Thursday, 31 January 2008

Christians: judgemental hypocrites - why listen?

Text of a talk I'm giving today at Lancaster University. Any thoughts most welcome.

In a speech in 2006, Tony Blair called on the West not to give up on its moral responsibilities to the subjugated peoples of the world at Georgetown University in Washington. He received a distinctly frosty reception. One of the journalists that was reporting the speech in The Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, described that Tony Blair’s speech ‘was an idealist message immediately contaminated by the messenger.’ She went on: ‘His words sounded fraudulent, because he had lied over Iraq and was in contempt of the UN.’ And I guess that, whatever our view of the intervention in Iraq and its aftermath, we know what Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is describing. Blair’s speech was an idealistic message contaminated by the messenger and the broader context of the decisions that he had made. When we hear such speeches, we get cynical. We stop listening. And not only do we get cynical about the messenger, but also the message itself.

And I think that this is the kind of issue that today’s lunch-bar addresses with regard to Christianity. So often the mates I have seem to think that Christians say one thing and do precisely another. The East Enders character Dot Cotton is a good case in point. So often she’s keen to quote Scripture at others, so often she denounces the sin of others and casts judgement on others, yet seems oblivious to her own moral shortcomings – particularly her gossipy nature and craving to be at the centre of all news about others dirty washing (figuratively I mean in this case, and not just the dirty washing at the laundrette!). And so although Christians speak about things like truth and about living with authenticity and integrity, it seems like these things don’t even match up in their own lives. It seems that they are just being spiritual equivalents of Tony Blair’s Georgetown speech. I recently heard it put like this: ‘If Christianity is about a transforming relationship with God, why are Christians so hypocritical?’

When asked what one question about the Christian faith he finds most difficult to answer, a Christian friend of mine answered, “If Christ transforms us why do we see so little evidence of this in some of his followers?” And in saying this, he wasn’t saying that there aren’t many wonderful individual Christians and communities of Christians out there. Rather that a widespread objection to the Christian faith is the quality of life displayed by many Christians.

I remember hearing of a famous British Christian leader in the late 1990s, who had been held in high esteem in a well-attended church. Yet for many years he’d been having extra-marital affairs and eventually left his family. The devastation felt by his wife and children at this senseless betrayal was made all the more awful by the pain and disappointment felt by the many hundreds of members of the thriving church he had led. Naturally, the newspaper headlines followed, screaming ‘hypocrite’, and I guess many critics were reassured in the opinion that Christianity was impotent and empty, a useless religion for a bygone age, demanding moral standards which even its leaders were unable to live up to.

See, what this example shows is that the charge that Christians are hypocrites assumes one of two things: firstly, that a Christian has no right to judge another for their behaviour when they are themselves morally flawed; or secondly, that an encounter with Christ should morally transform a flawed person, but that this simply doesn’t seem to happen. Either way, it shows that the Christian worldview should be rejected.

I guess it’s also worth saying that people bring this objection for a number of reasons. For some this issue is simply an excuse to hide behind. If I can prove the statement “Christians are hypocrites”, then I don’t have to take the claims of Christ or the evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity seriously. For others, this question is personal and real. The victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, the congregation of a pastor who turned out to have his hands in the coffers, or those who’ve rubbed shoulders with self righteous and selfish churchgoers all paint a similar picture of disappointment with Christians causing them to close their hearts to Christ.

There may even be people here that have been hurt by Christians. Perhaps even coming to a lunch-bar like this is hard because of the bad memories. For that, I can only say sorry.
Jesus himself had a lot to say about hypocrisy, and particularly about religious hypocrisy.

Matthew 23 records one of the most devastating parts of Jesus’ teaching. Here Jesus addresses some of the religious people of his day. At one point he says to these religious hypocrites, “Everything that you do is done for others to see.” And Jesus particularly singles out the flowing religious robes that they sauntered around in; clothing that they wore to imply that they were obedient to God in every other respect. At another point Jesus says this: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Do you see what Jesus is saying here? The religious people of his day are hypocrites because they are obedient externally, to minute detail, and to the degree where they feel that they can pass judgement on others – yet internally, in the heart, where it matters, they are utterly corrupt and unchanged. So Jesus makes it very clear that he is completely against any form of religion – including any form of Christianity – founded upon hypocrisy where religious activity is not based upon integrity. If you resonate with wanting to distance yourself from religious hypocrisy for any reason, then you resonate with Christ.

However, I think I’d also want to say that people often charge Christians with religious hypocrisy because they have fundamentally misunderstood what it means to be Christian.

As Christians, we should be the first to admit that we haven’t got it all together. When, as Christians, we fail to live out our faith, we must recognise that this is a serious matter. However, I’d want to argue that this should not discourage those looking into Christianity from looking first and foremost at Christ himself. In other words, I may not be the best example of a Christian but please don’t let that stop you from seeing Christ for yourself. Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” It’s a grave charge, but the admission that even the followers of Jesus don’t match up to his example points to the very heart of the Christian faith. A person is not a Christian because they are good, but a Christian is a person that has received forgiveness and grace from God in Christ and are being transformed by knowing him.

Many of you will know that the central part of the Christian message is the death of Christ. According to the Bible, Jesus’ death wasn’t a horrific mistake where events span out of control, but the very reason why he came. As God in human form, and as the only one who genuinely and legitimately could pass judgement on others, being morally perfect, Jesus willingly went to the cross and took the punishment we deserve for ruling out God and hurting ourselves and others in the process.

