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Sabbatical, Day 61: Not Perfect, Just Forgiven – Or More?

I’m going to raise a theological issue in a moment. Please don’t go away. It doesn’t require (many) long words, and it’s about an important issue in Christian life and witness. It’s something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a year or two, but never thought a lot about. But it has come up again today while I’ve been reading Tim Keller‘s ‘The Reason for God‘, and it’s rather more important than the continued slow broadband speeds I’m trying to diagnose here. (Something like 200k speed instead of our usual 1.8 meg or so. I’m currently running a full virus check as part of PlusNet‘s faults procedure.)

So here’s the issue. What do we expect of Christian behaviour? Twenty years ago at theological college, I was in conversation with a tutor. I don’t remember the topic, but I must have expressed some disappointment about church life in a placement. He replied, “David, never forget that the church is a company of sinners.”

And I wanted to reply, “Yes, but …”. We are a company of sinners, but I don’t like that most cheddary of Christian slogans, ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’ It seems to be an excuse for all sorts of unacceptable conduct. (Says he who is the chief of sinners. But I don’t want to excuse myself, either. I’m too good at rationalisation.)

The difficulty surfaced again when I read Eugene Peterson‘s book ‘The Jesus Way‘ in 2007. Much of that book is routine wonderful Peterson, but I found one part awkward. In using the example of King David’s life, he rightly trumpets the extraordinary grace of God in bringing forgiveness after forgiveness. And again, I thought, “Yes, but?” The grace of God is truly astonishing. How he picks up people like me, dusts us down and sets us on the road again is staggering.  My ‘but’ was that I wanted to read something about transformation. If it was there, I missed it. 

And that is the one area where I have struggled with Keller. There are so many riches in ‘The Reason for God’. I loved the passage on page 57 where he said that the problem with Christian fanatics isn’t that they are too serious about the Gospel, it’s that they aren’t serious enough, because they act like Pharisees rather than those who know grace. I also appreciated the fact that he tackles so many of the popular objections to faith, including the one where people rightly say that the behaviour of Christians doesn’t always compare favourably to that of non-Christians. 

Now Keller rightly says that Christianity isn’t about moralism. It is – again – about grace. He also says the Christian faith has theological resources for understanding, if not expecting this dilemma. We can expect non-Christians to live outstanding lives, because (using the Calvinist term) he bestows ‘common grace’ on all. We all have the image of God in us, however damaged, is how I would put it. On the other hand, Christians are still sinners. So in believing the best about non-Christians and the worst about Christians (something we rarely do in the church), we need not be surprised if people who do not share our faith outshine us at times.

I am refreshed by the way he consistently goes back to grace. I think he is a shining example of not shooting down those he disagrees with in some crude culture war. Yet I think non-Christians have a point about expecting Christian conduct to be better, even without misunderstanding our message as one of moralism.

I have wondered whether Keller and Peterson’s Presbyterian traditions have anything to do with this. I’m thinking of the debates at the Reformation about justification. Essentially the Reformers separated justification and sanctification, whereas the Catholics conflated the two. Thus the Reformers, in emphasising their difference from Rome, stressed justification as being by the free grace of God through faith in Christ. Sanctification, in the sense of holy living, is also by grace through faith, but the Reformers wanted to separate it out as clearly as possible in order to deny any possible thought that good works merited salvation. So I would suggest it’s possible for someone in a strongly Reformed background to end up emphasising justification (in a Protestant sense) and underplaying sanctification. Might this explain Keller and Peterson?

The weakness I can immediately see in my argument is that the theological college tutor I mentioned was a Methodist. For Methodism has a subtly different tradition here, as I understand it. Wesley was with the Reformers in preaching that sinners were saved entirely by grace through faith in Christ and his atoning work on the Cross. But he moved onto sanctification much more quickly than the classical Reformers did. If you had faith, then (as in Galatians 6), that ‘faith worketh by love’: it was evident in a new lifestyle. The new lifestyle did not save you, but it was the evidence of having received salvation. It was gratitude for salvation, not the cause of it. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work of assurance, which was more than the objective promises of Scripture that the Reformers had stressed. With a theological heritage like that, then whatever one might think about Wesley’s controversial doctrine of Christian Perfection, you will not settle for ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’

So do the likes of Keller and Peterson allow us to be too easy on ourselves, or is that just the wonder of grace? Does Wesley lead us into moral self-flagellation, or is he simply calling out the cost of discipleship? And for those of you who might know Keller, Peterson, Presbyterianism in general or Wesley better than me, have I misread them at any key point? I would be very interested to read your comments, because – as I said in the opening paragraph – this is an important issue in Christian life and witness. For it is about the nature of salvation and a proper portrayal of Christianity to the world.

