Thursday, 30 April 2009

"I have many people in this city"

One of the most tender parts of the book of Acts comes in chapter 18. Paul is feeling discouraged in Corinth: having been chased out of town after town, the Lord appears to him:

One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: "Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city." So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. (Acts 18:9-11)
A few of us were considering these verses at the Lancaster CU small group leaders' meeting on Tuesday. Christ gives Paul an incredible promise - he had in Corinth 'many people'. These people had not yet believed in him, but they would do so because, as Stott puts it, 'already according to his purpose they belonged to him.' And so we considered the implications of God's sovereignty in evangelism: this conviction did not cause Paul to pack up and go on holiday, but he had the great conviction to keep going as an evangelist, knowing his efforts would not be wasted.

We haven't had a specific word about the campus of Lancaster University - but as we look forward to the great crowd in Revelation, we discussed as to how we can be very optimistic that Christ has 'many people' at Lancaster University - eternally his, but not yet trusting him.

Last night we maybe had a glimpse of some of 'the many' on the campus. The CU organised a 'toastie and question' event from 6pm to 2am. It was quite an amazing event: there were three 'stations' that were all making toasties, and dozens of CU members involved in taking the toasties out, chatting and answering questions.

The stories are still filtering through the CU. A whole football squad listened to a CU member explain something of the gospel; several people want to come to church on Sunday; the campus radio station texted in for a toastie and featured the answer on their station! Literally hundreds of conversations happened over the course of the night.

In a couple of times especially we were aware of God's leading the conversation. In one instance, the CU members were there for nearly 2 hours - a banterous conversation turned very serious, and the CU members were invited back to chat further over dinner. In another conversation, the final question was, 'So how would I become a Christian?'

As we prayed last night, we reflected on Christ's promise to Paul: 'I have many people in this city.' We couldn't help thinking that he has many people on the campus. How precious the conviction of God's sovereignty is in evangelism!

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Grieving student ministry

I have had a wonderful couple of days. I have been struck again by the sheer privilege of being involved in student ministry.

Of course there are massive frustrations, but there are certain days that just seem to be full of blessing. This has included the last couple of days. An opportunity to feed on the truth's of adoption and the Spirit's indwelling in Galatians 4 yesterday morning, then leading the Cumbria small group leaders through 1 Samuel 2 yesterday - amazed at God's sovereignty in acting for his people.

Today I had the opportunity to really engage with a non-believer at the Lancaster lunchbar over the Bible's teaching on justice and hell. Afterwards I chatted with students about God's sovereignty and what it means for us. This was followed by a lovely 90 minutes with another student in Colossians 2 - both of us saw more of what it meant to reject rules but willingly submit our lives to Jesus' Lordship. Tonight at Cumbria CU it was great chatting with students and seeing the transformation that God is doing in their lives. What a pleasure to be around students who love Jesus so much that they long to introduce their friends to him!

I feel very blessed to have had 5 years with UCCF and had the privilege of seeing so many penny dropping moments and Jesus changing many. The (many) frustrations are vastly outweighed by these joys. Now as I prepare to move out of so much contact with students, I feel torn: ready to move on, excited by future challenges, blessed to have seen so much, but also grieving somewhat and realising I am going to miss so much ministry amongst students. I am praying that I would have Paul's heart in Colossians 1, the pzazz of student ministry may go, but may I have this attitude:

We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The development of theology and evangelism

I've been reading through Timothy Ware's book The Orthodox Church as part of preparation for the summer team I'm co-leading to Moldova in June and July*. I've been wanting to brush up on Orthodox beliefs as many of the non-believers that attend the camp are influenced at least nominally by the Orthodox Church.

One of the things that has struck me is the extent to which Orthodox and Protestant beliefs diverge because of a difference in whether Scripture or Church is the ultimate authority. Protestants argue that Scripture is the ultimate authority, whereas Orthodox argue that because the canon was formalised by the Spirit-driven Church, Church effectively is the authority above Scripture. (And so church creeds and the writings of the Church effectively have equal authority to Scripture).

