Sunday, 30 January 2011

Malachi 4:1-6 for Christians

I returned from Katoomba Christian Convention's Next Gen conference a couple of days ago. At that conference, my training group looked at Malachi 4:1-6 and learned how to understand it, through Christ, as New Testament believers. This is an application of the task of Biblical Theology - understanding the whole bible as one consistent story, centred on Christ, especially his death & resurrection.

Here's my notes for a biblical-theological reading of Mal 4:1-6 (Hebrew 3:19-24).

  • Jesus brings in the Day of the Lord, in his death, and his resurrection, and his return;
  • If we trust Christ, we don't have to fear judgement on that day, but can look forward to being vindicated;
  • Until that day comes, we need to live Christ-like lives, patiently enduring mockery and persecution, and waiting to be vindicated when we share in Christ's resurrection.

Detailed notes:
John the Baptist is the Elijah who precedes the Day of the Lord. The angel tells Zechariah so (Luke 1:17). John’s clothes of camel hair and leather belt look like Elijah’s (Matt 3:4; Mark 1:6; cf 2 Kings 1:8). He rejects identifying himself as Isaiah to the Pharisees’ ambassadors (John 1:21), but that’s because he only comes as Elijah to those willing to accept him (Matt 11:14). He preaches repentance and tells people to that the one coming after him will baptise in the Holy Spirit and fire – a reference to the judgment, referred to in Malachi 4, which finally demonstrates the difference between the righteous and the wicked, and faithful and the faithless. Jesus comes after John, and brings in this day of the lord that John proclaimed.

We instinctively side with the ‘good guys’ – with the ‘righteous’ – in this passage. This is not correct – we should see ourselves as the wicked who will be trampled down in the judgement (Rom 3:10-12a).

The Day of the Lord came when Jesus hung on the cross. He has taken the punishment we deserve for rejecting God, for siding with the wicked (Rom 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). He takes our curse for us (Gal 3:13). So, if we trust him, we do not have to fear being trampled in the judgement. Instead, we can look forward to being vindicated along with him – that is, sharing in his resurrection (Rom 6:5; Php 3:21; Rev 20:6).

The Day of the Lord also came in Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus is the only person who, in himself, deserves to be vindicated by God (Matt 1:11 & parallels; Heb 4:15; 10:5-10). This vindication happened in his resurrection (Acts 2:23-24; 3:15; 4:10; etc). Until that resurrection vindication, he continued to patiently love & care for sinners whom he knew would abandon him at his hour of greatest need (Matt 26:34-35; Mark 14:27-41; Luke 22:34) – that is, he entrusted himself to God’s justice, not human justice (Heb 12:2-3; 1 Peter 2:21-23).

Jesus came to fulfil the Law (Matt 5:17-18). New covenant believers (Christians!) don’t have to keep the Mosaic Law; we follow the law of love (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14). This doesn’t mean we have it easier; in fact, it’s harder for us, because we have to love as Christ loved (Eph 5:1-2), forgive as Christ forgave (Col 3:13), and in this way have a righteousness which surpasses the Pharisees and Lawyers (Matt 5:20).

Most of the time, our Godliness will not be rewarded – just like Jesus wasn’t. People will take us for granted, use & abuse us, use our good deeds to slander us (eg: 1 Cor 9: Paul had to defend himself for not taking money from the Corinthians!) and persecute us (Matt 10:24-25; John 15:18-20; 2 Tim 2:13; etc), while evil people get away with murder (2 Tim 3:13) – just like in Malachi’s day, and just like Jesus. Just like Jesus, we must wait patiently to be vindicated in the final judgment (Rom 12:19; 1 Peter 2:23b; Rev 6:10-11) while praying for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35; Rom 12:17-21; 1 Peter 2:19-25), just like Jesus did (Luke 23:34).

