Results tagged “truth” from Reformation21 Blog

Luther's Lion-Hearted Historians

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Luther expressed his appreciation for history and historians on numerous occasions. History, he believed, provides fodder for both fear and praise since God is sovereign over the course of human events. History records and reminds us how God "upholds, rules, obstructs, prospers, punishes, and honors the world, and especially men, each according to his just desert, evil or good." History serves ethics by providing numerous examples of conduct to be emulated or avoided, and by providing a sense of national identity that is critical to the maintenance of public mores. Historians, therefore, "are the most useful people and the best teachers, so that one can never honor, praise, and thank them enough."

Luther also had thoughts on how history should be done (i.e. historiography). He shared those thoughts in 1538 in the preface to a German translation of Galeatius Capella's history of the reign of the Milanese Duke Francesco II Sforza. Given the attention Luther is receiving this year as an object of historical interest, it's intriguing to note how Luther himself believed historians should proceed with their task. Hearing Luther ruminate on the practice of history gives some insight into how he himself might have wished his own story told.

The historian, Luther opines, must be "a first-rate man who has a lion's heart, unafraid to write the truth." The reformer found few historians living up to this standard. "The greater number write in such a way that they readily pass over or put the best construction on the vices and deficiencies of their own times in the interest of their lords or friends and in turn glorify all too highly some trifling or vain virtue. On the other hand, they embellish or besmirch histories to the advantage of their father land and disadvantage of the foreigners, according to whether they love or hate someone."

Luther, it seems to me, understood well that history is a loaded enterprise because it traffics identities. The historian is never merely retelling things that have happened. Both in the selection of events depicted and in the manner of their depiction, the historian is constructing his subject's identity, and ultimately either vindicating or vilifying his subject. "Love or hate" for one's subject, as Luther puts it, heavily informs the identity ultimately constructed.

Luther's judgment that most historians lack lions' hearts and shy away from the truth may seem more pertinent to his day than ours. Early modern historians were generally more upfront than their present-day counterparts in acknowledging their "love or hate" for their subject(s), and in vindicating or vilifying accordingly. But I'm not personally convinced that all that much has changed between Luther's day and our own. Few historians in our day, it seems to me, really value truth above all else as they engage in the historical task. Few, for that matter, likely believe in "truth" as something distinct from their own or anyone else's interpretation of the facts at all, at least if pressed on the matter. The modern academy apes the Christian virtue of "truth" with its insistence on methodological objectivity, and promises/threatens those who pursue/reject that virtue the heaven/hell of tenure/termination. But the academy's watered down virtues and eschatological promises/threats aren't ultimately capable of producing Luther's longed-for lion-hearted historians. At best it will produce historians who are better at hiding their "love or hate," much as I surpass my own children's skill at masking the inherent self-centeredness that mutually characterizes them and me.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the Gospel holds greater resources than the modern academy for producing truth-tellers (Eph. 4:24-25), and thus Luther's lion-hearted historians. Just as the Gospel frees us to be honest about ourselves before God and others, rejecting efforts to vindicate ourselves, it ultimately frees to be honest about others and eschew efforts to justify or incriminate them -- the fate of our historical subjects, after all, pivots on the presence of God's grace towards them, not on our moral judgments, however subtly communicated, regarding them. Christians of all people should have less invested in their own or anyone else's identity than they do the truth, and more incentive to bear true witness about their neighbor, whether dead or alive, than others might have.

Regardless, two question persist: Would Luther have wished the same moral standards, for which he advocated, of historical writing in general applied to the historians and histories of his own life and doings? And (perhaps more pressing in our own historical moment) who among the historians narrating Luther this year will prove lion-hearted, and who will prove that some agenda -- love, hate, or otherwise -- ranks higher in their priorities than the truth?

The Christ-Haunted Song

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The Scriptures declare that the Lord fills the heavens and the earth (Jer. 23:24); and, that He who made the vast expanses of the starry sky gives to all men "life and breath and all things" (Acts 17:25). Since "all that borrows life from Him are ever in His care," all that we have and possess (including our ability to think and reason in the realm of metaphysical truth) is nothing other than "borrowed capital." John Frame so helpfully sets out the implication of this truth when he writes, "The truth is known and acknowledged by the unbeliever. He has no right to believe or assert truth in terms of his own presuppositions, but only on Christian ones. So his assertions of truth are based on borrowed capital." The truth is inescapable for the unbeliever, though he or she constantly seeks to suppress it in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). No matter how much men and women seek to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, however, the knowledge of God made known to all image bearers (Rom. 1:19) continually resurfaces in their consciences.

