Monthly Archives: July 2012

Take my life and let it be

As a preacher, I always find it difficult to select the hymn to follow the sermon. How do you ensure that the hymn strengthens the message, rather than distracts from it? As a general rule, I believe it needs to be a hymn that leads to a response: by encouraging more faith or repentance, by leading us to proclaim the Gospel, or by challenging us to hand all that we are and all that we do over to Christ. Particular favourites of mine to follow a sermon include ‘Be Thou my vision’, ‘In Christ alone’, ‘All I once held dear’, ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’, and ‘Guide me O Thou great Jehovah’.

Recently, ‘Take my life and let it be’ has also become a favourite. Although the usual tune of ‘St. Bees’ is not the most rousing, the words are incredibly powerful. I used this hymn after a sermon on Mark 8:31-38 (“…Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it…”). The message challenged people to consider whether they were curious, convinced or committed to the cause of Christ, and we looked at some of the sins and temptations that hold us back from giving Christ our all, from picking up and carrying our crosses. I ended by saying that a committed follower of Christ could sing this hymn with boldness, but that ‘boldness’ doesn’t mean just singing the words with gusto. It means examining our hearts and trusting all to Christ. Just consider some of the statements that are made:

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

We have to ask ourselves: Do we really mean these words as we sing them? Are we living lives of worship, all for the glory of God? Would we really give God all of our silver and gold? Are we ready to serve humbly? Are we prepared to share the Gospel with others? Are we prepared to follow Christ’s will, and not our own? Frances Ridley Havergal’s hymn raises so many questions that challenge us.

Frances Ridley Havergal tells the story behind the hymn she wrote:

“Perhaps you will be interested to know the origin of the Consecration hymn ‘Take my life.’ I went for a little visit of five days to Areley House. There were ten persons in the house, some unconverted and long prayed for, some converted, but not rejoicing Christians.” – perhaps there is the curious and the convinced – And “He gave me the prayer ‘Lord, give me all in this house!’ And He just did! Before I left the house everyone had got a blessing. The last night of my visit after I had retired, the governess asked me to go to the two daughters. They were crying and then and there both of them trusted and rejoiced; it was nearly midnight. I was too happy to sleep, and passed most of the night in praise and renewal of my own consecration; and these little couplets formed themselves, and chimed in my heart one after another till they finished with ‘ever only, ALL FOR THEE!'”

And Frances’ prayer, “Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold,” in the same hymn was not lightly stated. In August, 1878, Miss Havergal wrote to a friend,

“The Lord has shown me another little step, and, of course, I have taken it with extreme delight. ‘Take my silver and my gold’ now means shipping off all my ornaments to the church Missionary House, including a jewel cabinet that is really fit for a countess, where all will be accepted and disposed of for me … Nearly fifty articles are being packed up. I don’t think I ever packed a box with such pleasure.”

“Take my life and let it be” is a powerful hymn that flows from a Christ-centred life. We cannot sing it lightly.

Reformation Books: John Newton. From disgrace to amazing grace.

You won’t often find me recommending books by former Conservative politicians and disgraced cabinet ministers. However this book, by Jonathan Aitken, is the exception. It works, perhaps, because Aitken is so perfectly placed to identify with John Newton’s incredible journey from disgrace to amazing grace.

It is a really well researched book charting the course of Newton’s life from the early death of his mother, to seafaring, slave trading, ordination and to his eventual participation in the abolitionist movement. On the way we are given fascinating insights into the life and times of one of the most incredible hymn writers and preachers of the eighteenth century.

Not only was I thrilled by the drama and romance of Newton’s early life, God’s gracious and relentless pursuit of his heart, but I found myself amazed by the lessons God was teaching me through the account of Newton’s later ministry and pastoral practice. Newton’s success in the parish of Olney rested on a combination of evangelical zeal in preaching, openness in giving account of his own testimony, faithful dedication in pastoral work, generous hospitality and his persistence in friendship and prayer for those with whom he disagreed.