The Day of the Lord will come when Jesus returns. When Jesus returns, he will bring about the final discernment, the final judgment, between the righteous and the wicked (Rev 19:11-21). Those who are vindicated in that final judgment are not good in themselves; they have trusted Christ and been forgiven, as opposed to those who have ignored him and therefore remain unforgiven (Rev 20:11-15). We need to wait patiently for that day, remembering the gospel of Christ (not the law of Moses any more – the law is fulfilled in the gospel, anyway) (2 Peter 1:12-15) and patiently bearing with the mockery that ungodly unbelievers heap upon us (2 Peter 3:1-13).

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Billy Graham's words to the next generation

Legendary evangelist Billy Graham is now in his nineties, in failing health, and in need of round-the-clock professional care. But, by the looks of his Christianity Today interview, his mind is as sharp as ever, and his passion for Christ and the gospel is as bright as ever:
[T]he most important issue we face today is the same the church has faced in every century: Will we reach our world for Christ? In other words, will we give priority to Christ's command to go into all the world and preach the gospel? Or will we turn increasingly inward, caught up in our own internal affairs or controversies, or simply becoming more and more comfortable with the status quo? Will we become inner-directed or outer-directed? The central issues of our time aren't economic or political or social, important as these are. The central issues of our time are moral and spiritual in nature, and our calling is to declare Christ's forgiveness and hope and transforming power to a world that does not know him or follow him. May we never forget this.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Off to Next Gen

I'm off to Katoomba for KCC's Next Gen conference. I'm leading a group in strand 2 - Biblical Theology - helping them see the overview of the whole Bible, and how it develops as a consistent story from beginning to end.

I was a participant back in the 1990s, when it was located at Katoomba High School, and was still called Katoomba Youth Leadership Convention (KYLC). Given that it was only fifteen days of my life (3 conferences of 5 days each), I reckon this conference has had the biggest marginal impact on my Christian life, and my approach to the Bible. Coz those fifteen days helped crystallise for me an approach to the Bible that listens closely to the Bible itself, rather than imposing our own thoughts upon it.

I hope I can lead the participants into the same understanding. Prayers please.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Why we don't hear about global persecution of Christians

Quick shout-out: the Christian Broadcasting Network has posted an interesting article about anti-Christian bias among media networks.

Monday, 17 January 2011

How long, O Lord? Some thoughts on sermon density & length

I recently had an interesting series of comments on my Facebook page re length & density of sermons. I didn't contribute to the debate, I just read my friends' arguments (so they're all still my friends...). Here's my thoughts.

As responsible preachers, we must consider two potentially competing principles:
  1. Accurate communication of what the text is saying - which includes, amongst other things, clarity of language and comprehensiveness in covering the material; and
  2. The congregation's ability to take in info - which will be affected by a variety of factors, mainly outside our ability to control: their educational background, age, health, etc.
A long, detailed sermon will emphasise point (1) at the expense of point (2). A short, snappy sermon, full of illustrations and application, will emphasise point (2), potentially at the expense of point (1). I don't think there's a way around this tension. Part of our role as preachers is to best work that tension in the particular congregational context that we're in.

In some places, the people will tend not to need or want detailed sermons, heavy on explanation and justification. The're not dumb - but they're not analytical, they're more practical.

In such contexts, it'd be pastorally irresponsible to subject them to careful dissection and justification of my exegetical conclusions. That would either get the congregation annoyed ("is this guy just showing off how smart he is?") or bored (*zzzz...*) or depressed ("wow! He's so smart! I could never understand the Bible like he does!"). Instead, we should take a few verses, explain them in simple language, and then give the congregation clear illustrations, and plenty of application to show them how to appropriately respond to the passage. The trade-off is: we're implicitly inviting them to trust us - that we have correctly understood the passage in our personal, private preparation.

