Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Justification and sanctification

I spoke tonight on James 2, a tricky passage on the relationship between faith and works. It is the passage that infamously caused the young Martin Luther to label James 'the epistle of straw' (a view that he later rescinded) because he thought it threatened the doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone.

I came to the conclusion that when Paul is attacking ‘justification by works’ he is attacking the view that anything we do along with faith can be credited to us as righteousness; that it is only through faith in Jesus that anyone can obtain a ‘not guilty’ verdict when we become Christians. Works are not needed to receive justification. But when James affirms ‘justification by works’ he means that works are essential in the ongoing life of a Christian: they are how authentic faith shows itself. Works confirm and prove the reality of the faith which justifies. In that respect, faith without works cannot justify.

I found this vintage quote by CJ Mahaney perceptively clear and helpful in this context (particularly the bottom paragraph):

'Justification refers to a Christian’s position before God. The moment you were born again, God justified you. On the basis of Christ’s finished work, God thought of your sins as forgiven and declared that you were righteous.

Sanctification, on the other hand, refers to our practice before God. It is the ongoing process of battling sin and becoming more like Jesus. Though sanctification is the evidence and goal of our justification, we must never see it as the basis of our justification. Here’s where so many Christians get confused. They try to earn what has already been given to them as a free gift. As Martin Luther stated, “The only contribution we make to our justification is our sin which God so graciously forgives.”

There are other vital distinctions. Justification is about being declared righteous; sanctification is about becoming more righteous. Justification is immediate; sanctification is gradual. Justification is complete the moment God declares us righteous. It does not take place by degrees. Sanctification, however, is a process that lasts as long as we live. Finally, while every Christian enjoys the same degree of justification, we vary in terms of sanctification. You will never be more justified than you are at this moment, because justification is an act of God. But by God’s grace, you will become ever more sanctified as you cooperate with God’s Spirit in the process of change.

Though it’s important to distinguish between justification and sanctification, these two doctrines are inseparable. God does not justify someone without sanctifying him as well. Sanctification is not optional. If one has truly been justified, that will be evident by a progressive work of sanctification in his life.'

(From Why Small Groups?, pages 4-5)

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Benjamin Button? I'd rather have 2 Corinthians 5

Already nominated for major awards and an Oscar favourite, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a film that has been pulling in the viewers. And it's no surprise. There's an all-star cast, a great idea, a heart-breaking love story and incredible special effects. It's message is engaging but - as I've hinted in the title to this post - one I have found increasingly unsatisfactory as I've thought more about this film since I saw it.

Benjamin Button
is about a man who is born in his eighties and who, over time, grows younger. It is based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story begins in New Orleans at the end of World War I in 1918 and ends in the 21st century. Benjamin's life is characterised in the movie by the people he meets, the places he discovers, the loves he experiences, the many joys of life he knows, and the sadness of losing people he loved.

Cinema-goers have been somewhat polarised by the film. For some, the film is magical and wonderful. For others, it is dull and dreary. For my wife, Linda, it was the latter. Certainly, the film dragged in places and the action took a while to develop. And whilst the special effects and the make-up are brilliant - it's so strange seeing Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as pensioners - this didn't really capture my attention for the nearly three hour duration of the film.

The most interesting aspect of the film was it's lament - death is lamented, broken relationships are lamented, happy times that have to finish are lamented and bodies that break and become diseased are lamented. Benjamin's increasingly younger body simply reminds Daisy of her increasingly ageing body, heading as it is toward death. And so the movie is characterised from start to finish by recognising the sheer fragility of human life. Indeed, a collection of quotes from the film can be found here, which reflects this point.

Life is presented as 'a series of intersecting lives and incidents, out of anyone's control'. A fate greater than ourselves seems to decide whether we live or die (as shown comedically by the Mr Daws, who's apparently been struck by lightning seven times - who survived, but who has to live with bodily effects of what happened), making life a person's greatest gift. Wallowing in resentment for what has ceased or gone wrong is, according to the film, a waste of time. And so the heroic characters in the film are those who make the best of their lives and experience what they can, despite the unfortunate circumstances that they might have faced - whether that's swimming the English Channel later in life, or dancing. As Benjamin puts it,

'For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.'
And so the film causes the viewer to ask questions in the light of these sad truths: Am I using my time wisely? Are I letting life happen to me, or am I happening to life?

