Here is the sermon for this coming Sunday, the second in our series from the Sermon on the Mount. Those who have read my sermons here in recent years may recognise one or two things I’ve quoted before, but they get a repeat here for a new church!
Salt and light. The salt of the earth and the light of the world. If the Sermon on the Mount is where we learn to be disciples before the watching world, as I argued in my introduction last week, then salt and light are prime examples of this. Not only do we live our faith while the world is watching – as if we were actors in a TV show being viewed by others – we live our faith with those people and towards the world. That is, when Jesus calls us the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is telling us we live as disciples for the blessing of the world.
There you are, done. In one minute.
But I’m going to say more, because this is so important. And while we might think we affirm the importance of being salt and light, I want to say this morning that we pay lip service to it, and the way we run our churches often undermines this essential Christian task.
How am I going to do it? Firstly by thinking about salt and secondly about – you guessed it – light.
So we begin with salt.
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13)
I am sure you have heard several preachers expound on why Jesus describes as salt, and what our saltiness is meant to achieve. Some will tell you that salt is a preservative, and so Christian involvement in the world is about preventing moral degradation in society. More positively, others will say that salt is for seasoning or purifying, so Christian disciples have a rôle in improving the moral and ethical life of our culture. Another positive image of salt is to see it as fertiliser, stimulating the growth of righteousness, justice and spirituality in the world. Others interpret salt as a metaphor for wisdom, and therefore Christians provide acute moral insight to help society. This might be an argument for Christian involvement in politics, even for having bishops in the House of Lords. Then there are those who point to the use of salt in Old Testament texts about sacrifice or about God’s covenant.
There’s just one problem with all these views. Jesus doesn’t ascribe to any of them.
In other words, Jesus doesn’t take his simple analogy of us as the salt of the earth and extend it into some great allegory. He just says we are the salt of the earth, full stop. We have to seek his meaning not in ancient uses of salt nor in Old Testament verses, but in what he says about the image.
And the point Jesus wants to make about being the salt of the earth is a negative one. He is concerned about his disciples not being the salt of the earth, not influencing society for good – whatever that entails:
But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13b)
So let’s pause and consider the problems here. I read an article on Friday by Krish Kandiah, who holds a senior position with the Evangelical Alliance. He asked, what do churches have to do in order to reach the missing young adults in their twenties and thirties? One of the problems he cited as making the church unattractive to people in that age range was the disconnect between Sunday and Monday. In your twenties and thirties, he said, you are faced with a lot of life changes. You may go through university, leave home, start a job, begin paying a mortgage, get married, have children and so on. To face such major challenges requires a lot of energy, and this shows itself in other ways. Often such people are ones who want to see the world changed for the better.
Unfortunately [says Kandiah] what 20-30s often hear in church is not encouragement to take huge steps in their faith, but to take on huge responsibilities within the church.
He quotes American pastor Tim Keller, who says that
as a pastor he was taught how to make people busy working in the churches.
What a tragedy this is! We are more concerned with filling church jobs than with encouraging people into character-building witness opportunities where they are the salt of the earth. Jesus says that salt without the saltiness, disciples who don’t influence the world for good, is
no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Verse 13b)
And the word translated ‘no longer good for anything’ is a word that means ‘to become or to make foolish’. Not being the salt of the earth, not making it a priority for Christians to influence the world for good, is foolishness in the eyes of Jesus. We are quick to condemn when people in politics, the media or popular arts take stances that are ignorant of Christianity or hostile to it. Yet how often is it the case that Christians have vacated these areas, seeing involvement there as inferior to church work?
Indeed, we institutionalise such an approach. Kandiah reminds me in his article of a story I have heard several times before. It was told by Mark Greene, the Executive Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He speaks of a teacher who was being prayed for in church, in support of his rôle in the congregation teaching Sunday School. The man broke down in tears. Why did he only receive prayer for the one hour a week he had contact with Christian children, but no prayer at all for the forty hours a week he devoted to contact with non-church children.
Wasn’t Jesus right? Are we not fools when we give no priority to influencing the world for good as the salt of the earth?
By way of transition to talking secondly about light, let me tell you about a circuit steward from one of my previous appointments. It was always hard to get hold of him by phone or email, because he was so busy. Not only was he a circuit steward, his day job was a responsible managerial one for an international shipping company and he was also a governor at his daughter’s school. One day, I was talking with his wife about the pressures he was under.
“Yes,” she said, “we’ve had some conversations about that. He’s decided he’s going to give up his post as a school governor in order to concentrate on the more important things – like his church work.”