In a different demographic context, the opposite will be true. The act of demonstrating that we can understand the Bible in a clear, reasonable, publicly verifiable way (= careful dissection and justification of my exegetical conclusions) will itself be a challenge to arrogant modernists who think naturalistic science comprehensively defines all true knowledge, and to equally arrogant post-modernists who know that all claims to knowledge are veiled power-plays. Indeed, in this context, I think it would be evangelistically and pastorally irresponsible not to do this kind of exegetical demonstration. If we don't demonstrate the Biblical-based rationality of our teaching, we'll reinforce the popular misperception that Christianity is anti-intellectual and authoritarian.

This is not to say that illustration and application is unnecessary; it is to say that taking the time to make this exegetical demonstration will, in this demographic context, be pastorally and evangelistically useful, and worth the cost of a longer, denser sermon.

Thoughts, anyone...?

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Self-indulgence, self-control, and being truly human

In our previous post, we talked about the modern problem of sexual essentialism - that is, making sexual expression essential to being human. So, if I can't have sex, I'm "asexual" and miserable and life is meaningless and I might as well die.

In contrast, we asserted that real humanity comes through being Christian - being forgiven by Christ, by being in relationship with God through him.

Self control is not a-sexuality - it's just controlling those urges, managing them. Self-control is an expression of our humanity - of our dignity and power. We are not slaves to our appetites; we are powerful, intelligent beings, in the image of God himself (Gen 1:26-27).

We know self-control is good and healthy because Jesus did it. Jesus managed his appetites - even when the appetite, in itself, was actually a good one - when he knew that appetite was being used by the devil to try and get him to sin.

In Matthew ch 4, Jesus is combating the devil in the wilderness.
Verse 2: "After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry." That's a perfectly normal human response. It shows Jesus was fully human - he had an appetite for food. Usually, there'd be nothing wrong with satisfying this appetite - with eating.
Verse 3: "The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." The devil tried to use a normal, healthy human appetite to get Jesus to obey him. That's what the devil does - he uses good things to try and trick us, to suck us into following him.
Verse 4: "Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"" Jesus was more interested in obeying God than filling his appetite - even when the appetite was, in itself, good and normal and healthy.

Sex is good. God created it. But he meant it to be used by one man and one woman, for life. Anything else is the devil, using an appetite that is, in itself, good and normal and healthy, trying to trick us into following him, instead of God.

I've applied this reasoning to sex - but it's much broader than sex.

Think about anger. Let's say we're angry with someone because they've spread lies and gossip about us, and have turned some of our friends against us. That's a good and healthy desire for righteousness, for truth.

But what can we do with that desire? Well, we could plot revenge; we could go scream and yell at them and have a punch-up; we could spread gossip and slander about them... or, we could love our enemies, do good to them and pray for them (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35); we could conciously give up on revenge (Rom 12:19); and thus, in our anger, we would not sin (Psalm 4:4; Eph 4:26).

That's difficult. It takes self-control. But, that's what Jesus did. What did Jesus say on the cross? Luke 23:34: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" - he prayed for his enemies. Self-control is an expression of true humanity.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Living for Christ in a super-materialistic, super-sexualised world

Another email question I recently received was about sexual self-expression. Here's what I said. (Incidentally - I explored this same question some time back in an article on AFES WebSalt.)


Modern Western society is so sexualised, that sexual self-expression, and sexual satisfaction, has become essential for real life, real existence. If we can't have "good sex", we might as well die. One term for this is "sexual essentialism". To be truly human, it's essential to be sexually active and fulfilled. Otherwise, you're not truly human.

In contrast, the Bible says the way to have a full life, both now and for ever, is to trust Jesus. Jesus came to give us life to the full by laying down his life for his sheep (John 10:10-11). Eternal life is to know the one true God, and Jesus Christ (John 17:3). To come to Jesus is to come to God (John 14:6). Jesus gives us more relational and personal fulfilment than the world can ever give, because he gives us personal relationship with God. In Christ, it's possible to be content and happy, even if we're single & celibate - or poor or sick or jobless or homeless or anything else (Philippians 4:11-13).

