adam is the rebel leader whose rebellion we’re all part of. We’re not born in a neutral state and inexorably drawn into the rebellion – we’re born there. Unless we deliberately and consciously turn our backs on the rebellion and ask the king to restore us as citizens of his kingdom, we remain his enemies.

Or to put it another way, the issue on judgement day won’t be the paperclip you stole from work, it’ll be whether you reject the rule of the king.

Dusty Feet

We worship a God who is not ashamed to show his face on earth. He doesn’t swoop in, presidential style, with secret service and red carpets and bullet proof podiums. He comes as baby, lives a working class life and dies as a criminal. God gets dirty.

And yet I think we gloss over the incarnation too quickly, or write it off for its functional value in the cosmic courtroom, “he lived the perfect life in our place.” (Which is true, but there’s a lot more to Jesus living a full human life than that).

What kind of God is willing to sweat? To cry? To be persistently contradicted and frustrated by fishermen who think they know better than he does what he ought to do? To travel his creation at walking pace, even when his friend is dying?

The incarnation makes God too close, too tangible, too here to be some impersonal provider of salvation.

Talking At Cross Purposes

The presentation of the cross is, quite rightly, seen as something done by God and for God’s sake. But it is too easy to make it sound like a legal fiction – particularly when the cross is just presented as an emotionally charged, but otherwise neat solution to an otherwise tricky conundrum.

It may be partly because we tend to say things like “he paid the penalty of our sins” which conjures up a very different image to: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Isaiah 53 emphasises “he bore the sin of many” – not just the punishment for that sin.

This was not the consolidation of all my sin into one divine fixed-rate repayment – this was Jesus embracing me, sin and all, identifying with me so closely and so personally that my sin could become his and his righteousness mine. It’s the deeply personal transaction that makes the apostles talk not about Christians, but about those who are “in Christ” and those for whom Christ is in them.

And so Jesus gives himself for me, but I die with him. And I’m raised with him. And if I’m “in Christ,” the resurrection is so much more than the demonstration that Jesus is who he says he is: far from being the proof-of-concept for my resurrection, it’s the resurrection. I am raised with Christ, not just raised like Christ. My resurrection body is the fruit of my union with him, not a parallel implementation.

It’s all radically personal. Saying the cross is about Jesus paying for our sins is like saying sex is about two people exchanging body fluids: it’s technically true, but it misses the point.

The Eurgh Factor

There’s more to complain about, but I think my basic concern is something like this:

We risk treating salvation like a jigsaw – and we look at the picture in order to understand how the pieces fit together. But in the reductionist, perfectionist version there’s little opportunity to stop and gaze at the picture. We see what the gospel is, but without really seeing. We see what God has done, but not who he is or, at any meaningful level, his heart.

Last word

Dave Bish’s advice was two-fold: focus on what God is really like, as Mike Reeves does in this book and preach Christ.

Esther - relevance and resonance

Heard a couple of sermons from Esther recently. God's doing his stuff all over the shop - moving players and set pieces: it's abundantly clear that although Ahasuerus has the throne, Haman has access to the King's ear, Esther has access to the King's heart and Mordecai has access to Esther, God is calling the shots.

But is there more than sex, scheming and sovereignty? Is Esther a book about Jesus? Or is it just about how God provided for his people in order that one Jesus might be able to come, as the seed of Abraham, and save?

According to the preacher, Esther is primarily about understanding the purposes of God in human history and seeing the interplay of divine sovereignty and human responsibility working without any seeming conflict.

Which is true. (And it seems that divine sovereignty and human responsibility actually work better together in the courtroom that many people think they will from the classroom).

But it's not the whole truth: because the gospel echoes throughout Esther.

Who is it that wins the favour of the King, but then shares the benefit of their relationship with their people? Esther - but she points the way to Jesus who says that the Father will love us because we love Jesus (John 14:21).

Who is it that triumphs against all odds and sees the enemy slain with his own gallows? Esther - but she points the way to the one who "through death" destroyed "the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil." (Heb 2:14)

Who lays down their life on behalf of their people in order to spare them from the judgment of the King? Esther - but she points the way to the one who doesn't merely risk his life, but lays it down for his people (John 15:13-14).

Esther does provide a fantastic, gutsy example to follow - but, were we part of the story, we'd be numbered amongst the helpless hordes who sit under threat of execution with no hope of saving themselves. And, if rather than just trying to highlight its relevance, we listen for it's gospel resonance, the book of Esther won't just point us to a great example: it'll point us to a great Saviour.