As Dr Frasier Crane used to say, “I’m listening.”

I Made It Up

What to do on New Year’s Day with the children yesterday? We began with a return to ‘the world’s least crazy crazy golf course‘. After freezing there, Debbie offered to buy lunch the local branch of Wetherspoon’s.

Wetherspoon’s may not do flashy food, but they are family friendly. So Debbie and I didn’t worry if our mixed grill was tough enough to suggest the animals had put up considerable and recent resistance: the monkeys were happy. They had activity books to decorate while we waited for the food.

And it is the activity books given by Wetherspoon’s that are central to this story. Rebekah is used to ‘spot the difference’ puzzles, but Mark had his first encounter with one on this occasion. Rebekah found the eight differences between the two drawings with little difficulty; Mark found five.

Suddenly, however, he had found eight, like his sister. However, they weren’t the same.

“Where did you find those differences?” we asked him. 

“I made them up,” he replied, laughing – and we joined in.

Sometimes, making it up is fun, especially when you are a four-year-old comedian like Mark. It is also part of that cherished part of childhood where the imagination is valued.

But sadly the currency of imagination is devalued as we grow older, even though poets and artists often have special insights on life. In that respect, ‘making it up’ has wrongly earned a bad reputation in a scientific culture, where to make something up is of lesser value than ‘hard facts’. That is something the church has imbibed. While there are many parts of Scripture where historicity is of vital importance, there is no loss to faith and truth, for example, if the book of Job is a literary creation to grapple with the problem of suffering in an artistic way.

Yet there is also a rightful concern to protect against a wrong kind of ‘making it up’. Imagination is fine, false witness is not. Not that Scripture condemns all forms of lying – see the example of Rahab the prostitute of Jericho at the beginning of Joshua, for example. But bearing false witness against your neighbour, as the commandment puts it, is most definitely out. And it is here that we have a problem, both on a large public scale and on the more personal level.

In terms of the public, it is easy to think of scandals. Like last August, when Michael Guglielmucci was found to have faked cancer (even writing a song called ‘Healer’ and performing with a tube in his nose), all deriving from a porn addiction. 

And yet it’s easy to get self-righteous about those types of incident when we do the same thing on a smaller scale, where fewer people are affected. From the modification of a CV to finding all those subtle ways in which we present ourselves in the best possible light, making it up is a curiously popular pastime for those of us who profess to follow the One who called himself the Truth.

Naturally I don’t mean that in the sense that a Richard Dawkins would allege against us. It is not a wilful attempt to believe a lie. On the contrary, our faith is based on reasonable evidence, and with that in mind we enter into a relationship of trust. But relationships of trust require honesty in order to flourish, and that’s where the fantasy stuff becomes dangerous.

I suggest our problem, at its root, is that we don’t believe the Gospel enough. If we believe in grace, do we need to perform? Do we need to appear like we reach a certain standard? The fact that we do suggests we have developed cultures that are not soaked in grace. We are not free to be ourselves, with our foibles and weaknesses.

Not that I seek to justify sin, you understand. But the lack of acceptance that we need in order to face change and growth in holiness is disturbing. If I feel I am going to be judged all the time, I shall go on the defensive and spend time justifying myself, even when in my heart I know full well I am in the wrong. As such, a judgmental culture does not bring greater righteousness but a deeper retreat into sin. If I know I am loved unconditionally, then I feel able to face what is wrong in my life.

What would it take to create a culture in the church where we don’t have to make it up? It would require that we actually believe the Gospel of God’s free grace in Christ, and that by such grace we may face the need to repent of our sins and co-operate with the Holy Spirit in the project of sanctification.

It would also surely free us from the religious celebrity culture which contributes to the public scandals by creating an expectation of the spectacular or dramatic. When you are nurtured by grace, you don’t need to be an immature thrill-seeker. You are thrilled by God instead.