If we trust Jesus and want to follow him, then he calls us to exercise self-control: Rom 8:6-9; Gal 5:22-25; 1 Thess 4:3-6; Titus 2:11-12; 1 Peter 1:13-16. That is: we're shouldn't do anything just coz we feel life it, but to think about whether it'll bring honour to Jesus, and whether it's good for the other person. Just coz we're angry, we shouldn't abuse someone or plot revenge against them - even if we think they deserve it: in your anger do not sin (Ps 4:4; Ephesians 4:26); love your enemies, do good to them, pray for them (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35); do not take revenge (Rom 12:19a). Similarly, just coz we have sexual thoughts about someone doesn't mean we have to act on them; we need to learn to control those thoughts.

This self-controlled life doesn't have to go on forever. One of the biblical pictures of heaven is that of a wedding (Revelation 19:7; 21:1-4). Heaven is better than sex. If we trust Jesus, we have the sure, divine guarantee of being welcomed into his arms for ever.

Again, in today's culture, this is hard to believe, because our culture is so materialistic and hedonistic. If you can't touch it & feel it, then it's not real. Which of course means love isn't real. You can't touch and feel love; you can only touch someone's body (or your own, for that matter...), and feel arousal. That's why sex is more important than love these days.

But the reality is that personal relationships - which are the basis and channel of love - are more important than physical pleasure. People who are physically weak, sick, or disabled, can be really, really happy, if they're surrounded by people who love them. That love doesn't have to be sexual - it could be parents, friends, or carers.

Relationships are more important than sexual fulfilment. The Bible says that in Christ, especially in his death & resurrection for us, God loves us fully and completely, by giving us relationship with himself (Rom 5:8; 8:37-39; 1 John 4:10, 12, 16). Our challenge is to make this love, this relationship - the love of God in Christ, our relationship with God through Christ - the most important guiding principle in our whole life.

In a super-sexualised, super-materialistic, super-hedonistic society, living for Jesus is super-difficult. Well, Jesus never promised us an easy life. Quite the opposite: he warned us that following him would involve dying to self. The only way we'll pay that cost - in sexual self-control, or anything else - is if we really, truly believe that Jesus is worth it. So - just keep reading the Bible! Keep finding out about Jesus, how wonderful he is, what he's done for us & how excellent it'll be to see him face-to-face in glory.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Trialling an illustration: the salvation water wheel

I'm going to try an illustration this coming Sunday, to try and show how faith operates in connecting us to Jesus. I'm posting it here for comments because I want to avoid accidental heresy, or confusion.

The point I'm trying to illustrate is this: The Bible says faith is not meritorious in our salvation; but it is instrumental in saving us.
  • Faith is not meritorious. That is: faith is not a work. We don't deserve salvation because we have faith in Jesus.
  • But faith connects us with Jesus. Unless we put our trust in Jesus, we are not actually saved. So, faith is the instrument whereby Christ's benefits flow to us.
The illustration I'm trialling is: a water wheel.
  • The power is in the water. That’s what makes the wheel go round.
  • The pipe (the "flume") gets the water to the wheel. Without the pipe, the water wouldn't get to the wheel, and the wheel wouldn't work.
  • But there’s no power in the pipe itself. If there’s no water in the pipe, the wheel won’t turn. The water, not the pipe, makes the wheel go round.
The analogies are:
  • Jesus is like the water. Jesus - especially in his death and resurrection - is God’s power to save us.
  • Our faith is like the pipe. When we trust Jesus, we access God’s salvation power. We actually get saved. Without faith – if we don’t trust Jesus – we don’t access Jesus’ saving power.
  • But our faith, in itself, doesn't actually do anything to save us. The power is in Jesus, not in our faith.
  • The water wheel is our personal salvation. When we put our trust in Jesus, he makes us to actually be saved - that is, justified, reconciled, at peace with God, adopted by him, part of his beloved people, with a sure hope of glory.
To collocate a few Bible verses: We are justified by Christ alone, through faith alone – not by works (Rom 3:24, 27-30; 5:1; 1 Cor 6:11; Gal 2:16).