She was surprised when I suggested that his church work might not be the most important thing he did. Because, I argued, it meant losing another person from the front line of Christian witness in the world.
And that, positively, is Jesus’ point when he goes on to describe Christians as the light of the world:
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Verses 14-16)
What we say and do is seen by the world. It is our witness, whether good or bad. But we can take this positively. We can see this as a wonderful opportunity for witness in the world. It isn’t that shining our light before others so that they see our good deeds is about us boasting or acting as if we are superior. Jesus says we can do it for a different motive: ‘that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ Isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want our witness to attract other people to Jesus and his Father?
So what might we do about it? Our witness is about both our words and our deeds. It isn’t that we speak about our faith and don’t match it with our actions. Nor is it that we engage in worthy deeds as a reason to avoid talking about Christ. I suggest that one thing implied here is that we so live lives of love and concern for the people in our world that it leads to questions and opportunities, so that then we can tell people the Gospel of the Saviour and Lord in whom we believe.
One of my favourite examples of this was told by the American pastor and sociologist Tony Campolo. Over the years, he has had a special concern for some of the impoverished nations in the Caribbean, such as Haïti and the Dominican Republic. He has campaigned against multinational companies that have exploited their workers in these lands, and he has taken groups of Christians from the United States on mission trips there.
In particular, he tells a story about a Christian doctor who went out to one of these nations – I think it was the Dominican Republic. That doctor set up a surgery in a poor village. By day he gave himself to providing medical care for people who otherwise would not be able to access it. By evening he would drive around the area, preaching the Gospel. People listened. With a touch of grudging admiration, a local Communist Party official said, “He has earned the right to speak.”
I believe Jesus calls us to earn the right to speak. He calls us to stop treating the church as our one-stop provider of religious services and our social life, and to get our hands dirty in the world. The moment we start treating the church as the provider of our religious services we start asking the wrong questions about whether the church is meeting our needs, and then walking out when the preaching, the music, the small groups or the children’s ministry doesn’t reach the standards we set in our minds. And when we think that our social lives should revolve around the church, we cut ourselves off from the world where we are meant to shine our light, by reflecting Christ.
No: Jesus calls us to see the church as the people of God gathering to edify one another and strengthen each other for witness in the world. We have neighbours whom we can love in the name of Christ. We have neighbourhoods, villages, towns and institutions that need the love of Christ. We are part of a world that needs to see the love of Christ demonstrated and explained.
And although some will mock, many will ‘glorify [our] Father in heaven.’ That might simply be we’ve done a good bit of PR for the faith. But it might well be part of their journey to faith in Christ themselves.
In short, cutting some ties from the institutional church and simplifying some of the ways we do church in order to release ourselves to spend more time blessing people in our communities with the love of God in word and deed is absolutely critical to our sharing in the mission of God.
Or, to put it another way, someone has put it like this. The test of a church is whether the local community would miss it if it shut.
So a good test of whether we are salt and light is whether Knaphill and the neighbouring villages would be upset if KMC closed.
What do you think?
Still finding it difficult to get back to regular blogging – the diary has been frantic for the first couple of weeks in the new appointment. I hope to resume soon. Meanwhile, here is tomorrow’s (no, this morning’s) initial sermon for Knaphill. It’s Covenant Service, and I’ve introduced a sermon series on Jonah to highlight the theme of mission. A Local Preacher did Jonah chapter 1 last week. I join in at chapter 2.
Last Sunday morning, while I was innocently engaged in taking my first service at Addlestone, something dastardly happened here at Knaphill. I understand that Graham Pearcey brought the rest of my family up to the front where they were asked to share information about me.
I understand you were told that I cannot sing. Well … that is entirely correct. You will want to shower the AV team with chocolates and expensive unMethodist liquids for them fading down my microphone during the hymns and songs.
But while I am poor at singing, I nevertheless love music. Not without cause did I mention in a piece I wrote for Flight Path, the circuit magazine, that one of my favourite gadgets is my iPod. One band I particularly enjoyed during early adulthood was Talking Heads. Their most famous song was called ‘Once in a lifetime’. The lyrics to the first verse go like this (don’t worry, I won’t be singing them):
You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself living in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well how did I get here?
And that – it seems to me – is a good place to begin looking at Jonah chapter 2 in this series on Jonah, the reluctant missionary. How did I get here? There are three questions I want us to ask about Jonah from this chapter, and they take us a little further along the road of his journey into the mission of God. So the first question is this: how did Jonah get here?
