Monday, 30 July 2007

Fundraising for a UCCF Staff Worker in Cumbria

I'm up at the Keswick Convention this week, fund-raising for a UCCF Staff Worker to be placed in Cumbria from 2008. This is the latest stage in a wider project to fund the following worthy cause....

60,000 Higher Education and Further Education Students in Cumbria

The University of Cumbria will be formed in August 2007 from an amalgamation of St Martin’s College, Cumbria Institute of the Arts, and the Cumbrian campuses of the University of Central Lancashire. The university will have campuses in Carlisle, Penrith, Whitehaven, Ambleside and Lancaster as well as a specialist teacher-training centre in London.

The university will also have strong links with the four FE Colleges in Cumbria (Lakes College in Workington, Furness College, Carlisle College and Kendal College) and is working towards HE courses being delivered locally across the county.

Many of the young people set to study at the University of Cumbria will know little of Jesus. With the help and support of local churches, UCCF is committed to supporting the existing Christian Unions in Cumbria, whilst also working to establish a Christian witness on every campus of the University of Cumbria.

The vision

Carlisle. Carlisle already has a vibrant Christian Union, comprised of students from Cumbria Institute of the Arts and St Martin’s College (Carlisle campus). There are also many churches in Carlisle who are already supportive of the Christian Union. UCCF will continue to provide resources and support for the CU in Carlisle, and in May we appointed Ruth Craven as an Associate Staff Worker (part-time and unpaid) to give support to students in Carlisle, where needed.

Pray that once the University of Cumbria has been formed, the CU will continue to grow. Pray particularly that the CU will be able to better reach the Carlisle campus of the University of Central Lancashire. Pray too for Carlisle College that, with time, there could be a Christian witness on the FE campus, supported by the CU members from the university. CUs in other UK cities are using a ‘big brother little brother’ model, where larger CUs offer help and support to a small FE college CU in their locality.
Ambleside. There is already a thriving Christian Union in Ambleside, made up of about 18 students from the 850 strong campus of St Martin’s College. This CU has had another really encouraging year, with all the students showing a willingness to be involved with the CU activities and focused in their evangelism. They were able to hold a week-long mission last term, the highlight of which was a curry night that included a talk on John 3. Almost forty students came and many of the non-Christians were asking insightful questions afterwards. The CU has recently started a Monday night ‘Smoothie Bar’ and this has encouraged many non-Christian students to look into Jesus’ claims.

Pray that going forward, the CU members will continue to witness clearly and boldly to students at the Ambleside campus, and that UCCF staff will be able to continue supporting them.
Penrith. We'd love to see student-led CUs on all of the Cumbria campuses, including the University of Central Lancashire’s Newton Rigg campus in Penrith.

Pray that, as the Penrith campus is relatively large and currently has no known Christian witness, we will be able to work together to unite Christian students here, and that a Christian Union will be quickly established.
Workington, Whitehaven, Kendal and Barrow-in-Furness. We would love to pioneer FE College Christian Unions in these towns.
Please pray with us that God will be placing Christian students in the colleges, so that when a UCCF Staff Worker for Cumbria has been appointed they can help these Christians to form CUs.

How to realise the vision…

Staff Worker for Lancashire and Cumbria, Peter Dray, currently has six CUs to support, which means that he is not able to visit the two existing CUs in Cumbria frequently, and cannot even consider pioneering new CUs on Cumbrian campuses due to his large workload and the geographical spread of the area he covers.

Whilst we are grateful that Ruth Craven is able to spend the equivalent of a day per week supporting the CU in Carlisle, we feel that there is an urgent need to appoint a full-time Staff Worker for Cumbria from September 2008 (at the latest), who can work towards pioneering CUs on Cumbrian campuses, whilst also supporting the existing CUs in Carlisle and Ambleside.

To achieve this vision we need individuals and churches in Cumbria, especially those who are located near to the campuses, to commit to supporting the students in their area, helping them to live and speak for Jesus. We also need the right person to appoint as Staff Worker. Please do pray for these things.

If you would like further information, please contact Jema who would be happy to send you a brochure outlining in more detail the opportunities for gospel work amongst students in Cumbria.

Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered

Following a recommendation by a former church pastor, Stuart, I've been reading Athanasius' wonderful On the Incarnation, written in about 318AD and available in full online here.

I'll probably write more about Athanasius of Alexandria in days to come. However, I wanted to immediately share a fantastic extended quote. Here he is arguing for the destruction of death (in Chapter 5 Sections 29-31):

If you see with your own eyes men and women and children, even, welcoming death for the sake of Christ's religion, how can you be so utterly incredulous and maimed in your mind as not to realise that Christ, to Whom these all bear witness, Himself gives the victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold His faith and bear the sign of the cross? No one in his sense doubts that a snake is dead when he sees it trampled underfoot, especially when he knows how savage it used to be; nor, if he sees boys making fun of a lion, does he doubt that the brute is either dead or completely bereft of strength. These things can be seen with our own eyes, and it is the same with the conquest of death. Doubt no longer, then, when you see death mocked and scorned by those who believe in Christ, that by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to an end.


If, as we have shown, death was destroyed and everybody tramples on it because of Christ, how much more did He Himself first trample and destroy it in His own body! Death having been slain by Him, then, what other issue could there be than the resurrection of His body and its open demonstration as the monument of His victory? How could the destruction of death have been manifested at all, had not the Lord's body been raised?

But if anyone finds even this insufficient, let him find proof of what has been said in present facts. Dead men cannot take effective action; their power of influence on others lasts only till the grave. Deeds and actions that energize others belong only to the living. Well, then, look at the facts in this case. The Saviour is working mightily among men, every day He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world, both within and beyond the Greek-speaking world, to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching. Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life? Does a dead man prick the consciences of men, so that they throw all the traditions of their fathers to the winds and bow down before the teaching of Christ? If He is no longer active in the world, as He must needs be if He is dead, how is it that He makes the living to cease from their activities, the adulterer from his adultery, the murderer from murdering, the unjust from avarice, while the profane and godless man becomes religious? If He did not rise, but is still dead, how is it that He routs and persecutes and overthrows the false gods, whom unbelievers think to be alive, and the evil spirits whom they worship? For where Christ is named, idolatry is destroyed and the fraud of evil spirits is exposed; indeed, no such spirit can endure that Name, but takes to flight on sound of it.

This is the work of One Who lives, not of one dead; and, more than that, it is the work of God. It would be absurd to say that the evil spirits whom He drives out and the idols which He destroys are alive, but that He Who drives out and destroys, and Whom they themselves acknowledge to be Son of God, is dead.

Like Peter in Acts 3-4, Athanasius could see that the acts of the risen Lord Jesus were proof of his victory. Oh that, like the believers that Athanasius wrote about, Christians today would grasp the extent and the magnitude of Jesus' victory! I was reminded as I read of Richard Dawkins' claim in The God Delusion that he couldn't really see heavenly-mindedness in the lives of Christians. Perhaps an exaggeration on his part but, oh, that we would be more heavenly-minded! Oh that we would know and live in the light of the fact that the last enemy, death, has been defeated by Christ!

