Tuesday, 29 April 2008


This morning I received my complementary copy of Krish Kandiah's superb new book, Fresh.

Krish has been a great partner in the gospel with me and the CUs up here. I was really helped by Krish's input as I planned my New Word Alive seminar on the emerging church and Scripture. He also brought up a team to Lancaster in February 2007 when he spoke at Lancaster University CU's mission week.

I first heard about Fresh several months ago. Over the summer, I was sent the draft manuscript to read. I was very impressed right from the beginning. Krish writes with warmth and clarity and demonstrates that he really understands the pressures that Christian Freshers may feel on arrival at university. The first section ('faith') revisits the foundations of what it actually means to be a Christian, with sections following on relationships, evangelism, studies and holiness - key areas of university life where it's often assumed Christian Freshers should be familiar with Biblical teaching, but in reality often aren't.

I think this book could be very strategic for young Christians in this country. Join with me in praying that God uses this book to build a generation of Christian university students that look not only to 'get by' as Christians, but - by grace - to thrive.

You can order copies of Fresh from IVP here. Be sure also to look at FreshSpace online, which accompanies the book and has a whole range of CU resources for main meetings and small groups.

Lessons from Judges, Part 2

Tim Chester has written recently about one of the surprises that comes at the end of Judges 2 and the beginning of Judges 3: what God says about leaving the pagan nations in Israel's midst.

The most basic reason for allowing these pagan nations to continue in Israel's appointed land is not difficult to spot: Israel was not faithful in driving them out (as we see in Chapter 1). However, it was certainly without God's power to drive out these nations without any help from Israel at all. Why has God allowed the pagan nations to remain?

The reason is given in 2:22: so that God might test Israel by them. There are two sorts of test in Scripture: one is the test given to ascertain faithfulness, the other is the test given in the sense of 'proving something'. For example, Abraham was already credited with righteousness when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac. The 'test' God gave Abraham illustrated to him that God was trustworthy. In Judges 2-3, I believe we're reading about the second kind of 'test': the nations will remain as a test to prove God's faithfulness to his people, and for them to learn and experience reliance on him. Given the back-seat of God's word in the book of Judges (the Law goes completely unmentioned), God reveals himself in a new way: in the midst of pressure and warfare.

The reason that God didn't just eliminate these nations is stated again in 3:4; that Israel's commitment to God's word would be proven. If they would be faithful to the word of God, these other nations would not hinder them, and they would grow strong enough to drive them out completely, whilst at the same time knowing that the victory came only because of the LORD's commitment to them.

As I have thought about this passage, I have found this action by God staggaring. He longs for relationship with his people, where the joyfully submit everything to him as Lord. And he shows this commitment both through giving his word and - in this case - even when his word is obscured, through providing experiences (good and bad) by which people might come to rely on him more.

Monday, 28 April 2008

One year on

It's been one year today since I started this blog. (You can read my first post here).

The past year has been quite a significant one for me - not least, having got married last June! I'm really glad to have had people who've been able to share some of the experiences I've had, and also to have helped me as I've dived into Scripture. Thanks all.

According to Google Analytics, here are the more popular posts from the last year that you might have missed:

  • My book review of Will Metzger's excellent book on evangelism Tell the Truth (not well known in the UK), and the news that there's a free online interview of him with Mark Dever;
  • A celebration of UCCF's fantastic graduate discipleship scheme, Relay;
  • A comparion of gospel and religion following Tim Rudge and Alison Williams at UCCF's Forum conference;
  • A film review of the recent movie Juno;
  • A couple of sermons: Matthew 1:1-17 on Jesus' genealogy and Isaiah 53 on the Suffering Servant given at the height of the debate regarding penal substitution.

Thanks for your support - here's to the next year!

Sunday, 27 April 2008

April update

It's been a busy week since my last post.

Tuesday was, perhaps, one of my all-time favourite days as Staff Worker. We had a wonderful team day with fantastic and very stretching teaching on Genesis from Martin Downes, lots of sunshine and good food (amazingly our hosts for the day paid for us all to enjoy a swanky three course meal in Chester!). A time of feeding in many senses of the word, very good for the soul.