I particularly enjoyed reading of the friendship Newton struck up with William Cowper, one of the greatest poets of the eighteenth century. At the time they met, Cowper was unknown, unstable (suffering from depression) and unemployed; but over time, through continued Christian compassion and practical encouragement Newton enabled Cowper to find a sense of personal balance and gave him an outlet to express his creative genius. In return Cowper was able to support Newton through a time when the preaching, pastoral and authorial demands were a great pressure upon him.

Together they wrote, Olney Hymns, in 1779. In this we find the first copy of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, one of the later hymns in the book, it was written after Cowper’s mental health again deteriorated. For a long time the hymn remained unnoticed or celebrated. I find it encouraging that the hymn wasn’t written in the flush of his first evangelical conversion, or as a great statement of Newton’s new found abolitionist beliefs, but as one of a number of expressions of his wonder at God’s grace.

Looking back upon and contemplating John Newton’s life reminds me that our lives are rarely straight forward; we often encounter false starts, obstacles, detours. Sometimes we look back upon things we’ve said or done with regret, but God’s faithfulness is proved constant through all our wavering. John Newton’s gift as preacher and teacher waned, his memory and eye sight faded, but right to the end he held on to two truths that: 1. ‘I am a great sinner’ 2. ‘That Christ is a great Saviour’ and for that we may all give thanks.

1 Timothy 2:11-15

Thanks to my fellow bloggers, I have the delight of sharing my thoughts on perhaps the most difficult and controversial words in Paul’s first letter to Timothy:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

When we hear words in scripture such as these, which seem counter-cultural in our society (women should be quiet and not exercise authority over men) or seemingly challenge doctrine clearly described in other parts of scripture (women will be saved through childbearing, as opposed to through faith), we have a spectrum of options available to us.  At one end of the spectrum we can suggest that Paul was writing in a culture so different to our own that these words are simply not relevant today and should be ignored.  At the other end of the spectrum, we can take every word of this passage as eternally true and therefore as literally relevant today as it was in Paul’s day.  The first leaves us in the dangerous position of picking and choosing which bits of scripture WE want to listen to, and the latter can lead to an isolated and seemingly ancient faith that speaks little in today’s world.  Most people would find their interpretation of these words somewhere between, which is what I suggest here.

In the previous passage Paul has talked about how men should pray ‘lifting up holy hands without anger or argument’ (v.8) and that women should ‘dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works [in] reverence for God.’ (v.10).  It seems to me in these verses there are eternal truths and cultural references.  The eternal truth in v.8 is that men should pray without anger or argument – prayer is not the place to settle scores with one another, but the cultural reference is that they should hold their hands aloft while they do it.  The eternal truth in v.10 is that women (for the sake of everyone!) should dress for worship modestly and decently, and clothe themselves in good works out of reverence for God, whilst the cultural reference is that they do that by not braiding their hair, wearing gold, pearls or expensive clothes.  And so I propose the same breakdown of cultural and eternal truths in the verses we are considering in this post.  The complimentary nature of the two sexes God uses to reflect his image is often described in the Bible in terms of authority and submission (in the same manner as the complimentary nature of the trinitarian God-head is described in terms of authority and submission).  Men and Women are different – complimentary, but different, and in any relationship, marriage, friends, colleagues, churches, that complimentary can be seen.  But in our personal relationships, male and female, made in the image of God, reflect the submission/authority relationship of the trinitarian God-head.  Me and my wife balance it like this – I’m in charge, but my wife is always right.  I have the position of authority in our relationship, but the authority only exists to support and build up what my wife believes is right.  This is the eternal truth of this passage – both male and female made in the image of God with complimentary roles in relationships.  The cultural reference here is that women should do that by being quiet, not teaching, or as other translations puts it, being silent.  Today, as in the case of dressing without braided hair, or having to lift your hands in prayer, the relationship between male and female and its complimentary nature does not have to be exercised through silent women.