I pray that my life might be an apologetic that could have been used by Athanasius to prove that Jesus is alive and active in his world.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Grace unmeasured

Had a great time at church this morning. There's one guy at church called Ken that I find it particularly stimulating to chat with.

This morning we had one of those meandering theological conversations - enjoying Jesus, enjoying the gospel. As part of our conversation, we were speaking on how grateful we are that John's Gospel contains Chapter 21, when Peter is reinstated by Jesus. The Gospel could have so easily finished without that final epilogue - yet it's presence illustrates so clearly that the Christian life and Christian leadership is built all upon grace.

Ken and I went on to chat about how the apostle John was evidently bowled over by grace. It shows in his Gospel and in his letters.

This ties in very closely with something I noticed as I've been working through the early chapters of Acts. I love Acts 8, where Peter and John go to see the new Samaritan believers. Only a few years earlier (Luke 9), John and James ask Jesus to call down fire on the Samaritans when he is rejected in a Samaritan town. But now, following Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension John is in Samaria, humbly welcoming in his former enemies as brothers. So sure is he that the gospel is for the Samaritans that he avoids returning to Jerusalem immediately but spends more time preaching the gospel throughout Samaria (Acts 8:25).

John's grasp of the grace he had been shown evidently saw him see the need to show grace to others. Perhaps John had the Samaritans in mind as he wrote this: 'This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.' (1 John 3:16)

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Can we be certain about anything at all? (1)

I'm currently reworking a lunchbar I wrote a couple of years ago with the above title. As I've worked on it again, I've realised I need to do a bit more thinking in some areas. I want to write a mini-series of posts with my understanding of things so far, and I'd be happy to engage with what others think too.

In this first post, I want to briefly introduce the philosophical background to the question of certainty, and the recent increase in scepticism.

Whilst I think it's over-simplifying things to say that modern philosophy was more comfortable with the idea of certainty, it did have a more comfortable relationship with the idea of being certain than we do today. John Stuart Mill, for instance, wrote that, 'There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for purposes of human life.' The modern view of 'truth' was correlative to this position on certainty: it was generally assumed that truth existed and could be known.

This view of truth and certainty was eroded during the 20th Century, as continental postmodern philosophy increasingly developed. Ludwig Wittgenstein's book On Certainty, written shortly after the Second World war, was founded upon the premise that the way that we understand things depends on the context from which we see them. Each person is restricted in our view of the world by their embodied perspective. One postmodern theorist asked the question: what shape is a piece of A4 paper? His reply was: if you look at it one way, it is a very thin, straight line. Look at it from a different angle and it is a rectangle. It is your perspective that tells you what shape a piece of A4 paper is.

And it's not only that we can only be in any one place at any one time. Feminist and post-colonial writings have woken us up to the fact that the way in which we diagnose and understand any given thing or situation depends upon a whole series of elements and characteristics: one's period in history, thought world, personality, childhood, and so on. The way in which a humans understand things - even objects - are affected by whether, for instance, they are from Birmingham or Baghdad (see here for a posting on Jacques Derrida's work in this area). In other words, when you look at the world around you, you see it from within the horizons of your own world, and so do I, whether those horizons are linguistic, emotional, social, artistic, linguistic or whatever. Actually our perception of things are, at best, a limited or partial view of the truth.

Once we begin to grapple with these ideas, we see whether the postmodern attack on 'truth' is rooted. Indeed, theorist Jean Baudrillard said that it’s wrong to speak of 'truth' or 'facts' any more, but instead we should speak of ‘models of reality’. In addition, Foucault's work on power and knowledge led him to speak about a 'hermeneutic of suspicion': he argued that whenever someone is claiming to tell 'the truth' that they are trying to wield power over others. We're suspicious of the folks that phone us up to tell us 'the truth' about how they can cut our phone bills (often rightly, as we know there is a hidden agenda). Foucault calls us to be sceptical of all truth claims, because there is most likely more going on than just simple communication.

When we add the media to the mix, things get even more confusing! Baudrillardwrote extensively on the media. He argued that the modern media – including films, papers, TV and the internet – mediate the world to us in very powerful ways. It starts to become difficult to work our whether what is being presented is the real world, or merely someone else’s view of the world. In fact, Baudrillard famously claimed that we cannot possibly know whether world events such as the Gulf War actually ever occurred, because the only access we have to the events is mediated. Media inevitably give a partial and manipulated version of events. It’s impossible to know whether we are reacting on the basis of the real and [fairly] unmediated facts, or someone else’s version or manipulation of things. Again, we become our most sceptical when we think there’s power involved: “The government, or society [or whoever] wants me to believe this so that I will act in a certain way.” And we don’t like to think that we’re being manipulated in this way. We have lots and lots of information – but 'the truth' is obscured and considered by many to be unknowable. A number of books and films have picked up on these themes – books like Neuromancer by William Gibson, and films like The Matrix and Wag the Dog blur the boundaries between the real world and virtual reality. Perhaps the best recent example is The Truman Show – where the main character, Truman, lives in a totally artificial world - but has been unable to tell the difference for most of his life.

This view of the truth and spirit of scepticism has big implications: including for Christianity, our understanding of the Bible and for evangelism. In future posts, I'll pursue some of these areas.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Preaching penal substitution to abused people

Having read an entry on the Scripture coherence of the theories of the atonement, where I cited a recent article by Don Carson, I received an email from a friend of mine.

The email had lots of threads of thought, but one section of it has been particularly thought provoking. Here, my correspondent wrote the following: 'The ex-addicts and alcoholics who ask me about the Christian faith will not get a talk on penal substitution. Many of these guys have grown up in abusive households, beaten and punished by their own fathers, or are struggling with addiction. How would you describe the gospel to them? I'll leave you to think on that one.'

It's quite a challenge, isn't it? The clear line of thought in the email is that penal substitution is an idea abhorrent to anyone that has experienced any kind of abuse.

I've given some thought to this over the past couple of days, and here is what I think. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

(1) There are many ways of explaining the same gospel. This is obvious when we read the New Testament. Whilst the central nucleus - the 'kergyma' - of the gospel is the same, the way in which this message is articulated varies tremendously. One of the things that I have been learning over the past few years is that the gospel is far from one-dimension. I love the description of the gospel being like a tapestry, with many threads that stretch all of the way from Genesis to Revelation, all through the central point of Jesus' death and resurrection. So there are plenty of things that could be said to one who had been abused - Jesus came to make you whole (yes!), Jesus came to set you free from sin (yes!) - all these things are true, but they are only true because Jesus died as a wrath-bearing sacrifice in our place. We cannot, for instance, be freed from sin, until the righteous demands of the law due to our sin have been met.

(2) The Bible writers obviously did not think that this was a reason to avoid teaching penal substitution. One example will suffice. In his first letter, Peter addresses slaves and tells them to submit to their masters, 'not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh' (2:18). Suffering and harsh abuse were evidently part of what these slaves were experiencing (see 2:20). Yet in the same section (2:21-25), Peter goes on to show how Jesus' suffering is an example for their own suffering. Jesus 'bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness' (2:24). In fact, one of the themes of the whole letter is that Jesus' sufferings help us make sense of the unjust sufferings that we often face.