On Wednesday, I met up for my weekly meeting with Relay Workers, Sarah and Nick. Amongst other things, we've been listening together to Don Carson's series Reaching an Untouched Generation. We've all found it very stimulating in thinking about reaching Biblical illiterates for Christ (the mp3s are free online here). It's been great putting some of what we've learned into practice through outreach on Wednesday afternoons at Myerscough College, an FE college full of mainly 16-19 year olds who know little or nothing about Christ. I was also struck by some of what Dr Carson said as I prepared a talk for Cumbria CU on Thursday night.

Later in the week saw the start of interviews for our summer team to Moldova. I really can't wait for this trip. It was excellent interviewing a whole number of students who are willing to sacrifice their comfort, time and earning-potential over the summer through volunteering to help run the English and Bible camp in Moldova. I found it particularly heart-warming to hear of how many of the students in my patch came to Christ - a great reminder that we're all wired differently and that God is big enough to work through different circumstances and temperaments when he calls us!

Finally, yesterday was our patch training day for CU leaders in Lancashire and Cumbria (quite possibly the last one ever, as my friend Adam Beattie will be starting as Cumbria Staff Worker from August). Marcus Mosey, from Christians Alive church in Lancaster (and a great partner in the gospel here) spoke on being a grace-filled leader, and we also devoted time to thinking about Freshers' Week outreach, the FREE Gospel project and to praying for each other. It's encouraging to see, under God, many students taking up the challenge set in the Gospel project, and some exciting plans developing!

Monday, 21 April 2008

Lessons from Judges 1

I’ve been working today on a small group study on Judges 1:1-2:5. Judges isn’t a book I know very well, and so it’s been a joy to dig into this challenging chapter.

Essentially this section of Judges needs to be read within the context of God’s promises to Israel about the invasion of Canaan that he makes throughout the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua. In these books, God promises the land to be a gift to the people of Israel, where they will experience his blessings and rest. He warns the people to ruthlessly remove the pagan peoples and their idols from the land; both as a form of judgement against their sin (see Genesis 15:12-21), and to free Israel from the temptations of idols and other false gods. The land is to be a place where God’s people willingly submit to him as their ruler without distraction (see Deuteronomy 12:3 and Numbers 33:50-56).

The book of Joshua is generally positive: the people enter the land, win victory after victory under Joshua as they trust in the LORD’s promises and strength, and experience something of his peace, rest and blessing. Judges, however, opens with the death of Joshua. Although the people’s immediate response is to enquire of the LORD and to obey him (Judges 1:1-7), things soon fall apart.

Judges 1 is the sad story of how the tribes of Israel fail to drive the people and their idols out of the land of Canaan for the sake of convenience and ease. The Israelite tribes continually make the indigenous tribes merely subservient to them, rather than ridding them from the land completely. In doing so, not only do they settle for ‘second best’ in the land, but (more worryingly), they disobey the very God that delivered them from Egypt. God’s sad verdict comes at the beginning of Chapter 2: Israel has not obeyed his voice – and for that, they will suffer. The indigenous tribes will never be driven out; they will be thorns in Israel’s sides and their gods will be a snare, just as God had said they would (Numbers 33:55).

Here are some implications for us that I think we can make from this sad story:

  • God’s justice must be done. He is a God of justice and demands that justice is brought about. This is seen in microcosm with the story of Adoni-Zedek. Romans 3:25-26 say that God would act ‘out of line’ with his character if he were not to punish sin. The amazing thing is that, in Christ, he is just and the justifier of the guilty.
  • The failure of the people of Israel to love and treasure the LORD God in the land shows that a more radical change is needed: a complete change of heart. This, of course, was the change that Jeremiah prophesied (Jeremiah 31:33), brought about as a person is ‘born again’ through the cleansing of the cross. In Christ, a Christian is a ‘new creation’ – and we long for our bodies to be redeemed and made new too.
  • Although Christ has taken the punishment of the sins of those who have placed trust in him, we still have to face the consequences of our sin. The people of Israel had to live with the consequences of rejecting God in their lack of ruthlessness against idolatry. We, too, may face serious consequences when we disobey God, disbelieve his promises and fail to deal with the idolatry of our hearts.