Salvation and the county Jail

Read Acts 16:25-40

The jailer's conversion is as sudden as it is unexpected: and yet the result is the same. His heart, now open to the gospel, leads him immediately to be concerned for Paul and his companions (he washes their wounds) and immediately gets baptised. Not only do all his household follow suit, but they rejoice with him at the good news that is now theirs.

Paul experienced the joy of seeing his jailer become his brother because he was ready to praise God and preach the gospel (singing songs while shackled?! Inmate preaching to a prison governor?!).

Are there places you go, or situations you find yourself in where you don't feel as though the gospel is relevant? Or people that you're hesitant to share the gospel with because you don't know how they'll react?

Consider how you would have reacted, had you been in Paul's situation: beaten unjustly, chained in the most secure cell in the prison – and all of it an illegal violation of your rights as a citizen! Maybe your vision of God is too small? Maybe your expectations of God are too low?

Ask God to fill you with the confidence and boldness to trust Him in every place and with everyone.

A dangerous deliverance

Read Acts 16:16-24

The slave girl is at the bottom of the pile. She is enslaved by men who use her for profit, enslaved by an evil spirit who enables her to know things that she shouldn't be able to know. And the spirit in her is not happy – because followers of Jesus have just turned up in their city. Paul takes his time before intervening – it's not safe to mess with people's profit margins. Not then, not now. (Like missionary William Carey, who went to preach the gospel in India and was unable to preach it in the parts of India controlled by Britain at the time because they feared that it might cause trouble and adversely affect the economy).

The bible says that Christ came to bring us freedom – but we would be wise to remember that this world profits from people being enslaved. Liberating people often threatens existing financial interests and results in serious opposition.

From slander to murder, we should not be surprised by the opposition that the liberating truth of the gospel brings.

God opened her heart

Read Acts 16:11-15

Lydia has all the hallmarks of a seeker: she was already interested in spiritual things, she had some knowledge of God, was a worshipper of God, presumably had (at least) some knowledge of the bible and was looking for more. But the bible does not say “she opened her heart” - rather it declares that “God opened” it.

If Lydia can't make it on her own, who can? The answer is no-one. No-one will ever become a Christian without the intervention of God. We simply don't have the power to open people's hearts – only God does.

Think of the non-Christians you know: how often do you pray for them? After all – prayer is how we call on God to act and to save.

But what means does God use to open her heart? He could have used a vision, or a dream or writing in the sky. But it didn't: God chose the moment that Paul was sharing the gospel with her. Having prayed – and trusting God to come through – get ready to be bold, step out in faith. Because God's top choice for opening people's hearts to the gospel is the point in time that someone is telling them about Jesus.

Building tomorrow's church

Read Acts 16:1-5

Paul started off as Barnabas's protégé and learns from him. As soon as he gets the opportunity, he calls Timothy to join his group and starts to mentor him.

If you've followed Jesus for any period of time, there will be people who can benefit from your help, encouragement and experience. Jesus discipled and trained men to succeed him in ministry. As did the apostles after them. As Paul encouraged Timothy himself to do in 2 Timothy 2:2.

The church should continue to grow. If you want you ministry to have an impact, you need to invest time in training and encouraging and discipling other Christians. All Christians should be both disciples (following Jesus) and discipling (making followers of Jesus) – Matthew 28:18-20.

Pray for the younger members of the church and those who have not been Christians for so long. And ask God for opportunities to get alongside them to help them grow and mature in their faith.

Sin and the sovereignty of God

Read Acts 15:36-41

Despite having made plans to go on a trip to help build up/consolidate the churches they've already worked with, Paul and Barnabas have a “sharp disagreement” about whether Barnabas's cousin, John Mark, should accompany them on their planned trip. So they split.

But they both go on living lives that are totally committed to God.

  1. What impact does it have when godly people fall out with each other?
  2. Are God's plans held back by their disagreement?
  3. What failures have you had or seen that God has used to further his kingdom?

Joseph, whose brother's sold him into slavery, experienced God's power this way: He says to them in Genesis 50:20 “ As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. ” Praise the God who can use even our most spectacular sins, grievous mistakes and abject failures for good: to the point of using the murder of his Son to save the species that killed him.

If the bible says do it, do I have to?

It's helpful to make a distinction between three things that we mean when we talk about the laws, rules and regulations in the Bible. They are (1) the legal system of ancient Israel, (2) the ceremonial law of the Old Covenant and (3) the moral law.

Legal: The legal system of ancient Israel are the laws about how people should live as God's people in the land that God gave to the Israelites. Things like how adultery, theft, blasphemy and murder should be punished.