And I think my short answer is that Jonah has a warped view of the life of faith, and this leads him away from God’s call to mission. When the call first comes to go to Nineveh, he heads for Tarshish (1:3). Tarshish was a luxury destination: King Solomon’s fleet had returned from there with gold, silver, ivory, monkeys and peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). In the ancient imagination, it was like Paradise. It was Shangri-La. Jonah preferred comfort to calling. That’s something we might well chew on as we renew our Covenant with God later in this service. Are we opting for comfort or calling?
One of the circuit Local Preachers clearly thought we had come to the land of milk and honey in moving from Essex (oh dear) to Surrey – as if it were some contemporary Tarshish. Maybe not so much land of milk and honey, but land of Waitrose. Many others have informed us that the manse is in the most desirable road in the village. So have we come to Tarshish? Let me make one simple observation: by coming here, our insurance premiums have increased!
A recent report suggested that one reason many children of church families don’t continue in the Christian faith is that what they witness from their parents and their church family is not radical, risk-taking faith in Jesus Christ, but comfortable, respectable living. It has no attraction. It is Tarshish faith, and you end up living in a fish.
Jonah has another warped attitude to faith. Let me introduce it this way. Suppose I ask you what the main purpose of Christian faith is. In my experience, the answer most Christians give is, ‘to worship God’. Wrong answer.
Are you shocked by my saying that? Consider this: it was Jonah’s answer. He told the pagan sailors in 1:9, ‘I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land’. His life was about worship. But just focussing on worship didn’t stop his disobedience and his destiny in the alimentary canal of a large fish.
A better answer about our purpose is not that we are here to worship God, but that we are here to glorify God. The Westminster Catechism, so beloved of Calvinist Christians, more correctly says that our ‘chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’. We glorify God both in the church and in the world, in worship and in mission. A church that simply concentrates on worship and on internal matters is one that will find herself sooner or later in a predicament.
In this respect, Jonah stands in the book as a representative of ancient Israel, who was called by God to be ‘a light to the nations’, but who was reluctant to fulfil that destiny. The historical Jonah described in 2 Kings 14:25 is one who is more concerned with nationalism than with the blessing of the nations.
If we want to end up – metaphorically speaking – inside a fish, spending our time swimming in half-digested food and toxins, then we could do no better than to concentrate on worship and internal matters, and give no thought to engaging in the mission of God. That – and his preference for comfort – is how Jonah ended up in the fish. Are there warped faith priorities that have put us in a similar place?
The second question is this: why is Jonah in the fish? You may say I’ve just answered that question. But I want to take it further. Why has God put him in a fish? There is a surprising answer.
We may think that his hotel reservation in the belly of the fish was God’s punishment for his disobedience. However, Jonah was booked for drowning, when the pagan sailors threw him overboard. God sent the fish, not to punish him, but to rescue him. The fish is like some underwater lifeboat, come to save him from going to what the Jews called Sheol, the place of the dead. In his prayer, Jonah sees it as deliverance (vv 1-7).
This location of filth and acid is actually God’s salvation for Jonah. The disgusting stench of the fish’s belly is … grace. By this drastic course of action, God preserves Jonah for his purposes of mission.
Grace isn’t always prettified and beautiful. After all, it depends on nails hammered through the flesh of Jesus onto a cross of wood. We affirm that ‘God works for good in all things for those that love him’ (Romans 8:28), and that means he acts in grace as much through the nasty episodes of life as the joyful ones. One author called it ‘A severe mercy’. You may identify with this from your own life. How many of you look back on certain painful or traumatic seasons of your life and realise – at least in retrospect – that God was working for good through that experience? Maybe he did something in your life that could not have happened unless you had endured something unpleasant.
I believe we can apply this to the life of the church as well as to our individual lives. Think of it like this. Jonah is rescued from death by God’s provision of the big fish. Consider the number of churches that have died. Look at their buildings now turned into carpet warehouses or places of worship for other religions. Now reflect on the fact that this church is still alive. Say what you like about things having been better in days gone by – although I believe that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and that the golden days were probably only nickel-plated. Whatever your fond memories of what you believe to have been better times, and whatever you might not like about church life as you know it today, the fact is that God has preserved this church.
So the question is why he has preserved us in grace. Surely it must also be that we might glorify him. Surely we are here not only to worship him but to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world, through our deeds and words.
