Monthly Archives: August 2012

Honesty in worship

I was struck by this quote recently by A.W. Tozer: ‘Christians’, he writes, ‘do not tell lies, they just go to church and sing them’. On one hand it made me feel uneasy, yet on the other it provoked me to think more deeply about worship. It is not that Tozer doubted the truth of the gospel, the objective reality of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection or ascension. He believed, as I do, in Jesus’ virgin birth, sin bearing death, victory over the grave, and ascension into heaven. It wasn’t the objective reality of the gospel that he was questioning, but the subjective response.

Last week we were singing the song:

‘As the deer pants for the water,
So my soul longs after You.
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship You.’

I found myself praying that God would make this true in my life. For it is no light thing to declare that God is our only desire. Sometimes our singing betrays the truth in our hearts. Please do not misread me here. I am not saying that we should never declare our longing or desire for God nor am I criticising Martin Nystrom’s song, but I do want us to acknowledge that an exclamation of devotion is often times more aspirational than an honest reflection of our own hearts.

Though I enjoy singing, ‘As the deer pants for the water’. I often find I am singing words that I believe, but long to experience deeper, the truth of:

‘I want You more than gold or silver,
Only You can satisfy.
You alone are the real joy-giver
And the apple of my eye.’

God certainly is the only One who will truly satisfy the longing of my heart, He certainly is the real joy-giver, and I have experienced satisfaction and joy in Him, but sometimes these words of worship are sung with little appreciation of their meaning or emotional connection. I believe God is worthy of both our minds and our hearts in worship. We must be careful in the way we worship God for we do not want Him to say of us, ‘these people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Isaiah 29:13).

It is worth remembering here that the ‘chief end of man is to worship God and enjoy Him forever’. Worship is not a means to some other end, but end in itself. It is the Spirit-led response to the revelation of God’s truth.

For this reason I agree with Paul Robinson when he writes, ‘When we choose subjective lyrics it is important that we are singing these words in response to a message, word or working of the Spirit in worship and not just by themselves’. There should be an honesty and a depth to our expression of devotion.

Surely, as Phil Baiden has said, we see this supremely in the Psalms. Where ‘As the deer pants for the water, so my soul pants for you, my God’ (Psalm 42) continues not with simple expression of love or devotion to God but with a heart felt cry:

‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long:
Where is your God?’

In this we see an earthy worship that connects with believers lived experience whilst at the same time appealing to God to meet with us, to do more in our lives, to deepen our experience of His grace. So let us pray:

Lord, may our worship be a true reflection of what You are doing in our hearts and our lives at this time. Guide those who lead worship in our churches so that they might choose words and music that connect with our hearts and minds. Forgive the times when our worship pays little more than lip service to You. Help us to worship You in Spirit and in truth. In the name of Jesus and to His glory we ask it. Amen

Business for the glory of God

Wayne Grudem if probably best known for his Systematic Theology – a great reference work of some 1,300 pages.  However this book, both in subject and size contrasts with that work.  Here is a short book of some 100 pages exploring God’s view of today’s business world and our responsibility within it.  That said the ability that Grudem has to bring a Biblical perspective to discussions to search for God’s truth is present in abundance in both books.

Business for the glory of God starts with the premise that the Bible upholds business as being morally good.  That’s quite a bold statement in today’s world, particularly in today’s Christian world.  Yet, having read this book, and worked within the financial sector in the UK, I, like Grudem, believe it to be true.  How?  Because Grudem, with Biblical insight and logic, shows that ‘many aspects of business activity are morally good in themselves, and that in themselves they bring glory to God- though they also have great potential for misuse and wrongdoing.’ (p.12)

The areas of business activity which Grudem considers are ownership, productivity, employment, commercial transactions, profit, money, inequality of possessions, competition and borrowing and lending.  In each of these areas he argues that in themselves these things can glorify God – for example, owning possessions can be a morally good thing, for those things can be used for the glory of God.  Yet in each chapter he also shows how the world of abuses business activity to glorify individuals instead.  So to continue the example, Grudem argues that owning possessions is, instead of something that glorifies God, something that divides, drives oppression of others, turns people away from the gospel, advance our own pride, greed or wealth.