At one point, Jesus described his message like this, “For even I, the Son of Man, did not come to be served but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.” In other words, Jesus came for imperfect people. On another occasion, Jesus said this: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Put differently, Jesus’ only criterion for accepting a person as his follower is the admission that they are not righteous; that they have not lived up to God’s standards, and that they need to be forgiven. The Christian message is a message of grace: that we are accepted not on the basis on what we’ve done, but on the basis of what Jesus has done, through which we receive something for nothing when we don’t deserve anything. And so, it should not be surprising to us that Christians are not perfect since the heart of Jesus’ message is our very need for forgiveness.

Let me say, for me, this is one of the most beautiful things about the Christian gospel; that we can come to Jesus in all of our ugliness and impurity and brokenness, just as we are. Many people think that being a Christian means being a good person who tries hard and considers themselves morally superior, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Some people think: there’s no way I could be a Christian, not now, not after what I’ve done. But, can you see, at the heart of Christianity is the offer of forgiveness? We only have to recognise our own moral bankruptcy and our need for this forgiveness in order to access it.

And let me say, this doesn’t only happen at the beginning of a relationship with God. The continuing journey of faith involves a constant process of confessing our sins to God. 1 John 1:8,9 says this: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

This ongoing reliance on Jesus’ death for our forgiveness means several things. Firstly, it means that Christians cannot be judgemental of others. Sometimes, when Christians tell other people that they need to be forgiven by God, we are heard to be saying that, “You need to be forgiven by God because you are a bad person, much worse than me.” I hope now that when I tell you that you are sinful, that you have rebelled against God, that you realise I am not making a character judgement on you. I am not saying that you are a particularly evil person. I am not saying that you are worse than me. I am saying that, like me, you need to be forgiven for having rebelled against God and broken his standards.

Additionally, if Christianity is at its centre the offer of forgiveness by Jesus, then it should not be surprising that broken people take this up and during the ongoing process of transformation by Jesus hardly shine as examples of “good” people. God’s transformation of a person takes time as he cleans them up from the inside. It’s this cleaning up that, slowly and over time, shows itself in outside transformation of behaviour and attitude. And so perhaps a helpful question to ask might be this: What would the individual in question’s life have been like without their faith in Christ? If they are not yet an amazing saint, has their life changed direction since encountering Christ?

A few years ago, I had the privilege of seeing a guy called Matt come to faith as a Christian and place his trust in Jesus for his forgiveness. Matt had come from an extremely sad background. He’d lived very promiscuously, treated women awfully in his life, been a local drug dealer and had lots of other problems. Yet he came to Christ as he was. Now, if you’d met Matt a few months into being a Christian, you’d probably have still been quite shocked by him. His old habits died hard. His language, particularly, was still rough. His addictions took a while to overcome, and led to occasional outbursts of violent behaviour. Now, if all Christians were judged on the basis on meeting someone like Matt, who professed to be a Christian, then you might write Christianity off as violent and hypocritical. But as the work of God in Matt’s life, cleaning him up from the inside out, was only beginning, the very evident changes in Matt’s life, despite his faults, were major steps of discipleship for him. He genuinely was forgiven all this time, because he had recognised his need for forgiveness, but his relationship with Christ was only starting to bear fruit in his life. Now Matt has become a passionate followers of Jesus Christ.

Now, the Bible says that if becoming a Christian has made no difference at all then we must question the genuineness of the individual’s faith. The Bible certainly says this: “The man who says, “I know him” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word God’s love is truly made complete in him” (1 John 2:4). As we’ve seen, Jesus was very harsh about people claiming to be religious whose hearts and lives didn’t match up to their outward projections and he certainly taught that not everyone who claimed to be his follower actually was.

When you see a Christian who appears to be a hypocrite, who is causing you to reject the gospel because of their life there are a number of possibilities. The first is that they have come into a relationship with God but are only at the beginning of the process of transformation. Changes are happening but the brokenness is still all too evident. The second is that the person is a Christian who has been following Jesus and experiencing his life transforming power on the journey but then has a spectacular slip up. They have let a lot of people down, including themselves. This happens in the Bible and does not completely nullify the individual if they come to repentance and seek restoration. A man called David committed adultery and even murder in the Old Testament. Peter denied Jesus in the New Testament. Both of them suffered serious consequences, but were able to be forgiven and restored.

A third possibility is that the person is not a true follower of Jesus at all and that their actions, attitudes, desires and words reveal what is in their heart. They consistently live in a way which is contrary to Jesus’ teaching and there is no evidence whatsoever of his work in their life. And just as you wouldn’t reject sex as a good thing because it can sometimes be used in an evil manner in rape, so a misuse of Christianity can’t be used to reject Christianity.

And so, as I close, and before we take some questions, let me finish with a challenge: will you come clean? That’s what Christians are, people who have come clean about themselves and their need for forgiveness. I remember an elderly Christian who was once asked, “Isn’t the church full of evil people?” And he replied, “No, there’s still plenty of room for you.” Will you admit your need for forgiveness and come to Christ for forgiveness and transformation?

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Lost and found

I lost my only copy of my car key today. My car is sitting at Lancaster University - and it won't be moving for a while, alas.

Amazing to think whilst retracing my steps (sadly, in vain!) that God compares himself to a woman searching for a lost coin. I can say for sure that I'd be pretty happy if my keys turn up. Amazing that God thinks similarly about the time any sinner repents!

