Author Archives: Matt Stone
I recently took the funeral of a retired minister in one of my congregations, and his daughter passed on to me a selection of his books. One was a thin paperback book entitled ‘This is our life’ by Bishop Lesslie Newbigin. As many URC folks will know, Newbigin was a bishop in the Church of South India who – in ‘retirement’ – became a URC Minister and Moderator of Assembly on his return to Britain. This little book, available online here, is Newbigin’s address to the 1978 URC General Assembly.
What struck me about this little book is how desperately the URC still needs to hear Newbigin’s 1978 address. Newbigin preached on Romans 1:16:
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”
I don’t want to give a lengthy ‘review’ because I want to encourage you to read it and pray through it for yourself. I will just draw your attention to three of Newbigin’s points though:
First, having stated his passage, Newbigin begins “At the opening of our Assembly I want to direct your minds to the Gospel…” If only this happened at every Assembly. If only this happened in every sermon preached in every congregation in every place around the world. If only we were so focussed on the whole point of faith, on the whole reason we exist as a church, if only we listened and humbled ourselves before the good news of God revealed in His word to us. If only!
Secondly, Newbigin reminds us of the meaninglessness of listening to the world’s judgement of the Church. It doesn’t matter whether the world thinks we should be doing this, that or the other. What matters is what God says.
Thirdly, the Gospel is NOT ‘Loving God and loving your neighbour’. This is not the Gospel, this is the Law. The Gospel liberates, the Law enslaves. Most people know we ought to love God and almost everyone knows we ought to love others others. This is not what the Church is called to preach to the world. There is nothing distinctive about such a message. “We exist, the Church exists, because there is a Gospel, good news which cannot be discovered but only told…”
May the URC of 2012 and 2013 and beyond hear again this prophetic message.
The Bible allows no room for ambiguity on the dangers of money. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24). Elsewhere, Jesus says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). No ifs, no buts, no maybes. No excuses or get out clauses. Jesus is refreshingly frank. Here in 1 Timothy 6, Paul reiterates Jesus’ teaching by saying, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (vv.9-10)”
Wealth can become a god, an idol that ensnares us. To get more money, we can fall into the trap of doing things that are harmful to our families, our friends, ourselves, and, most importantly of all, our relationship with God. When we start focussing on money, we stop focussing on God.
Looking around my city of Norwich, wealth (and spending it) is certainly the most prominent and publicly worshipped god. On a Sunday morning on my way to church, I drive past the long queue of cars waiting to get their place in Chapel Field Shopping Centre. In the city’s many supermarkets, there are mountains – literally – of sweets and treats stacked to the ceilings as you walk through the doors, and aisle-upon-aisle of goods that we simply don’t need. I often wonder what these places must feel like to those who have little or nothing. What would an Indian Dalit or starving African child make of our extravagance and gluttony? We earn more money to spend more money to accumulate more things that we don’t need. Last year, £594 million of Christmas presents were unwanted (not to mention those that weren’t needed!). 1.5 million new items were listed on eBay on Boxing Day. What a ridiculous world we live in!
As Christians, it’s easy to get sucked in to the greed and consumerism of our society. I admit that I struggle. It happens almost naturally. Who – if they’re totally honest – doesn’t want to live as comfortably and as well as possible? Who doesn’t want the same gadgets and lifestyle as everyone else around them?
We need a regular reality check. We need to hold one another to account. We need to stop, stand back, and ask ourselves the difficult questions:
- What really drives us in life? Is it really God and our faith in Christ?
- What do we really want, and what, by contrast, do we really need in our lives?
- How is God asking us to use our money?
Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, reminds us that “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (vv.6-8).
‘Contentment’ – ‘autarkeia’ in Greek – is the key word. This was a great watchword of the Stoic philosophers that meant ‘self-sufficiency.’ They meant a frame of mind which was completely independent of outward things, completely satisfied with what it already had and not ‘needing’ anything else.
How do we get this contentment? Quite simply, from God, through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. When we are focussed on God, our meaning for life is found in Him. We realise that this life is only a test for the next one. Jesus is all that matters; everything else is fluff that gets in the way.