Friday, 18 April 2008


I have spent the day with the Lancaster CU committee planning next term and next year's FREE outreach.

One of the more bizarre conversations of the day - the idea that Dr Who should be invited onto the CU committee, bringing 900 years worth of experience to committee meetings, and immediately solving the problem of no venue big enough to hold lunchbars (the answer: his tardis, placed in Alexandra Square!).

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Acts 10: "Do not call unclean that which God has made clean"

Below is the latest talk I've been asked to give from the book of Acts. It concerns the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, in Acts 10. As usual, I'd love to receive any thoughts or feedback readers might have:

In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote of how, during his time as a university student in London, he became interested in Christianity. He read through the Gospels, became fascinated by the person of Jesus and saw in him the answer to the caste system in India – the institutionalised system whereby a person’s treatment depends on the class into which they were born; a system that troubled Gandhi deeply. One Sunday morning, he decided to attend a service at a nearby church and to talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. But when Gandhi arrived, the usher on the door told him that he couldn't give him a seat, that he ought to go somewhere else and worship with his own kind. Gandhi left and never went back. Later he wrote, ‘If Christians have caste differences also, I might as well remain a Hindu.’ The sad truth is that a different attitude from that usher could have affected the whole of India and its history.

In Britain today, 80% of Christians live in the 20% most wealthy areas. In their book, Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis write that ‘class consciousness runs deep in British evangelicalism. Social class is British evangelicalism’s equivalent of racism in American evangelicalism.’ Tim Chester goes on to write, ‘I hope that this is mostly subconscious. [But] many of the divisions within evangelicalism are as much about social class as theological differences. In one direction, people are seen as vulgar; in the other direction, people are seen as snobbish.’

Why have I told you these things? Well, primarily it’s because they go fundamentally against what the Church, the people of God, is called to be. Because at its best, and at its deepest level, from earliest times the Church has learned that there are to be no barriers within it. It has learned that there is to be nothing to stop a person from hearing about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I emphasise 'learned' because that is precisely what the early church had to do. The early Church we’ve been reading about in the book of Acts was on a steep learning curve. We've seen something of that in previous weeks. Now in Chapter 10, the lesson the Church had to learn was that God’s gospel embraces those outside of Jewish ethnicity. It was an important lesson for the Church to learn – had it not, then we might not be here today, as a primarily non-Jewish group, meeting in Jesus’ name.

Chapter 10 is put together like a good movie. It starts by introducing us to two characters, as extraordinary things happen to them in their ordinary lives. Then at the end those two characters come together; there is an emotional meeting, a speech is made and history is changed. My points this evening are about what God does in and through these two men as, firstly, God prepares the way; and then, secondly, God breaks down the barrier.

Firstly, then, let’s notice how God prepares the way (verses 1-23).

The first character we meet is Cornelius. He’s described in verses 1-8. Verse 1 tells us that Cornelius is a centurion, an important Roman soldier. He was serving in Caesarea, the centre for the Roman government in Judea. Cornelius represents Roman occupation and authority, in their headquarters.

But we also read in verse 2 that Cornelius is a God-fearer. This means that he’d accepted that the Jewish God, the God of the Old Testament, was the one true God. He’d accepted the ethical standards of the Jews. We do not that he’d not become a full convert to Judaism, as we read later that he’s uncircumcised. This was a common position to be in. For understandable and for squeamish reasons, even worshippers sympathetic to the Jewish faith rarely fully embraced it and got circumcised. So, Cornelius would have been regarded by the Jews as a pagan, but he’s a sympathetic pagan.

Well, Cornelius has a vision (verses 3-6). It was very clear – there was no room for confusion: send for Peter. Yet, it must also have been somewhat bewildering. The angel says that Cornelius’ prayers have been answered. As the chapter unfolds, we’ll see that Cornelius’ prayers must have been that God would reveal to him how he could have been saved. Yet now the angel tells Cornelius to send for Simon Peter, someone he had probably never heard of. He was going to be asking a Jewish fisherman to meet him, a Roman centurion. Yet Cornelius does as he is told. In a response which reinforces what we are told about his faith in God, Cornelius arranges for Peter to be sent for. But I bet as the two servants and the soldier went off, Cornelius was left scratching his head.