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Spirituality without strings attached

Just a brief note from the middle of Lancaster mission week....

Buddhists, Buddhists everywhere. And not from Asia. In two days of mission, I've now had three significant gospel conversations with people that would describe themselves as Buddhist - one from the Czech Republic, one from the US and one from Britain. I don't think that they're Buddhist in the conventional way but they've certainly got very Eastern ideas of spirituality.

What's struck me from these three lengthy conversations is that all three people have really got a hunger for spirituality and for spiritual experience. They are also all practical atheists, even if they are confessing agnostics. They crave experience, but don't want the accountability that comes with thinking about the Creator God of the Universe. In fact, none of those I've met even want to entertain the possibility that God might somehow say something about how they are living their lives.

Sin is, of course, subtle. And here's a very subtle form. I'm happy to be religious, I crave spiritual experience, but I don't want to know the Creator. My idol is my experience. I don't care if it's not authentic.

Please pray for these people. Pray that they crave genuine spirituality, and that come to know the freedom that comes from the life with the Father that Jesus brings.

Sunday, 20 January 2008


Tomorrow marks the start of Lancaster University CU's mission fortnight. I'm very excited to be entering a period of university missions. They are a great opportunity to sow the gospel very widely.

If you'd like to pray for the upcoming week, you can read the timetable here. I'm particularly excited about having Amy Orr-Ewing around for the next week - I've found her very helpful in communicating the gospel to people from a more post-modern background.

I'm particularly praying that over the next few weeks we see such a dramatic conversion that everyone on campus - Christian and non-Christian - will know that God has been involved. I know that each conversion is a miracle, but I pray that the campus recognises what goes on as such. I'm also praying that the 100 or so students involved in Lancaster CU will end the fortnight ready to speak for Jesus for the rest of their lives: an exciting prospect if they are launched into decades of proclamation between them!

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

1 John 1:1-2:2

Below is the text of a talk I gave yesterday at Lancaster University CU. Any feedback is welcome as usual (it was tricky speaking on such a dense passage!).

I want to start this evening in asking you a question. It’s this: how would you feel if a smartly dressed person came into the CU meeting tonight and at the end of the meeting stood up at the front and said this, “I’m afraid you all haven’t got the real deal there. Your Christianity – well, you’ve got a good start, but to truly experience what God has for you, then you need to move onto something else.” How would you feel? It’s always a horrible feeling to be told that what you have is deficient, isn’t it? Would you know how to respond?

1 John was probably the last book of the New Testament to be written, and is written into exactly that sort of context. John is writing to churches that were established on the apostles’ testimony to Jesus, but whose confidence has been rocked by false teachers. And so John’s purpose in writing the letter is twofold. The first reason is to spot the counterfeit teaching. Look down at 2:26. John says this: ‘I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray.’ John writes so that the Christians he’s writing to, who’ve evidently been shaken by the false teaching, can spot it and reject it. John is often called ‘the apostle of love’ – love is the preoccupation of so much of John’s writing. But notice that, in his love, John is prepared to warn his readers away from false teaching. In fact, we’ll see in future weeks that he calls such false teachers liars and even antichrists. But that’s what true love does – it’s lovingly concerned for the truth, because, as we’ll see truth and eternal life are closely bound. So that’s the first reason John is writing: so that the false teachers and their false teaching can be seen for what it really is.

The second reason that John writes is to reassure those who’ve been shaken by the false teaching that, if they are building their lives on the authentic and apostolic teaching, they can be sure. Look down at 5:13. John writes this: ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.’ In other words, he’s speaking to this group who are perhaps concerned that their belief is just a delusion that they got swept along in and he’s saying: you can be sure. You really do have eternal life that starts now, and goes on eternally. In other words, his second reason for writing is to reassure true believers.

All this means that, throughout his letter, John provides a series of tests. How you respond to the tests shows whether you are trusting something substantial or something insubstantial. A helpful metaphor of what John is doing is perhaps shown by these guys. You know how it goes in all of the Road Runner cartoons. As per normal, Wile E. Coyote is chasing Road Runner around and, at some point, the road runner disappears. The coyote realises that something is up, looks down and then realises that there’s nothing under his feet. And then we all know what happens next: the coyote looks straight at the viewers, he knows that he can’t dodge gravity forever. Then he takes a gulp – and plunges gracefully below to a big crash. And what John is doing throughout his letter, including in tonight’s passage, is to expose false assurances. He doesn’t want his readers to think – like the coyote – that they are OK, duped by the false teachers, only to fall to a crash. He’ll then show what it means to be trusting something substantial.
So tonight we’re going to look at three false teachings and then one reassurance.

False teaching 1: “The Bible’s testimony about Jesus isn’t enough” (verses 1-4)

John probably wrote this letter in the mid-90s AD. By now, he’s a very old man and all of the rest of Jesus’ apostles have died. In fact, by tradition, they’ve all been martyred. All except John. And look at how he opens his letter. Verses 1-2: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, we which have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim to you concerning the word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”

Do you see what John is doing in these verses? He’s countering the false teachers. The false teachers have come along, claiming to tell the truth about Jesus – but John is doing a very bold thing. Speaking as an apostle, he’s saying this: I am telling you the truth about the real Jesus. He says I was one of those that heard him: my recollection of Jesus’ teaching isn’t second-hand, I heard him myself. Then he says I saw him with my own eyes. ‘I saw him throughout his ministry’ says John, ‘even in his resurrected form.’ And then I have looked at and my hands have touched. This all reminds us of Thomas, who said he’d never believe until he saw the resurrected Jesus. And then Jesus appeared, telling Thomas to put his finger in the wounds of the nails and in his side. And you can imagine John and the other apostles huddled around Jesus, embracing him, touching him. The real Jesus.