This principle is heightened in a culture in which biblical revelation has taken root. One can watch a nature show on television in which a naturalistic (i.e. anti-theistic) worldview undergirds the premises of the show; yet, the show's host refers to the animals on the program as "creatures." Another example is seen in the way in which revisionist attempts to do away with a calendar that centers on the Savior's coming into the world (i.e. B.C. and A.D.) fall as soon as they rise. This has been evident in the art and literature of the Western world, which has been so greatly impacted by Christendom; and, it is true in a special way in places where there has been a high concentration of Christian churches and biblical preaching, such as in Flannery O'Connor's Christ-Haunted South.

I have noticed this to be so to a high degree in much of the secular music that I have listened to throughout my life. For instance, John Lennon's song, "Imagine," encourages the unregenerate to try to imagine that there's no heaven or hell. The irony, of course, is that imaging that such places do not exist is the best attempt men have at suppressing the truth of their reality.

In the months leading up to my conversion in 2001, two songs in particular left me deeply "Christ-haunted." One was the song "Pickin' Up the Pieces" by the Athens, GA band Widespread Panic. It was especially their refrain, "Not wanting to meet my Savior, no not this way," that haunted me. The other song that haunted me at that time was "Faker" by the band Moe. The lyrics that plagued me the most while I was in dark rebellion were these: "I am a faker, pretending along; lost site of my Maker; I will die before I finish this song." Coming from the Christian home in which I had grown up, these words cut to the core of my conscience.

As I now listen to music as a believer, I continue to have the greatest of appreciation for the beauty, creativity and giftedness of so many secular artists; yet, always with an awareness of the "Christ-haunted" nature of most of it. There are times that I wish I could sit down with the numerous musicians whose music I love so much (e.g. John Moreland, J. Tillman, etc.) and talk with them about the Christ they have rejected and the truths of Scripture that they are singing about in overt and suppressive ways in their songs. I often wonder if they are "Christ-haunted" as I was, when they continue to sing their "Christ-haunted" songs. 

 

As strange as it may sound, one of the more insightful discussions of Trump's political success is offered by "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams. Trump is a "master persuader," he argues, who knows and uses human psychology to far greater effect than anyone else in the field, either party. Trump will be America's next president, he predicts, since "psychology is the only necessary skill for running for president."

Adams's blogging about persuasion, (ir)rationality, and identity is quite interesting. Like me, he's not concerned about Trump as a candidate so much as he is about him as a cultural phenomenon. Michael Cavna, Comic Riffs author at the Washington Post, helpfully summarizes Adams's explanation of the Trump phenomenon in six points:

1. Trump knows people are basically irrational.
2. Knowing that people are irrational, Trump aims to appeal on an emotional level.
3. By running on emotion, facts don't matter.
4. If facts don't matter, you can't really be "wrong."
5. With fewer facts in play, it's easier to bend reality.
6. To bend reality, Trump is a master of identity politics--and identity is the strongest persuader.

Madison Avenue types and sharp political advisers long ago figured out the priority of identity over reason, wisdom, judgment, and whatever else one might think pertinent to being President. (Similar statements can be made about the products we buy or services we hire or society we keep--everything is branding and branding is about identity.) Sadly, this is the way things work in our post-Freudian world. Still, it's difficult for us to believe that identity actually does trump all else, which may be why even our most cynical politicians seldom play this card as brazenly as Trump does.

We are living through a time when reason is being reimagined in terms of psychological identity. Things that were thought to be mad not long ago are now viewed as necessary consequences of our fundamental principles not because those principles have changed on the page but because they are now being read through this lens. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in the Obergeffel v. Hodges case is a rather clear instance of this in law.

In the arguably more pragmatic domains of American business, politics, education, and religion, what counts as reasonable or a rational course of action will be whatever works. If identity politics, business, education or religion works (not just as a complement to sobriety, decency, gravitas, judgment, competency, and so on--as Clinton seems to be betting--but even in fairly open defiance of most of these qualities) then it will become quite rational to be as irrational a candidate as Trump.

But can this be? Postmoderns insist reason itself is culturally construed and evolves along with everything else. Adams, however, continues to diagnose the Trump phenomenon more as an escape from reason rather than as a redefining of reason. Still, his analysis suggests that irrationality is the new reason. Either way, here is Cavna's annotation on the first point: 

"If you see voters as rational you'll be a terrible politician," Adams writes on his blog. "People are not wired to be rational. Our brains simply evolved to keep us alive. Brains did not evolve to give us truth. Brains merely give us movies in our minds that keep us sane and motivated. But none of it is rational or true, except maybe sometimes by coincidence."