If you work in business and are trying to balance God’s calling to work in that environment with the morality of the companies you own or work for, then this book will help you see how you can honour God in your work, giving him glory.  Equally if you look from the outside on the business world, and are critical of the system in which we live and work, and look to criticise or even protest against it, then this book will help you to support those working in business, and might guide you to see God’s glory in places you didn’t expect.

But what if Christians could change their attitudes toward business, and what if Christians could begin to change the attitudes of the world toward business?

If attitudes toward business change in the ways I have described, then who could resist being a God-pleasing subduer of the earth who uses materials from God’s good creation and works with the God-given gift of money to earn morally good profits, and shows love to his neighbors by giving them jobs and producing material goods that overcome world poverty, goods that enable people to glorify God for his goodness, that sustain just and fair differences in possessions and that encourage morally good and beneficial competition?  What a great career that would be!  What a great activity for governments to favor and encourage! What a solution to world poverty! What a great way to give glory to God!

 

Reformation Books: The Bruised Reed

I had reason recently to return to this little book full of pastoral wisdom, gentle correction and spiritual encouragement. It is written by the Puritan Richard Sibbes who ministered in London and Cambridge in the seventeenth century. Then he was known as ‘The Heavenly Doctor Sibbes’ on account of his powerful application of God’s Word to the cure of souls.

Richard Sibbes wrote The Bruised Reed in 1630 as an exposition and application of Isaiah 42:1-3 and Matthew 12:18-21. In the book he outlines the calling of Christ to his office and the manner in which he carries it out. He emphasises the Father’s love for us who are included in Christ Jesus through our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.

Often times the tendency in Christians, after being saved, is to turn back to their own actions as evidence of salvation and for assurance of God’s love for them. For ministers we may look to the strength or health of our churches as a sign of God’s approval, consequently we may become discouraged and disheartened when we do not see our expectations fulfilled.  Many in our congregations doubt God’s call upon their lives because they do not see their lives bearing the fruit they anticipated. In response to this Sibbes reminds us that God has always likened his church to ‘weak things’ and that ‘God’s children are bruised reeds before conversion and oftentimes after.’

From there Sibbes guides us through the good effects of bruising (leading to salvation, purging us of pride, evoking free confession, conforming us to Christ who was bruised for us) to Christ’s response towards bruised reeds (which is grace pure and simple both in mercy, not giving us what our sins deserve, and in blessing, giving us that which we do not deserve).

Throughout the book there are gems that cannot help but encourage disheartened believers:

‘Let us not therefore be discouraged at the small beginnings of grace, but look on ourselves as elect to be ‘holy and without blame’ (Eph 1:4)… Christ values us by what we shall be, and by what we are elected unto.’

‘Christ refuses none for the weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which is of so little reckoning with God.’

‘We must not judge of ourselves always according to present feeling, for in temptations we shall see nothing but smoke of distrustful thoughts.’

‘In time of temptation, believe Christ rather than the devil. Believe truth from truth itself. Hearken not to a liar, an enemy and a murderer.’

Sibbes pastoral experience shines through the book as he reminds preachers:

‘That spirit of mercy that was in Christ should move his servants to be content to abase themselves for the good of the meanest.’

‘Some think it strength of grace to endure nothing in the weaker, whereas the strongest are readiest to bear with the infirmities of the weak.’

‘Love is the best entertainer of truth; and when it is not entertained in the love of it (2 Thess. 2:10), lovely though it is, it leaves the heart and will stay no longer.’

In many similar words Sibbes encourages ministers to keep preaching with knowledge and affection the grace of God to our congregations. For our victory in Christ is certain, as Sibbes says, ‘The victory lies not with us, but with Christ, who has taken on him both to conquer for us and to conquer in us.’

‘A Meal with Jesus’ by Tim Chester

I first came across Tim Chester last summer at the Keswick Convention, where Tim led a series of seminars on ‘everyday mission’. Tim is a Sheffield-based church planter with a passion for bringing mission back into the realm of ordinary day-to-day life, just as it was when Jesus went around people’s homes and shared meals and talked about life, faith and the Kingdom of God.

A Meal with Jesus reminds a forgetful church of Jesus’ rather simple approach to sharing the good news. Tim Chester works through Luke’s Gospel: looking at Luke 5, where Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners (‘Meals as Enacted Grace’); Luke 7, where Jesus is anointed at the home of Simon the Pharisee during a meal (‘Meals as Enacted Community’); Luke 9, where Jesus feeds the 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish (‘Meals as Enacted Hope’); Luke 14, where Jesus is at a meal when he urges people to invite the poor to their meals rather than their friends (‘Meals as Enacted Mission’); Luke 22, where we have the last supper (‘Meals as Enacted Salvation’); and Luke 24, where the risen Christ eats with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus (‘Meals as Enacted Promise’).