(3) Fundamentally, I think that this is a misunderstanding of the doctrine of penal substitution which shows a shortcomings in trinitarian theology
. My correspondent implies that penal substitution shows God the Father to be abusive in his punishment - something utterly abhorrent.

This is often a way in which penal substitution is caricatured: the Father abuses the Son. I addressed this objection in my recent talk on Isaiah 53. I think this misunderstanding boils down to a wrong view of the nature of the Trinity in the Godhead. For in Isaiah 53, like elsewhere, we see that the suffering endured by the Son or (in Isaiah 53 langauge) the Servant is voluntary. Additionally, both Father and Servant can look back and be satisfied (Isaiah 53:11) at what the cross achieves. It's not that the Son hates the Father for his actions in punishing him at the cross: 'for the joy set before him, he endured the cross' (Hebrews 12:2).

Perhaps most tellingly the Bible rules out any understanding of the atonement that minimises the suffering of the Father (and, by implication, the Spirit) at the cross. Romans 5:8, for instance, says, 'But God [the Father] demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were sinners, Christ died for us.' Or 'this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins' (1 John 4:10). The point that both Paul and John are making is that the giving of the Son was costly to the Father - that's how we know what love is. The Father did not enjoy seeing the Son made sin. So let us dismiss any idea that the Son alone suffered at the cross. Both the Father and the Son suffered at the cross.

I think to an abused person I would want to say this: Did you know that you were loved this much? Did you know that you had a Father like this, that would endure this agony for you?

(4) We need to be careful in the language and the analogies that we use in explaining the gospel. I'm currently reading Pierced for our Trangressions, a great book (thus far) looking to 'rediscover the glory of penal substitution'. One of the appendices is entitled 'A personal note to preachers' and warns of the danger of caricaturing the Bible's teaching on atonement. Several talk illustrations make Jesus out to be 'the fall guy'. May we never use such illustrations.

I'd be interested to hear what others think on this. How would you address my friend's questions?

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Book Review: 'The Living Church' (John Stott)

I think of all Christian leaders, teachers and theologians of the last 100 hundred years, John Stott has had more impact upon me as a Christian than any other.

This ministry to me has been both direct, through his books, through hearing him speak three times when I was a student in Bristol nearly six years ago and once through meeting him and getting to chat (when he tolerated a pasta bake we had made him for dinner!). Indirectly, I know I have benefited from his ministry too, as teachers and preachers who have been taught by Stott have in turn taught me.

The Living Church is John Stott's fiftieth book - and given his recent retirement from formal and public Christian ministry at the age of 86, I guess it might well be his last. In it, Stott look back at more than fifty years of experience in pastoral ministry, reflects on what he has learned about the church and sets a vision for the future. He longs to see 'radical conservative' churches: as he puts it, ''conservative' in the sense that they conserve what Scripture plainly requires, but 'radical' in relation to that combination of tradition and convention that we call 'culture'. Scripture is unchangeable, culture is not.'

Albeit with caveats that the early church wasn't perfect, as we so often romanticise it, Stott sees the description of the Jerusalem church in Acts 2:42-47 as showing four marks of a Spirit-filled church with serves as a model for churches today. These marks learning through the Biblical teaching of the apostles, sharing in generous fellowship, worshipping together (both formally and informally) and evangelising: compassionately taking the gospel message to the world. The rest of the book unpacks these further, and also includes chapters on church leadership, preaching, giving and community involvement.

Before sitting down to read this book, I'd not read any Stott in quite some while. What I was immediately reminded of is the complete sharpness with which he writes, often conveying quite difficult ideas simply. The chapters are easy to follow and structured for memorability. And the other thing to strike me from this book is the pastoral and authentic heart that John Stott has. He will not, for instance, be drawn into silly arguments like the evangelism - social action dichotomy, but simply says that a church that loves after Jesus will seek to do both. Unlike many other writers (and particularly many of those who write on the subject of the church), love shines through each page as the principle characteristic of the church, on which all of the others are built. And I have to say I loved the way in which Stott mixes theology with reflections on his own experiences, and shares pitfalls and dangers he's experienced in his own leadership.

Much of what I read was neither new nor surprising. What Stott brings to the plethora of books on this issue is a wonderful godly-hearted emphasis, which will affirm many of its readers.

If I was to nit-pick, then I might note that much of the content of this book has evidently been 'recycled' from previous material. The chapter on giving has been published elsewhere, and the material on preaching is more widely available too. In addition, I think Stott is more comfortable operating in a 'modernist' mindset than the more 'postmodern' worldview that characterises much of society today (and why shouldn't he, as an octogenarian?!).

Yet this book is still valuable. It represents the wisdom of a man who has stood firm for the gospel, and sought to preach God's word, both in season and out of season. It deserves to be read by young church pastors and those, like me, who might one day find themselves in church leadership. Upon finishing the book, I decided to send it to a friend of mine who is just cutting his teeth in local church ministry. I don't think it will radically change his view on either church or his own ministry, but I hope that upon reading it, he might be inspired to keep going as a 'conservative radical'.

I'll close with one of my favourite quotes from the book, where following a section on 'shepherding the sheep' from Acts 20:18-27, Stott reminds church pastors that it is God's church that they are pastoring:

'We should refer to God's church to which we have been called to serve. This truth should not only humble us but also inspire us, and particularly motivate us to the loving care of God's people. We need this incentive, for sheep are not all the clean and cuddly creatures they look from a distance. On the contrary, they are dirty and subject to nasty pests. They need to be regularly dipped in strong chemical to rid them of lice, ticks and worms. They are also unintelligent and obstinate. I hesitate to apply the metaphor too literally, or describe the people of God as 'dirty, lousy and stupid'! But some church members can be a great trial to their pastors, and vice versa. So how shall we persevere in loving the unlovable? Only, I think, by remembering how previous they are. They are so valuable that the three persons of the Trinity are together in caring for them. I find it very challenging, when trying to help a difficult person, to say under my breath: 'How precious you are in God's sight! God the Father loves you. Christ died for you. The Holy Spirit has appointed me as your pastor. As the three persons of the Trinity are committed to your welfare, it is a privilege for me to serve you.''


The total number of undergraduates that will be studying at the campuses on which I work next term according to official figures.

I've been reflecting on this number over the past few days. I find it daunting. It's bigger than the whole population of Lancaster, and nearly twice the population of Kendal. It's more people than you could jam into Anfield. And many of them are very lost.

Most of those people I will never meet. Many might not even meet a Christian. Total CU attendance across the campuses is about 300. And yet for many of the forty eight thousand, possibly the best chance that they will get to hear the gospel in a way that is meaningful is during their time at university.

Do please pray for the CUs up here, particularly as they put the finishing touches to Freshers' Week outreach. Pray that they will be salt and light amongst the thousands.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Mark Dever interviews Will Metzger

Thanks to Dave Bish for pointing out that Mark Dever has an interview with Will Metzger online here.