That's a basic point of contemporary evolutionary psychology (often used to criticize religious belief). If this critique is true of anything, however, then we have no good reason to believe that any of the things we believe are true (including this critique), "except maybe sometimes by coincidence"--and this is no minor point. This popular strand of evolutionary psychology may free Trump and all the rest of us from a sense of obligation to truth but it does so at the expense of the very possibility of knowing anything or at least of being able to know that we know anything. It's ultimately self-defeating.

Fortunately for knowers and speakers of truth everywhere, reality is a very stubborn thing. We can believe what we like about what is reasonable and right and true and we may be dead wrong in what we believe and do about it too. Madness is possible and our madness, however widely shared, does not bend reality or define reason or redefine truth--only our psychological state. There are limits to our revolt against reality including the truth about our personal identities. Reality always wins in the end; the only question, as Carl Trueman recently pointed out, is how much damage we will do to ourselves in the meantime?

Missing the point

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I confess to having no clue that Vicar Gatiss was setting out to lampoon my post on Wesley, although I did find the mockery of style confusing. I fear he rather missed the point of my post as much as I missed the point of his. I had no thought of snidely suggesting that the Vicar's previous harangues about Wesley's Arminianism were unfounded; I actually tended to agree. I was simply sharing the surprise that a sophisticated Arminian can say some pretty orthodox-sounding things, considered from a Calvinist perspective. I should also point out that the three paragraphs belonged together, offering a surprisingly sustained tone. I should have been happy to quote Wesley in some regards, but I don't think I would have been entirely true to his intent.  Of course, the issue then arises as to what qualifications are introduced and how the words are actually interpreted.

With regard to the Vicar's Roman quotations, I think the same applies. Again, I had wondered what point he was trying to make by , and it now becomes clearer. But because I missed the point, the barb failed to penetrate. Far from proving something other, these quotations actually make my point rather well: those with whom we disagree - often fundamentally - can sound very much like us. Again, what often matters is what is left out, introduced by way of qualification, changed by way of interpretation, or mentally suspended in making a certain declaration. That bears further exploration.

However, in the meantime, because I clearly lack the necessary sophistication to make the point obliquely, I am spelling it out.

Not quite Charlie Hebdo

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It is not particularly surprising but it is disappointing. Furthermore, it is dangerous. It is in some respects the typical kneejerk reaction to current events (by which I mean events over the last few months, even years, rather than merely weeks), and the typical danger that you can never be entirely sure in which direction the knee will jerk and the foot will strike. It is the continued assault on freedom in the name of freedom.

In the last week or so school inspectors in the UK gave an unseemly grilling to primary school pupils at Grindon Hall Christian School, where the impression was clearly given (even if not intended) of a real hostility - in the name of promoting "British values" - to the school's distinctive Christian ethos.

Quite apart from the inappropriateness and intrusiveness of some of the questions asked by almost-complete strangers to young children (questions which, in any other context, might have been taken in an altogether distasteful way), it rather opened a window into the attitudes of some of those who are appointed guardians of freedom.

But time marches on, and new challenges are already arising. The government is now rapidly pushing forward legislation that will preserve our "British values" and combat anti-extremism. Among the consequences of this legislation would be the opportunity - even the requirement - for university authorities to vet the addresses and materials of visiting speakers. That is the context in which I first saw the warning given, but the consultation document is pushing it across the public sector at the very least, with a variety of services and spheres impacted. Effectively, a proactive and preventative demand for censorship would be imposed in a variety of key public settings and environments.

I am sure that the opportunities for those who believe that "British values" demand, or provide the opportunity to pursue, a sort of amorphous atheistic amorality will not be slow to use the weapon put in their hands. As so often, the latest two-edged Excalibur, offered as the key to defending freedom, may become the very means by which freedoms are curtailed.

Naturally, the government provides all manner of assurances about how such things are enforced. With regard to school inspections, for example, Department for Education guidance makes very clear that in advancing our ill-defined "British values" schools are not required to promote "other beliefs" or "alternative lifestyles." However, this seems to be precisely the point at which pressure was applied to the school in question not only corporately but individually and inappropriately with regard to particular students. We can expect that the same will happen with these new powers, should they come into law.

So, while our politicians line up with their pens and pencils aloft to trumpet their allegiance to free speech, they are simultaneously - and in the name of freedom - preparing to crack down on freedom of speech. It is, it seems, OK to be Charlie Hebdo (not personally, one understands, that would be a little dangerous, but it's fine for other people to be Charlie Hebdo), and be able to poke fun at the fundies of all stripes. That must be defended. But I suggest that it must be made clear that such swipes and skewerings are not the only expressions of freedom of speech.