Which means you now know why I picked Jonah as the opening sermon series for my time here. I wanted to make it clear from the outset that I do not believe I came here ‘to run the church’ or ‘to keep everybody happy’. I came with a vision for a church that both gathers for worship and disperses for mission. I believe God has preserved this church in his grace and mercy for such purposes. At this Covenant Service, will you join with me as we renew our commitment to Christ in walking this way?
And that begs the third and final question: what will Jonah do? We read his response in verses 8 and 9:
“Those who cling to worthless idols
forfeit God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’ “
He rejects idols and promises to sacrifice and keep his vows. Idols are those things or people we set our hearts upon, and to which we will sacrifice. They can be good things to which we wrongly assign absolute status. I am sure you can think of many examples without much problem, especially within our society.
However, since we are considering our own lives right now, let me offer some suggestions about the sort of idols that can afflict religious people. We can be guilty of racial or denominational pride. We can be guilty of moral or doctrinal superiority. But let me offer one particular idolatry that afflicts us all too much: church work itself. This can manifest itself in various ways. Here are a couple of examples.
At one stage in a previous circuit, I had to look after an additional church temporarily for eighteen months. During that time, one of the faithful elderly ladies died, and I was asked to conduct her funeral. I met with her relatives, who told me that the church had been her whole life, not just in terms of worship and fellowship, but it had formed her entire social life, too. Clearly, they thought I would be pleased to learn of this.
However, it saddened me greatly. Why, when we are called to glorify God in both worship and mission, would we spend all our time in the church? Could it have assumed a level of importance far beyond what the New Testament calls it to have?
The other story goes like this. Some of you may remember the controversy in the mid-1990s over the dramatic charismatic-Pentecostal experiences of the Holy Spirit that were labelled as the ‘Toronto Blessing’. At the height of that time, I flew to Toronto and spent a week at the church which was at the epicentre of the movement. As well as their regular Sunday morning services, they were running seminars for pastors morning and afternoon every weekday, and they were holding renewal meetings six nights a week. Without exaggeration, thousands of visitors from around the world came to the church every week.
You will not be surprised to know that in such a spiritually intense time and with the church attracting so much attention, enthusiastic members of that church were volunteering left, right and centre to help at the renewal meetings. Some wanted to come and be on duty every night.
But the church leadership said, ‘no’. Much as they needed the help to run all the meetings, they limited church members only to helping with one evening renewal meeting per week. On other nights, they wanted them to attend a home group, do something for Christ in the community and spend time with their families. I think that by doing that they not only encouraged balanced Christian living, they helped their members avoid church idolatry.
So, no, I don’t consider it a badge of spirituality to be down the church every night of the week. Renewing your covenant with Christ today might mean lessening what you do at church in order to give more time to family and community.
And we ought to take this seriously, because in these words of his I quoted a couple of minutes ago, Jonah uses language that is pertinent to the theme of covenant. ‘Those who cling to idols forfeit God’s love for them,’ reads verse 8 in the TNIV. But God’s love here is a weak English translation of a word that stands for God’s faithful covenant love. Dealing with the idols in our lives is about maintaining the faithful covenant relationship with God. Idolatry is something we should examine at a covenant service. It gets in the way of our calling to glorify God in the church and the world, however worthy it appears to be.
When we deal with it, then – like Jonah – we can offer our sacrifices and keep our vows – the vows we make at something like a covenant service.
So – in summary, God is calling us to renew our commitment to glorify him in worship and mission. To that end, as we make our covenant with him afresh today, will we stop making our personal comfort and other things – even church work – our personal idols? Will we reject those things that lead us to treat internal church life as a priority that has excluded our involvement in Christian mission? Will we recognise that the difficulties and uncongenial aspects of our lives individually or together may even be tools God has used to preserve us for this twin calling to worship and mission?
Could it be that God has brought us to this point – like Queen Esther – ‘for such a time as this’?
 Eugene Peterson, Under The Unpredictable Plant, p 15f.
 As suggested in Tim Keller’s book above.
This week I have mostly been reading two books. One of them awaits a future blog post, but the other is Tim Keller‘s Counterfeit Gods, subtitled, ‘When the empty promises of love, money and power let you down’. It manages to be both pastoral and evangelistic, in that Keller diagnoses the affliction of idolatry as infecting both Christian and non-Christian alike.
An idol is for Keller anything – and usually a good thing – that we inflate to absolute good in place of the true God. While covering the usual contemporary suspects such as money, sex, relationships, power and success, he briefly analyses some less common ones. He is well read in contemporary culture and in the analysis of idolatry.
