Thursday, 31 July 2008

"Sin and God are correlative terms"

One of the sessions that we ran during our orientation before the 'English and Bible Camp' in Moldova was a session on what is the gospel. I was really keen that this session was stretching and went beyond the often quite reduced form of the gospel presented in some of these sorts of seminars.

One thing that emerged very clearly in the session was a lack of clarity on the nature of sin. It seems that many people have unintentionally adopted quite an 'Islamic' view of sin: that is, that people are mainly good (not mainly bad), and that sin is defined by the bad things we do - a set of black marks, if you like. Islam rejects any form of original sin and, given that humans were never in a relationship with God, the Islamic view of sin is not associated with rebellion against God. But to hold onto a quasi-Islamic view of sin will lead you to an anaemic form of Christianity.
Here are a few implications that I can see:

Atonement theology. Within Christianity, sin is presented as a wilful heart attitude in rebellion against God. I'm struck by the number of times that Jesus presents sin as a disease (think, for instance, of John 3:14-15 in context, and Mark 2:17) - there's nothing that we ourselves can do to free ourselves from this attitude of rebellion against God. As Will Metzger puts it, we find ourselves playing God: running our lives as if God did not matter; ignoring God; trying to be self-sufficient and self-made people - and also fighting God: wanting to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Sin and God are correlative terms. Rebellion is part of who we have become by nature. And so this leaves us with two interconnected but separate problems:

1. Somehow, we need to be forgiven by the holy and just God for our sinful actions that have flowed from our part hearts.
2. We need to be given new hearts so that we no longer keep rebelling against God.
Both of these things are necessary - we see that the death and resurrection of Jesus not only needs to bear God's wrath, but also to give new life. If the cross and resurrection dealt with only one of these problems, our atonement would be incomplete. Whilst we hold onto to a quasi-Islamic view of sin these things are not seen in clarity.

In our evangelism. We are likely to equate a guilty conscience in a person with conviction of sin. If a person admits that they are not perfect, we'll think that they recognise themselves to be sinful. But, as we've seen, conviction of sin needs to include an awareness of a wrong relationship with God, a sense of helplessness to do right, and therefore a consequent need of a new heart. We need the Spirit to show people that they are not only imperfect - but that they are sinful. The proclaimed gospel makes little sense if this point on sin is missed. Non-believers with a high view of humanity will miss the point of the gospel so long as they don't realise the gravity of the situation they are in. Rather, we must show them that God demands punishment for our sins and we can do nothing to avoid that punishment (because we keep sinning). We need to show them our complete hopelessness outside of Christ.

"I believe that much of our evangelistic and personal work today is not clear simply because we are too anxious to get to the answer without having a man realize the real cause of his sickness, which is true moral guilt (and not just psychological guilt feelings) in the presence of God." (Francis Schaeffer).

The holiness of believers and their sanctification. So long as we hold to a quasi-Islamic view of sin, we're likely to think that we're pretty good people. I'm likely to come to times of confession and look out for things that could be held as 'black marks' against my name. However, once I see sin as relational - as failing to love God and to treat him as God, my view of what is 'sinful' is expanded. I'm not only going to see trangressions as sin, but I'm also going to be aware of how I've failed to be like Christ and how I've failed to live with God as my God. I'm also going to be driven more regularly to the cross and I'll be more deeply amazed by the love that God has shown me.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Sarah

My former Relay Worker and friend, Sarah Dawkins, is the latest to join the blogosphere!

She'll be moving down to Southend to work at Ferndale Baptist Church in a few weeks. You can follow her progress as moves down at her blog. She's also got some personal reflections from the recent trip we both went on to Moldova.

Monday, 28 July 2008

One world, one dream

There's just ten days until the Beijing Olympics kick off. I can't wait. I vaguely remember the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, but ever since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, I've loved the whole experience of the Olympics.

Four years ago, I even organised my summer around the Olympics, arranging to meet up with friends only on the days where there was little British interest in the events!

I still love the way in which all sorts of people get really enthusiastic about sports that they'd rarely give two hoots about. Remember how everyone suddenly became badminton experts in 2004 following the run of Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms to the Olympic final?