Generally speaking, and despite media attempts to push us into the first of the following categories, true Christians are neither violent extremists (dogmatic conviction need not translate into militant physical aggression) nor extravagant satirists (willing and able to undermine and offend for the mere sake of it, and call it wit and art - never having read Charlie Hebdo, I cannot comment on whether or not or to what extent they fall into this category). The Christian's only real offense should be the offense of the cross, though the rugged edges and sharp points of that cross have a habit of puncturing pride and pomposity wherever it is found, and pride is of the essence of fallen man's sense of himself. The weapons of our spiritual warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. The armoury of God's kingdom bears little relation to those of the kingdoms of the world. However, those without spiritual discernment are quite prepared to lump true Christians in with the violent extremists and deny them any of the privileges of the extravagant satirists. Indeed, the very nature of our message indicates that the gospel will be among the first and most aggressively pursued targets of those who - in the name of freedom - wish to silence dissent.

Only a fool would deny the difficulty of ensuring genuine freedom of speech and expression while at the same time preserving a measure of social order and cultural decency. But the response to terrorism, even Islam's militarised religious supremacism, should not be to diminish all freedoms. That will not halt the terrorists, not least those driven by religionised hatred. In some respects, it will simply simplify their task.

But watch this space, for this is the brave new world. As mentioned in a previous post, to the humanist unbeliever who denies that he or she exists in their own tightly woven cocoon of a certain kind of 'faith', the Christian is just one of a range of dangerously nutty voices in the gallery of the fruitcakes. Indeed, the offense of the cross means that our gospel words will prove the pre-eminent spiritual red rag to the bulls of mere human reason and religion. But, if we are true to our convictions, we know that we echo the one voice of true reason, the single declaration of spiritual sanity, the alone hope of salvation, in an otherwise unstable and disordered world, wrecked by sin and riddled with its consequences. Unbelieving humanism is one among the range of rotten systematised alternatives to the truth as it is in Jesus. To whom else should we go? Christ has the words of eternal life.

We should expect that our freedom to make known the hope of the world will be deliberately (whether incrementally or more abruptly) assaulted and where possible eroded and removed by the very world that needs to hear it. The patients will assault the envoys of the only doctor with a cure for their condition. We must therefore ensure that our declarations and their accompanying actions are entirely consistent, that we bring with us everywhere the savour of Christ. As citizens of earthly kingdoms, we are entitled graciously yet firmly to assert our rights as citizens. But as citizens of heaven, we do not expect to find the warmest of welcomes in a hostile world. So let us brace ourselves against the storm, hold fast to the Christ who holds fast to us, speak the truth in love, call sinners to repent and believe, love our enemies, serve our Redeemer, and press on toward glory.

Living in Athens

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A couple of times a month, as God enables us, the church which I serve attempts to proclaim the gospel in the centre of our town, preaching in the open air, handing out tract-invitations, and engaging in conversation with those who have a few moments to spare. Today was one of those occasions, and it gave a fairly representative glimpse into the spiritual battleground on which we are fighting.

On our arrival, we found the Jehovah's Witnesses established just along from our usual patch. They have been unusually active in our area recently, and have begun to employ some new techniques and hardware - well-designed portable leaflet stands which are put up in prominent or busy places (just outside bus, train and tube stations seem to be favourites, though obviously not limited to them) with a couple of well-spoken Witnesses manning their stations.

As we began to set up and hand out our invitations some distance away, a passing gentleman pointed out to me that we had a little competition. Trying to seize the opportunity, I plunged into what became a conversation with a French philosopher of sorts (literally French, philosophical by inclination), a thoroughgoing humanist for whom all was relative and death alone was absolute. We ranged hither and yon, with the usual shoal of red herrings as I tried to address his objections and bring him back always to the scriptural realities of sin and salvation. He parted with my contact details, and expressed a willingness to consider getting in touch so that I could speak with him further. I hope, too, that he will accept the invitation to come to our church services and to see what kind of people are true Christians, and so learn the character of the God we serve.

His claim that we had competition (to which I will return) was further and sadly enhanced by the arrival of another local group, wild-eyed Arminians with a thoroughly worldly programme and a range of heresies to proclaim and a great deal of health and wealth to promise. They saw us, sounded us out, got their gear out about twenty yards away and planted themselves all around us. Their basic approach is to set up something like a street party, invite people to another party, and then try to sweep people further into their clutches on a wave of emotions. There is a lot of Bible speak, but not a great deal of biblical truth. The noise of their contribution bordered on the overwhelming.