Will Metzger is rapidly becoming a real hero of mine. I reviewed his book Tell the Truth here. Dever's interview is long, but worth listening to. He speaks knowledgeably about sharing the gospel in society today. In addition, Metzger's forty year plus experience in IVCF, the US equivalent of UCCF, gives him real insight into how local churches can partner with para-church ministries. He's particularly helpful in suggesting how local churches can best support members of their congregations involved in para-church ministry.

I thank my God every time I remember you....

I met a friend for lunch today who became a Christian about half a year ago in the follow-up to one of the CU missions that took place up here. For me, meeting with new Christians is one of the very best parts of my job. Today, I have returned home with my heart full of joy.

Fresh in my mind are Paul's words from Philippians, that 'he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion' (Philippians 1:6). I'm delighted to see the way in which God is obviously at work in my friend's life. He speaks with a smile on his face as he reflects on the grace that God has shown him. I know few new Christians with such a brilliant grasp of grace. He longs to see his family share in the grace that he himself has received. He hates the sin which clings on in his life and spoke of how he longs the Spirit to give him new habits, and the frustration that he feels at not changing more quickly. He loves the church he has found in his own town (having recently graduated) and is looking for ways to serve the other Christians there. He has a real humility in knowing that he's not the finished article.

I think that today I felt some of the same joy that Paul felt as he thought about the Philippians. It is marvellous to reflect upon the works of the God we worship - the God who saves people by grace and then, in his ongoing grace, continues to change them to be more like Jesus. His word is powerful and true and active!

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Hell: the dirty word

Free Online Dating

A friend of mine sent me the link to Mingle2, a website which, amongst other things, rates pages on the Internet and gives them a cinema-style rating. Imagine my horror, then, to find that this very page had been rated 'NC-17', the equivalent of a British '18' Certificate!

The problem? Well, in short the word 'hell' - which apparently appears 67 times on the blog (mostly in this article, I think). It seems that the 'h-word' is something that people just aren't able to tolerate. They hate it. I remember clearly being attacked by a guy in a bar at Lancaster University when I happened to tell another person there, in the course of a long conversation, that I believed that if he rejected Jesus then there was no other way of being saved from the torture of hell. I was told I had no right to say such a thing.

I can't say that I enjoy talking about hell. In fact, it would be a strange brand of Christianity that would. My stomach is turning even as I write now. But I am convinced that it is important to speak of hell as a reality when it comes to it. Jesus did. And nothing else conveys the seriousness of their predicament to a person who has turned from their loving heavenly Father onto the road of death. Without Christ, we are on the road to a hopeless eternity. Additionally, it is only when we see hell as a reality, that we appreciate the depth of love and grace shown to us in Christ. Tim Keller is brilliant on this, in his article 'Preaching hell to a postmodern age: brimstone for the broad-minded', available online here. He says:
Following a recent sermon on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the post-service question-and-answer session was packed with more than the usual number of attenders. The questions and comments focused on the subject of eternal judgment.

My heart sank when a young college student said, "I've gone to church all my life, but I don't think I can believe in a God like this." Her tone was more sad than defiant, but her willingness to stay and talk showed that her mind was open.

Usually all the questions are pitched to me, and I respond as best I can. But on this occasion people began answering one another.

An older businesswoman said, "Well, I'm not much of a churchgoer, and I'm in some shock now. I always disliked the very idea of hell, but I never thought about it as a measure of what God was willing to endure in order to love me."

Then a mature Christian made a connection with a sermon a month ago on Jesus at Lazarus' tomb in John 11. "That text tells us that Jesus wept," he said, "yet he was also extremely angry at evil. That's helped me. He is not just an angry God or a weeping, loving God—he's both. He doesn't only judge evil, but he also takes the hell and judgment himself for us on the cross."

The second woman nodded, "Yes. I always thought hell told me about how angry God was with us, but I didn't know it also told me about how much he was willing to suffer and weep for us. I never knew how much hell told me about Jesus' love. It's very moving."

It is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus' proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding.


Tuesday, 17 July 2007

The model of Christian ministry from Colossians 1:24

Have you ever asked yourself how many prayers and tears, how much heartache and disappointment other people must have gone through for you in order that you might come to Christ? Even when we read the Bible, we should have the suffering of others close at mind: the blood of martyrs, the fears of persecuted people throughout centuries, the sweat and labour of translators, and the effort of teachers to make it plain and clear.

This is something I've been thinking about as I've been studying Colossians 1 for the cell groups at the University of Cumbria CU in Lancaster (formerly St Martin's College).

Colossians 1:24 is a verse I'd previously found tricky, but I'm now convinced that Paul is speaking about the sacrificial giving for the spiritual growth of others that I've outlined above. In this verse, Paul is saying that the pattern of suffering for the sake of others did not end with Jesus’ death on the cross. When Paul says that he is ‘filling up in his flesh what it still lacking in Christ’s sacrifice’, he's obviously not saying that Jesus’ work on the cross to pay for sins is somehow unfinished (as this would counter the whole idea of the book). Instead, Paul is speaking of how he rejoices that through his suffering, spiritual benefit has come to the Colossians. Paul can look back at his ministry, modelled on the infinitely greater sacrifice of Christ, and see that his own sacrifice results in glory for God and salvation and maturity for other believers. For this reason, Paul can rejoice in his suffering: it is achieving a wonderful purpose.

For Paul, this responsibility was that of apostle to the Gentiles, which he goes on to describe in verses 25-27 (c.f. Acts 9:15-16). Although my Christian ministry is somewhat different to Paul's (!), the method is actually quite similar: teaching people God's word and correcting them to make them spiritually mature. In that respect, I'm sure Paul would have known similar temptations to those I face. It is so easy to become self-indulgent even whilst apparently serving others. It's easy to want the reputation of being helpful or a great Bible teacher.

And so as I have dug into Colossians I have found myself praying that I'd have the same attitude of Paul: that I would be willing to suffer - even joyful to suffer in self-sacrifice - if somehow through his grace God can work to bring spiritual life or maturity to others. As I approach the term ahead, I pray that I'd also be appreciative of the way in which, by grace, God has used others to work towards spiritual maturity in me.

George Verwer: denominations or denominationalism?

I've just been sent the article below, which is written by Operation Mobilisation's George Verwer. I wouldn't have phrased some of what George writes in exactly the same way, but I've reproduced the article in full because the antagonism to para-church organisations, like the one I work for, is something that I've come across a number of times over the past few years. Whilst I agree that the local church has God-given primacy, I also know that para-church organisations do wonderful service for many local churches.

In the ministry of mobilisation we are faced with many obstacles and complexities. One of the toughest is the denominationism which is usually combined with deception and pride.

I am pro denominations (not all of them), but anti-denominationalism. By that I mean the attitude that makes you believe that yours is the only true church group or at least better than all the others. There is a huge lack of reality and humility among such people, especially now with over 27,000 denominations. One group publicly teaches that all others are wrong and the only way is the way they believe and teach. This, of course, becomes cultic and manipulative. There are believers in such groups and we must exercise love and patience because that is all they know.

