Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Charles Simeon on Gospel Charity

Charles Simeon was known as the Prince of Evangelicals. Converted during his undergraduate years at Cambridge through reading the Book of Common Prayer's Holy Communion service, Simeonplayed a significant role in the late 18th, and early 19th centuries - in what David Bebbington describes as one of two great waves of evangelicalism. 

Simeon was a thorough going evangelical of Calvinist persuasion. But Simeon was not factional;at a time when English evangelicals were divided over Calvinist and Arminian theologies, he had no time for those who lacked generosity and charitable in their dealings towards others outside their own tribe.. On the key doctrine of election from Romans 9 Simeon preached:
Many there are who cannot see these truths [the doctrines of God's sovereignty], who yet are in a state truly pleasing to God; yea many, at whose feet the best of us may be glad to be found in heaven. It is a great evil, when these doctrines are made a ground of separation one from another, and when the advocates of different systems anathematize each other... In reference to truths which are involved in so much obscurity as those which relate to the sovereignty of God mutual kindness and concession are far better than vehement argumentation and uncharitable discussion (Horae Homileticae, Vol. 15, 357).
One example of this attitude at work in Simeon's life comes from a conversation between (the Calvinist) Simeon and an elderly (Arminian) John Wesley:
Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?
Yes, I do indeed.
And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?
Yes, solely through Christ.
But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?
No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last. 
Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?
What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother's arms?
Yes, altogether.
And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?
Yes, I have no hope but in Him.
Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree. (H.C.G. Moule, Charles Simeon, London: InterVarsity, 1948, 79ff.) 

May God raise up more men and women like Simeon who make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

A Real Establishment

'For since there are real men [sic], so must there also be a real establishment (plantationem), that they vanish not away among non-existent things, but progress among those which have an actual existence. For neither is the substance nor the essence of the creation annihilated (for faithful and true is He who has established it), but “the fashion of the world passeth away;” that is, those things among which transgression has occurred, since man has grown old in them. And therefore this [present] fashion has been formed temporary, God foreknowing all things; as I have pointed out in the preceding book, and have also shown, as far as was possible, the cause of the creation of this world of temporal things. But when this [present] fashion [of things] passes away, and man has been renewed, and flourishes in an incorruptible state, so as to preclude the possibility of becoming old, [then] there shall be the new heaven and the new earth, in which the new man shall remain [continually], always holding fresh converse with God. And since (or, that) these things shall ever continue without end, Isaiah declares, “For as the new heavens and the new earth which I do make, continue in my sight, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain.”' - Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.36.1
Irenaeus was a significant leader of the church in the second century. He learnt the faith from bishop Polycarp, who - it is said - learnt the faith from St. John. His influence was recognized widely by his contemporaries, and this was in large part built upon his writing responding to the threat of Gnosticism. In many senses, Irenaeus was the church's first biblical and systematic theologian. This forms part of the significance of the quote above. The issue of the continuity of creation is often dismissed as being the product of modern ecological concerns. Yet from the quote above it is evident that the Christian hope for new creation was not a 21st century invention or innovation, but in accord with the faith that was deposited with to the saints. Our hope is in the resurrection, the raising of our bodies, just as Jesus was raised, And an embodied existence requires - necessitates - a world to inhabit.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dissolve Like Snow?

The February of 1779 witnessed the publication of the poetry and hymnary of the English poet William Cowper and Church of England priest John Newton. The Olney Hymns, as the collection became known, was written by the two men for use in Newton's ministry in Olney, Buckinghamshire. The parish had a history with dissenters, and was largely populated by poor and uneducated women and men. The Olney Hymns are broadly representative of  Cowper and Newton's evangelicalism, and concern to minister the gospel to also sections of society. They were also hugely popular; there are 37 known reprints of the hymnal from within 60 years of the original publication, whilst many of the hymns were re-appropriated in England and America as part of other works.