This leads us to understand that v.13-14 describe the downfall of the whole of humanity – Adam for not taking responsibility and leading his wife in love, and Eve for being tempted.  This is no finger pointing at one gender of humanity.  Interestingly this could be carried through to the final difficult sentence in this passage in which most translations give the sense that the act of childbirth saves a woman.  However, these translations miss that in the Greek text, ‘childbirth’ (τεκνογονίας) is actually preceded by the article (τῆς τεκνογονίας), and thus could be translated ‘Yet she will be saved through THE birth of a child’, which may lead us to see salvation through faith in Christ after all.  Perhaps it is in that birth – that of Jesus born of Mary – that we see this passage come alive in understanding.  Mary, in quiet submission, but certainly not in silence; with humble heart, but certainly not in timidity or lack of steely courage and determination, gave birth to a child who would offer salvation to the whole of humanity through His death on the cross.  Interestingly of course, the final call to faith, love, holiness, with modesty, is given in the plural – male and female together – saved through Christ – called to be humble in heart and courageous for God.

These thoughts are a work in progress, and by no means are complete.  I thank John Stott, whose commentary on 1 Timothy & Titus in the Bible Speaks Today series has been invaluable in thinking through these verses.

SDG

Get rid of the organ! And guitar! And everything else!

If you want to start a fight in cyberspace, I find the best way is to call attention to the previous practice of Reformed churches and show how far we’ve fallen from that. The most interesting feedback I’ve had on my personal blog and on Twitter is when I’ve made posts about unaccompanied Psalm singing.

I even had someone try to instigate a conversation on Facebook on this matter after my last piece on the necessity of singing Psalms in worship. I didn’t bite then so I will now.

The Reformed view of worship established at the Reformation and never repudiated – but confirmed – by later councils was that the best way of praising God in the worship of the covenant people was to sing God’s word back to him without accompaniment.

There is no evidence of the apostolic church using instruments in their worship. There is no command to use instruments in the New Testament. There is in the Old Testament but the Reformers and their direct followers saw those stipulations as being part of the ceremonial law of Israel. That law was fulfilled in the perfect sacrifice of Christ, what need did God’s people have for these instruments anymore? As Calvin writes in his comments on Psalm 149:2: “The musical instruments he mentions were peculiar to this infancy of the Church [i.e. before Christ], nor should we foolishly imitate a practice which was intended only for God’s ancient people.”

What changed? And why?

The truth may be that we were more concerned with the ways of the world than with the command of God.

Look at the instruments that have been used – the organ and then the praise band. These are instruments that are ideally suited to the popular culture of the time. Our use of instruments may have been an attempt to look acceptable to the outside world. It’ll attract the kids! The organ was the original seeker-sensitive innovation.

Whenever we have seen instruments introduced to the worship of God we have seen unfortunate consequences. The organist can become the tyrant that makes the Lord’s Day his excuse for a personal recital. The praise band can be more concerned with their own sound and tastes than truly helping the people of God to worship.

Reformed worship should be simple. The singing should be edifying for those in the congregation. It should also be different to the outside world. If the URC wants an identity how about this: “The URC? Oh, they’re the crazy ones that sing without instruments.”

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. This has the benefit of being a Psalm of lament. How many of those have you sung recently?

This post is deliberately provocative. I’m being highly hypocritical in writing it as I serve in churches where I choose hymns aplenty and they’re accompanied by organ and piano. 

Book Review: ‘Thinking. Loving. Doing.’

Thinking. Loving. Doing. is an engaging and deep thinking selection of essays by big names in the reformed evangelical world who were all contributors to the 2010 Desiring God conference: Rick Warren, Francis Chan, John Piper, R.C Sproul, Albert Mohler and Thabiti Anyabwile.

Picking up on a perceived bias in the reformed world towards ‘thinking”, they issue a clarion call to Christians to be thinkers, feelers and doers. These three aspects of faith cannot and should not be separated as we seek to engage minds, hearts and hands for the sake of the Gospel.