As a Christian, I found a film about what it's like to be continually surrounded by the reality of death both engaging and sad. Engaging, because Hollywood rarely takes on such a subject in a subtle and real way. But I also found it sad - because of the lack of hope that was portrayed. As grateful as the central characters appear for the gift of life they have received, the reality of death punctures it continually. And at most, an elderly Daisy mentions being curious about what happens 'next' after her final breath. This apparent lack of belief in a personal God - or a meaningful afterlife - inevitably leads to sadness. Benjamin and Daisy live to fully experience their lives, but it's as if they are always watching the clock, always aware that 'nothing ever lasts'. I found myself leaving the cinema very grateful for the hope that 2 Corinthians 5 offers me through Christ - a hope of a new body and a life beyond death in the renewed creation: a life of solid joys and lasting pleasures. I can't help but think that this is what the film's writers crave.

Ultimately, I found Benjamin Button's message frustrating. Frustrating because it's sometimes not enough to be told to just be grateful for life and to experience it as best we can. The film hits the nail on the head as it pictures the tyranny of time, a life inevitably heading toward death and the destruction and hardship of a broken world and broken bodies. But we long for more than this - deep down we know that God has set eternity in our hearts and we long for more.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Isn't the God of the Old Testament genocidal and bigoted? (or, Is the God of the Bible a monster?)

I'm speaking at the lunchbar at Lancaster University on the very tricky and emotionally engaging question above. This has been hard work to prepare.

I've decided to look at the slaughter of the Canaanites in Joshua 6 (which is often what people have in mind - at least implicitly - when they ask this question). The incident, which occurs with the invasion of Jericho, is thought to demonstrate God's lack of moral standards, that don't even seem to match up to our own. Nor can Christians just pass off these incidents as being inapplicable because they are recorded in the Old Testament. God is unchanging. And so a whole load of fears emerge... fears that God isn't good, fears that the Bible might stirs its readers to religious violence and so on.

Here's an outline of the path I'm going to take in responding to the charges against God from Joshua 6:

1. God's actions in judging the Canaanites as he did were unique because what he was doing in the world at the time was unique.

The land of Canaan was the backdrop for God’s model; an arena where the nations could see the blessing of a relationship with God, and a real-life picture pointing to forward to the Messiah, ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. Because the reality to which the model pointed has come, Christians are never called to take up arms and kill people in the name of God or Christianity today.

2. God alone has the right to demand the end of another’s life.

3. The Canaanites were not innocent.

As illustrated in Deuteronomy 18:9-12 and so on. Child sacrifices were amongst the detestable practices that God was judging.

4. God was not impatient in judging the Canaanites, but had given them many years to change their ways.

As shown in Genesis 15:16, and echoed for us today in 2 Peter 3:8-9. God's justice will still be done - and eventually he will bring a final judgement.

5. Escape was not impossible.

... As illustrated in the example of Rahab and her family (Joshua 6:17, 22-23). This illustrates the Lord's kindness, and points us forward towards the ultimate rescue he made for us through the cross.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Five questions for Christians to engage with popular music

Pop music - like any other form of art - is made of what Francis Schaeffer called 'glorious ruins', made by people made in the image of God, yet ruined and sinful. How as Christians can we discern what is good in pop music without endorsing what is wrong and sinful?

Here are five questions that you can use to begin to consider these questions:

1. What's sort of response do the song writer and musician want the hearer to make? How successfully is this intention achieved?
2. How technically excellent is this piece of music? (this considers the skill of the composers, musicians and producers)
3. Is the musician being true to their talent and worldview - or are they making their music primarly for fame or for money?
4. What's the content and message of the song? What can we agree with? What do we disagree with?
5. To what extent is the agreement between what's being communicated and how it's being communicated? (Jerry Solomon: ‘The ideal situation occurs when both the medium and the message agree.’).

These questions show that it is entirely possible for a musician to create a song that is creative and technically excellent while its theme is something we can’t agree with (or vice versa). Much of the music we encounter will contain both things we agree with and things we disagree with and it is dishonest to deny the reality of either. When we write off a song or musician because of their lyrics or performance, we deny the God-given talents that they inevitably have. In so doing, we miss much of the way in which God has blessed the people he made with common grace.

Additionally, if we evaluate music based on our personal preferences, we exalt our preference to place of ultimate authority. As Christians we recognize Scripture as the ultimate authority for our belief and practice and we should also root our assessment of an individual piece of art work in the same place.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Bible translations personified

I love spending time with Blackpool School of Arts CU: they're an exemplary small CU with a real heart for godliness and evangelism.