What do you think? Feedback, please.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Trinity and our prayers

I friend of mine emailed me a question about the Trinity and our prayer life. Here's what I replied. Anyone got any feedback?


If I understand you correctly, you're basically asking two related questions:
1. what is the impact of the Trinity on our prayers; and
2. is the recent trend towards praying simplistically to Jesus a symptom of an unhealthy anti-intellectual anti-creedalism?

Re 1: we pray to the Father, through the Son as our intercessor, in the power of the Holy Spirit. The NT pattern seems to be:
* the Father has priority in planning & willing all good things;
* the Son, in incarnate Jesus Christ, is the one who actually puts all the good things into effect - they are all "in Christ"; and
* the Spirit actually enacts the spiritual blessings in us & for us.

So, when we pray, we reflect this pattern. We pray to the Father, as our heavenly Father. We have become his children in and through Christ - by his death and resurrection for us; and by us putting our faith in him; so that we identify with him, and he with us. Ref: John 5:19-17; John 14:13-18 ; Gal 4:6; Eph 1:3-14; Eph 3:14-19; Col 1:3-14; 1 Pet 1:2.

That said, I don't think it's necessarily sinful to pray to Jesus. Stephen does: Acts 7:59-60. I can't think of any bible passage where someone prays to the Holy Spirit; but, seeing as the Spirit is God, again, I don't think it's sinful to pray to him.

But it is better to follow the Biblical pattern as above. That's because the Christian life is not one of minimum requirement - "what's the least I can do to please God?" - but one of maximum heart devotion - be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect; all our heart, soul, mind & strength; our bodies as living sacrifices.

And that brings us to 2. Simplistic praying to Jesus may be a symptom of anti-intellectual anti-creedalism - which, I think, is just laziness. Christianity is not merely an intellectual matter. Granted. But it's not un-intellectual either. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, MIND and strength" (Mark 12:30 & Luke 10:27; Matt 22:37 drops strength but retains mind).

That said, I won't jump on someone & criticise them too harshly for praying to Jesus. The doctrine of the Trinity is a tough one to wrap your mind around. The incarnation is a wonderful truth; Jesus is the one who became human and died for us; so it's easy to feel close to Jesus.

The solution, I suppose, is to emphasise that in Christ, the whole Trinity comes close to us: John 14:6-10, 16, 18, 23. This is why we pray to the Father; because, in Christ, he really is our heavenly Father! Rom 8:15-17; Gal 3:26; 4:6-7. We're part of God's family; we have a sure expectation of living with him in glory forever - it's what makes heaven heavenly. This is an intellectual truth to be understood and assented to - but it's so much more than that: it's a personal, spiritual, theological (in the sense of "God-oriented", not just human-focused) reality, to be enjoyed and rejoiced in.

What do you think? Does that help?

Friday, 7 January 2011

Church: physically gathered and/or spiritual fellowship?

This continues our discussion on the Knox-Robinson model of church.

In my previous post I talked about fellowship and discipline. My second, more general question is: can we use the term “church” to denote the relationships we have with other Christians, even if we’re not meeting with them? I would say yes.

Luke describes Paul, before his conversion, as ravaging the church (singular) by entering houses (plural) to throw people into prison (Acts 8:3). This could refer to Paul breaking into house churches - but if so, why didn't Luke use the plural, churches? Paul himself similarly laments that he used to persecute the church (singular) of God (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Php. 3:6). This at least indicates that Paul can use "church" to refer collectively to God’s people who lived in Jerusalem. Acts 9:31 refers to the church (singular) throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria - which must be synonymous with a spiritual fellowship.