This inevitably has an impact on the development of theology. Whereas Orthodox believers would certainly grant the possibility of theological development (in deepening existing Orthodox doctrines), it seems to me that the Orthodox Church's default position is to look at the writings of the early Orthodox saints. Protestanism - with its insistence of being Scripture-driven - places much more emphasis on theological development. The weakness of the Protestant position is that it can be faddish and perhaps (at least in evangelical circles) does not place enough emphasis on the historical testimony of Christians from other generations. But it appears to me that Orthodox theology starves itself of many of the theological developments that a sola Scriptura conviction has brought - diverse issues, including the nature of sin, the atonement, common grace, the doctrine of humanity and so on. I've no doubt that there are many genuine believers in the Orthodox community (and met some incredible people last time round in Moldova), but these under-developed doctrines seem to be very unhelpful.

Certainly my study so far means that I am inclined to run a session for our team's orientation on the doctrine of revelation. I'm also going to be inclined to show that the beliefs that many Moldovans find incredulous (for instance, that Jesus is not just 'Son of God' (which they learn by rote), but also 'God in the flesh') were testified by early Eastern believers. Eventually perhaps these thoughts will come to fruition in a short resource designed to help evangelicals share the gospel more effectively with nominally Orthodox unbelievers.

* The book, recommended by my dad, is a massively helpful and detailed introduction to Orthodoxy. There are second-hand copies on the Internet for next to nothing. Ware himself is a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Five reasons why Christians read so few good books

With a room full of bargain books at low, low prices, that will be heading to CU meetings over the next fortnight, here's a thought. Five reasons why Christians read so few good books, according to Neil Richards:

  1. Sheer worldliness.
  2. Lack of conviction that such reading strengthens faith and increases joy.
  3. A disorderly life that cannot find time for the best things.
  4. Preaching that does little to stimulate the mind or make us want to know more.
  5. A diet of poor Christian books.
HT: Dan Green

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Symptoms of hyper-Calvinism

All of a sudden many of the CU students at Lancaster University and the University of Cumbria seem to be thinking about Calvinism and Arminianism. I think that thinking about the sovereignty of God in this way has got to be a brilliant thing so long as it is done humbly and with Scripture open.

I had one conversation recently with a student on this issue, and we got to talking about hyper-Calvinism (that is, one who goes beyond and over the bounds of what Calvinism teaches, and excessive in application of the doctrines of Calvinism). The student asked me what the symptoms of hyper-Calvinism are.

Tim Challies cites Phil Johnson who theologically defines hyper-Calvinists with a five-fold definition. According to Johnson, a hyper-Calvinist is someone who:

  1. Denies that the gospel call applies to all who hear, OR
  2. Denies that faith is the duty of every sinner, OR
  3. Denies that the gospel makes any “offer” of Christ, salvation, or mercy to the non-elect (or denies that the offer of divine mercy is free and universal), OR
  4. Denies that there is such a thing as “common grace,” OR
  5. Denies that God has any sort of love for the non-elect.
So what then would be the symptoms of slipping into hyper-Calvinism? It would seem to me that there are several:
  1. A lack of commitment to evangelism and world mission (possibly even an unwillingness to evangelise at all - or at least to evangelise without appealing that non-believers accept and believe the gospel);
  2. A lack of commitment to political engagement and the desire to improve society (because there is no common grace in non-believers);
  3. A perceived lack of value in anything made by non-believers (again rooting from the belief that no common grace exists). Art, for instance, is seen as something made by a reprobate person rather than someone made in the image of God using their God-given talents;
  4. A tendency towards arrogance and elitism, and an attitude of deploring the 'non-elect';
  5. A strongly fatalistic prayer life that does not seek to grow in relationship with the Father;
  6. A lack of assurance (because the believer is constantly looking for evidence within themselves that they really are elect).
What do others think? (It's worth noting that I know at least two people who have rejected a Calvinistic understanding of Scripture, to my mind because they equate Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism).

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

"The joy of the LORD is your strength": reflections from Nehemiah 8

I'm working on a message for later in the term on Nehemiah 8, which is when the Law is read by Ezra to the exiles, who have just finished rebuilding Jerusalem.