The focus shifts to Peter in verses 9-21. He’s more familiar to us: one of Jesus' closest disciples, now he’s the leader of the early Church. He’s staying in Joppa, thirty miles from Caesarea. And Peter sees a vision as well. Peter’s vision was more mysterious than Cornelius’ clear instructions. Let’s read verses 11-14:

He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."

"Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."

Peter’s hungry. You know that feeling when you smell delicious aromas wafting in from the kitchen. In his hungry state, he falls into a trace. And, in the trance, as a range of different animals come down on the sheet, Peter hears a voice telling him to have them for dinner. Yet Peter’s response is vehement. ‘Surely not, Lord,’ he says – although this is a polite way of expressing it. What shocked Peter is the type of animals that were in the vision. He was a Jew. He lived by Jewish law. And so you ate what the people of Israel at the time of Moses had been told by God were clean animals. You can read about this in Leviticus 11. Animals that have split hooves and those that chew the cud are clean. Everything else is unclean. As it says in Leviticus 11:8, “You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.” Now Peter is told to eat all sorts of animals – both those he’s considered clean and those that are unclean. And so he’s shocked. Peter would have observed these food laws for the whole of his life. He wasn’t about to ditch this commitment to these laws now.

But the voice persists. In fact the whole thing happens twice more. And the refrain is this: “do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” You can imagine Peter trying to get his head around all this. I love verse 17: ‘While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision...’ What an understatement! Too right he was wondering! If Cornelius had been left scratching his head, Peter must have been tearing his hair out. It must have felt like everything he had been brought up with had just changed.

Now, you may say, what’s all the fuss about? It's only a different diet. So Peter can eat more than he thought. Well, surely that’s good news! It’s like Weight Watchers in reverse!

But for Peter, and for any devout Jew, food laws dominated the whole of your social life. The whole reason that God had given Moses the food laws centuries beforehand was to mark the Jewish nation out as distinct. Diet was an important way of doing so. For any Jew, their aim was to remain clean. That’s why, as well as avoiding unclean meat themselves, we read that the convention of the time was that Jews did not socialise with Gentiles, non-Jews. There was actually no law in the Old Testament saying a Jew couldn't spend time with a Gentile; rather, they deliberately avoided them for fear of becoming unclean. And so, in practice, by the 1st Century, Jews and Gentiles lived in two completely different social worlds.

So Peter is now being told that an important basis for division between Jews and Gentiles – the food laws – no longer applies. As verse 15 puts it, “Do not call impure [or better, unclean] anything that God has made clean.” And here’s the point: “Peter – you regard Gentiles as religiously unclean because of what they eat. You are no longer to think of these foods in that way – and so you are no longer to think of the Gentiles in that way either.”

Scripture elsewhere makes this idea even clearer. Ephesians 2:14-15 speak of how Christ ‘himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in the flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.’ In other words, with the coming of Jesus in the world, and with the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, all the qualitative differences of the Old Testament between Jew and Gentile are obliterated. Diet laws, circumcision and animal sacrifice were all ultimately Old Testament pictures that pointed forward to Jesus. They showed that Jews and Gentiles alike needed the cross. And now Christ has come, these ceremonial differences between Jew and Gentile are rendered obsolete.

So Peter has been told that the basis for the practical division between Jews and Gentiles, the food laws, are not to concern him. No wonder he was shocked. But here’s the beauty of the timing. At the very point that Peter is beginning to work through the implications of his vision, the three men arrive from Cornelius, a Gentile. And what’s Peter’s reaction? Well, he immediately agrees to see Cornelius and to be his guest. That wouldn't have happened before because of Peter’s cultural baggage and his understanding of the Old Testament. But now that’s changed. Already Peter is aware of the implications of his vision.

So, the scene is set: we have two men who are probably rather bemused but obedient to the visions they have had. They are two men on opposite sides of the religious divide, but God has spoken to them both. God, in his good plan, has prepared the way for a mighty work he is to do. God is about to break down the divide that separates them.

And that brings us to our second heading: God breaks down the barrier (verses 24-43).