Interestingly, they were drowned out by about forty devotees of Hare Krishna who were making their way into and around the centre of the town with drums, bells and cymbals. We heard them coming a way off. Given that our Arminian friends had bordered on the aggressive in their locating of themselves, a troupe of orangey chanters trampling pretty much through and over them might have caused a snigger in less high-minded chaps than ourselves. One quick-witted of our number managed to get in amongst them and hand out a few tracts, but the poor fellow was almost drowned in the tangerine tide.

It did not appear, on the surface of things, to be our most successful endeavour. It certainly underlined to us the nature of the battle. As we prayed, we asked the Lord to save those who are trapped in these godless and heretical environments, and to bring all these systems of error to nothing. As one of our number pointed out, there was something Athenian in the situation: our spirits were provoked as we saw our town given over to idols (Acts 17:16) and so we tried to reason with them, preaching to them Jesus and the resurrection by means of tracts and conversations (less so by open proclamation on this occasion, given the nature of the environment). It is interesting that all the artwork I have found of Paul in Athens gives the impression of a rapt audience seemingly enamoured of a potent speaker who has his hearers in the palm of his hand. I wonder how near or far those images are from the reality? We are not Paul, we know that, but maybe it was not quite as neat and pleasant there as some of our imaginations make out.

So, are we in competition? Are we, as my Gallic interlocutor suggested, just one of a range of equally valid voices all clamouring for attention? As I pointed out to him, we are not.

First of all, we do not compete in terms of method. We are not going to attempt to out-suave, out-dance, out-shout, and out-beat those who come with their empty messages and vain offers. We are not playing that game and we do not need to. Just because the world suggests that we are one among many in the marketplace of ideas does not mean we have to prostitute our message with the same froth and filth as everyone else. We are not competing in terms of our method.

Second, as I made clear, we are not merely offering another alternative to a range of spiritual or intellectual placebos. In that sense, we are not competing in terms of our message. Every other offer he was hearing - indeed, his own notions and his own system in which he so ardently believed - called out to mankind to look to themselves, to work harder, do better and climb higher. Ultimately, and in many cases sooner rather than later, every other one of those systems and claims will crash and burn. Ours is the one distinctive message: a call to look out and up, to look to Christ who has accomplished all, finished the work, having climbed down to save his wretched and rebellious creatures by suffering and dying in their place, exhausting God's curse against sin and providing his own righteousness in order that we might stand before him with peace and joy. We call men away from everything else to the one true and living God, and to his Son, who loved us and gave his life for us, and rose from the dead in triumph on our behalf. We see and feel and loathe and mourn the clamour of falsehood and idolatry that swirls around us, but it is not a competition between parallel vanities. It is a battle between the truth of God and the range of damnable errors and heresies and emptinesses that masquerade as hopes for the hopeless and helps for the helpless.

May God grant that within and without the walls of our church buildings, he would give us grace to give earnest, winsome and unflinching testimonies to the truth as it is in Jesus, demonstrating in our lives the truths that we confess with our lips! May God's message and God's method prevail, and may the light overcome the darkness!

The road to joy

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I have just returned from a very pleasant week of fellowship and ministry among the Reformed Presbyterians in Northern Ireland. It was my privilege to preach at the Knockbracken Bible Week, as well as at a men's meeting beforehand, and to the students at the Reformed Theological College during one of the days.

My appointed topic in Knockbracken was the joy of salvation. I was only able to develop it briefly, considering it first against the backdrop of the curse, then looking at justification both in terms of the forgiveness of sin and the granting of righteousness, then on to what it means to be called sons of God, then finally the unfailing God who is the eternal portion of the saints.

Though I had not particularly planned it, there was a particular theme which developed along the way. As the week advanced, I emphasised repeatedly the truth that our sense of the blessings of God is grounded not just in what we have been saved to but also in what we have been saved from. So our appreciation of the blessings in Christ are in large measure proportionate to our sense of the curse from which he has delivered us. The joy of sins forgiven will be commensurate with our grief at sins committed. Our delight in peace with God will hinge in large part on our sense that we have been at enmity with him. We will most appreciate being called sons of God when we recognise that we were by nature children of wrath. It is because our flesh and heart fail that there is sweetest relief in an unfailing God as the rock of our hearts and our portion forever.

Your entry into and experience of joy depends, then, largely on your honesty before God and with yourself and others. That begins with honesty about our misery, our sin, our rebellion, our nature and our weakness. It is only when we face these facts that we will begin to find corresponding peace with and delight in God known in Christ Jesus. As sinners - even as saved sinners - there is nothing to be gained by denying or downgrading the depth of our past and present deeds and needs. Rather, our guilt and weakness is the very backdrop against which the grace of God shines most brightly. The bitterness of our sin and frailty makes the sweetness of divine mercy all the more distinct.