Rick Warren focusses on ‘The Battle for Your Mind’ and how we can take every thought captive to obey Christ. Warren is clear, concise and challenging. He understands the devil’s tactics and urges us to too. I was particularly struck by his statement that “We only believe the parts of the Bible that we actually do.” (p.40) It’s no good believing in tithing or evangelism if we are not prepared to actually do it.

R. Albert Mohler contrasts the way the world thinks with the way Christians should think. Expounding Romans 1, Mohler gets us to ‘think about thinking’, challenging our intellectual pride and getting us to understand how our thoughts have been corrupted by the fall.

R.C. Sproul gives us a lesson in pagan philosophy and uses it to help us understand how Paul engaged with such philosophies in Athens (Acts 17). Sproul ends by arguing that “We will never find an explanation for being, for life, or for motion if we try to find it outside the being and character of God” (p.79).

Thabiti Anyabwile is a Baptist minister who was formally a Muslim. Anyabwile helps us to appreciate Islamic beliefs, good and bad pluralism, and, in particular, the problems with the “naive pluralism” prevalent in the Western world today that is incompatible with sharia law. Anyabwile’s chapter is not just an academic pursuit, but ends with ways to respond to Islam: remembering the Gospel, engaging with the world, repenting of fear, and losing our lives in order to find them.

Expounding 1 Corinthians 8 and food offered to idols, Francis Chan’s chapter is a passionate plea for genuine love in the church, and particularly (but certainly not exclusively!) for those in leadership roles. I was challenged to the point of tears in parts of this chapter as Chan repeatedly calls for our lives to look like Jesus’s.

John Piper draws the threads together in the conclusion, ending with a prayer for love through thinking. Overall, the book is a stretching, thought provoking and worthwhile read. The chapters don’t link together as well as they might, but all of the contributions are rooted in and soaked with Scripture. Every chapter ends with prayer. The contributors share many years worth of wisdom and this is undoubtedly a book I will return to again and again.

Thinking. Loving. Doing. is published by IVP and priced at £8.99.

Exposition: 1 Timothy 2:8-10

In our last section in 1 Timothy we were taught that ‘petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving should be made for all people’ (1 Timothy 2:1), this flows from God’s work of salvation. Jesus died as a ransom for all people, for Jews and for Gentiles. It is with this in mind that we read the next section.

‘Therefore’, because Jesus surrendered himself as a ransom, ‘men should pray lifting up holy hands without anger or quarrelling’ (1 Timothy 2:8). On account of the costly grace you have received surrender your anger and join together in prayer. This is an appeal that comes direct from Paul’s heart, ‘Therefore, I desire,’ that in every place (of Christian worship) you pray without anger.

It seems that speculation over ‘myths’, ‘endless genealogies’ and the ‘senseless babble’ of those aspiring to be teachers of the law has led to quarrelling in worship and anger in prayer (1 Timothy 1:3-7). In particular the men of the church (presumably those most guilty of anger in worship) are commanded to pray lifting up ‘holy hands’.

The image of ‘holy hands’ comes from Exodus 30: 17-21 where Aaron and his sons are required to wash their hands before entering the tent of meeting. In the New Testament the ritual cleansing of hands becomes a moral cleansing (James 4:8) as men are called upon to be reconciled to one another before coming to God in prayer (See, for example, Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:23-24).

Questions for us to think about are: In what attitude do we come to prayer and how should we pray for people? Secondly, are we and how do we put into practice a reconciliation that precedes worship?

Having addressed the men, Paul now addresses the women of the church. Outward dress and adornment, like ritual cleansing, is meaningless without ‘modesty’, ‘self-control’ and ‘good works’ (1 Timothy 2:9-10). More than this though women are taught to dress respectably for worship, ‘with modesty and self-control’, both these words carry sexual connotations (1 Timothy 2:9a).