As the Westminster Shorter Catechism so brilliantly puts it: “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” You don’t need an iPad, a flashy car, a big house, a higher bank balance or a larger pension to do that. All you need – this Christmas and throughout the year – is the one who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
Every year, one of my churches has a ‘Songs of Praise’ service at the end of November. Church members are invited to select their favourite hymns and then somehow or other I try to link them all together in some kind of order, with words of Scripture, prayer and a message for the evening interspersed between them. Some hymns come up time and time again. Some are old, some are new. Some I’ve never heard of! However, what has struck me every year so far is how many hymns have a powerful story behind them.
One of my favourite newer songs is ‘Blessed be Your Name’ by Matt Redman. The emphasis on the sovereignty of God – to give and to take away – is not something you find in many hymns. The words reminds us that we are to worship, to bless the Name of the Lord, in the ‘land that is plentiful’ and in ‘the desert place’. This great song was written in light of the tragedy of 9/11, Matt and Beth Redman’s own life experience (including repeated miscarriage), and scriptures from the book of Job.
A traditional hymn with a powerful testimony behind it is ‘It is well with my soul.’ Horatio Spafford, a Chicago lawyer and friend of D.L.Moody, wrote this hymn after almost unimaginable personal loss. Horatio’s son died aged 4 from scarlet fever; a year later his entire real estate portfolio was wiped out by the great Chicago fire; and two years later his remaining children died after the French steamer ‘Ville de Havre’ sank in the Atlantic, claiming the lives of 226 people. When Spafford travelled to England a few days later to meet his wife, who miraculously survived, he asked the Captain to tell him when they reached the point where the ship had sunk. After they reached that point, Horatio then returned to his cabin and penned the lyrics of his great hymn. The words which Spafford wrote that day come from 2 Kings 4:26. They echo the response of the Shunammite woman to the sudden death of her only child. Though we are told “her soul is vexed within her”, she still maintains that ‘It is well.” And Spafford’s song reveals a man whose trust in the Lord is as unwavering as hers was:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
These are only two examples, but there are many others: ‘Take my life and let it be’ (covered in a previous post here), ‘Amazing grace’ (reflecting Newton’s past as a slave trader), and ‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name’ (reflecting E.P. Scott’s experience as a missionary in India). For more stories behind the songs, see here (mostly new songs) and here (mostly traditional hymns). This book, The Complete Book of Hymns, may also be of interest.
Do songs need a powerful story behind them? No, of course not. Good solid lucid Biblical theology is key. However, I do believe the stories can help us in our worship. If we recognise the faith and story behind a hymn it can challenge us or spur us on to imitate that faith. ‘Blessed be Your Name’ strikes a chord with many because we all struggle with tragedy in life, and struggle even more to see God’s hand at work in it. ‘It is well with my soul’ challenges us because, when we know the story behind it, we cannot escape from wondering how we would respond in such tragic circumstances. We can be inspired in faith and witness by the saints who have gone before. To God be the glory!
Michael Reeves is the UCCF’s Head of Theology and his latest book ‘The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit’ does exactly what it says on the cover. It gives us the theology we need to enjoy the triune God.
In the introduction, Reeves writes,
‘God is love’: those words could hardly be more bouncy. They seem lively, lovely, and as warming as a crackling fire. But ‘God is a Trinity’? No, hardly the same effect: that just sounds cold and stodgy. All quite understandable, but the aim of this book is to stop the madness. Yes, the Trinity can be presented as a fusty and irrelevant dogma, but the truth is that God is love because God is a Trinity.
It’s not surprising the church has struggled (and continues to struggle…) with heresy when people don’t understand who God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and what that means for us. The Trinity is a key part of what makes Christianity distinctive from other faiths. It’s not surprising people think all religions are the same, or ‘we all worship the same God’ when we don’t fully appreciate who God is in Biblical Christian thought and theology.
Reeves runs through the history of the doctrine of the Trinity, and explains (in very easy-to-understand language) what Athanasius, Sibbes, Augustine, Luther, Tyndale, Calvin, Owen and Chalmers have contributed to it. Reeves’ writing is meaty and thoroughly Biblical, but not without humour to lighten the tone and keep you engaged. More importantly, you sense Reeves’ passionate desire for us to discover who God is and to enjoy Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to every Christian and will be using it myself as the inspiration for a sermon or two on the Trinity!