We realise that in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal, for ‘The Son of Man has come eating and drinking’ (Luke 7:34).

The highlight of this book is that having persuaded us Biblically and theologically that hospitality and eating together are incredibly important, Tim doesn’t just leave us there. A Meal with Jesus gives easy practical examples and advice for how to share the Gospel as Jesus did and build Christian community.

If, like me, you long to see faith move from church buildings to people’s homes and neighbourhoods, this book is for you. It’s Biblical, prophetic, challenging, inspiring and practical. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

1 Timothy 3: 8-13

Last week Matt Stone introduced us to the qualifications of overseers or elders in the church, today we consider the qualifications of deacons. St Paul’s use of the word ‘likewise’ at the start of verse 8 ties the requirements of a deacon to those of an overseer. In the same way that an overseer must be above reproach so also a deacon must be ‘dignified’. They should not be ‘doubled-tongued’ which means that they must not be gossips but more than that it means that they must say what they mean and be consistent in what they say (they must not say one thing to one group of people and something different to another). This is, of course, a huge challenge to us all, as all too often we want to speak in a way that pleases people.

One of the tasks of a deacon would be to distribute alms to the poor so it is understandable that a deacon must not be ‘greedy for dishonest gain’. It is also clear that if a deacon is to be dignified and careful in his speech then he must also be restrained and not addicted to alcohol.

Just a few weeks ago Paul Robinson wrote about the strong link between faith and conscience, true belief and right practice. Clearly the lack of consistency between faith and practice in the Ephesian Church concerned St Paul so he makes it a requirement that all deacons ‘hold to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience’ (3:9). To ensure all of this a deacon must be tested and when they have been proved blameless they may serve.

Coming from a minister’s family verses 11 and 12 are real challenge to me. It is clear though, that a deacon does not minister in isolation from his family and consequently the behaviour of a wife or child has an impact upon his service. It is also clear that the behaviour of a deacon’s family reflects back on the way a deacon has raised his family. Still this is a very challenging for those in relationships and raising families.

Finally St Paul, in verse 13, gives us this encouraging promise that those who serve well as deacons will gain both ‘a good standing’ and also ‘great confidence in the faith’. Oswald Chambers, who wrote the devotional classic My Utmost For His Highest, described the relationship between revelation and obedience powerfully, when he wrote:

‘All God’s revelations are sealed until they are opened to us by obedience. You will never get them open by philosophy or thinking. Immediately you obey, a flash of light comes. Let God’s truth work in you by soaking in it, not by worrying into it. The only way you can get to know is to stop trying to find out and by being born again. Obey God in the thing He shows you, and instantly the next thing is opened up… The tiniest fragment of obedience, and heaven opens and the profoundest truths of God are yours straight away. God will never reveal more truth about Himself until you have obeyed what you know already. Beware of becoming “wise and prudent.”’

Let us therefore serve diligently that we may understand more the mystery of the faith and grow in the knowledge of God to His glory.

1 Timothy 3:1-7 – The Character of Church Leaders

Who should lead the church? It’s a question Paul and Timothy faced, and it’s a question still very much relevant today. The reputation of the church stands and falls on the integrity of its leaders.

First, Paul talks of ‘overseers’, ‘superintendents’ or ‘bishops’ (‘episkopos’). Initially, these were probably the same as those referred to elsewhere as ‘elders’ (‘presbuteros’), having leadership in the towns in which they lived (cf. Titus 1:5). The notion of eldership goes back to Moses appointing seventy men in the wilderness to help control and care for the people (Numbers 11:16). Every synagogue had elders, responsible for presiding at worship, disciplining errant members and settling disputes that other nations would have dealt with in law courts. Elders were respected men who exercised fatherly oversight of the spiritual and material affairs of every Jewish community.

So how did ‘presbuteros’ become ‘episkopos’? The answer lies in the growth of the church. As churches expanded, each town’s elders would have chosen a first among equals who would have been known as the ‘episkopos’. The word ‘episkopos’ implies both oversight and responsibility to some higher power or authority. These overseers were set apart for their office and appointed to their task (Titus 1:5).