That also means that it is incumbent upon ministers of the gospel to make plain what it means to be without God and without hope in the world, to be under the Lord's wrath and curse on account of our sinfulness of nature and sins in deed. There is no need - we might say, little possibility - for exaggeration. Such honesty not only drives sinners out of themselves to Christ, it also means that there will be a deep and true appreciation of the mercies of God in Christ, with all corresponding joy. Such honesty keeps the saints humble in themselves and close to God, conscious of their blessings in him alone. And all this while securing the glory of God as it brings to light the greatness of our so great salvation.

Many today - even in the church - want a gospel that has no shadows, but the good news exists and makes sense only in the context of the bad news. If we want the sick to run to the doctor seeking the right medicine, we need accurately to diagnose the disease and provide the prognosis. Repentance is the heart-cry of the sinner who has come to see his sin as God sees it, and mourns accordingly. Faith is the whole-souled casting of oneself upon Christ as we confess that there is no hope in anyone or anything else. Christ's atonement is not therapy for the lightly troubled. It is life from death. That life is all the more valued and its Giver all the more exalted when the awful nature of death is properly appreciated. Everyone seems to want joy, but few seem ready to pay the price of sorrow beforehand.

It is the darkness of the night that makes the dawn precious. It is the torment of pain that makes relief so sweet. It is the misery of sickness that makes recovery so valued. It is the grief of lostness that makes being found so wonderful. It is the emptiness of self that makes the fullness of Christ so delightful. It is the horror of the curse that makes the blessing of salvation so great. It is the weight of sin's burden that makes its removal so overwhelming. It is the pain of rebellion that makes peace so dear. It is the distance of being cast out that makes the nearness of being drawn in so enticing. It is the frailty of the creature that throws the might and mercy of the Creator and Redeemer into sharp relief.

There are no short cuts to such joy. We should not seek them or offer them. Preach the truth to bring sinners to an end of themselves and to send them to Christ. Face the truth that strips you of all hope outside of God's gracious provision. Then run to the Lord Jesus and find in him all that you will need for salvation, in time and for eternity, and there you will find joy indeed.

God in their thoughts

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When I first saw the article on polyamory to which Carl subsequently referred I was grieved by its tone of everday reportage, the normalisation of sin. It is no consolation to be tickled by the notion that Prof. Trueman was, until recently, on some kind of presidential prayer shortlist, and now, having got away with everything to even date, and due to one inadvertent and much-mourned counter-cultural slip, has been regretfully sidelined by the powers that be.

Just to make clear, it is not that the UK is suddenly being swept by a polyamorous tide: this perverted series of relationships is unusual and would still be, I think, distasteful to many - the debated gag reflex. But the casual manner in which the article on polyamory was written, the confidence with which this aberration was presented as something to be accepted, if not now then at some inevitable future point, betrays a deeper problem.

The foundation is laid for this normalisation of sin in deed by the absence, or outright rejection, of God and his word. The world is perceived and interpreted entirely by human wisdom in all its various and specious forms: "The wicked in his proud countenance does not seek God; God is in none of his thoughts" (Ps 10.4). If I may borrow a controverted term, it is a worldview in which there is no place for God and for his truth.

So, for example, scroll down - please do, it will spare you - to the bottom of that article on polyamory, and you will see the giveaway line. What is the attitude that lies behind the action? "'But we don't have a choice. We're in love with each other,' they chime." Love, you see, is this overwhelming force, this insatiable and unbiddable desire that carries everything before it, ungoverned and ungovernable by reason or principle, certainly not conditioned by any moral reality.

Or try another headline: Children need more exercise - especially girls, study says. I am not suggesting that girls should be denied exercise, but - again - what seems to be the working assumption of those from the Institute of Studies, or whatever it may be, who has produced this work, and which is communicated by the article? That we should expect a uniformity in our children, regardless of gender. No space is given for the possibility that boys and girls, equally created in God's image but distinctive in their differing sexuality, might play in different ways and to different degrees. No, in this brave new world all gender distinction is a matter for grave concern, as we set out to sublimate all notions of sexual identity into some grey and androgynous mass.

Or again, consider the Olympic response to Russia's anti-gay laws: "On the question of gay rights though, there is no room for error. What politician - even a sports politician - would dare to swim against the tide on an issue of such sensitivity?" It is now barely possible for us to hear of this without being urged to paint our nails in rainbow hues, or seeing professional luvvie and dahling of the nation Stephen Fry recommending some symbol of resistance, or hearing the talking heads trotting out the standard liberal cant. There is, you see, "no room for error" - who "would draw [sic] to swim against the tide on an issue of such sensitivity?" Who would make the crass mistake of actually believing that God's intention for his creation should intrude into this discussion?