Earlier in 1 Timothy, Paul addressed individual groups of Christians (and Timothy himself) about how the Gospel should shape their lives and ministries. Now in chapter 5, Paul returns to this task, focussing on widows, elders and masters.
The theme of “Honour” connects them all in verses 9 (“Honour widows”), 17 (“Let the elders who rule be considered worthy of double honour”) and 6:1 (“Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honour…”), and the call increases from “Honour”, to “double honour”, and then to “all honour”.
Providing for widows was an important role for the church from its earliest days (see Acts 6). The concern here is to identify which widows should be provided for by the church. The key indicators are not having a family (v.4), godliness (v.5 and v.10), being over 60 (v.9), having been the wife of one husband (i.e. faithful in marriage) (v.9), and devoted to good work (i.e. who put faith into practice) (v.10) . The passage also draws out our need to provide for our families, especially parents (v.4). This builds on the command to honour our parents (Ex. 20:12), and if we fail to act upon it, Paul says that we are worse than unbelievers (v.8). “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).
What does this mean for us today? With social security and pensions, is Paul’s teaching still relevant? I would argue a resounding ‘yes’! We may not need to support our parents financially (although we might do in coming years as the pensions crisis comes to a head), but this is not all of what it means to ‘Honour’ our mother and father and look after widows. Honour (Greek ‘timao’) is about valuing people and God. Just as we must honour (‘timao’) the Son in order to honour the Father (John 5:23), we must honour parents, widows, elders and masters. Do we truly value our parents?
Honour goes beyond financial considerations to encompass respect, esteem, reverence, and holding in high regard those who have brought us up. It’s a message we must persist in remembering, and one that may mean different things to us at different stages of our lives. As children and teenagers, it might be about respecting our parents’ advice, boundaries and care for us. As young adults, it might be a consideration when we think about where we might live and how we keep in touch when we start to chart our own life paths. When we have families of our own, it might mean not taking our parents for granted and just using them as free babysitters, but honouring, giving thanks and celebrating them for who they are. As older adults, it might impact us when we think about how we best care for infirm or elderly parents.
Our faith must affect how we live, and like charity, it starts at home.
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”
In Chapter 3, Paul described the behaviour expected of the church and its leaders. Now, at the start of Chapter 4, Paul recognises that some will leave the community of faith. It’s not clear how “the Spirit expressly says that some will depart” (v.1), but it may have been a direct revelation or prophecy given to Paul.
The Church inherited from Judaism a belief that things would get worse before they get better. The present age is in the grip of evil powers, whilst the age to come will be perfect with a new heaven and a new earth. The coming day of the Lord would signal the shift between the two ages. The early church believed that the day of the Lord was coming imminently (we now know it wasn’t quite as imminent as they thought!) and so they expected persecution. Life in the Church wouldn’t be plain sailing as they came under increasing attack from demonic forces who would lead many astray by false teaching.
Today, we do not live as if the day of the Lord is imminent (although we should, as Paul says Jesus will return “like a thief in the night” in 1 Thessalonians 5:2), and we are not conditioned to think of demons infiltrating the Church. The reality, however, is that both God and Satan are looking for ordinary human beings to carry out their work. Who will we give our lives to? Are we nurturing our relationship with God and putting on the armour of God to protect us from the enemy’s lies?
Today, the false teaching infecting the Church may not be those affecting Ephesus – abstinence from particular foods or a forbidding of marriage (both considered to be part of Gnosticism) – but there is a gradual replacement of Biblical values by worldly ones. We suffer from a post-modern relativism, increasingly lax ethical standards (particularly when it comes to issues surrounding sex), and a desire to rationalise and water-down the miraculous and anything we cannot understand.
Paul wrote these words about the Church in Ephesus, where Timothy was working. May we follow Paul’s instructions to the Ephesian Church given in his earlier letter:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (Ephesians 6:10-17)
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.
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!
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.
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.