So, Cornelius and Peter meet. It must have been quite a scene. We read in verse 24 that Cornelius had gathered quite a party together. When Peter arrived there would have been quite an atmosphere. And what a highly-charged meeting it was! Look at verse 25: ‘As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence.’ The word in Greek for ‘reverence’ means ‘worship’. He was bowing down to Peter as God's messenger. And I guess that this provided the opportunity for Peter, if he wanted, to reinforce the barriers that had up to that point existed in his mind. He could have exploited the situation and refused contact with the Gentile Cornelius. But he doesn't. He picks up Cornelius off the floor and says 'I am only a man myself'.

In verses 28-29, Peter says why he has come. He recognises that such meeting between Jew and Gentile is highly unusual – as we’ve seen, it’s not actually against the law, but a cultural taboo. But because of the vision he has had, Peter has had his mind changed about who is in and who is out. That is why he has come. Cornelius then tells his side of his story and then finishes in a moving way. Look at the second half of verse 33: ‘Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.’ The stage is set for the final speech to camera.

Peter’s speech – which we read in verses 34-43 – makes explicit what is already implicit by his very presence in the house of a Gentile. The speech sums up the scene that Peter and Cornelius find themselves in. It climaxes in Peter calling the Gentile Cornelius into God’s family through Christ. We don’t have time to look at it in detail but just notice two key aspects.

First, the universal aspect. Verse 34 kicks off with this theme: ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism.’ But look also at verse 43: ‘Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ The message that Peter is preaching is that the invitation of God is for everybody, and not just for those who initially received it. In other words, it’s not just for the people of Israel, but for people of every nation. The barriers of who can receive God and who can't are down.

Second, notice Peter’s focus on Jesus. Peter doesn’t say, ‘God loves everyone – isn’t that lovely?!’ Rather, as Peter speaks about the invitation of God for all sorts of folks to be part of his people, Peter centres on the person and work of Jesus. This is what the core of the speech is about. Look down at verses 36-42 and you’ll see that they are shot through with Jesus: who he is and what God has done through him. Jesus is the subject of almost every clause – ‘he did this’, ‘he did that’. And so the promise of forgiveness of sins to everyone in verse 43 is for those who ‘believe in him’, those who ‘will receive it in his name’. The barriers of who can belong to God are down, says Peter, because of Jesus. His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead is sufficient for anyone that will trust in him. Anyone – including Cornelius and his family – who, as the final verses of the chapter tell us, trust Jesus and are brought into God’s people.

A wonderful chapter, then – but what are the applications to us?

Above all, we need to see that the cross is what defines a person as being part of God's people. As we’ve read through this story, you might have had a sense of déjà vu – the story is somewhat similar to that we read about in Chapter 8, when God demonstrated that the Samaritans are included on the same basis as the Jews. But – remember – whilst they had become ethnically and religiously impure, the Samaritans were still descendents of Abraham. Ethnically they were still very similar to the Jews. Where Chapter 10 takes things a step further is to show that the promises of being part of God’s nation does not hinge on whether a person is a descendent of Abraham, but whether they have been made acceptable to God through the cross. What Peter was learning is that the cross – and the cross alone – is the basis upon whether a person is acceptable to God. That’s good news for the vast majority of us here – as probably the vast majority of us are Gentiles. We’re not physical descendants of Abraham – yet the cross welcomes us into God’s people forever.

I have three more practical applications.

Firstly, we need to be very aware of conscious and subconscious favouritism. The history of the Church is sadly full of examples of discrimination and favouritism. The story I opened with about Gandhi is just one case in point. As I alluded to, I wonder if this discrimination today across the Church in Britain is class-based. And the right response to this is not to criticise and to moan, but to look at our own hearts and to make the change in our lives. This chapter has pulled me up. And even CUs – which exist to tell God’s good news to others – can be places where people are categorised, excluded, judged by external appearances and written off by others who are different. What Acts 10 shows is that if we are following the missionary God, then we need to have our hearts changed as he includes the people we tend to exclude. Are there significant blind spots that need to be removed? What sort of person could you just not bare to see walk through the door of a CU meeting? Which people do we avoid evangelising? If you can think of a particular type of person, ask now that God would change your heart as he changed Peter’s.