Probably, like deacons, overseers had to be tested (1 Timothy 3:10). Paul certainly says that an elder should not be a recent convert in case they become conceited (v.6), suggesting that they need time to prove their character and maturity. Many overseers were involved in teaching and preaching (1 Timothy 5:17), and they were to be held accountable by their congregations (1 Timothy 5:19-20). Here in 1 Timothy 3, Paul gives the list of attributes they must possess. They must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive.”  Being above reproach (‘anepileptos’) is being a person against whom no criticism can be made. A leader must be “well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (v.7).

All of us who are pastors or elders would do well to remind ourselves of the character we are called to exhibit. Paul clearly and understandably expects leaders to be an example to their congregations. The management of one’s own household can be challenging, but essential if we are to effectively lead “the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15).

In short, leaders must have a faith that demonstrably impacts their lives. The reputation of the church stands and falls on the integrity of its leaders. We cannot preach one thing, and live another. May God give us grace!

Reformation Books: The Intolerance of Tolerance

Sometimes the title of a book really grabs you.  Don Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance does exactly that – summarising in just a few words the state of
today’s culture and church.  And in my opinion the book lives up to the title.

Carson’s main thesis is that there are two definitions of tolerance interplaying in today’s world.  There’s an old tolerance which accepts different views, and looks to engage those different views in conversation, argument and defence.  Then there’s a new tolerance that claims that no one view is exclusively true and that strong opinions are nothing more than preferences.  With these definitions in mind, and a host of examples from the legal and social world, Carson unpacks what happens when these tolerances interact with truth claims.  The old tolerance would say that either one of the differing opinions must be true, or through the conversation, argument and unpacking the truth is worked out and reasoned.  The new tolerance questions the existence of truth claims all together, and actually capitulates itself into intolerance when truth claims are under scrutiny.

One example of this intolerance of tolerance that Carson gives near the beginning of the book is that of the Co-operative Bank asking the Christian organisation, Christian Voice to close its accounts because its views were incompatible with the Co-op’s ethos.  Carson quotes the statement from the bank:

“It has come to the bank’s attention that Christian Voice is engaged in discriminatory pronouncements based on the grounds of sexual orientation….This public stance is incompatible with the position of the Co-operative Bank, which publicly supports diversity and dignity in all its forms for our staff, customers and stakeholders.”

Carson goes on to show just how incredulous this statement is: obviously supporting diversity in all its forms does not stretch to those who claim to hold a truth about sexual orientation which is seen as discriminatory.  In countless other examples most of which comes from legal cases in the states, Carson shows the implausibility and the contradictory nature of the new tolerance not least to mention the damage that is being done to society under the auspices of tolerance.

Having set this introduction Carson gives a historical overview of tolerance from the early church through to the 21st century, before considering how he feels traditional orthodox credal Christianity is on the receiving end of being told that its truth claims are not just unwelcome in the world, but are actively discriminated against by a culture driven by the new tolerance.  The areas which cause most controversy, and are given an airing by Carson are abortion, sexual orientation, adoption or IVF by unmarried couples, evangelism and even the public declaration of faith.  Carson goes on to show that despite the new tolerance which should incorporate all positions, actually in denying the existence of truth claims or so-called discriminatory actions, does nothing about the pervasiveness of evil in the world.  In the penultimate chapter he address the new tolerance’s effect on democracy and state, which has a strong American influence, but is nonetheless interesting from a British perspective.  In the final chapter Carson gives ten pointers forward for Christians who wish to remain within the sphere of the old tolerance but find themselves living in a world of the intolerant new tolerance.

Sometimes a book misses the mark of where culture and the world is.  Not this one.  In many aspects, some would say for its benefit, the URC, has whole-heartedly embraced the new tolerance: from advertising campaigns that radically welcome everyone, to open policies for churches to decide whether to hold civil partnerships, to a collective theology that is shifting from offering truth to the nations to suggesting we just hold different opinions together and don’t discriminate against anyone.  Carson shows the downfall of this stance.  I love the URC, genuinely, and feel called by God to offer myself for His work in this church.  If that church wants to heed the warning to reform, to re-examine what it is doing in light of scripture and its authority under God, then it would be hard to find a better place to start, other than scripture itself, than with Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance.  This book was written for us. Now.