It appears that whilst the men were arguing the women were dressing immodestly, even provocatively, to the point that it was causing disruption in worship. For this reason Paul establishes the principle: dress in a way that is in keeping with your Christian character, ‘with modestly and self-control’. Then he unpacks what this means for them by saying, ‘not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire’ (1 Timothy 2:9b).

Questions for us to consider from this are: In our materialistic culture do we focus too much on outward attire and give too little attention to clothing ourselves with modesty, self-control and good works? And how do we put into practice Paul’s principle to dress for worship in a way that is in keeping with our Christian character?

Is a tune a matter of taste?

In recent posts the writers of this Friday slot on hymns and songs have focussed on the words, in fact we started this series off by considering how having words of good theology is of utmost importance in choosing and selecting hymns for worship.  There are other, not insignificant, but more practical matters to consider though.  One of those questions to consider is which tune we use.  This post will take, for example, Isaac Watts’ great hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.

When I survey the wondrous Cross,
on which the Prince of glory died,
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
spreads o’er his body on the tree;
then am I dead to all the globe,
and all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

The words to this hymn are so incredible that Charles Wesley is reported to have said that he would give up all the hymns he had written to have written this one!  With such amazing words, how significant is the tune?

Excuse an organist’s introduction….  If you look in most traditional hymnbooks you will see Watts’ hymn is set to a tune with the metre: LM (long metre, or 88 88).  This means that these wonderful words are written in verses of four lines composing of eight syllables each.  In the URC hymnbook, there are 53 LM tunes that could be used to sing Watts’ hymn.  They vary from Old Hundredth (usually the tune for “All people that on earth do dwell”) to Duke Street (usually the tune for “Christ is alive let Christians sing”).  Whilst it is often entertaining to try singing the words to a tune not so familiar, it makes you wonder why we sing the hymns to the tunes we are familiar with, and, what does a tune add to the praise of our wonderful God, beyond simply the words we use.

In most UK churches, the ‘set tune’ (i.e. the one that is usually printed alongside to the words) for When I Survey is the tune Rockingham.

It becomes apparent that actually in the case of When I Survey, the tune needs to be adaptable to the words.  So the tune needs to enhance the confidence we have in the theology of verses 1 and 2.  The same music then needs to bring us to the foot of the cross where are our emotions are hit in verses 3 and 4, when we are asked to See from his head, his hands his feet, sorrow and love flowed mingled down.  That same music then needs to lift us as we make a response in the final verse with our soul, life and all.  That’s tricky.  And is achieved to some extent in the tune Rockingham.  However it is very difficult to bring the reflection needed in verses 3 and 4 in this tune.  When leading a congregation from the piano or organ I often leave them to sing verse three unaccompanied, otherwise, I sense people make the commitment of the final verse without really having grasped the enormity of being taken to see Jesus on the cross first.  Maybe a better organist/pianist or a different arrangement would be able to achieve this!

If you’re reading this from the USA, you may well not know what on earth I’m talking about, because as I understand it, the set tune for When I Survey in America is usually ‘Hamburg’.

Another option is to use what most churches seem to call the ‘new tune’, O Waley, Waley.

Both these tunes are great for the need in verse 3 to be drawn to that point of utter dependence on Christ and his sacrifice.  However for me, it is hard to sing the words in the final verse, ‘Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’ to a tune that draws me back to reflection, I want to be making a bold declaration at that point to the congregation around me and before the throne of God that I will give my all.

A further option is given by the natives of the land in which I know minister, Wales.  In the proud singing tradition there is here, the traditional Welsh tune to When I Survey is Morte Christe.

For me, I must say this tune ticks all the boxes: solid foundation in verses 1 and 2, reflection for verse 3 and 4 and a rousing and bold declaration in the final verse.  But there’s a problem.  No-one uses this tune in churches.  Why? Because the vocal range needed to sing this tune is usually beyond the capabilities of the modern congregation and not many churches have a male voice choir to rely on each Sunday!