Secondly, let’s share God’s heart in welcoming people as they are. Cornelius was accepted as he was. He didn’t have to change his diet, he didn’t have to get circumcised. He was accepted just as he was, through the cross of Jesus. We must not render unclean that which God has made clean. Let’s reflect that truth in the way that we greet people that we don’t know – at central CU meetings, at evangelistic meetings, at mission events, in international week. The loneliest place in the world is where you are somewhere on your own with people bustling around you, and you are not sure whether you belong. Let’s welcome people that are like us and people that are nothing like us. Consciously talk to people you don’t know. If you find this hard, then think about the cross of the Lord Jesus and what that says to us. Through our actions, let’s show every single person that we meet that people like them are welcome amongst God’s people.

Thirdly, expect to be challenged about where and how we can share God's love. Peter and Cornelius both received visions which took them to places they had not been before: one bowed down to a fisherman; the other entered a Gentile house. And as the truth that God accepts all in Christ, you may be called to some surprising places to share God’s love. I pray that there might be some here that share the gospel with prostitutes and down-and-outs; others that will commit themselves to being in local churches on rough estates. I pray that even as students God will move you to live and speak for him in places you can’t currently imagine, as you respond to God’s call as both Cornelius and Peter did.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

'21' and the authentic Christian life

After working on the student team at New Word Alive last week, and then spending Friday night and Saturday planning the year ahead with the lovely University of Central Lancashire CU committee, today was my first full day back at work in Lancaster since the Easter break.

We've had a good couple of days relaxing in Lancaster, getting some sleep and getting ready for the new term. It was lovely seeing old friends Doug and Helen. Doug and Helen really model seeking to live out all of their lives in the light of the kingdom of Christ. It was particularly encouraging to hear Doug speaking as a Christian maths teacher, driven to warn some of his less able Year 11 students about the dangers of debt. Wonderful to see a couple living out, in Julian Hardyman's terms, their 'glory days'.

Yesterday Linda and I went to see the film '21', starring Kevin Spacey. I'm not able to give a glowing recommendation, I'm afraid (too many cliches and shallow characters). About as interesting as it got was a reflection on whether money can ever merely be an end to further means (as Jesus calls for it to be) or whether accumulating money always becomes an end in itself (as noted by the sociologist Georg Simmel in his Philosophy of Money). In the end the film is a warning of sorts about the way that money promises much but delivers little - and also reminds us that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (evils which are plentiful in the film). I was left reflecting on the difference between what the world commonly says about money and the accumulation of possessions - and that articulated by Doug to the Year 11 students.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

The ridiculousness of snubbing grace

I'm still 'coming back down' from being at the awesome New Word Alive conference in Pwllheli. We had a great time. This post isn't going to be a review - for that I suggest you check out Adrian Warnock's blog or posts like this one that reflect on the place of the conference in the future of evangelical Christianity in Britain.

What instead I want to write about is a reflection that I had on site during the week, following Terry Virgo's excellent talk on the opening night. Terry expounded verses from Romans 5 and Romans 7. He reminded us of how the law is like a demanding marital spouse that never lifts a finger to help us. What's more, the law is always right and will never go away! But good news, of course, is that we have died to the law and now have a new 'marital relationship' with Christ. We were also reminded of how we cannot be saved by the law, and how the law cannot change us either. Grace is how we are saved, and grace is how we are changed. Grace is absolutely central.

The following day I reflected on how far we often drift away from this message. I know it from my own life - as so often I fall into legalism, as so often I trust in rules to change me, and as so often I am completely unbothered by my sin. And as I chatted with old friends, I was reminded by how hard it is for Christians to stay committed to grace. One friend in a church situation where they preach salvation by grace but practice grace by law. Another friend spoke of the condemnation she feels at the hands of the judgemental Christians around her. The message of grace is, in so many ways, so simple - and it is so good and so liberating - and yet we drift from it so quickly; as individuals, as organisations, as churches.