One of the areas, however, where I guess I've become more cynical is some of the rhetoric that accompanies the Games. Your average opening ceremony has endless eulogising about the way in which the Olympics will, apparently, unite humanity and demonstrate to the world all of the positive characteristics of what it means to be human. The Beijing Games is no different. The Games' strapline is 'One World One Dream', which 'reflects the essence and the universal values of the Olympic spirit'.

Efforts to unite humanity have, of course, abounded. Islam seeks to do it (often by force) under a theocratic regime. Marxism sought to establish an intellectual unity amongst humanity. Now the Olympic Games claims that it can unite humanity through common experiences and a common set of values. With a heavy heart, however, I wonder in all realism the extent to which we'll see these 'universal values' over the coming weeks. It will be miraculous if there's no scandal, no failed drugs tests and no ungentlemanly conduct by the time the Games close in just over three weeks' time.

What struck me in Moldova whilst reading Ephesians 2:11-22 is the massive claim that Christ has united humanity - not by force, not with a common set of values - but through a new spiritual unity. Christians are now reconciled to God (in exactly the same way) and - therefore - reconciled to each other. Those things that make us distinct from each other give none of us a spiritual advantage over the other. We approach the cross in the same way, with our deepest needs met together in the same way.

It may not have had quite the same diversity of humanity as that which will be on display at the Olympics, but I saw something of the Ephesians 2 unity modelled whilst in Moldova. On the English team alone, we had incredible diversity - loud people, quiet people, extroverts, introverts, representatives from seven universities. There was also great theological diversity (at least seven demoninational backgrounds represented). Throw in the Moldovans and the Americans that work for CSC and you have a diverse team (pictured below), with nothing in common except Jesus. Yet we were united. We knew each other was family as soon as we met. And it was brilliant seeing individuals living out that family relationship in laying down their rights and prejudices in serving others first. I guess that's something that not even the Olympics can achieve.

Friday, 25 July 2008


Pictured above is someone that grew to be a good friend of mine in Moldova: Victor. Victor became a Christian through the English and Bible Camp last year.

I'd heard about Victor's conversion through some of the folks that went as members of the English team in 2007. Yet, upon meeting Victor at the camp, I was amazed that he'd been a Christian for only a year. Victor really loves Jesus and has a deep joy that stands out conspiciously. As Victor shared his testimony on the camp, many were moved to tears by his story.

One of the unique things about the summer team trip to Moldova is the opportunity to go home overnight with a Moldovan student at the end of the English and Bible Camp. This is a great chance to see something of 'real' Moldova. Along with another member of the English team (Jon), I had the privilege of going back with Victor to see his village and his family. I was blown away by the generous hospitality of Victor and his family in Costesti. Victor's family are poor, I would guess even by Moldovan standards. Yet they sacrificially made us feel very welcome.

Jon and I accompanied Victor to his church on Sunday. It was the first time that I'd ever attended a service at and Orthodox church. The service was five hours long - standing only! The service itself was full of contrasts - I guess as an evangelical, there were parts of it I loved and other parts I struggled with. (Victor's summary of the sermon afterwards suggested that that part was good). But I came away encouraged that there are genuine Christians who really believe the gospel and really love Jesus in the Orthodox church. Victor is one of them, and I met several more that Sunday.

Victor hasn't had an easy time as a Christian. He's studying engineering at Hinciesti. It was there that he'd met Tania, his English teacher and a strong Christian, who invited him onto the English and Bible Camp last year. After the camp, Victor became a part of Tania's Bible study group on campus. Yet to be a Bible believing Christian isn't always popular in Moldova. Earlier this year, Tania was called all sorts of names (including 'Judas' and 'Satan'). This wave of persecution eventually led to Tania being sacked. Victor and his classmates that attended Tania's Bible study were also publicly humiliated. It's God's grace alone that has kept this young believer strong.

Please pray for Victor. In some ways he's isolated and paid a higher cost for being a Christian in just one year than many of us have paid in years of being Christians. Pray that his love for Jesus and for other Christians keeps growing.

Moldova 2008

Last night, after nearly 40 hours after leaving Chisinau, the capital city, I arrived home after three weeks in Moldova.

My colleague and co-leader, Cathy, always speaks of how Moldova makes you appreciate your weakness. It's true. There's no place to run and hide from your weaknesses in Moldova. It's a culture where everything is very different from our own, where poverty is very obvious, and where even the simplest tasks can may you feel uncomfortable. All this means that you have no choice except to pray like mad and trust God. Maybe it's this 'enforced humility' that has led God to bless this trip year after year.