And then John says this: ‘this we proclaim to you concerning the word of life’. ‘I was there,’ says John. ‘I saw the authentic Jesus. I am telling you the truth.’ And this is true, because to know God, you must know the real Jesus, and the apostles of the Bible are those who tell the truth about the authentic Jesus. Look down at verse 3: ‘We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” Do you see how important it is to believe the apostolic testimony about Jesus, the testimony of people like John? Because it’s a matter of fellowship, of relationship. The apostles speak about the genuine fellowship, the genuine relationship with God. To turn your back on the apostles’ testimony about Jesus is to turn your back on the real Jesus and the life he offers.

The 1st Century false teachers were probably teaching that Jesus wasn’t really human; that he was only in appearance a man, but not actually fully man. And John says: listening to that sort of teaching is dangerous. It would deny two of the key parts of the gospel: Jesus’ birth as one fully God and fully man, but more importantly it would deny his death on the cross for us. If he were not fully man, he wouldn’t have rightly been able to be our like-for-like substitute on the cross. We’d still be in our sins. So, says John, to hold onto life, you must listen to the truth about Jesus, which is the apostles’ testimony about God. False knowledge ignores the real Jesus.

Of course, this is all very relevant to our culture. Liberal theology speaks about the search for the historical Jesus, but ignores the Bible’s testimony about him, thereby excluding those who knew Jesus best. Other religions and cultures – including the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims – say that other revelations were needed to know the true Jesus. Even in popular culture – in books like the Da Vinci Code – readers are encouraged to move away from the Bible’s testimony about Jesus. Even some Christians say that to truly know Jesus, you need to move away from the Bible and onto other experiences to know Jesus. But John says: move away from the Bible’s testimony about Jesus and you break fellowship with the Bible writers. And break fellowship with the Bible writers and you are following an imaginary Jesus. And an imaginary Jesus can’t save you.

So, John says, if you want life from God, you must go to Jesus – and the Jesus you must go is the Jesus of the apostles. They were there, they testified to Jesus as he really is. Put it very simply: we go to the Bible. And our hearts sink; we think, “I want a relationship with a person – not a relationship with a book!” And what’s happened in recent years is that Christians have polarised into ‘Bible people’ and ‘experience’ people – and people at both poles have ended up miserable. The people who’ve emphasised the Bible have often been in danger of teaching a system, and they come across as saying, “These are just truths we need to assent to,” forgetting the message is about a person, and often ended up dry and joyless. And the people who have rightly wanted a relationship with a living person have reacted and said, “That’s unreal. That’s just words.” And they have sought reality through experiences – and they too have ended up impoverished. They’re confused when the experiences don’t happen any more and unsure of the grounds of their relationship with God. And we need to know that John is not saying, “Stop all that experience stuff!” In fact, the whole of his letter is about an experience of the living God. Eternal life is not just ticking a box saying you agree. But here’s the thing: he doesn’t want us to have any old experience and go calling that ‘God’. He wants us to have a true experience of the living God, one that bears fruit and is life transforming. Authentic experiences come when we experience the authentic Jesus in Scripture, and so experiencing the authentic Jesus means coming back to Scripture.

False teaching 2: “Sin doesn’t matter” (verses 5-7)

Well, we need to move on. The second false teaching is found in verses 5-7, and it says that sin doesn’t matter. Look down at verses 5-6: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him, yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.”

Walking in darkness is walking in the ways which are the opposite of God’s ways, here what is called God’s ‘light’. John’s not talking here about the days when we mess up. He’s talking about deliberately going against what God has revealed about himself. It’s playing fast and loose with God’s truth, it’s sneering at God’s rather old-fashioned sense of purity, it’s manipulating people, it’s putting yourself first, it’s walking in a way that trips other people up and hurts them. It’s rejecting God’s blueprint for our lives and it’s what the Bible calls sin.

And evidently the false teachers are walking in sin, but they don’t think it makes any difference to their fellowship with God. John says, “How can you have fellowship with the light if you walk in the dark?” It’s like he’s saying this: if you and I walk down a street, and there’s a sunny side and there’s a shady side, and you want to walk down the sunny side and I want to walk down the shady side, then we can’t walk down the street together. And if we want to walk in the dark, God is light, and if we want to walk in the dark, then it means we can’t be walking with him. And so John says, “These people say they have a relationship with God – but they are liars.” They’re fakes: they lie, they do not live by the truth. If they lived by the truth of what God is really like, if they saw that God was holiness and light – then they’d see that sin matters.

The trouble for these people is that, as far as they’re concerned, their relationship with God is just a sort-of ‘spiritual department’ of their lives, and they don’t really see how that connects with the world of Monday morning in lectures, or in their student house, or on the sports field. And John is saying: God is not into mere spirituality. He’s into a 24/7 relationship. So what we do on a Sunday, or in college group, or on a Tuesday night is not a separate compartment of our lives. It’s all about how we are going to live in God’s world on a Monday morning. And John is saying, “Real relationship with God is about in his world and loving the things that he loves and hating the things that he hates.” And, of course, that’s how we do all our relationships.