I think that this is perhaps the epitome of sin. We are told that God has done everything to cancel the penalty of sin. We are told that he alone as expert surgeon can free us from the power of sin in our lives through Word and Spirit. He is everything we need - and he alone can give it. And so as I walked through the site at Pwllheli I was struck again by how sad and how pathetic it is that we turn back to ourselves and our own efforts to save and to sanctify ourselves - something that we can never hope to acheive by ourselves, snubbing the God who can.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Geerhardus Vos on freedom

The latest quote on Biblical freedom comes from Geerhardus Vos in a sermon he gave at Princeton University in 1913. The sermon can be read in full here.

The sermon was on Mark 10:45, which gave the FREE project its very name: 'For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.' Here is an extended quote:

Let us look for a few moments into the supreme end of our Lord's service and the method pursued towards accomplishing this. His ministry had for its supreme end the procuring of freedom of those for whom he gave his life. It was a ministry with that specific thing in view. It was not to help them generally, but to set them free. This is clearly given with the contrast between what he does and what the rulers of the Gentiles do (Mark 10:42). They lord it over them and exercise authority. That is to say: their striving is to make their subjects minister unto them and more and more to reduce them to a state of bondage. Jesus' purpose is the opposite. He came to minister unto men so as to place them in a state of freedom.

The same thing is also explicitly stated in the figure of the ransom-giving here employed by our Lord. A ransom is that which buys the freedom of a person. The many, therefore, for whom our Lord gives his life are in a state of bondage and his death procures their liberation.

Christ gave his life as a ransom. That is to say he deliberately took his life and put it into the bondage of guilt and shame and death in which our lives were held by the divine justice. To become a ransom means to take the place of the other and accept all the consequences. And this Jesus did. I am afraid that as a rule we do not penetrate far enough into the mystery of the cross to realize this situation. What must it have meant to the Son of God whose blessed life had never been disturbed by the least cloud of trouble to enter into that tremendous strain of the divine justice, to feel the waves of guilt and wrath unleashing their fury upon him, so that he cried out in the bitterness of his anguish: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” All this and more than we can possibly realize lies in this single phrase—that he gave his life a ransom for many. But only in the same proportion that we realize something of all this shall we begin to measure what is meant by the other phrase that he came to minister, and what is the unique force of the admonition that we should minister not like, but at an infinite distance minister as he did minister.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Tim Keller on freedom

You can now become a Facebook fan of the FREE Gospel Project, that will see 400,000 copies of Mark's Gospel given personally to students next year.

To celebrate, here's another quote about Christian freedom:

'The common sense definition of ‘freedom’ is ‘to be able to do what you most want to do’. In the Christian gospel – and only in the gospel – pleasing and obeying God finally becomes what we most want to do. That is freedom! Because, at last, our deepest desires conform with the realities of the universe and our own nature.'
[Tim Keller, sermon on Galatians 5:1-15]

Friday, 4 April 2008

Can't wait

Off to spend the weekend with my wife's mum and stepdad, then off to ... New Word Alive!

I've been looking forward to this conference for quite a while. It promises to be an excellent time: certainly there are excellent Bible teachers, evangelicals from a wide range of backgrounds, a brilliant emphasis on evangelism and serving the church and a great student programme. I'm also looking forward to seeing old friends and family, chatting to the students from Lancaster and Cumbria about what they've been hearing, getting excited about what God is doing through CUs nationally... the list goes on...

I'll see many of you there :)

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Revisiting the persistent widow and the unjust judge

As I said in a recent post, I've been thinking a great deal recently about the parables of Jesus. One of them that has puzzled me in the past has puzzled me again as I've revisited it. Now I think I'm getting a bit closer to the nub of this uncomfortable parable.

The parable in question concerns the persistent widow and the unjust judge, which is recorded in Luke 18:1-8. What got me thinking about this parable again recently was the repetition of the word 'justice':

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'

"For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"

And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

This made me think that there's more to the parable than immediately meets the eye. The other thing that I'd never really thought about before was the context. Jesus has been speaking about his return in Chapter 17 - and then returns to that theme in the final sentence of the parable. The parable starts with the word 'then' - making the link between chapters 17 and 18 solid. And so it seems to me that we should think of this parable as an encouragement to the disciples who may be undergoing struggles in the period before Jesus' return not to give up hope, but to pray and remain faithful to Jesus.