Covenant Sermon

This Sunday, my church at Broomfield is experimenting with bringing its annual Covenant Service forward to the beginning of the ‘Methodist year’ rather than the calendar year. Hence what follows is a sermon for a Covenant Service, rather than on one of the regular weekly Lectionary readings.

Romans 12:1-2

Introduction
At my office, I worked with a Muslim guy. Javed (or ‘Suave Jave’ as we called him, for his attitude to the ladies) was more Muslim by upbringing than practice. But one day, he brought in to show us his mother’s copy of the Qur’an. It was edged and blocked in gold leaf. It came in a special tissue-like wrapper. One thing neither Javed nor his mother would have done with that book was write in it. Even touching it seemed risky, in case of damage.

But I don’t treat my copies of the Bible that way. In particular, I was taught as a young Christian to underline words in my Bible. Not only verses that struck me, but also some key words. ‘But’ was a good word to underline. It indicated an important change in Paul’s arguments.

And Romans 12 starts with another key word: ‘therefore’.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

‘I appeal to you therefore’: therefore indicates all that has preceded Romans 12. It indicates the first eleven chapters of Romans, summarised here as ‘the mercies of God’. We make and renew our covenant because of ‘the mercies of God’. All we offer today is in response to the mercies of God. Not just one-off mercy in initial forgiveness, but mercies. Over and over again, God is merciful to us. Our sins, our mistakes, our foolishness and weakness: for all these things God is merciful to us in Christ through the Cross. And because he is relentlessly merciful – his mercies are ‘new every morning, [so] great is [his] faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:23) – we offer ourselves to him.

How does Paul ask his readers to respond to the mercies of God? In these two verses are two ways:

1. Sacrifice
Paul urges Christians to ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (verse 1).

‘Spiritual worship’ here implies that it is reasonable, rational and true. This is the right and proper thing to do in light of God’s enduring mercies to us. The mercies of God come to us through the sacrifice of Christ: is it not appropriate, urges Paul, for us to make sacrifices as a grateful response?

But what are these sacrifices? ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’, he says. It’s not just something we do ‘spiritually’: we present our bodies. And if I might just re-order the words to reflect what many commentators think is the sense of the Greek, we make ‘sacrifices, living, holy and acceptable to God’. Those adjectives ‘living’, ‘holy’ and ‘acceptable to God’ illustrate the kinds of sacrifices we might make with our bodies.

‘Living’ – we freely offer our bodies to God, because of what he has done for us in Christ. It may cost us something. The author Robert J Morgan tells how one Sunday, the late Corrie ten Boom was preaching in Copenhagen on these very verses. She was eighty years old at the time. Two young nurses at the church invited her to lunch afterwards, but they lived in a tenth floor flat and there was no lift. Not what you want at eighty.

She struggled up the stairs as far as the fifth floor, but her heart was pounding and her legs buckled. Collapsing into a chair, she complained to the Lord. But she sensed God whispering to her that it was important she carried on.

When she finally made it to the tenth floor, she met the parents of one of the nurses. Neither was a Christian, but they were both interested in the Gospel. Corrie ten Boom led them to faith in Christ. All because she reluctantly followed her own sermon and made her life – her very body – a sacrifice in climbing ten flights. She was willing to go where God led her, despite the cost.

‘Holy’ – our dedication to God may also sometimes come at a price. The Covenant Service promises balances the way some parts of our discipleship are attractive and others are costly:

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourseleves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.’ (Methodist Worship Book, p288.)

Holy sacrifices are about being willing to pay the price of unpopularity and difficulty for the sake of dedication to the right thing. It is also a matter of doing so graciously, rather than with complaint, self-righteousness or attention-seeking.

‘Acceptable’ – this probes our motives. Other translations say, ‘well-pleasing to God’. It’s about a desire to please God. In marriage and other human relationships, we make it our first goal not to please ourselves but our spouse, or whoever it is we love. So too with God. When we know how merciful he has been to us and how regularly he has been merciful, the fitting response is to set our minds and hearts on doing the things that bring him joy.