Famously, the people are reduced to tears as the Law is read, presumably as they realise that individually and corporately they are rightly under God's curse as lawbreakers.But Nehemiah says that this reaction to what the people have just said is inappropriate, as seen here in verses 9-11:

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
Verse 10 is especially famous, especially the phrase 'the joy of the LORD is your strength'. But why should the people stop mourning and crying? After all, elsewhere in Scripture (in both Old and New Testaments), mourning over sin is presented as a right response to its ugliness and offence to God.

The key is something that it would appear many preachers miss. Nehemiah twice says that crying is inappropriate because ‘this day is holy to our Lord’, and the Levites agree. According to Nehemiah, weeping on that particular day was wrong.

What was the day? Nehemiah 8:2 explains that it is the first day of the seventh month, which Numbers 29:1 explains is to be a festival called the Feast of Trumpets. Numbers 29 also demonstrates that the seventh month was a kind of 'festival month' - jam-packed with rituals and celebrations that together reminded Israel of God's past redemption and forgiveness (and the hope of future redemption and forgiveness). All of this is tied up with the concept of sacrifice - indeed, the high point of the festivals of the seventh month was the Day of Atonement, where a burnt offering and a scapegoat visually demonstrated God's provision for a sinful people.

And so when Nehemiah says that in the light of the people’s conviction of sin that they should rejoice and not grieve, he’s not saying that the people’s sin doesn’t matter. Nor is he saying that times of grief and mourning about sin are wrong. Rather, what Nehemiah is saying is that to see sin against God as the end of the story to have a wrong view of the big picture. And it’s of that big picture that the seventh month spoke to the people.

And so Nehemiah is saying to the assembled throng: ‘Folks – it’s the Feast of Trumpets. It’s the celebration of the beginning of the seventh month – the month which speaks of how sin isn’t the last word. So stop grieving and start celebrating!’ It would be a bit like meeting someone on Easter Sunday that is gloomy and miserable. You ask them why, and they say, “Because of my sin, Jesus ended up on the cross.” And whilst that’s right and true, you’d want to say, “But it’s Easter Sunday! Today we’re remembering our wonderful Saviour and Redeemer who took our judgement and beat death. Mourning sin isn’t appropriate today. Think about the big picture to which today points.”

Nehemiah 8 is not teaching that grieving sin is wrong. Rather, Nehemiah 8 teaches that if grieving sin never leads a person to Jesus (and to experience the joy of forgiven sin that Jesus offers), we have got our understanding of God's big picture very wrong.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Christ and him crucified

On Good Friday, a good question to revisit again might be: is the cross really that special? Paul determined to know nothing but Christ and his cross - but was he mistaken?

These are the questions that Peter Leithart asks in an extraordinary and poetic homily on Good Friday written a couple of years ago. Read his post in full (do it!) to see how the cross of Christ is the summation of all history and the fulfilment of the many shadows of judgement and redemption that had gone before. Which leads to this masterful and triumphant conclusion:

'The cross is the crux, the crossroads, the twisted knot at the center of reality, to hich all previous history led and from which all subsequent history flows. By it we know all reality is cruciform – the love of God, the shape of creation, the labyrinth of human history. Paul determined to know nothing but Christ crucified, but that was enough. The cross was all he knew on earth; but knowing the cross he, and we, know all we need to know.'

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Damned United: the idolatry of ambition

The Damned United concerns Brian Clough's ill-fated 44 day stint as manager of Leeds United. Based on fact but no doubt embellished, the film places the seven weeks Clough spent there as manager in the context of his long-running rivalry with Don Revie.

Michael Sheen is, again, brilliant and Timothy Spall provides excellent support as Clough's number 2, Peter Taylor. There's a good script which highlights Clough's arrogance, wit and pomp. The film is quick moving and held the attention even of my football-tolerating-at-best mother. There's also some beautiful photography work (my favourite scenes were those set in Brighton) which captures what I imagine the spirit of the 1970s to be perfectly.