The unjust judge

On to the parable itself, which centres around the unjust judge. That the judge neither fears God or cares about men is detail which is repeated. Both of these would have been reasons to have helped the widow - it is commanded by OT Law, and compassion would have demanded it. In other words, the judge doesn't respect the needs of the poor and oppressed. Though Jesus isn't explicit, there was probably a reason that the judge wouldn't give the widow justice. Perhaps she couldn't afford to bribe him. In other words, the judge was arrogant and unjust, a powerful man facing down one of the weakest members of society.

The persistent widow

We don't know how the widow was being cheated. We do know that the judge wasn't inclined to help her. We also know that she was persistent. She came many times and implored the judge to rule for her. If she had kept quiet, perhaps things would have died down. But since she kept on demanding justice, time after time, the judge had no choice but to do something. Whatever he had been paid wasn't worth the hassle she was causing. He decided to grant her what she was due just to get rid of her.

The meaning of the parable

Now for the unjust judge and the widow, Jesus substitutes God and his 'chosen ones' - his people. It's not that God is like the unjust judge - rather, it's the opposite case. In fact, every detail that we're given about the unjust judge contrasts with what we know about God from the rest of the Bible. Jesus' argument is from the lesser to the greater: if an unjust, selfish judge will see that justice is done in response to persistent requests, how much more will the just God bring justice to the people he loves who pray constantly for help. I think that it's this emphasis on justice which is often missed when reading this passage.

Jesus evidently isn't saying that praying to God will lead to a temporal relief from injustice. Poor and oppressed Christians around the world are still calling out for relief and, for the most part, don't seem to be appreciably closer to a world of justice and compassion than they were when Jesus told the parable. If you read the parable as just an encouragement to prayer, there will always seem to be some lack of evidence that such prayer really makes a difference.

This is where the context of Chapter 17 (and Jesus' return) comes in. From the very earliest times, Jesus' followers hung on the promise that he would return. Only that made sense of 'losing life' (and all of the persecutions that brings) in order to experience 'true life'. Just like today, the promise of Jesus' return under-girded and overarched their lives. Without Jesus' return, Christianity makes no sense. And so, particularly in moments of injustice, we long for Jesus' return and for the way in which he will right wrongs. Sometimes the wait is particularly painful. Like the believers in the book of Revelation, sometimes we cry, "How long, Lord?" Sometimes it seems that God will never answer our cries for justice. Sometimes it feels like God is just putting us off.

But Jesus' answer is firm: God will see that his people will receive justice - and quickly. God's people will not suffer for a moment too long. When Jesus returns, it will be at the right time. Not our time or our preference, but God's, but the right time.

The challenge

Jesus' return is sure - but his question for us comes in the last sentence.

"However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" In other words, will we still be disciples of Jesus, even though it's cost us in the period waiting for his return? Or will he find us having given up, having capitulated to despair? When the answer to the prayers we have prayed and prayed and prayed finally comes, how will we be found? Or will we have turned instead to resentment or bitterness towards God? How will the coming of the answer of your prayers find you?

Jesus has told a parable of a persistence widow - very weak in the world's estimation - who has won a victory because she didn't give up hope. She didn't give up her plea and finally won the day, despite having the odds overwhelmingly stacked against her. And so I think the point is this: we sometimes become so worn down and discouraged by the injustices of our lives and the hardships that come through being Christians that we stop praying, stop hoping and ultimately stop expecting Jesus to return.

But the reminder of the character of God (so unlike the unjust judge), his care for his people and the surety of his promises should lead us to prayerfully and confidently commit ourselves to him - even when facing injustice. The Judge of the world is fair, he is loving, he is in control - and he will return.

And perhaps the other challenge for us in the West concerns our own godliness. We see in this parable that God cares passionately for the justice of his people. Walking in relationship with God means loving the things he loves and hating the things he hates. Perhaps as part of our own godliness, we need to be more concerned about the plight of Christians around the world who are experiencing horrific injustice. People like the widow from Bangladesh that is pictured here - whose husbands have been murdered for their devotion to Christ.

It's a word, at least, to me.