There is a story told in the Old Testament that gives a small illustration of what I am talking about King David wanted to buy some land from a subject and use it for worship. The owner says he can have it free of charge, but David says, no: he insists on paying. Why? ‘I will not give to the Lord that which has cost me nothing,’ he says. Discipleship and giving need to cost us something to be genuine. It may be financial, material, emotional, psychological, even social. If we realise just how merciful God continually is to us, then out of joy we shall be willing to show love in return, even if it comes at a price.

2. Transformation
Verse 2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

‘Do not be conformed to this world’ – or, as J B Phillips famously translated this passage, ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’. Do not be conformed, be transformed, says Paul. Don’t be squeezed by the world, ‘let God re-mould your minds from within’ (Phillips).

Yet how easy it is to conform to the world, to let it squeeze us into its mould. Often we don’t notice. The late Lesslie Newbigin once observed that just as a goldfish is not consciously aware of the water in which it swims, so we are often unconscious of the culture we live in and its values.

In our society’s case, think about how we easily use popular words such as ‘tolerance’. It is presented as a quality that everybody must have. Woe betide the intolerant! But the word ‘tolerance’ carries with it overtones of a benign attitude to things that are wrong, enduring wrong things or having no deep convictions oneself. It’s a slippery slope towards tolerating sin. All these shades of meaning are therefore anathema to the Christian, but we refer to tolerance as much as anyone! The world is squeezing us into its mould, if we are not careful. I could give examples from other apparently innocent or positive words such as ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘community cohesion’.

So how do we resist social pressures to adopt ways of thinking that are inimical to the Gospel? Paul exhorts us to ‘be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds’, or to let God re-mould us from within, as Phillips puts it. Spiritual transformation involves a battle for the mind, because what we think affects our attitudes and our actions.

This doesn’t mean we all have to be intellectuals. Any Jesus-follower can develop Gospel thinking, Gospel attitudes and Gospel actions. That is Paul’s vision. Where do we begin?

We start with reading and reflecting on the Bible and its great story from the Garden to the New Jerusalem. It is Scripture above all that will help us to be Gospel thinkers. However, we don’t do so alone. Private Bible reading is good and worthy, but most of the books in the Bible itself were written or dictated to be heard less by individuals than by groups of disciples. It’s important, therefore, to get to grips with the Gospel together. If you’re not part of a small group that does that, you’re missing out! For starters, join the Living Faith course! It will help us get to grips with the big picture of our faith together.

But it’s not enough just to read the biblical message and discuss it. There are many people in churches who know their Bibles well, but who are harsh, unloving and judgmental. (Not that any of us is perfect – least of all, me.) So just reading the Bible and talking about it isn’t enough.

In other words, the biblical authors didn’t write their books just to be read or heard. They wrote them to generate action. The Bible isn’t just to be read, it’s to be done.

In my final year as a student minister, I spent half my time on placement in a circuit. At one of the two churches where I worked, I led a Bible study every week. However, the minister who supervised that group had been very frustrated with it. ‘When are they going to stop talking about the Bible and start doing something?’ he said to me once. ‘They’re more interested in the maps on the inside covers of their Bibles than in putting the teaching into practice.’

And that’s what I’m on about. Spiritual formation in Christ – the transformation of our minds to which Paul calls us – involves Bible reading, reflecting on it together where we support and challenge each other, and then getting on with what we’ve learned. It’s when the thinking leads to action that we truly learn. If I were a betting man, I would wager that Katie learned more about God’s love for the poor through her trip to Kenya with Hand In Hand than I would have done simply by reading about the poor.

One famous preacher said, ‘Never finish your sermon without telling your congregation what you want them to do about it.’ I suggest you might almost say, ‘Never finish your Bible reading without deciding what you are going to do about it.’

Conclusion
If God has been so persistently merciful to us, then what might we give him as a present? It would be appropriate if our offering involved sacrifice, when we recall all that he has done for us in Christ.

Transformation is also appropriate: Christ did not die on the Cross only for our forgiveness: he died that we might be saved from sin in every way. Not only the penalty of sin, but the practice of sin (which involves us co-operating with the Holy Spirit in being transformed) but also the presence of sin (as we anticipate God’s New Creation by being colonies of God’s Kingdom).

This Covenant Service, let us pledge ourselves again – in promise and in action – to the God of abundant mercy.