He also distinguishes between ‘surface idols’ and ‘deep idols’. The former are easy to identify, but the latter, the driving forces behind our idolatry, are harder to detect. However, in what may be the strongest section of the book (with the possible exception of the biblical exegesis) he provides a series of ways in which we can diagnose whether something has become an idol. What obsesses our imagination and daydreaming? Are there things on which we spend too much money? For the Christian, do we react with undue anger or despair to unanswered prayer for a particular request? Do our uncontrollable emotions, such as fear, anger or guilt, tell us we are raising something to the level of a necessity in life when it is not? This section falls in the book’s Epilogue, and is priceless.
My one disappointment was with what followed that section. Keller says that it isn’t enough to renounce idols, they need to be replaced by a devotion to Christ and all he has done for us, because in that we will find true satisfaction in life. He tells us this is best developed by the use of spiritual disciplines, but unfortunately then bails out by saying that describing them is beyond the remit of the book. That seemed to be a shame to me, since to describe that would be to outline a major element of the cure. Instead, he simply footnotes books by Kenneth Boa and Edmund Clowney. I am sure Keller is capable of writing lucidly on this subject. It is as if he had run aground against a publisher’s word limit. Perhaps he will offer his own thoughts on this important subject one day.
Despite that one hesitation, this is a book I heartily recommend. It is significant on so many levels. If you are a prophet, its diagnosis of sin in western culture is important: as Keller says, you cannot understand a culture without discerning its idols. If you are an evangelist, it will give deep insight into what holds people captive. The pastor will also appreciate the understanding of the human condition and the tools for discerning idolatry. It is well worth your time and money.
Unless books are your idol, I suppose.
more about “Damaris Trust Holy Week 2009, Easter …“, posted with vodpod
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! In this final Damaris Trust video for Holy Week, Krish Kandiah and Peter May talk about how Jesus’ resurrection from the dead gives us hope when considering what happens when we die.
A great service for Easter Day at St Andrew’s this morning. ‘In a packed programme tonight’, as the Two Ronnies used to say, we had the Easter liturgy, renewal of baptismal vows, Holy Communion (of course) and people invited from the community to remember deceased loved ones.
In the middle of all that, there were two highlights for me. Firstly, the worship band shrank at one point to the younger members only. So Emily on vocals , Dan on guitar, Bradley on keys and the drummer whose name I don’t know – they’re all round about thirteen years old – led us in Tim Hughes‘ ‘Happy Day‘. Here’s a version by the original artist:
Emily is a great singer, Dan a quiet and efficient bandleader, Bradley filled in subtly and the drummer guy is top drawer.
The other highlight was Lee’s sermon. Taking Mark 16:1-8, he made a virtue of the strange and sudden ending to Mark’s Gospel. He said we have to write our own ending to the Easter story in our lives. I thought that was great.
For all that, it’s been quite a mixed day emotionally. On the one hand, I have entered Easter with a renewed confidence in the truth and importance of the Resurrection. Not that I ever lost my belief in the bodily Resurrection of Christ for one moment, but sometimes when life or circumstances aren’t the most encouraging, it can feel far away. Reading Tim Keller (sorry to mention him again!) and Tom Wright (see this excellent article from The Times yesterday) has done much to fortify my faith.
But other things have been weighing me down. My friend Will says today, in talking about his service this morning,
Before the prayers of intercession, I reminded our congregation that for many the joys of Easter are still crowded out by their own personal Good Fridays. I know I have friends who will this week spend more time agonising in the Garden of Gethsemane (Jen and Mike, we are praying for you and Luke). For some, Easter is more like the women in Mark who hid when afraid.
And as he mentions his friends Jen, Mike and Luke, so I have been thinking about the three couples I mentioned last Sunday who have separated. Some events today have reminded me of them. Debbie and I feel such pain for them. And if that is how we feel, how do they?
More trivially, our eighteen-year-old cat is suddenly looking old, frail and weak. We are beginning to think the end might be near. The children realise, and on top of the fact that they have been asking questions about death as we’ve come through Holy Week, Good Friday and today. Mark in particular keeps asking whether he will die on a cross like Jesus.
I’m also starting to get more regular questions about how much longer the sabbatical has to go. The answer is that – with having tacked a week’s leave onto the end – I shall be back on duty four weeks today. The official Methodist literature on sabbaticals talks about planning your ‘re-entry’, which rather makes ministers feel like Apollo astronauts. The idea is that there should be a managed, phased re-introduction to active ministry.