It is even sadder that many denominations don't believe that God works much outside their group or local church. By the way, some of the stronger church groups don't want to be called a denomination which is part of their judgementalism against other denominations. One group recently produced in their denominational magazine two articles against what they call para-church agencies making all kinds of false statements. This is especially sad as they have some good churches and lots of wonderful Christians. I find these articles (and they are not new) very divisive and hurtful. It is something that I have noticed around the world for the past 50 years.

Without realising they write off as second-class or worse,

1. all mission agencies
2. most Christian radio and TV
3. most Christian camps and youth ministries
4. the Christian Film industry and most internet teaching and evangelism
5. most all Christian literature and Bible Agencies
6. almost all Christian book shops
7. most Christian Conference conventions like Keswick
8. most Christian Relief & Development Agencies
9. all international networks like WEA or
10. all missionary aviation agencies
11. all ship ministry agencies
12. most evangelistic agencies like Billy Graham and Luis
13. Student Movements and Organisations like UCCF, Campus Crusade, the Navigators
14. Christian Arts & Music ministries
15. most Bible colleges or seminaries and other Christian institutions
16. most drug and alcohol rehabilitation agencies
17. many evangelistic efforts like the Alpha course

The list can go on.

It is almost impossible to honestly maintain such a position as it denies so much of what God has done over these 2000 years and what He is doing right now. I know of cases where young people felt the call of God to join a mission event for a summer and were told by their local church leaders that it could not possibly be of God. Can you imagine the confusion and discouragement that comes from such behaviour? As Bible believers we are a minority and on a narrow way. Why do some get joy out of making it more narrow?

The good news is that increasing numbers of churches and whole denominations believe that most, not all, Christian biblical 'so-called' para-church agencies are a vital part of what God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are doing in the world today. There is only one church and all true believers are part of that church.

Walls have come down when those of us in such groups repent of not esteeming more highly local churches and denominations. I did that publicly once in front of 500 mission and denominational leaders from around the world. One of the most crucial things to remember is that many of the mission agencies are responsible for planting thousands of local churches and even whole denominations, like SIM in Nigeria birthing a whole huge dynamic denomination. We could give many other examples.

I have received beautiful letters from people who have apologized for their attitude toward 'para-church' groups and who have changed their viewpoint.

As mobilizers, let's get involved in breaking down the barriers and praying for more workers to be released into the harvest. Let all of us who know Jesus and are heavenbound realise that we need each other.

I submit this hoping that it will increase humility, reality and a great unity of purpose in reaching all peoples with the Gospel.

George Verwer

PS Please feel free to pass this on in any format.

George Verwer
PO Box 17
Bromley, Kent

Email: or

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Why Christians deserve hell

Earlier in the week I had a conversation with a man who thought that Christians were supremely arrogant and actually quite evil in saying that others were going to hell. He was quite surprised when I told him I thought that all Christians deserve hell too. Below is a talk I gave earlier in the year addressing this very subject. All quotes are taken from the New Living Translation of the Bible.

People today do not often talk about, or think about, hell. Most commonly, when they are speaking about hell, they are speaking about trashy ITV1 television programmes. We have neighbours from hell, holidays from hell and even, recently, weddings from hell.

If you type in ‘Are you going to hell?’ to Google, you get some interesting results, including ‘The Hell Test’, which asks you questions including ‘Ever laughed at someone else’s misfortune?’, ‘Ever used narcotics?’ and ‘Ever ignored a homeless person in the street?’ According to that survey, I’m personally not going to hell.

You can also read comments such as these. One says, ‘I don’t think I’ll go to hell when I die … I have tried to live a life filled with love and respect, and I’ve tried to live by the Ten Commandments.’ Or this one: ‘If the question is, on a scale between one and ten, do you think you are going to heaven or hell, then I guess I’m about a five. I don’t know, but I’d like to believe that my Maker wouldn’t torture me for eternity.’

Or statements like this are also common: ‘I'd like to say that I do not believe in hell. There are too many great people that meet all the prerequisites to qualify for eternal damnation for me to accept that God would be able to send them or anybody else to hell. Hell is such a, for lack of a better word, hellish place that nobody, regardless of their sins, deserves to spend eternity at. God is supposedly forgiving and loves us all more than rest of us can love him back. So how can he send people to hell?’ And we hear this commonly, don’t we? The idea that we don’t believe in all this stuff about hell, but in a God of love. In fact the recent ‘Soul of Britain’ survey found that nearly 75% of Britons believe in heaven, but only 28% believe in hell. So it seems we would prefer to believe in heaven without hell. Of course, whether or not something is true does not depend on what we prefer.

But today, if a Christian talks about hell, it’s automatically assumed that they are speaking in a really graceless and insensitive manner, and that the Christian God is primitive and barbaric, old fashioned and immoral. When we hear of this talk of punishment, it’s common to hear people say things like, “I wouldn't do that to anyone, and if God is good, he wouldn't do that to me. Your God is morally inferior to me.”

Well, this isn’t an easy subject to talk about, but for the remainder of my time, I’m going to unpack more of what the Bible has to say about hell, and then think about why Christians deserve hell too. And I hope that against the blackness of this background, you’ll begin to see how incredible the Christian message about Jesus really is.

People sometimes say that the Old Testament God was a God of wrath and judgment, but Jesus proclaimed a message of love. But this is not true at all: most of what Christians teach about hell came straight from the mouth of Jesus, who claimed to be God in human form. In fact, read through Jesus’ teaching and apart from teaching about his own identity, Jesus spoke about judgement and hell more than anything else. More than half of his parables were about these subjects.

Jesus uses a lot of picture language when he speaks about hell, and it’s sometimes difficult to know whether he’s using these words as a literal description of hell, or whether it’s metaphorical. Either way, hell is a horrific place. Jesus spoke of hell as a place of outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth. He spoke of hell as the consequence of God’s holy wrath upon the ungodly – a place of torment and agony, where Jesus says the fire is never put out.

One of Jesus’ most common ways of describing existence after death was by the name of Gehenna. This comes from the name of a place: the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. In Israel’s history, this was the place where the Israelite kings Ahaz and Manasseh had sacrificed their children to pagan gods, by burning them in the fire. It was an infamous place. The nearest equivalent today would be somewhere like Auschwitz, a horrific reputation. By Jesus’ time, Gehenna had become the city’s rubbish tip, thereby explaining several of Jesus’ metaphors: it was a place of decay, where the maggots and worms never stopped feasting; it was a place of burning, where the fires never went out. And so Gehenna is the place that came to be used as a symbol for the place of final judgment on the evil.

I hope you’re beginning to see that some of the medieval depictions of hell fall well short of the Biblical description. Too often these were made by people who had forgotten that, as we’ll see, all of deserve hell, and it is a sobering thing, not something to celebrate.

But what I’d still want to say is that Jesus' descriptions are nonetheless horrific. Much of the description of hell in the Bible is symbolic, but only because the reality of hell is unimaginable; it is greater than what symbols could convey. What happens after death to those who do not turn to God through faith in Jesus is everlasting conscious suffering - rejection, regret, decay and pain. Either we accept that Jesus knew what he was talking about, and meant what he said, or we decide that we know better than he does.