So, I conclude that it's Biblically valid to speak of "belonging" to an earthly church, in the sense of an invisible fellowship with believers, even if we're not in the act of meeting with them - of "doing church". This is not Platonic - in the sense of having some invisible ideal of which the earthly is only an appoximation - but a reality enacted by the Holy Spirit.

That said, the New Testament certainly puts a priority on the local congregation. This focus on local church is indicated in at least four ways.

  1. The city where it meets being named at least indicates it is not a national or regional church (Acts 8:1, 3; 11:22, 26; 13:1; 15:4; 18:22; 20:17, 28; Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 2:1; 8:1; Gal. 1:2; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:1; Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14).
  2. The use of the plural "churches" assumes a multiplicity of localised congregations, not a single universal church (Acts 16:5; Rom. 16:4, 16; 1 Cor. 7:17; 11:16; 14:33, 34; 16:1, 19; 2 Cor. 8:1, 18, 19, 23, 24; 11:28; Gal. 1:2, 22; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4; Rev. 1:4, 11, 20; 2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 22:16).
  3. Personal identification of the patron or matron, whose home the church meets in, focuses on the localised character of the church (Rom. 16:1, 5, 23; Col. 4:15; Phm. 1:2)
  4. The ethical exhortations in the New Testament letters demonstrate that their authors were concerned for relationships within the local gatherings. This comes out strongly in 1 Corinthians, eg: 1 Cor. 6:4; 7:17; 11:18, 22; 14:4, 5, 12, 33-35. An ordered gathering of the church expresses God’s peace (1 Cor. 14:33 – perhaps drawing on Old Testament shalom, wholeness, well-being). This is also the thrust of Eph. 4-6, Col. 3-4, 1 Thess. 4:1-12, and 1 Pet. 2:13ff. The reason elders must manage their own household well is because the church over which they have oversight is the household of God (1 Tim 3:5, 15).

So, I think the Bible affirms the priority of the local fellowship; but that local fellowship is spiritual, not just when we are actually gathered; and, reference my previous post, that fellowship implies accountability and discipline. I guess that makes me a fairly boring, predictable, free-church Presbyterian (*sigh*).

Well, that's my two cents worth. Thoughts, anyone…?

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Church, fellowship and discipline

This continues from our previous post on the Knox-Robinson model of church.

Some people criticise the Knox-Robinson model as being “Platonic”. I think it’s quite the opposite – it prioritises the physical. The traditional model is in danger of being “Platonic” because it posits a this-worldly reality which transcends the physical.

Others criticise it as being based solely on the New Testament word ekklesia, which means "to gather" - hence their priority of physical assembly. That criticism is simply wrong - this ecclesiology is based on a deep understanding of the dynamic of salvation-history throughout the whole Bible.

A related criticism is that the model, in focusing on ekklesia, ignores the other metaphors for church: body, temple, bride etc. These models can be subsumed under the Knox-Robinson model, the question is: what are the limits of the metaphor? When we are getting about our ordinary lives in the world, we are still Christians - thus, members of Christ's body, bearers of his Holy Spirit, and, according to Knox-Robinson, gathered spiritually around Christ. But, should we go further and say we are members of a church? More in our next post.

Others say it leads to a highly independent, isolated, fragmented view of church, bereft of church discipline. If church happens whenever we gather around the word, then Bible study is church; I don't have to go to that boring, stuffy old building on Sunday. And, I can start a church by starting a Bible study or hiring a building & starting preaching - I don't have to inform anyone or ask any permission. This criticism has, I think, some weight - but that depends on the connection between fellowship and discipline.

Broughton Knox had a high view of fellowship - the connections that Christians have with each other even when they're not meeting in church. In his view, a "denomination" is a fellowship of churches - a group of churches with a shared history, perhaps shared ministry personnel (bishops?). But he consciously limited church discipline to Biblical exhortation. A local church may exhort another local church that they are going astray; but they should not impose any sanctions on that other local church, apart from the extreme of cutting off fellowship.