My wife Linda, she hates bananas; she hates them, the smell of them, the taste of them, the texture of them, everything about them. If I want to eat a banana so that my potassium levels don’t get dangerously low, I have eat them right at the other end of the kitchen! And so loving Linda means that for her birthday I won’t make her banana splits for a special surprise! If I did, you’d begin to wonder if I really loved her. In fact, you would wonder if I really knew her. If I knew her, I would know not to force her to eat bananas. And John says, “God is light. He hates all darkness.” And if you think you can fool in the dark, John says, “You don’t know God.”

When I started preparing this talk, I began thinking of all the other people that this is a warning to. And of course, this point illustrates why we must talk about sin over the next fortnight. People will never realise their need of the cross until they realise that they are sinners. But I’ve also realised that these verses are a warning to me, and to each one of us, because all of us are liable to keep God in just one compartment of our lives. We stand in the light on Sundays or Tuesday nights, and then we walk in the dark the rest of the week. And sometimes we don’t even think that it matters. What shows us that all is not well is when our lifestyles blend into the darkness of the world so easily so that there are things that God hates which hardly bother us. We gossip like everyone else, we want to have what everyone else has got. Greed and lust just aren’t issues for us. We fight for our rights like anyone else. We laugh at the same jokes as everyone else. We get in a huff like everyone else.

I think John would say, “Check that you’ve not lost sight of God’s purity.” We think we can have a relationship with him and walk in the dark – and John says that if that is what we think, then we don’t really know God. He is light. He hates the dark. So verse 7: “If we want to walk with him, have fellowship with him, we must walk in the light.” This is the second false teaching: the false claim that says, “Sin doesn’t matter.” John says, “If that’s what you claim, then you don’t have a relationship with God."

False teaching 3: “You are not sinful” (verses 8-10)

The third false teaching is tied to the second one, but it’s slightly different. It’s when a person thinks that they’re not themselves sinful. Look down at verses 8: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Or verse 10: “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” This person is saying, “Yes, sin does matter. God is absolutely against evil but he’s not angry against me, because, well, I’ve led a pretty good life.” And when we do this, we draw a scale; and at the top it’s Mother Teresa, and at the bottom it’s Hitler and Stalin. And we think that God draws a line, and that everyone below it is not really accepted by God and everyone above it is OK. We’re not saying that we’re at the top, but we’re certainly not at the bottom. So we reckon God will draw his line just below where we are. And so we are pretty confident we are the sort of people that God will have as his friends. But John says: “That is misplaced confidence.” Do you see the second half of verse 8: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Again in verse 10: “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”

He’s saying that if that’s what we think, we are calling God a liar and we’re not taking on board what he has actually revealed about himself. See the only way to get to the sort of conclusion that says, “We’re OK” is to ignore what God has said about himself. It’s to boil all of God’s ways down to, “No adultery, no theft, no murder.” By that reckoning, we’re OK. Sin is what those other people do. And John says, “Listen to what God is saying about himself.” In Jesus, he makes it clear that he is light. And so the question is not, “How do you stand alongside that lot over there?”, but “How do you stand before the God who is light?” The God who is so good that he hates all evil and every hint of it is an offence to his purity. That’s how good he is. Stand before him in his light and we see the truth about what we’re really like.

A few months ago we decided to redecorate our front room. It’s part of being married. You have a lovely front room – but then your spouse decides it’s time for a change! And so Linda and I decided that it would change to dark red and white. And so when my mother and brother were up one weekend, we decided to repaint the whole room. And it was going pretty well and as Sunday night approached, and we hadn’t quite finished – so we paused, grabbed some food, and started again after fish and chips. And it’s not a very easy thing painting in artificial light, but we reckoned that we’d done a pretty good job. Unfortunately, the following morning, in the sunlight of the new day, what we thought had been well-done turned out to be a less good job that we’d thought. There were patches that we’d missed and other parts that were streaky.

And John is saying this: that by our own dim light, we think we’re fine. But when we open the curtains and God’s light comes flooding in, we see what a mess we are. By our own dim light, it’s just twisting the truth. In God’s light, it’s lying. By our own dim light, it’s standing up for our rights. In God’s light, it’s selfishness. By our own dim light, we never did anyone any harm. In God’s light, we see we’ve hurt the people we most loved, and we’ve never said sorry. By our own dim light, we’re not hurting anyone looking at those images. In God’s light, it’s sexual impurity.

And so John is saying that if we face the truth about what God is like, then we wouldn’t pretend that we hadn’t sinned. We would confess our sins. And I tell you, this pulled me up short as I prepared this talk. Because a measure of how well we know God is: when did you last confess my sins to God outside of a church or CU meeting? I’m not talking about being in a permanent state of beating ourselves up; I’m talking about realising what we’re really like. It’s a worrying characteristics of Christians of our generation in how slow we are to confess our sin. Perhaps that is a measure of the extent to which we’ve forgotten about the purity and blazing holiness of the God of the Universe. And the dangerous thing about that is that we start to drift towards thinking that the reason we are friends with God is that, “Hey, I’m not too bad.” And John says if that is what we start to think, then we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

The Reassurance and Antidote

Well, so far, John’s told us that God is light, and he hates the dark, and we are full of darkness. So, you might be thinking, where does that leave me? Well, fortunately, John is not British. He’s not going to allow people to muddle on when they are in danger of being led astray. He loves them too much. And John doesn’t want any of us to read his letter and go home tonight thinking we know God, if in fact we don’t. And so he’s exposed false claims – and now he lands on the one true claim that means we can have real confidence that we really do know God. And that claim is Jesus.