However, one of the more random things they have assembled is a selection of bizarre icebreakers. Here's the one from Friday: if each translation of the Bible had to be personified by a celebrity, who would each translation be?

Here's the ideas we came up with:

KJV: Brian Blessed
Message: Mike Skinner
ESV: John Humphreys
CEV: Ben Shepherd
NLT: Myleene Klass
NIV: Philip Schofield
TNIV: Declan Donnelly
GNB: Lorraine Kelly
Amplified: Geri Halliwell

Anyone got any other ideas?

Friday, 6 February 2009

Godliness and the futility of legalism

Studying Ephesians 4-5 with a student at Uclan yesterday gave me a new insight into the passage that I'd never noticed before. I've known for some time that legalism can't change behaviour in more than an outward way, but had never spotted in Ephesians how this conviction is demonstrated.

Ephesians 4:22-24 says:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

In other words, there is a behaviour for believers to take off and a new behaviour to cultivate. But what will make this possible is to be made new in one's attitude. And that's the pattern of the verses that follow. Paul won't let us become legalistic - he always explains a reason for why the 'old self' needs to be taken off and the 'new self' is put on. It's as this new attitude penetrates a believer's mind and their desire is changed that behaviour ultimately changes.

So, for instance, the Christian that struggles with telling the truth should put off falsehood (verse 25) and instead speak truthfully. But what will help them do this? Not rules. But the conviction that lying to other believers is disruptive to other members of the body. We ourselves are hurt through lying to other members of the body. It's this new attitude that gives the believer a desire to change.

The pattern continues. Those who are stealing should steal no longer (verse 28). What will cause this to happen? Not rules, but a new attitude of wanting to share with those in need, that drives the believer to work hard instead.

Spent a great time with Jon in Preston yesterday chatting through these things. How wonderful it is that we not only have a calling to a new life, but that God has also given us the desire and resources to begin to live this life!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Monday, 2 February 2009

'Revolutionary Road' and the critique of existentialism

Revolutionary Road is the latest Sam Mendes offering set in suburban America. This time, he tackles the issues of happiness, freedom and their source, tracking the fortunes of married couple Frank and April Wheeler.

Frank and April are a young couple living in a model suburb (spot the similarities with American Beauty). April, played by Kate Winslet, is a failed actress and stay-at-home mother, whilst Frank, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, commutes daily to an office job in New York City.

The film picks Frank and April up as they have stalled into a rut of mundane life. Both characters feel as though they are just 'surviving': Frank in a job that he hates, April in a life she'd had never chosen minding her children. Suddenly, April gets the idea that their lives (and their marriage) can be reinvigorated if they move away from the 'comfort' of their home in Revolutionary Road and move to Paris. There she can work, whilst he works out what his vocation is. Frank eventually agrees to April's plan (he says that he, too, craves 'feeling, really feeling'), much to the consternation of their suburban friends.

Everything changes, though, when April becomes pregant, and a joke at work ends up giving Frank a chance at becoming a corporate hot-shot. With these changes, how will the Wheelers cope? April is driven by the prospects of freedom and true life - she's willing to abort and to carry on with the proposed emigration; Frank, meanwhile, prefers to numb the pain of his unfulfilment through staying busy, through material gain and through cigarettes and booze. The film essentially plays out this clash of worldviews and particularly critiques April's driven existentialism and demand for experiential fulfilment.

What's celebrated is April's zest for life: she longs for truth and a felt reality. She's willing to face up to the facts of her existence. She hates the emptiness and hopelessness of suburban life. She longs to make her life count and craves purpose, something endorsed by the fascinating character John, who has a psychiatric illness and speaks blunt truth. However, April's experience-driven choices are not shown in a completely positive light: she hurts many of those who are closest to her and treats them as objects for her gratification, she ignores her children and she makes some very dubious moral choices. In the end, the viewer can't help wondering whether her driven existentialism is irresponsible, selfish and ultimately unrealistic escapist (sentiments I've shared about existentialism before). But the only alternative given in the film is to ignore the voices that tell us that our lives don't count and numb the pain.

As a Christian, what is very obvious to me is that God is missing from the lives of the characters Revolutionary Road. The Bible speaks of a God who created humans in relationship with him and each other, of a God that judges - showing that lives matter, and a God who gives a purpose to his people. The Christian good news speaks to people like April who long authenticity, freedom and reality. It also speaks to people like Frank, encouraging them to face up to life as it really is, with all its hopelessness and emptiness. True freedom is found in offering all of one's life in joyful submission to Jesus, living life as it was created to be lived.