And this pulls the teeth from the denomination. Under a Knox-Robinson ecclesiology, the denomination should not be able to fire a minister, or close a church, or deprive them of their building.

My question is: isn't this a very thin view of fellowship? Can fellowship and discipline be more closely connected? For fellowship to have some muscle, it needs to have accountability, and accountability implies sanctions. Both Jesus (Matt 18:15-19) and Paul (1 Cor 5) expected churches to exercise discipline, with sanctions that had teeth. These two passages refer to local churches. But if healthy local fellowship requires discipline, then why not extend that to broader fellowship?

A response might be that rich fellowship, wherein discipline may genuinely be exercised in love, requires relational proximity. Relational proximity invites trust. When someone you're close to tells you off, you're more likely to listen to them, because you're more likely to believe they mean you well (Prov 27:6). Discipline from a distance feels authoritarian, and you're less likely to trust them. That's why church discipline should be limited to local churches.

I think the principle's correct - but it can be extended beyond local churches, to a broader church fellowship, ie: a denomination. The Presbyterian system of hierarchical church courts, while often cumbersome, creates a forum for physical proximity and potential rich, trust-building fellowship. The health of our churches may be better indicated by the quality of our conversations over supper than the precision of our resolutions.

As you can see, I'm still wrestling with these issues. Feedback welcome.

In our next post, we'll look at the breadth of the term "church".

Monday, 3 January 2011

Knox-Robinson vs traditional ecclesiology

The "Knox-Robinson ecclesiology" is the doctrine of church framed by the Moore College theologians David Broughton Knox and Donald Robinson. If I can summarise it without too much distortion: a church happens when people gather around Christ, through his Word. We are simultaneously gathered physically around the Bible, and spiritually, in the heavenlies, around Christ. They base this on the Biblical-theological dynamic of God gathering his people to himself: Exodus = gathering; Exile = scattering; Christ and the New Covenant = gathering again.

The idiosyncratic thing about Knox-Robinson ecclesiology is the significance they put on the act of assembly, of gathering. Any gathering around the Bible – Bible study, Sunday church, major conference – is a “church”. But any time people are not gathering, they are not “churching” with regards this world, even though they are still gathered around Christ in the heavenlies.

This is unusual because the word “church” has traditionally used to denote three forms of the believing Christian community, which a believer identifies with and “belongs” to, whether that form of the believing community is actually meeting or not. The three forms are:

  • the particular, localised believing community which a person has committed him/herself to - “I attend St-Bertha’s-By-the-Freeway”;
  • the group of churches with a shared history and structure, to which the particular community is associated - the Berthian church, founded by the freeway evangelist Bertha;
  • the universal “catholic” church, across time and space.

The difference between this traditional use of “church” and Knox-Robinson is that in the traditional use, fellowship is sufficient for the word “church”. Actual gathering is not necessary. St Bertha’s is taken to “exist” as a fellowship of Christians committed to each other, even if they’re not meeting at the time.

In our next post, we'll look at some criticisms of the Knox-Robinson ecclesiology, and I'll put forward some of my own thoughts on it.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The uniqueness and power of the Gospel

The gospel is about Christ’s person and work, as testified by the apostles, who are the eyewitnesses and authorised spokespeople of his person and work. The content of their testimony – their gospel – is that Christ is God, expressing his character in redemptive action. A person who entrusts him/herself to that gospel – and in that gospel, to that apostolically-proclaimed Christ, and in Christ, to God – will inevitably be motivated to spread that gospel. A church founded on that apostolic gospel will inevitably express its evangelical (gospel-founded) character in redemptive proclamation (evangelism). The apostolic gospel is autodunamis – self-powered, self-propelled.