Of course, he’s been pointing to Jesus all the way through. Do you see verse 7? He’s saying, “You’ve got to walk in the light.” But how does that work? How can we walk with a God that hates sin? Well it’s because of the blood of Jesus, his Son, who purifies us from all sin. Or verse 9? It’s all very well confessing our sin, but if we’re sinful, how can we walk with God? Because he’s faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. And we say: how? Because of Jesus.

So the way John puts it in 2:1, do you see? “If anybody does sin, we have One who speaks to the Father in our defence, Jesus Christ.” See, there we are, trying to mount our own case, saying, “Well sin doesn’t matter too much” or “We’re not that sinful”. And before the God who is light, our case collapses. And so Jesus comes, and these verses say that he has mounted a case for us; he’s spoken to the Father in our defence. And his case rests of the facts of verse 2: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Atonement is the paying of the price that justice requires. The Hebrew background has the idea of covering something in the way that we might say in a restaurant, “Have you got money to cover the bill?” There’s a certain amount that needs to be paid and then it’s sorted, it’s covered. And God says that the amount that needs to be paid for sin to be sorted is death. That is what he in his justice requires me to pay. And Jesus comes and pleads my case. And what he says to the Father isn’t, “Well, sin doesn’t matter so much. He’s not so bad.” What he does say is, “Justice needs to be done. Peter Dray’s sins need to be paid for in death.” But then he holds out his scarred hands and says, “I have paid for him. There’s nothing more for him to pay. His sin is covered. Your justice is satisfied.” This isn’t Jesus twisting the Father’s arm, somehow getting him to love us. It’s because the Father loved us that he gave up his own dear Son precisely so that we who face death could be saved and brought into life in the light with him. And this means that when it comes to confidence, being right with God, the only plea open to us is the one God has given us. Our only plea is Jesus.

It’s a bit like when you enter passport control going into another country. Imagine coming up to a border check, and a guard blocks your path and stops you from driving forward. What do you do? Do you pull out your library card? Do you mention your GCSEs? Perhaps mention your highest batting score in cricket? Or mention the good reputation you have at Lancaster University? No, because all that stuff is obviously and totally irrelevant. The only way that you can get into another country is with a passport. That’s all you can plead. And when it comes to being right with God and having a place in his kingdom, Jesus is all that we can plead. There’s no other case I can make. I can’t try, “I’m not too bad.” I can’t try, “Well I’m a CU member, I help at Sunday school.” When you see that God is light, you see that you are sinful. You see that none of that will swing it.A lot of people I speak to resent this going on about sin. They think it’s somehow about trying to get everyone to feel miserable and feeling guilty. But ahead of a mission, a fortnight of focused evangelism, let’s realise that we can’t afford to be British about sin. Until a person admits that their sin is a serious problem, indeed until you admit that sin is a serious problem for you, then you will always think that God and what is on offer in the gospel is just average. You will always think that his love is no more than you deserve. It’s OK, it’s alright. But you will never truly have a relationship with him.

And John is saying: you are worse than you realised but you are more loved than you ever imagined. Despite what we are like, God loves us so much that he found a way for us to be restored to him. It cost him everything. And if a person wants to know the joy of having a real relationship with God, then they must go to him and change their plea from, “Will you have me because I’m OK?” to “Will you have me because of Jesus?”. And that is when true knowledge of God takes off. And so we can’t truly point people to God’s grace until we’ve pointed them to their very real need for forgiveness, because they have sinned and rebelled against God. Until we tell them otherwise, some people will bumble on through, thinking they are fine, when they are not.

But this passage is also a word to people with shattered confidence. It could be that you’ve emerged from the Christmas holidays – and you’ve messed up. You’re not sure where you stand with God any more, you’re not sure if he’ll have you back. If that’s you, then you need to remember that your plea was never, “Lord, I’m good enough”. Before the Christmas holidays, your only plea was Jesus. After the Christmas holidays, it’s the same plea: Jesus.

And God says, if we confess our sins, he will forgive us, not because we are good, but because of Jesus. Where we stand depends on Jesus, and every day, he is before the throne of God speaking to the Father in our defence. We messed up yesterday, we mess up today, we may mess up tomorrow – but he is there speaking in our defence, and his case is compelling. He has paid for our sin. It’s covered. And he is there for all eternity, the scars on his hands speaking on our defence. And that means for all eternity, the one whose plea is ‘Jesus’ is secure before God.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War is an account on the US-Saudi resourcing of the Afghan Mujahadeen to repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The film's screen-play was written by Aaron Sorkin (of West Wing fame) and led to some brilliant scenes. I loved the inter-play between the characters played by Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (CIA agent, Gust). There's one particularly memorable scene when the two characters first meet where the snappy dialogue and one-liners are played alongside an almost farcical to-ing and fro-ing. I mostly liked it. Hoffman was excellent (as usual). My main problem with the film is that it seems to flick from weighty and serious issues to comedy with little junction in between: the plight of war-affected asylum seekers plays alongside light and fluffy romantic dialogue and in my opinion isn't in particularly good taste.