I guess our instant reaction is to think: well, surely it’s unjust that people should face eternal suffering. But the Bible’s answer is this: No. Instead, hell is a place of dreadful justice. In other ways, when the question, “Why do good people go to hell?” is asked, the Bible’s clear and loving answer is this: they don’t. The problem is that none of us is good.

Our problem is that we think that only really, really evil people deserve hell. So we can nod along with the Sun’s headline ‘ROT IN HELL’ following the death of the moors murderer, Myra Hindley, or ‘GO TO HELL’, which was the headline regarding Ian Huntley, who committed the Soham murderers. When it comes to people that we perceive as really evil, we want justice to be done. We think of someone like Harold Shipman, who committed murder after murder, served a prison sentence for a couple of years before committing suicide and think, “He never received justice.” And for the Myra Hindleys and Ian Huntleys and Harold Shipmans of this world, and whoever murdered Stephen Lawrence, we’re only too happy for them to face God’s wrath. We want justice.

And because God is a God of love, because he cares about me and you, he is a God of justice. God cares about the murdered Soham schoolgirls. He cares about Stephen Lawrence. He cares about six million Jews. But here’s the thing. Because he’s a God of perfect justice, he also cares about the injustices and evils in our lives. He cares for those who are damaged because of our lies. He cares about broken homes. He cares about marginalised women. God cares about lies and lust and adultery. And so, because God is loving, he is completely just. And that means he is completely just in his treatment of us too.

See the truth is that each of us has ruled God out. We’ve rebelled against him. We have crossed him out, having taken his good gifts – including our every breath, on which we depend from God. We’ve taken all of the good things that God has given us in his word, but then snapped our fingers in his face and told him we don’t want him to be God. In our world, we want to be in the box seat. And in doing so, we’ve ruined ourselves, ruined other people and ruined the world. So when I say you are sinful, I’m saying you’ve ruled God out.

In Romans 1, Paul uses some words to describe those with whom God is angry: 'Their lives are full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarrelling, deception, malicious behaviour, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.' [Romans 1:29-32].

The point is this: if you have ruled God out, then many of these words will describe you – maybe not all of them, but if any of them describe you, then they are proof you have ruled God out. I know that many describe me – my life is full of deception, often gossip. I’ve backstabbed people, I’m often proud and boastful. And because God is just, I deserve his judgement.

And the point is this: God will not allow us to carry on going our own way. That would mean no end to human injustice and wickedness. God will not let the evil go on blackmailing others for all eternity. There will come a day when he will give them what they want. This is hell. CS Lewis put it like this: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Your will be done' and those to whom God says in the end, 'Your will be done.' All that are in hell choose it.’

The theologian Jim Packer expressed the same point slightly differently when he said: ‘Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God's action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less.’

And that is why hell is a place of justice. It is where we shall get what we deserve. We are very keen, these days, on getting our rights. In hell, we shall get our rights. But we shall not like what we get.

I hope you can see, then, that it’s not only those people that we perceive as being really evil that deserve hell, but that each of us deserves hell. I deserve hell, you deserve hell. The Bible is very clear on this point. It’s not that Christians have somehow wowed God through their good behaviour or religiosity. All of us deserve hell. Paul, one of the Bible writers, wrote to the church in Ephesus with these words: 'Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.' [Ephesians 2:1-3]

It doesn’t come much clearer than that, does it? Christians deserve hell too. I deserve hell, I’ve ruled God out. As the last sentence of our passage put it, ‘by our very nature’ – because of our sinfulness – ‘we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.’ Christians are as guilty as anyone else. And when we are judged, there will be nowhere to go. There will be no place left to hide. The French atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said this: ‘The last thing I want is to be subject to the unremitting gaze of a holy God.’ But he will face God, just like all other people, including Christians.

So we see that hell is not about God being cruel to innocent people. Ultimately hell is the result of the way the universe is - that we are selfish and sinful people living in a universe made by a holy, just and fair God. Hell is as much the expression of God's goodness as heaven is. It is the expression of God's justice for those who will not accept His mercy.

If we have a problem with this, it is because we do not take our own evil seriously enough. We convince ourselves that we are innocent, we’re fine, and that we do not deserve to be judged. But there are no innocent people in hell - only the evil go there, and there is no second chance. The idea of purgatory is not a Scriptural idea. But it’s not rejecting a second chance that would make us guilty, we are already guilty.

The point is this. We are guilty and we cannot help ourselves. We deserve hell. And the answer, incredibly, comes from God, the very one who we have rebelled against and crossed out. And so we read two famous verses from the Bible, which make no sense if hell is not a reality: 'For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.' [John 3:16] 'The Lord isn’t being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.' [2 Peter 3:9]

Do you see what these verses are saying? God does not want to condemn people to hell, and so he’s made a way possible of forgiving us. He’s done so through sending his Son. Jesus, God in human form, went to the cross on our behalf and took the punishment that we deserved in order that we might be forgiven. Jesus took hell for us. God, the one against whom we have rebelled in our sin, took the punishment of our rebellion on the cross so that we might be forgiven. And through this, and this alone, God is able to fairly forgive guilty people like us. And why did he do so? Because he loves us! What incredible love, that God is prepared to take the consequences of our rebellion upon himself, so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to him!

If you think about it, given what we have seen, it’s incredible that we have been given this opportunity! All we really deserve is hell. And the really amazing thing is not that there is a hell, but that God has given us an opportunity to repent, to turn back to him and to place our trust in Jesus’ sacrifice. That’s what the second of those verses picks up on. Right now, we all deserve to be in hell, all of mankind, Christians included. And the amazing thing is not that there is a hell, but that we are not all there today! The amazing thing is that heaven will be populated by humans at all – it’s only through God’s intervention. Because heaven is not made up of good people – none of us is good, but it will be made up of forgiven people. People who can stand before God because they have placed their trust in Jesus’ sacrifice for them. I can only say with absolute confidence that I know my place in heaven is secure as a Christian for one reason. It’s not that I’m great, or I’m nice, or because I go to church, but because I can say with confidence that Jesus has paid the price for my rebellion against God. And because it is paid, it does not need to be paid again.

I’m close to finishing. I hope you see that when Jesus speaks about hell, he is not doing it vindictively. Rather, he speaks like a doctor, who explains what the problem is so that we’ll respond rightly to treatment. And the treatment for sin, the only treatment that works, is to trust Jesus’ sacrifice for you. Let me put it like this: if we are really in danger of hell, and Jesus was loving enough to warn us about the consequences of rebelling against God, what can be more important than to get right with God now, while we have the opportunity?

You sometimes hear people say, 'There's no urgency. I can turn to God whenever I want to.' But the reality is that the situation is urgent and pressing. No-one knows what will happen to them tomorrow. Think of the thousands of people who went to work in the World Trade Center on September 11th. They expected to have a normal day just like any other - and yet in a matter of seconds they were swept into eternity. You do not know where you will be this time tomorrow. Neither do I. The Bible says 'Today is the day of salvation.' It also says 'Today you must listen to his voice. Do not harden your hearts against him.’ Today would be a great day to repent – to recognise your rebellion against God – and to place your trust in Jesus and to know his forgiveness.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Establishing the coherence of the Scriptural teaching on the atonement

Don Carson has written a great article on why the doctrine of penal substitution comes so readily under attack [HT: Mike Gilbart-Smith].