Religious: The ceremonial law of the Old Covenant specified what had to be done in order to relate to God – which sacrifices should be made, by whom and when etc. Things like what the High Priest would do on the day of atonement, or circumcision, or the kind of offering you make to say thank you to God after the birth of a child.

Moral: The moral law is about what is right and what is wrong. How do good people behave? What behaviour is acceptable in God's eyes? How should I treat my neighbour?

The legal system of ancient Israel became redundant when the nation was taken into captivity. You have to have authority to govern in order to administer a legal system – and they didn't have that. Hence even Jesus was not bound by it: he told people to pay taxes to Caesar (which Jewish Law didn't demand, but Roman law did – Matthew 22:17-22) and refused to stone a woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11) even though the law demanded it (Lev 20:10).

The ceremonial law of the Old Covenant became redundant because Jesus made a new covenant: Hebrews 10:1 points out “The Jewish Law is not a full and faithful model of the real things; it is only a faint outline of the good things to come.” and in Hebrews 8:13 he says “By speaking of a new covenant, God has made the first one old; and anything that becomes old and worn out will soon disappear.” The author of Hebrews spends most of the time from chapter 7 through to chapter 10 explaining how the Old Covenant was like a human model to help us understand what Christ did for real.

The moral law is the stuff that doesn't change – it includes stuff that Moses is told which is re-affirmed by Jesus (e.g. Matthew 5-7, Sermon on the Mount) and Paul (e.g. Ephesians 5-6).

It's not always easy putting stuff into neat boxes – adultery, for example, is a definite no-no for all time (ie. Moral law) but the death penalty for adultery is part of the legal system of ancient Israel – not ours (ie. Legal). Hence it would be totally wrong for us to stone adulterers. Laws about purification after sex are part of the ceremonial law (ie. Religious) and hence do not apply either: we are made clean by the blood of Christ. Simulating it with water is useless and would just encourage superstition.

When trying to work out which category a particular instruction falls into, it's helpful to look at where it is in scripture:

  • If it's in the letters in the New Testament, it almost certainly applies to us (unless, for example, it's Paul asking Timothy to bring him his cloak & parchments – 2 Tim 4:13).
  • If it's Jesus speaking then it's highly likely – although there are times when he's talking to the Pharisees about how to keep the Old Covenant which fall under the Ceremonial Law.
  • If it's in the Old Testament, then what kind of instruction is it? Is it part of the legal system, or is it a religious regulation that Jesus has replaced, or is it about the way the world should be, ie. moral?

It's also worth asking – even when the instruction is doesn't apply directly to you – whether there's some transferable principle that does.

All things are better in Koine


Principles of exposition

Thought this article on the principles of exposition from the Simeon Trust was worth linking to.

That's all.

Mark 5 - The Liberation Of The Man Formerly Known As Legion

I preached the following at Alverstoke Evangelical Church back in June - and noticed recently that they've posted it online: The Liberation of the Man Formerly Known as Legion. For more sermons preached at Alverstoke Evangelical Church, see their sermons page

Provoking repentance - Pagans [4/4]

Imagine you've been brought up believing that you can't know God. That God is angry and remote - and as terrifying as he/she is mystifying. Suddenly you meet a guy who knows both what God is like (because he has revealed himself) and what God wants (because God speaks to him). It's huge...! It's what you've always wanted.

The shock that there is an all powerful God who can be known and who doesn't leave you guessing as to what pleases him is doubled: you find that the grumpy racist bigot, who knows all, this has decided to stick two fingers up at the heavens and go his own way. He takes it so much for granted that he doesn't feel at all compelled to actually do what God has told him to do.

The things that Jonah takes for granted (that God can be known, that he reveals himself, that he is faithful and reliable) bring pagan sailors to their knees.

Seeing their reaction, Jonah begins to recognise how great God is and how blessed he is: in prayer he contrasts the hopelessness of pagan idolatry with the knowledge of God's steadfast love (Jonah 2:8).

When someone from a non-Christian background comes to faith in Christ, typically they seem to grow - at least in the early years - much faster than someone who's been brought up in a Christian family and finally accepted it. (The puritans used to say that the same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay - and there is a real risk, particularly with teenagers, that forcing them to come to church can result in hardening their hearts against the gospel). Their lives change rapidly; they don't read the bible assuming it to (basically) validate the way they live: they read it expecting it to convict and change them. The word is fresh and, typically, causes them respond with repentance and obedience.