Here's what I think Charlie Wilson's War particularly highlights:

The nature of war. "Let's go kill Russians" is a refrain that comes up several times in the film, to the extent that some critics have laid into the film for glorifying warfare and blowing up communists. I guess there's perhaps some truth in that claim. However, I wonder if that's the complete opposite of what the film is seeking to portray. It's true that as viewers we peek in on the American celebrations of the Russians being blow out of the sky. But the overwhelming thing that struck me was the film's realistic formula that, in the 20th Century onward, war = killing. There's one scene where a Russian fighter himself is chatting away to his co-pilot about issues of romance whilst simultaneous bombing an Afghan town. The same cold-heartedness is portrayed by those who attack the Russians. A sombre reminder that success in war is linked to ending the lives of others.

Religion. Religion is a powerful film that runs all the way through the film, and is viewed highly critically. There's the evident hypocrisy of the American Christians, particularly in the character played by Julia Roberts, who seems prepared to do almost anything to achieve her ends. She also openly tells of how speaking of God and putting problems in religious terms is how to make anything happen. "We need God on our side," she tells at one point.

Viewers can't also help to see the ugly face of Islam being criticised as well. There's hints of this theme in a meeting between an Egyptian delegation and an Israeli arms dealer. Additionally, the film finishes with a juxtaposition of joy (given the Soviet withdrawal of Afghanistan) and the knowledge that the resourcing of the Afghans ultimately paved the way for the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and fundamentalism Islam. As one critic put it, "The ghost of September 11 is everywhere present." Hoffman's character warns that, without continuing US support in Afghanistan, the Afghans might regard Allah as their saviours, and not the US.

Ultimately, then, religion is seen as an incredibly powerful form of social engagement, with the potential to be used very manipulatively and for incredibly dangerous ends (not exactly an uncommon theme in popular culture post-September 11!).

Culpability. The other massive theme that is in the film is the question of whether US intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s was right at all (and inevitably questions current and future US intervention). On the positive side, the film does show the US political machine pulling itself together (at times) for what's perceived to be good. As the strapline to the film says, alluding to the way political business is represented throughout, 'A stiff drink. A little mascara. A lot of nerve. Who said they couldn't bring down the Soviet Empire?'

But Charlie Wilson's War closes with a candid acknowledgement that massive mistakes were made. What would the world political climate look like today had the US not intervened? Would the Cold War still be raging? Would there have never been a 9/11? A chilling reminder that, for those with power, both ideas and decisions have consequences.

Five highlights from UCCF Staff Conference

Got back yesterday from UCCF's annual staff conference. My favourite staff conference so far - brilliant to be working for a movement that is clear in its focus, and excellent to partner alongside other brothers and sisters in the gospel. Here's five highlights from this year's conference.

  • Dick Lucas. I'd never heard Dick Lucas preach before this week. He opened up 1 John for us. One of the things that will stick in my head is a man in his mid-80s with such a freshness for God's written word. Praying the same for myself in sixty years' time
  • FRESH. Exciting to hear from Krish Kandiah about his upcoming book, FRESH (which I read whilst in draft form) and the suite of resources that will go with them. Praying that God will use this book to see many Freshers arriving at university ready to thrive from next year onward.
  • News of next year's Gospel project. 400,000 copies of Mark's Gospel placed in the hands and hearts of students across the UK. An amazing opportunity to encourage a generation of Christian students in proclamational evangelism - and dynamite going out into the world. A long way to go in fundraising, but an exciting year ahead.
  • Counselling with the gospel. I had the opportunity to go to Tim Rudge and Paula Love's training track on 'Gospel Care'. I can genuinely say that I think the teaching was life-changing both in changing my understanding of idolatry and in thinking about pastoral care and counselling. I was also very blessed by the pre-reading for this track: Paul Tripp's Instruments in the Redeemers' Hands.
  • Personal conversations. Conferences are a brilliant chance to bash ideas around others and to learn from other gifted and godly people. Fortunately I had plenty of chances to do so at this conference. Particularly blessed by chatting with Pete Williams about Old Testament narrative, Jason Clark on the emerging church and Mike Reeves on ecclesiology, as well as a whole host of personal conversations with other lovely individuals!

Friday, 11 January 2008

Jesus and the Law (2)

On several occasions, Jesus seems to imply that the keeping of individual laws is unimportant. However, I think that a closer look at these texts actually suggests that Jesus is making a greater point: that the desire to keep the Law in obedient response to God’s goodness and grace is more important than legalistically keeping individual laws. See, for example:

  • Matthew 7:12. As Jesus starts to close the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus ‘sums up’ the Law and the Prophets by saying, ‘do to others what you would have them do to you.’ This interpretation of the essence of the Law robs it of its legalism without completely belittling it.
  • Matthew 9:13. In the context of responding to the charge that he ate with sinners, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 in telling the Pharisees: "Go and learn the meaning of this: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'" (see also Matthew 12:7). He seems to be saying that the place sacrifice is itself pointless if it is not accompanied by a commitment to obediently keeping God’s Law. This will show itself in showing mercy to others.
  • Matthew 23:23-24. In accordance with the Law, Pharisees tithed one tenth of their produce as the first tithe, which was to be given to the Levites, who then were to tithe to the priests (see Leviticus 27:30-31 and Numbers 18:21-32). In accordance with their understanding of the Law (I believe in accordance with the oral Torah), Pharisees separated a second tithe, intended for consumption in Jerusalem during the festivals (cf Deuteronomy 14:22-29). In Matthew 23, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for observing the tithing laws with such exactness that they tithe even garden herbs, but neglect "the more important matters of the Law – justice, mercy and faith." Note that Jesus does not counsel the Pharisees to give up tithing; however, but they must not to miss the ‘more important’ issues of the Law – those of loving their neighbours as themselves. They should not 'strain out the gnat but swallow the camel', presumably by which Jesus means to be so concerned with less important commandments that one neglects obedience to the whole thrust of the Law.
  • Mark 12:28-34. In this episode, with Jesus is asked what the greatest commandments in the Law are. Jesus replies, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18: “Love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” Any Jew would probably agree up to this point. However, some would presumably have been surprised by the fact that Jesus then endorses the statement that obedience to these two commandments ‘are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ Jesus’ implication is this: love for God and for other people will express itself in the commitment to sacrifice; not to treat sacrifice as an end in itself.