Love, identity, rights, freedoms - all are defined without reference to or thought of God. I am not picking on the BBC, it just happens to be an accessible medium. The same underpinning attitudes and notions can be readily gleaned from almost any mainstream media source, whether portraying its version of fact or fiction.

(As an aside, the problem is not with an unrealistic depiction of common grace. Take for example, the detective who, despite the drunkenness and immorality of his or her private life, nevertheless manages to track down the bad guys and give them a fairly stiff talking to. This character is not presented to us as a sinner who accomplishes some good. Rather, the wickedness of the life is usually presented as something messy and miserable, at best a sort of morally neutral morass. Or perhaps we have a teacher, kind and generous, committed and earnest. They are also committed and earnest in their relationship with the person with whom they live, to whom they happen to be happily unmarried. That fact is simply normal. Although we are repeatedly invited to exist in a realm in which there is good and evil, there is no fixed moral scale, certainly no divine standard.)

The problem lies not primarily in the behaviour: the behaviour is the product of the conviction that drives it. Sin is normal, and the most gross sins are increasingly normalised, because there is no thought of God. The transformation that occurs in a converted man is the transformation that begins when he is confronted with God and his world is turned upside down. Only then is that world perceived, interpreted and approached rightly.

The task of the church, in this regard, is to call the world to its senses. When the Lord through Isaiah says to the people, "Come now, and let us reason together" (Is 1.18), he is not suggesting that he and the unrighteous set out to discover some mutually acceptable and impersonal standard by which they can chat through the issues, but rather calling men to the bar of divine truth to perceive and interpret things as they really are.

When we are exhorted to "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps 46.10) it might be considered a charge to stop squawking and wriggling, and to submit to the truth of God as he makes himself known.

This is anathema to a world that does not know God, but there will be no transformation of hearts until God is in the thoughts of men, not as a mere notion but as the reigning Lord of all. True reason does not judge God, but submits to him. I am not saying that there is no place for apologetics, but it must be an unapologetic apologetic. Like the humbled Nebuchadnezzar, sinners like us must come to "praise and extol and honour the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and his ways justice. And those who walk in pride he is able to put down" (Dan 4.37).

If we are to see sinners saved and righteousness advanced, we must strike at the root. The church must proclaim God in all his glory, truth in all its clarity, sin in all its misery, judgement in all its severity, Christ in all his mercy, redemption in all its majesty, and holiness in all its liberty. We must confront sinners with the Almighty and call sinners to the All-merciful: God must be in their thoughts.

Christianity that cuts

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It is sometimes difficult to work out exactly what people are doing when they open their Bibles and let their eyes pass over the pages of Scripture. An observer might surmise that one of the things that they are not doing is reading the words and assimilating the truth that is contained there. That conclusion would follow from the fact that there seems often to be a comprehensive and wilful failure to recognise that Christianity is an offensive religion, and offending people is the capital crime of the early 21st century Western world.

The problem with Christianity - the cause of the offence - is that it speaks very plainly and directly to sinners about their sin, their need of salvation and the only possible way of salvation. It tells men that they are neither good nor wise, and that therefore salvation is of the Lord. Such searching scrutiny of and honest counsel concerning the soul is not palatable to the natural man, whose "mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Rom 8.7). And yet there seems to be a general resistance to the idea that Christianity must cut.

Among those who profess the name of Christ are multitudes who bend over backwards to avoid any hint that Christianity labels certain things as right and wrong, declares certain behaviour to be sin and identifies those who pursue it as sinners, condemns the unrepentant sinner to hell, demands allegiance to Christ crucified and to him only, declaring his to be the only name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4.12). Instead, we find a determination to avoid issues and individuals who might upset the applecart, preaching instead a spineless inclusivism that never makes a distinction, never draws a line, never takes a stand.

Even in healthy churches, there are believers who are mortified when sinners become angry and resentful under the preaching of the gospel, believers found backtracking - and perhaps urging others to do so - like a man who's just walked into a bull's field. There are parents who labour under the misapprehension that any confrontation of their children's sin will result in their rejection of Christ, and who therefore spend their lives avoiding the demands of the gospel in their homes. There are members who steadfastly militate against any form of church discipline because they cannot see how it can be loving to identify and address someone's sin. There are those who balk at the proclaiming of a single sovereign Saviour of mankind, who find calls to repent and believe harsh, who find any demand for whole-souled obedience and the pursuit of divine standards a little, well, demanding.