I particularly found the section I've quoted below helpful. Talking to some people recently, one does walk away with the impression that certain views of the cross can be freely ignored or dismissed as just conjectures from a particular viewpoint of history. Enjoy:

In recent years there has been a lot of chatter about various “models” of the atonement that have appeared in the history of the church: the penal substitution model, the Christus Victor model, the exemplary model, and so forth. The impression is frequently given that today's Christians are free to pick and choose among these so-called “models.” But for any Christian committed to the final authority of Scripture, this approach is methodologically flawed. It allows historical theology to trump Scripture. Surely the right question to ask is this: Which, if any, of these so-called “models” is exegetically warranted by the Bible itself? For instance, are there passages in which biblical writers insist that Christ in his death triumphed over the powers of darkness? Are there passages in which Christ's self-sacrifice becomes a moral model for his followers? Are there passages in which Christ's death is said to be a propitiation for our sins, i.e. a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God? If the answer is “Yes” to these three options--and there are still more options I have not mentioned here--then choosing only one of them is being unfaithful to Scripture, for it is too limiting. Christians are not at liberty to pick and choose which of the Bible's teachings are to be treasured.

There is another question that must be asked when people talk about “models” of the atonement. Assuming we can show that several of them are warranted by Scripture itself, the question to ask is this: How, then, do these “models” cohere? Are they merely discrete pearls on a string? Or is there logic and intelligibility to them, established by Scripture itself?

One recent work that loves to emphasize the Christus Victor “model”--Christ by his death is victor over sin and death--somewhat begrudgingly concedes that penal substitution is found in a few texts, not least Romans 8:3. But this work expends no effort to show how these two views of the atonement should be integrated. In other words, the work in question denigrates penal substitution as a sort of minor voice, puffs the preferred “model” of Christus Victor, and attempts no integration. But I think it can be shown (though it would take a very long chapter to do it) that if one begins with the centrality of penal substitution, which is, as we have seen, grounded on a deep understanding of how sin is an offense against God, it is very easy to see how all the other so-called “models” of the atonement are related to it. The way Christ triumphs over sin and death is by becoming a curse for us, by satisfying the just demands of his heavenly Father, thereby silencing the accuser, and rising in triumph in resurrection splendor because sin has done its worst and been defeated by the One who bore its penalty. Moreover, in the light of such immeasurable love, there are inevitably exemplary moral commitments that Christ's followers must undertake. In other words, it is easy to show how various biblical emphases regarding the atonement cohere if one begins with penal substitution. It is very difficult to establish the coherence if one begins anywhere else.

Breaking the spell

My good friend Gareth Leaney has written an article on the recent upturn in interest in witchcraft amongst teenage girls.

It's been published by the newspaper Evangelicals Now. It's an interesting read. You can read the article in full here.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007


CS Lewis once wrote, 'Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.' It's true. And one of the things I have found most moving and challenging as I've read through Matthew's Gospel has been Jesus' teaching on forgiveness.

I guess partly this has struck home because in recent months I've felt called to forgive people that I believe have wronged me. I guess partly this has hit home because I've been made aware more recently that we really do live in a cursed and broken world. I guess also I've had cause to reflect on specific cases where forgiveness has occurred and I wonder if in the same position I'd be able to forgive - Anthony Walker's mum, for instance, or the kind of forgiveness shown in this moving article from Tearfund which put my own situations in their true perspective.

For Jesus, forgiveness is vital. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to say that forgiveness is a condition of salvation. Obviously, he's not speaking of a works-based righteousness, as the whole of Matthew's Gospel shows that salvation is by God's grace alone. However, Jesus does seem to say that a person who finds it impossible to forgive has not understood the depth of forgiveness that they themselves had received from God (see 5:7, 6:12, 6:14-15).

I have found the teaching that Jesus gives in chapter 18 helpful here, as I think this clarifies in greater detail what forgiveness is and what it is not. The whole chapter speaks of how we relate to others in 'the kingdom' - in other words, other who have placed their trust in Jesus. I love the way in which the teaching flows here. The first half of the chapter speaks of welcoming others who have trusted Jesus, regardless of how 'sinful' they appear (Jesus is clearly rebuking the self-righteous Pharisees here), whilst clearly still teaching the sinfulness of sin. Jesus is the good shepherd who has come to rescue people from sin, even really sinful people!

This then leads into the second section, from verse 15. How are we to relate to people that 'sin against us' (compare verses 15 and 21)? Verses 15-20 outline Jesus' 'grievance procedure' - the fault is (at first gently) pointed out to the offender (see Ephesians 4:2). However, forgiveness undergirds all of this - Jesus calls Peter to forgive seventy-seven times (i.e. an unlimited number of times), forgiving because he has himself been forgiven much, as the parable of the unmerciful servant shows. Indeed verse 35 says that forgiveness must come 'from the heart': in other words, no grudges can be held.

So what does this teach us about forgiveness?

First of all: God's forgiveness of us. The parable shows that it is neither a cheap pardon nor a let-off based upon our own attempts to atone for our wrongdoing by trying a bit harder. Instead, it is the cancellation of a massive, unpayable debt. A talent was equivalent to twenty years' salary for a labourer - the sum that is cancelled here is the equivalent of millions of pounds in present day money. Jesus makes it clear that, however much we have been wronged by others, it is equivalent to only a few pounds when compared to that we have received from God. In other words, if we are not willing to forgive those that have wronged us, we have not appreciated the sheer scale of forgiveness we have received. Indeed, it shows our repentance is only skin deep. As George Herbert said, 'He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.'

However, I think more can be said about our forgiveness of others. It's obviously not certain things:

- pretending that what a person has done doesn't matter - Jesus makes it clear that sin really does matter (verse 6) - it's dangerous - and for that reason we're to humbly go and point it out when we have been sinned against (verse 15);
- bringing peace at any price, particularly if this will lead to future sin (again, see verse 6): forgiveness is obviously not set up against, for instance, legal punishment for a crime;
- conditional on a person not doing it again (verses 21-22);
- having to like a person - this doesn't seem to come into the equation (we're to love them, but not necessary like them).

So what is forgiveness? Well it seems to me that Jesus models this. It means loving someone and wanting the best for them. Love wants the good for an enemy, even if they have hurt us. As I said above, sometimes this love will show itself in wanting justice to be done in punishment (for instance in the legal sense) but it will always want the best for the offender (see Matthew 5:43-48). This is perhaps most clearly shown in Jesus' cry on the cross - "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" - the emphasis here not on ignorance but on the fact that the people should have realised that what they were doing was wrong. Jesus does not say that the sin that led to his crucifixion didn't matter - obviously it did - yet he still wanted the very best for them, which his death provided: reconciliation with God.