Clough is portrayed as a flawed genius - to those of us know who anything about the man, no surprise there. His genius and his flaw root from the same place: Clough's great ambition and associated arrogance. Positively, these drive Clough to excellence and brings great hights. Negatively, they are pictured as destroying relationships with friends, family, rivals and colleagues - and lead Clough himself into misery and bitterness. (This is particularly shown in the rollercoaster-type relationship Clough has with Peter Taylor; particularly tragic to those who know how this relationship finished in real life). In short, success becomes Clough's god. He is pictured as willing to do anything in order to achieve it - and cannot live without it.

Success is something which is not wrong to pursue, nor is achievement. But The Damned United reminds the viewer that when these become ultimate, hurt of oneself and others (and regret) are bound to follow.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Pray for Moldova

I don't know how many of my readers will be familiar about the situation in Moldovan following the parliamentary elections last Sunday. There's a summary from the BBC here.

Moldova is a country that is close to my heart. Corruption and poor leadership has held Moldova back from developing (it is Europe's poorest country) and it is crucial that there is a genuine democracy there; and a leadership that will wisely work for the benefit of both the Russian and Romanian ethnic groups.

Please pray for a speedy resolution to the present situation, and pray for safety and opportunities to point to Jesus for the CSC staff and students (CSC is the equivalent of UCCF) that are based in Chisinau.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Go elsewhere

A couple of interesting links to follow:

  • The incredible sermon given at Jade Goody's funeral. Jade apparently discovered the hope that having Jesus brings in the last days of life. What an amazing testimony to God's grace that this sermon is!
  • Lancaster University CU's mission week features towards the episode here of the 'LA1 Show', produced by Lancaster University's Lutube [HT: Michael Ots].

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Lessons from New Word Alive

I have got back today from a week at New Word Alive in Pwllheli. Here are some things that particularly struck me.

1. Going through the parables in Luke's Gospel was a treat. The evening celebrations each focused on one of Jesus' parables recorded in Luke's Gospel. It's amazing how clearly these parables speak into everyday life and psyche of the Christian. Terry Virgo reminded us from Luke 15 of how the relationship God wants with his people is based on grace, as a father to a son. Don Carson spoke of the eternal consequences that the gospel has from Luke 16. The other messages were also top drawer. Perhaps my highlight was the exposition of the parable of the Good Samaritan by Krish Kandiah, who reminded that that although salvation is by grace, life in the kingdom will always show itself in radical neighbourly love. (I also attended a seminar from Dewi Hughes of Tearfund who made a similar point). We in the evangelical church have sadly often failed to meet the very real needs around us in the name of doing evangelism alone. But the heart of Christ is a heart to meet all needs - both temporal and ultimately eternal.

2. The doctrine of justification is to be treasured. I attended Mike Reeves' morning sessions on justification. I have left with more clarity on the doctrine itself and what it means to have been united to Christ and with a heart singing of Reformation truths. There are many ways that this doctrine can be weakened or removed from centre ground - but it is the bedrock of Christian life and spirituality. I had a brilliant conversation with a student who'd understood why joy was such a feature of the Christian life - we cannot fail to be joyful when the wonderful gospel truths saturate our hearts.

3. North Wales is beautiful. We were so fortunate to have a week in the sun. And the drive back today was truly awe-inspiring.

4. Conferences are great. God has not left us to be Christian hermits. His primary design is that Christians encourage each other, worship together and engage with the world through local churches. But I was struck this week by the very unique ministry opportunities that conferences bring - a teaching quality that can be rarely reproduced, a wealth of expertise, singing that engages the heart in a way not often seen in local churches, time to spend with friends, conversations with people you'd never otherwise share and so on. It's easy to arrive with a cynical attitude at a conference, but I for one think they're great.

5. Evangelical unity is worth fighting for. The group of students I took from Lancaster University and Uclan CUs were incredibly diverse - at least seven university churches were represented. It was brilliant to see students who'd previously written off believers from other Christian backgrounds actually treating each other like brothers and sisters for the first time, centring around the core truths of the gospel. Gospel unity is an incredibly attractive thing - and vital to demonstrate the joyful truth of the gospel to the world.

New Word Alive 2010 will run from 13-18 April. Confirmed speakers include Wayne Grudem, Jerry Bridges and Rebecca Manley-Pippert.