So what are we to do?

Well here in Rhyl we have used all three of the UK preferred tunes to effect in different settings.  In a congregational setting, for collective hymn singing, we use Rockingham.  Partly because it is what people are expecting, and partly because in my opinion it covers most areas.  After the sermons here we often have a time of prayer and reflection, and I have used the O Waley, Waley tune, as in placing it there, I’m asking people to reflect on the Word of God, and come to response, and so the emphasis is on reflecting.  We have heard a recording of When I Survey set to Morte Christe at the end of a Bible Study.

It is important that the tune is right, so that the words sing straight into our hearts.  As we deliberate and choose hymns and tunes each week, let us praise God for the faithful servants like Isaac Watts who wrote these amazing words but also for Edward Miller (Rockingham), Lowel Mason (Hamburg), Emrys Jones (Morte Christe), (and potentially even the pagans who wrote O Waly, Waly) who each looked to bring Watts words of truth and response alive for us in music.

SDG

 

PS Apologies for the length of this post and including four youtube links – I hope it has been useful for you!

Summer Refreshment: Luther, Calvin and Whitefield

The last weekend has seen the four of us occupied with denominational events. The other three men were in Scarborough for the General Assembly making brave stands for Biblical Christianity. Meanwhile, this correspondent was wandering around outdoor shops looking at family tents. However, I was getting regular text messages and sneakily following the debates through Twitter and Facebook.

For many of us, last week’s Assembly was a reminder that the United Reformed Church is a difficult place to be for traditional, evangelical, orthodox ministers. But it was ever thus.

In times like this one of the best things we can do is to revisit the lives of the saints that have gone before us and take inspiration from their example. It is a good practice to see how our heroes coped with opposition, good times and the bits in between. And we’ll also see that there is not that much exceptional about them – except that God showed his grace and accomplished his purposes through them.

The first biography I want to draw your attention to is Here I Stand by Roland Bainton. This is a popular level book detailing the life of Martin Luther. From his promise to become a monk in the midst of a thunderstorm, through his early battles with the Roman church to the end of his life this book takes a lively look at the German Reformer.

Bainton writes in an accessible way and the volume is packed full of illustrations. The fact that it’s a small paperback is another bonus. Read this and be thrilled.

The second is a recent biography of John Calvin titled Pilgrim and Pastor. Written by W. Robert Godfrey, president of Westminster Seminary California, this book looks at Calvin’s life before and after his permanent settling in Geneva. Although the book details many biographical details its great value is seeing how Calvin’s teaching played out in practice in the Swiss city.

I lent this book to one of my elders who lapped it up. It makes an excellent introduction to Calvin’s thought.

The last book I want to recommend is Arnold Dallimore’s two volume biography of George Whitefield. This book may not win too many prizes for historical writing and it strays into hagiography at times but it makes a thrilling story. Delight as young George comes to faith after almost starving himself to death! Marvel at the tales of the crowds that came to hear him preach! Be amazed at how he responds to the man who showed Whitefield his backside whilst he was preaching in London!

All these books will lift any gloom you may be feeling and remind you of our gracious, awesome God who gives us “this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7

1 Timothy 2:5-7 – The Gospel is for all

The first few verses of 1 Timothy 2 called us to pray for everyone because God wants all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (vv.1-4). From verse 5 onwards, Paul continues this ‘zooming out’ from focussing on his own salvation (1:12-15) and look to the bigger picture, just like you might rapidly zoom out on Google Maps from your address to see an image of the whole world from space.

The Gospel is not just about the Lord’s grace to Paul, but to all people. Paul states that there is only one God and only one mediator between God and men (v.5). Salvation may have come from the Jews, but it cannot only be for the Jews. Paul knew this from the time of his conversion as God revealed to Ananias that Paul was God’s “chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15).