So what does this mean for me? It means I'm called to forgive - not to say that things didn't matter, but to go in with an attitude of seeking the best for those who have sinned against me. It means that, by God's grace, I'll approach them in the future seeking their good, even if it means the same thing might happen again.

Love is hard. Love maybe shown be through gritted teeth at first, but by God's grace I hope it will not lead to bitterness but eventually reconciliation. After all, that's the power of the gospel as we reflect on the immense grace and forgiveness we have been shown.

More from Moldova

I've heard a little more from the team in Moldova. They're now at the English and Bible Camp, but I received an email from Ebek before she left.

It sounds like a lot of fun with Moldovan food and English lessons, but Ebek sent the following prayer requests:

We leave for camp tomorrow. I think we are all already tired but keen to get out there and serve. Pray that we stay united as a team and that we are effective. The bible studies are superb and it is a great oppourtunity to lead an evangelistic bible study so pray that conversations flow and that hearts are open to hearing the gospel. Also pray for the Christian Moldovans; that they will be keen to get involved and that we will all be united together to be a great army for Christ. As Flick put it - pray that when the little red fellow comes along we will put on God's armour!
The camp is exhausting - emotionally, physically and spiritually - so do keep praying for the team out there.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

"Just be true to yourself..."

We went to see Shrek 3 at the weekend. It's a good film, lots of fun and definitely stands alongside the quality of the preceding movies.

I don't want to spoil the plot, but the inevitable happy ending has the equally inevitable moral lesson. And Shrek 3's moral rings through loud and clear: 'just be true to yourself'. Which in turn is a theme that resonates within plenty of statements of popular culture today. Take former Sugababe Mutya Buena's offering Real Girl. It includes this line:

And all I can do is be true to myself
I don't need permission from nobody else

'Cause this is the real world, I'm not a little girl

I know exactly who I am

Meanwhile, type in 'be true to yourself' into Google and you'll get 323,000 matches. It's everywhere, on blogs, philosophy pages and self help websites across the globe. The phrase may owe itself to Shakespearean origins (“To thy own self be true and it follows, like the night the day, you can’t be false to any man”) but at the beginning of the 21st Century it appears everywhere like a mantra. So pop psychology and cliché the phrase may be ... but Shrek got me asking what it actually means!

Well, Larry at has this advice:

'While I was working in a "so-called" good job and doing a lot of the things I wanted to do at that time, I wasn't completely happy with my life. This was because I knew I wasn't using my potential and pursuing my passion and dreams. Like most people, I was simply passing up time. I examined myself in a mirror – carefully and thoughtfully. After thinking about what I really wanted to do, to have, and what kind of person I wanted to become, I knew I had to change for the better. I realized that if I kept on doing what I had been doing, then I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror five years later and be proud of that person. So from that moment on, I decided to develop my potential and make each day count, no matter what obstacles I may face. Although I haven't achieved everything I desired, and the last ten years have been very challenging, I'm pleased with myself. This is because I had spent more days doing the things I wanted to do, rather than doing the things I didn't.'

Meanwhile, Irene at True to Yourself Radio (no, I'm not making it up!) offers these words of wisdom:

We all have challenges, but our individual response to them determines our well-being. As I produce and host True to Yourself Radio, I, too, face many challenges. At this time it is one-woman show. I do everything from producing to hosting, from radio sales to promotion and marketing, from business operations to delivering an inspiring show every week. I am also a mother and primary caregiver of three little children (my husband travels a lot). And as I try to juggle it all, I count my blessings. It doesn’t matter that I am burning the midnight oil at my computer or reading late into the night the most current books of guests who will appear on upcoming shows. What matters most is that I am at home with my true nature. Every day I follow my heart’s desire and live my Truth. My new lifestyle allows me to unleash my creativity, evolve in my own personal growth and fulfil my dreams. Remember, you alone are responsible for your life. Every day is your time, your moment, and your reason for being. Take it as the gift it is; it will fill you up and lead you to joy. I hope you will join me, and together we will explore life’s possibilities.

It sounds good, doesn't it? But how am I to respond to these sentiments as a Christian?

Well, firstly, I think there's an element of 'being true to oneself' that I'd want to endorse. After all, God made us all different - with different passions and talents and skills and abilities - and he did so deliberately. When we use those passions and talents and skills and abilities in the right way, we reflect glory towards our Creator. And so it seems to me right to look for, say, jobs where those God-given passions and abilities can be best used.

Secondly, it seems to be that 'being true to oneself' is essentially a question of understanding one's identity. In order to be true to yourself, you need to develop a sense of who you are. And this is where I think the Christian worldview is quite different to those I've sketched above. The Biblical worldview says that we were deliberately created for a relationship with God, and to treat others in a God-glorifying way. In other words, God created us to enjoy his love for us and he calls us to grow in our relationship with him by living in line with what he says: loving the things he loves, hating the things he hates, so that in the way we treat one another we reflect his character. To be true to our nature as humans, then, is not to put ourselves first (which many of the above quotes suggest, and which seems to be a veiled and polite way of encouraging an me-centred selfishness) but to serve others in love, out of love for God.

Surely, this is why Jesus' words in John 8:31-32 make sense:
"If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." It's through Jesus that we are restored to our purpose, and where we know true freedom - living out the relationship with Creator that we were made for.

And so as a Christian I think I need to be quite suspicious of most that calls me to 'be true to myself'. It's true that I needn't put up a wall of pretence and pretend to be someone that I'm not: God made me me and his unconditional grace frees me to be transparent before him and others. But to be truly free doesn't call me to put my ambitions and my hopes and my wants first, but to put them last and to serve others in love. That's when I'm truly free and when I'm being genuinely true to my redeemed human nature.

The latest from Moldova

Just received this update from Olivia (a Lancaster CU student, pictured right with Ebek) who is on the Moldova team:

Well here I am again in the little internet 'cafe' (that serves no drinks - as Ebek pointed out so cannot actually be callled a cafe!). Weather is amazing here as usual - and makes a nice change to England! Two days into orientation and we are all pretty tired what with all the seminars and stuff - but still enjoying it all loads none the less. Looking forward to camp. Was lovely to see Natalia, Doina and Ion again. Hoping that some of the students from last year will come back again this year so can catch up. Hope all is going well with you. Liv xx
Let's keep praying for them all!

Monday, 2 July 2007

A new challenge

Linda and I have agreed to help to head up the 11-14 year olds' work at the church we attend in Lancaster, Moorlands Evangelical Church, from September this year.

It's a really exciting development. Linda works with older teenagers through her work at CXL, and for the last few months I've been feeling as though I'd quite like to do some work with the youth. However, we're also feeling pretty daunted by it all - your prayers would be much appreciated.

I've also discovered that there's now a series of talks online in video format in which you might be interested. Over a year ago, Chris and I came up with a series of talk titles based on people's moral objections against God, originally for use in a series of lunchbars during Freshers' Week at Lancaster last year. My good friend Michael Ots has now preached through this series at the church at which he works, Lansdowne Baptist Church in Bournemouth. You can view the videos here - the titles are abbreviated above the videos and shown in full as they start.