Jesus seems to make a distinction between legalistic Law-keeping and obedience to the Law as a whole. The whole Law is to be obeyed, but an attitude of commitment is more important than obedience of individual laws. Above all, Jesus stresses purity of heart, out of which naturally flows obedience to the individual laws. When the heart is pure, therefore, little else is necessary.

It is also worth noting that Jesus seems to object to any idea of what it means to obey the Law that might possibly lead to hypocrisy. In Matthew 23:5-7, for instance, Jesus objects to the Pharisees who appear to be righteous, but are not. Because they wear religious clothing (in the light of Numbers 15:38-39 and Deuteronomy 22:12), people assume wrongly that the Pharisees are obedient to God in every other respect. In fact, Jesus says the Pharisees obey the Law primarily in order to receive public acclaim. Jesus’ words on giving, prayer and fasting (Matthew 6:1-18) may also fit in here. These things in themselves are good disciplines – but not if they are done self-righteously.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

"Strike all my enemies on the jaw"

I guess that I'm not the only Christian who sometimes finds it difficult to read the Psalms.

Yesterday I was reading Psalm 3 (written by King David when in flight from his son, Absalom), which includes the line, "Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked." It's a difficult line to read because, whilst we admit that David is very much under pressure, it just doesn't seem to be a very 'Christian' thing to say. 'What's happened to the idea of loving your enemies?' we ask.

I've given some thought to this since when I read the passage. What is David actually saying when he calls for God to 'strike his enemies on the jaw'? Surely it's this: he is trusting God to work out his justice in his circumstances, and declaring that he will not want to seek vengeance in his own time. This is something that David himself did on several occasions, when he had the opportunity to kill his enemy Saul, but didn't. He preferred instead to leave God to do the working out of justice. Which is very similar to the principle of Romans 12:19.

I guess the other thing is that we now have more of an understanding than David in how God will work his justice out. As readers of the New Testament, we can grasp a deeper understanding of the eschatology that David and the other psalmists only saw shadows of. We are able to love our enemies knowing that God will work out his justice eternally, something that was demonstrated at the cross. We are able to cry out to the Lord for justice and yet to wish the very best for our enemies - even if it means coming to know the Lord for themselves. God will still ensure that justice is done - even if it means taken their punishment upon himself.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Jesus and the Law (1)

After a bit of a break, I'm going to start a series of blog entries continuing to think about the Law. The next few posts will all think about the relationship of Jesus to the Law.

An important text on Jesus' relationship is Mark 7:1-13, where it is often presumed that Jesus repeals the food laws. I blogged on this passage in the summer and I'd commend readers take a look here. I don't think the food laws are repealed in this passage.

On other occasions, Jesus seems to imply breaking the Law. All of these passages are related to the Sabbath:

  • Matthew 12:5. Jesus’ point here is that there must be exceptions to not working on the Sabbath, because otherwise priests could not work in the Temple of the Sabbath, which work, of course, is required by the Law. It seems that Jesus is saying this: when the Sabbath leads to unnecessary hardship, then the minimum work in order to prevent that hardship should be allowed.
  • Mark 2:23-27. Jesus' disciples pluck grain and eat it, but, according to the Pharisaic view, this is work (harvesting) and should not be done on the Sabbath. Jesus replies by citing the example of David's breaking the Law in time of need, in order to make the point that the intention of the Law is not to lead to hardship (see 1 Sam 21:1-9). Jesus would probably have argued that out of love for his hungry disciples, the Pharisees should allow them to pick what grain they need to satisfy their hunger. After all, the Sabbath was not intended to be a burden. If Jesus' accusers say that they would like to do this, but cannot, since the Law forbids it, they will find themselves holding the absurd position that they love human beings more than God does! Some commentators have suggested that the phrase, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ probably means that the Sabbath exists for the benefit of human beings [i.e. ‘sons of men’] and should not for that reason cause unnecessary suffering. In other words, the phrase ‘son of man’ may not refer to Jesus, but to humanity in general (See Mark 2:27.)
  • Healing on the Sabbath. There are several examples of Jesus' healing people on the Sabbath in conscious opposition to the interpretation of the Sabbath law as prohibiting such activity. In each case, it is Jesus' compassion for the sick person that motivates his actions. Jesus is criticized as working on the Sabbath for healing people, even though he did not do any work according to the Law. To love one’s neighbour always takes precedent. Any interpretation of the Sabbath law that would prevent good from being done must be wrong. See Mark 3:1-6, Luke 13:10-17, Luke 14:1-6, John 5:1-15, John 7:16-24, John 9:1-34 and equivalent passages.

All of this goes to show, I think, that Jesus is not against keeping the Sabbath law per se, but against the harsh and rigid interpretation of Sabbath observance that the Pharisees had (which often included extra-biblical laws).