Christ engages is redemptive action; we engage in redemptive proclamation. Christ’s death and resurrection are unique events in actually reconciling people to God. Our actions of love and service are not on the same level. They express the reconciliation that we have with God and each other; they provide a “plausibility framework” that may help convince people of the truth of the gospel; but they do not in themselves reconcile anyone to God. People are right with God only when they entrust themselves to the crucified and risen Christ, as proclaimed by the apostles. The redemptive efficacy of the apostolic gospel is unique to itself. (I tried to think of a fancy word beginning with “auto” to express this, but can’t yet. Anyone…?)

Saturday, 1 January 2011

How to make 2011 the best new year ever

This is the end of the first decade of the 21st century – that is, of the 3rd millennium. We had high hopes for the new millennium, because it dawned with real potential for world peace. We could write the history of the 20th century as the history of three wars: WW1; WW2; and the Cold War. But the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – the cold war was over! Maybe we would have a century of peace & goodwill!

Then there was 9/11. The 21st century opened with the War on Terror – which is still going on.

We had hoped the new millennium would bring something new, something better. Instead, it’s more of the same old thing. What wars will write the history of the 21st century? Of the 3rd millennium?

For some of us personally, 2011 will be very new, because we’ve finished school or university or just been married or something else life-changing. But for many of us – let’s be honest – it’s just the same old thing, isn’t it? Same old family fights & boring job or annoying study & same old stupid boss who won’t give us the credit you’re due.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the whole world changed – if someone could do something, to change the whole cosmos, the whole fabric of reality – so that things were better? Wouldn't that make 2011 the best new year ever?

In Jeremiah 31:31-34, God promises a new covenant with his people, Israel and Judah:
31 “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. 33 “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
A covenant is a formalised, personal relationship. It’s like a contract, because it involved mutual binding obligations. But it’s more than a contract, because a covenant assumes that you care about the other person. That’s why God calls his relationship with his people a marriage covenant. He loved them, like a husband loves his wife. And, like any normal husband, he wanted his people to love them back.

Under the old covenant, the people kept running off with other men. They were not loyal to God, but worshiped idols – false gods. That breaks the ten commandments: the first command is “you shall have no other Gods before me”, and the second is “you shall not create an idol.” But, more importantly: worshiping a different god is spiritual adultery. It’s like taking your husband’s wedding presents, and giving them to your secret lover.

The amazing thing is – instead of divorcing his people and destroying them – which he had every right to do – God makes a way for them to be forgiven, once and for all. The last line of the passage promises “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Verse 34b)

This is why we need Jesus. In the upper room, “after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20), which, adds Matthew, is “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). If we have been unfaithful to our spouse, even though we deserve to be rejected by them, our spouse may, because they love us, and because they are kind and merciful, forgive us, and restore us to themselves. In Christ, God does exactly this. He deals with his own wrath against us, so that we can be restored to fellowship with him. “For this reason, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). And because we’ve been forgiven, we can truly be God's people (Jer 31:33b), know God personally (Jer 31:34a), and live God's way – not because we have to, but because we want to, from the heart (Jer 31:33). In the new testament, this last point is effected by the indwelling Holy Spirit (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13-26).

We get stressed and frustrated when people who are important to us, or have power over us, don’t treat us how we deserve. We get frustrated when the spouse, the kids, the parents, the boss, the workmates – all those people – don’t give us the love, the respect, the attention, that we want, and that we think we deserve.

God is the most important person in the universe. In Christ, he forgives us everything we have done against him; makes us to be his people; and gives us his Holy Spirit, that we would truly obey him.

That means, for those of us who have entrusted ourselves to God’s new covenant, the world changes for the better. The fabric of reality has shifted, because God – the centre of the universe, the most important person in the cosmos – is our friend, our Father; he is on our side; he loves us, and is for us, come what may. Things can’t get better than that.

The only question for us is: have we given ourselves to God, according to his new covenant? which basically means – have we given ourselves to Jesus Christ? If we haven’t, let’s do it right here, right now. That’s how we can make 2011 the best new year ever.