In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul explained God’s salvation plan: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Here, Paul unpacks his soteriology (theology of salvation) a little more by stating that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all men” (v.6), echoing Jesus’ own words in Mark 10:45. On the cross, Jesus ransomed us from Satan’s grasp. Through faith in Christ and the grace of God, we are rescued from the realm of sin and brought into the holy and righteous realm of the one true God. Baptism, the sacrament of faith, is comparable to the Exodus as we, like the Israelites, are led from slavery into freedom. Jesus has won the victory over sin for us and we can stand firm in him against the devil’s tactics and temptations.

This is indeed good news! Paul says that it was “for this purpose” that he was “appointed a herald and an apostle…and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles” (v.7). For us too this is the reason why we are Christians, chosen and sent by God to bring good news to a dying world. This is the centre of all that we believe and all that we do. Without grasping and being transformed by Christ’s redeeming death, everything else is meaningless.

We can fall into the trap of thinking that we can ‘pick and choose’ our mission, whether it be ecumenism or creation care, church growth or global partnerships, spirituality or social justice. There are so many valid and worthwhile things that can, if we are not careful, override the main thing and lead us astray.  The main thing is Christ crucified and risen. Our prime mission – just like Paul’s – is to proclaim that good news to all people. 

Music: The Advocate

Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote that:

Good hymns are an immense blessing to the Church of Christ. I believe the last day alone will show the world the real amount of good they have done. They suit all, both rich and poor. There is an elevating, stirring, soothing, spiritualizing effect about a thoroughly good hymn, which nothing else can produce. It sticks in men’s memories when texts are forgotten. It trains men for heaven, where praise is one of the principal occupations. Preaching and praying shall one day cease for ever; but praise shall never die.

He also said that there were three elements in a good hymn – sound theology, true experience and good poetry. It is no surprise to me then to find that he included the hymn I want to explore with you now in his 1868 book ‘Spiritual Songs’. It is a hymn written by the daughter of Rev. Sidney Smith, minister of Colebrooke Church, Aghalurcher, in Ireland. Her name is Charitie Lees Bancroft (1841-1923) and she wrote this hymn in 1863, four years after the 1859 Irish revival.  She titled the  hymn ‘The Advocate’, but it is better known today as ‘Before the Throne of God Above’. Let us consider it now:

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea.
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

I love this first verse because it sings Scripture. Hebrews 4:14-16 urges us, ‘Since then we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession…Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’. John, the apostle of love, tells us that ‘Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1 John 4:8-9). Isaiah, the great evangelist prophet, pictures God engraving us on the palms of his hands (Isaiah 49:16). And Paul in that tremendous section at the end of Romans 8 expresses that unshakeable foundation of our confidence writing, ‘Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us’.

In the second verse you get a real sense of the true experience that Bishop Ryle points us to as the mark of a good hymn:

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Saviour died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.

Sometimes we think of guilt and temptation as contradictory forces in our lives, but true experience teaches us that often temptation and guilt conspire against us to ensnare us. If our guilt is given the final word on who we are then we will act in a way that falls short of God’s best for us as His redeemed children. It has been the experience of Christian people down the ages that as they look up to Christ Jesus they find freedom both from guilt and sin. The second part of the verse looks to the objective grounds of  this freedom: Jesus’ death and God’s pardon.

In the final verse of the hymn Charitie Lees Bancroft urges us to do what we have just been singing about doing, ‘Upward I look and see Him there’. We look up and behold the risen Lamb:

Behold Him there the risen Lamb,
My perfect spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace,
One in Himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by His blood,
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Saviour and my God!

This is the most beautiful vision of spiritual union with Christ. For salvation is not a gift Christ gives, rather it is the gift Christ is. For Christ the unchangeable I AM, the King of glory and of grace, is our risen sacrificial Lamb, more than that our spotless righteousness, and united in Him we cannot die. This is the great mystery of our faith, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27).

There is so much more I could write about this hymn, but I have already gone on too long. So I think the best thing I can do now is leave you to sing along to it and pray that God confirms the words in your heart!