All of which is a great challenge to Christians who are accustomed to a more laid back, more English, approach to their faith. Whether we're talking about pagan sailors in the Mediterranean or Roman centurions who've suddenly realised that the man they've just crucified truly is the Son of God, or a Chinese student who's suddenly found out that there is a God who loves her, or guys in Paulsgrove who've found that what they've been searching is satisfied by a relationship with Jesus, the impact of the gospel when it is fresh to the soul rebukes our laxness and provokes us to repent.

Provoking repentance - Mercy [3/4]

The fact that God didn't let Jonah drown gives him room to repent. He repeatedly refers to God as Yahweh (Jonah 2:2,6,7,9) - calling God by his covenant name and thus emphasising his faith in God's mercy and faithfulness. God alone is the source of steadfast love (Jonah 2:8). He is thankful that God is a merciful (Jonah 2:9). As in Romans 2:4, the knowledge of God's mercy leads him to repent.

People get hung up on God announcing destruction and judgement. Like it's a mean thing to do. It seems that they forget the deep spiritual lessons of so many Bond films. Whenever Bond gets caught, he usually has to endure being told with great glee by the Bad Guy™ what he, the Bad Guy™, plans to do to 007. If we'd found a Bad Guy™ who shot first and explained later, the Bond franchise would have been limited to releasing prequels for years.

The deep spiritual lesson? That judgement pre-announced is an opportunity for judgement to be avoided. Jonah rightly identifies that God's non-fatal judgement is an invitation for him to change. By the time he's in the belly of the fish, he's aware that he should be dead - but finding that God has spared his life shows him God's mercy: God has not given up on him.

It works exactly the same way for Nineveh a couple of chapters later: the King of Nineveh recognises that the announcement of God's judgement (Jonah 3:5-9) is an opportunity for repentance.

And we see it at the cross - as Paul says in Romans 2:4 - God's kindness is meant to lead us to repentance. How can we treat a God willing to spare us as our enemy any more? How can we doubt that he is good? Why would we continue to rebel against him?

Provoking repentance - Wrath [2/4]

Apologies - this follow-up's been a long time coming...

The storm comes as a foretaste of God's wrath against sin - it wakes him up from his foolish rebellion; it causes him to realise his perilous predicament. He refers, in prayer, to his distress (Jonah 2:2), being in the belly of Sheol (Jonah 2:2), being cast into the deep by God [not the sailors] (Jonah 2:3), driven from God's sight (Jonah 2:4), his life fainting away (Jonah 2:7) etc. This prompted him to call to the Lord (Jonah 2:2, Jonah 2:7) and to renew his "vow" (Jonah 2:9).

We've all been to parties or family gatherings where someone's been being teased - and suddenly they snap. They've been pushed just a bit too far and immediately everyone stops teasing them. No-one meant to be malicious and so the teasing stops. What made the difference? I'd suggest that it's the display of anger which lets people know that they've gone beyond the bounds of what's acceptable. The anger causes us to critically review our conduct and often shows that we have been guilty of being unkind and unloving. It produces repentance.

God's anger often works the same way - not least because he is "slow to anger" (as Jonah himself acknowledges in Jonah 4:2). It's never that he's been having a bad day or he's just feeling plain ratty: it's always because our sin merits his anger. Here God's anger is Jonah's wakeup call: we can not run from God and expect there to be no consequences.

And the cross of Jesus should have the same impact on us: if that is what our sin cost; if that is the judgement that it deserves, then how can we continue in it? The punishment that Jesus bore should bring us up short and cause us to consider the seriousness of rebelling against God. God is no fairy - and he is rightly furious by the way we embrace (and encourage by word and deed) rebellion against him; angry with the way we arrogantly assert our own self-determination while depending on him for every breath we breathe.

Provoking repentance [1/4]

Read: Jonah's prayer in Jonah 1:17-2:10.

Jonah's kinda peeved - he's been sent to prophesy against Nineveh, but he doesn't want to go. So, in an act of flagrant disobedience to God, he runs the opposite way. Turns his back on God, his mission, his calling and heads for Spain.

God - less than chuffed with Jonah - sends a storm to halt him in his tracks.

It works.

The sailors wake Jonah up, only to be scandalised as they find out that he's running away from God. (But they still do everything they possibly can to save him). Eventually they follow his advice and throw him overboard, whereupon he gets swallowed by a huge fish which he inhabits for the next 3 days before heading out (in the words of the Veggie tales) like a human comet [Guys - you might not want to rhyme with comet...!].

And in the belly of the fish, Jonah seems to come to his senses - and repents. (He's still a self-centred, grumpy, racist bigot - but he's making progress).

What does God use to do it?

Three things - Wrath, Mercy and Pagans.