Which makes me think of two words: ‘fat’ and ‘chance’. At least I hope it won’t be like my last sabbatical, when the superintendent asked me to come back early due to a crisis with the circuit treasurer. However, a sabbatical grants you new vision in all sorts of ways. It is then a huge challenge to share that vision with churches that are used to things being a long way different from such visions. I’ve always been a restless traveller on the outer fringes of Methodism: right now I feel somewhere out beyond Pluto.
Of course, it may just be a version of what anyone feels when a good holiday is coming to an end and they have to return to work. (Not that I’m suggesting the sabbatical is a holiday!) Time will tell.
more about “Sabbatical Day 69, Good Friday: Jesus…“, posted with vodpod
Here is the Damaris Trust video for Good Friday. Andrew White talks about the importance of Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf. He discusses what this means for his ministry of reconciliation in Iraq.
We went into town this morning for the annual open-air united service in Chelmsford High Street. A band from the church where we are worshipping led the music, and the choir from our children’s school dazzlingly performed a selection of songs from a musical entitled Resurrection Rock.
A nun from a local community spoke. Hers was a serious address where she spoke of Bad Friday and Good Friday. Today is only Good Friday because it is about redemptive suffering. Anything else would be Bad Friday. Suffering isn’t good for its own sake. She spoke passionately as one who had spent years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, serving women and young girls who had been raped by HIV positive men, young boys who had been brutalised into becoming child soldiers and mothers who had watched children die from diseases we find easily preventable in the West.
And from that, she made a connection between Good Friday and Easter Day. For whenever we, who believe in Christ’s redemptive suffering and conquest of death, minister to those in need or work for justice, we are doing Resurrection work. In that sense, she asked, is the Resurrection happening today?
Later, Rebekah – who had understandably described that part of the service as ‘longer than church’ – posed again the question, “Why do we call it ‘Good Friday’ and not ‘Bad Friday’?” I tried to explain how God took the Bad that was done to Jesus and turned it for Good. She found that hard to grasp.
In the back of my mind I was thinking of Tim Keller‘s The Reason For God, and his chapter on the Cross. He explains how forgiveness and love inevitably involve both substitution and exchange. When we forgive someone, it always comes at a cost. If I forgive you a debt, I take on that debt. He doesn’t get into the question of Pauline language and whether to speak of penal substitution, just that forgiveness must in some sense involve the substituting of the debt, and that this consitutes and exchange. The notion of exchange, he says, is fundamental to love. If I love my children, I will exchange my freedom for their well-being. I will not only give them attention when it is convenient to me, for if I do that they will only grow up physically. Love means I will attend to them when it is inconvenient. I give up my freedom to serve them in love. This, says Keller, is like what Christ does for the world on the Cross.
I shall be interested to plug those thoughts into those from a book that is on its way from Amazon: Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by Tom Wright. I’d like to see how this compares and contrasts with Wright’s more cosmic vision of salvation. The Reformation tradition has tended to take Luther’s question of “How can I find a gracious God?” and insert the word ‘personally’ after ‘I’. That is critical, but I know that in this book, Wright is saying that such a question makes the sun orbit around us rather than vice-versa. We’ll see …
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.”
Given that tomorrow is April Fool’s Day, here is a record of Google hoaxes in past years.
I find it a useful practice to read an evangelistic book every now and again. However, it’s a long time since I read one. Last week at Lee Abbey, I noticed they had cheap copies of Tim Keller‘s books ‘The Reason for God‘ and ‘The Prodigal God‘. I haven’t yet read the former, which is a book of apologetics, but I have completed the latter this morning.
It is a winsome and powerful meditation on what Keller calls ‘The parable of the two lost sons’, for both the younger and elder brothers in the famous parable are are lost. The younger is lost in devotion to selfish pleasure, and the elder is lost in self-righteousness. God is the true Prodigal, being reckless with generous love and grace. Only that unconditional grace changes people, and only that gives a healthy motivation for sacrificial service and a life of justice. I warmly recommend it.
Since finishing it today, I have begun to read ‘The Reason for God’ in between clearing down some of last week’s accumulated four hundred plus emails and – more seriously – a poorly wife. Last night, Debbie struggled with a vicious headache. This morning, she was washed out and has spent much of the day in bed. Tonight, she took her temperature at 39.5°C, so we’ll hit that with Paracetamol and keep an eye on it. At bedtime this evening, Rebekah said to her, “I wish I had a wish, because I would wish you back to normal.”