But we need to open our Bibles and do more than let our eyes pass over the pages. We need to recognise that Christianity cuts. If yours is a Christianity that has no sharp edges, no distinctive flavours, then it is not the true Christianity of the Bible. Paul made clear that the gospel of a crucified Christ was "to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness" (1Cor 1.23). If your gospel does not cause the hackles of the self-righteous to rise and the lips of the worldly-wise to curl in a sneer then it is not the gospel of God, and will not prove the power of God to salvation. If your gospel does not declare a freeness in God's grace that makes the self-righteous feel that you are giving wicked men a licence to sin then it is not the gospel of the Bible. If your gospel does not call men to an obedience so complete and entire that you are despised as narrow and shrivelled (1Pt 4.4) then it is not the gospel of the Bible. If your gospel does not offer salvation to any wretched sinners who call upon the name of Jesus Christ, however great their sins, and however far and long they have wandered from the Lord, then it is not the gospel of the Bible. If your gospel does not proclaim that those same sinners rely entirely upon the saving and sanctifying grace of a sovereign Lord then it is not the gospel of the Bible. If your gospel does not entreat, demand, command, invite, and compel sinners to come in, then it is not the gospel of the Bible. If your gospel has no cutting edges it is not the gospel of the Bible.

This gospel, this truth, draws lines and dares any to erase them. What does your Jesus say? Mine says this:
Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it. (Mt 10.32-39)
Of course, I am not saying that we have to be or ought to be offensive in ourselves. The gospel does that all by itself simply by being true. It cuts across the modern dogma that you cannot be dogmatic. It tramples on the idol of our self-sufficiency. But our task is simply to communicate the truth faithfully. The truth of God has a sharp edge and a distinctive flavour, and we must not and cannot afford to be ashamed of it. In almost every instance, sinners must be offended before they are converted.

If we blunt the edge and mask the flavour then our Christianity will not cut. It will not cut men to the heart because of their transgressions, whether they show it by their fury or their repentance, or perhaps their fury and then their repentance. It will not cut down the rearing pride of human goodness and human wisdom. It will not cut men out of the wild olive tree and graft them into the cultivated one. It will not cut off the fruitless branches, pruning the tree so that it bears good fruit. It will not cut off the right hand that causes you to sin or the right foot that walks into wickedness. It will not cut off words that are cutting, cruel, bitter, sapless, complaining and divisive. It will not cut the church out of the world and its appetites and pursuits, and make them holy to the Lord. It will not cut out the sheep from the goats. In short, it will not do the cutting work that is required if sinners are to be saved and the church to pursue its identity and activity in the world.

Many of us live in a place in which the only real sin is to hold to a Christianity that cuts. But lose that, and you lose a Christ who saves. If you have not felt the cut of Christianity, then you do not have Christ's Christianity. If you do now allow the cut of Christianity, then you will lose Christ's Christianity. Let us not avoid or be embarrassed by a Christianity that cuts. Let us not be ashamed of the gospel of God.

I have been involved in a friendly, and hopefully fruitful, discussion over at Green Baggins regarding Bible interpretation.  I have been encouraged to post here some of my comments there.  Because I am excerpting from a conversation, I will have to do so in the form of questions and answers.  The questions cited here may not always be actual ones from there, but attempt to sum up the path of the conversation.

First Question: Isn't the Bible itself insufficient for developing a method of Bible interpretation?  Don't we need to engage in critical studies, to include significant input from outside the Bible?

Today in 1967

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On this day in 1967 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) adopted (what we now call) the 1967 Confession, a document largely influenced by the liberalization of the doctrine of Scripture (especially by Karl Barth). It was the culmination of a downgrade movement in Presbyterianism that had been at large for several decades.

As I thought about this today I was reminded of what Iain Murray wrote concerning the nineteenth century downgrade movement in Baptist Union. Writing on C. H. Spurgeon, in a book called The Forgotten Spurgeon, Murray suggested that the prevalent attitude on the part of the Baptist Union leadership was, "an unwillingness to define any doctrinal issue, a readiness to reduce what constitutes the content of orthodox Christianity to a minimum, and a 'charity' which made men willing to question the standing of any denomination in the sight of God so long as it professed the 'Evangelical faith.'"

Murray pointedly adds: "As we look back now on the last decades of the 19th century we cannot exonerate orthodox ministers who allowed the term 'evangelical' to become debased: they had not the strength to declare that men were not ministers of Christ who, while professing the 'Evangelical Faith', either never preached that Faith or practically repudiated it in details of their teaching.

Spurgeon himself warned, "There is truth and there is error and these are opposite the one to the other. Do not indulge yourselves in the folly with which so many duped that truth may be error, and error may be truth, that black may be white, and white is black, and that there is a whitey-brown that goes in between, which is, perhaps, the best of the whole lot."