Once again, I was amazed by how God had prepared so many people before the trip even began. I was impressed by the teachable spirit in which so many of our own team arrived for our week of orientation in Chisinau. And upon arriving at the camp, it was noticeable how many non-believers had already been prepared too. Moldovan people are very spiritually aware (despite increasing pressures of materialism), and there were good gospel-based conversations even from the first day of the camp.

It was also very noticeable again at how Orthodox culture has deeply affected the outlook of so many Moldovans. I'll write in future posts about some amazing individuals I met who are involved in the Orthodox church. Yet nominal Orthodoxy has left many Moldovans confused about the nature of faith, the nature of repentance and what it means to be a Christian. And whilst many people know the formula that 'Jesus is the Son of God', many are genuinely surprised that Christians believe that Jesus is God in human form.

Perhaps the thing that impacted me most from this particular trip to Moldova was the faith and perseverance of persecuted Christians. I was really moved by the accounts of some Christians who are holding firm to Jesus and his gospel despite intense institutional pressure to recant. It was amazing to see those who are carrying their crosses and following Jesus, even despite losing much.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Making the return to marvellous Moldova

On Thursday I'll be travelling down to London to meet the team that I'll be co-leading to Moldova. We're leaving on Friday. (For more about Moldova, look here).

It's a strange prospect thinking about returning to Moldova this time round. Part of me will leave with a heavy heart. Some of you will know that my wife, Linda, yesterday had an operation on her right hip. She won't be out of hospital by the time I leave. Part of me is somewhat anxious: we're leading a large team (23 in total) - there are plenty of potential hiccoughs both in travelling to Moldova and in maintaining team unity. Part of me can't wait to get back to a country that has a very strong emotional place in my mind.

Our trip will last three weeks. It will take over 24 hours for the team to travel to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. We'll fly out to Bucharest in Romania early on Friday morning. We'll then face the joy of an overnight sleeper train into Moldova (it's actually quite fun)! But please pray for safe travel for both people and baggage - it will make the trip even harder if things go wrong here.

From Saturday until Thursday, we'll spend time as a time in orientation in Chisinau. We'll be hoping that the team will get to know each other, find out a bit more about Moldovan culture, have some Romanian lessons, learn about God's plan for evangelism and prepare Bible studies from Mark's Gospel. It's an intense and often a quite stretching time for team members. Pray that it's a significant and fruitful week spiritually, and that all team members get to know and love Jesus more through the studies in Mark.

The focus of the trip is the English and Bible Camp, that will run from 10th-19th July. This year, about 75 Moldovans are expected, two-thirds of them not Christian. Most of them will have read little or nothing from the Bible. The team's job is to teach English classes and to lead the Bible studies for everyone. Previously I found the camp exhausting and very tough, emotionally and physically, but loads of fun! Pray for good relationships across languages, plenty of fun, strength and stamina, and clear gospel teaching. Pray that Christians grow in love for Jesus, and non-Christians repent and believe the good news as they meet Jesus in Mark's Gospel.

After the camp, British students stay in a Moldovan student's family home (a brilliant highlight of the trip). There's then a debrief period ... and long journey home to Britain with plenty of sleep!

I've written before about many of the struggles that the country of Moldova faces. And it certainly won't be a holiday for the team of us that head out there. One of the things that I found very different is the very different spiritual climate there. In some ways it's very hard: there's not very much hope in a country that has no obvious way of getting better. It's refreshing in that the Moldovans are keen to hear God's word - little or no apologetics is needed in persuading them that the Bible really is the word of God. The challenge for Moldovans listening to Scripture is its message: particularly, in a meritocratic ex-Soviet state, the idea that God wants to give you something, that you can't pay him back ... and that it's OK that you can't pay him back.

The trip could be massively significant for all those involved. Please pray God does some open heart surgery on all whilst we're out there. I'll try to post from Moldova - but there may be no chance. Please keep praying regardless!

Proverbs sermon: how to speak wisely

Here's a sermon I gave at the weekend on speaking wisely from Proverbs...

I'd never spoken on Proverbs before but in the end got quite into it. Comments, as ever, are very welcome.