The famous of the Olney Hymns is of course Amazing Grace. If ever there was a hymn that defined the evangelical world, a pretty good case could be made for Amazing Grace. It is one of the most well known, sung, and beloved hymns of all time. Given its place in the evangelical world, it is curious to note the toing-and-froing that has surrounded the hymn. The last verse which begins "When we've been there a thousand years" is not original to Newton's work; instead it seems to have originated with a hymn written c.1790.  It's appearance with Amazing Grace did not occur until the 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Newton had originally penned an alternative ending to Amazing Grace, originally titled "Faith's Review and Expectation", as a poem Newton wrote in connection to his New Year's Day 1773 sermon on 1 Chronicles 17.16-17. Rarely included in subsequent publications of the original poem, the sixth and final stanza of the 1773 version of Amazing Grace reads thus:
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
   The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
   Will be forever mine.
Newton's poetry picks up on language found in Scripture, such as in Psalms 46.6 and 97.5, of the earth and mountains giving way before the sovereign Lord. Yet rather than forming the basis of an eschatological cosmology, these verses present God as steadfast and sure in contrast to the changes and chances of this fleeting world. Crucially, in both Psalms, Jerusalem is also presented as strong and secure.

Another potential and major influence on this final stanza would be the third chapter of Second Peter. This makes the reintroduction by some contemporary musicians of Newton's final stanza unfortunate and problematic. The 2 Peter of Newton's day left things pretty clear that this world would indeed dissolve, leaving a picture of the annihilation of creation: heaven and earth - the whole world.
10But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. 11Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved...
However, greater access to older Greek manuscripts (particularly codices Sinaitcus and Vaticanus) has changed the general reading of 2 Peter 3. Rather than being λυόμενα, dissolved, the earliest manuscripts have εὑρεθήσεται, exposed.

10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Whilst the heavens will pass away and the elements dissolve, the sense of Peter's argument is that the earth will be purified and redeemed. Whilst there is conjecture as to Peter's understanding of the elements in verse 10, it is unlikely given the use of this phrase across the New Testament that this word refers to the periodic table. Rather, drawing on places such as Isaiah 24 and 35, Peter' presents the apocalyptic destruction of the forces of evil. What is clear is that there is a level of both continuity and discontinuity in the New Testament's assessment of the relation between this world and the world to come, a new heavens and a new earth which we long for righteousness to be at home. And that is the problem with the stanza; whilst it captures God's steadfastness contra the world that is attested to time and again in Scripture, it doesn't sufficiently draw on the entire biblical attestation to both discontinuity and continuity.

One can hardly blame Newton for this given what he was working with. But the same is not true for us today. We god's mercy and provision, we have access to Peter's vision in verses 10-13 of a world not annihilated, but purified, cleansed and made fit for righteousness to be at home. A world which is the same and different from our world today. A world which Jesus died for, and in which we shall enjoy God forever.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On Leaving a Place

On Sunday night Alison and I left the congregation that we have called home for the last eight and a half years. It was an evening filled with mixed emotions; we're part of a team that was being sent out from the congregation to, under God, launch a new congregation this coming Easter. It's exciting to step out like this in a fresh way and see what God does with that. Last Sunday was also tinged with sadness. There are lots memories stored up after eight and a half years, significant friendships formed, and significant steps taken in my knowledge, love, and service of God. It was hard to say goodbye. It was the building where we were married seven years ago. And of all the things I will miss, beyond the memories and the people, is the beauty of the building itself. I will miss partaking in the aesthetic quality of another age. I will miss watching the sun of an early morning flame through the stained glass in a panoply of colour against the sandstone.

The hairs on my neck stand up as I write this. It seems almost to small, to insignificant, to silly to pause and comment on. Indeed, if the church building is just a rain shelter or a sun shade, then my affections seem terribly trivial and misplaced. That is unless place, space, and beauty actually matter. For too long now we've taken our cue for church design from public school assembly halls: cheap, functional, and uninspiring. Our ecclesiastical aesthetic has developed a taste for the look and smell of a teenagers bedroom. So concerned have we become that someone might mistake a parochial building as the dwelling place of God Almighty, that we have gone out of way to make our places of worship ugly. Apathy towards beauty led to a blandness of design.

Do not mistake this a cry against functionality (which is very important), or even a rally for neo-Gothic architecture. I intend no such thing. Instead my realization after the last eight an a half years is that our aesthetic tastes communicate something. Our Christian forebears, often derided as superstitious, knew this. They built buildings appropriate for their time, fitting for the worship of the maker of all things, which conveyed the logic of the gospel: that God is in himself infinite beauty, that we care about this world and this place because we look forward to the day when it will be made new, and we invite you to leave your life that has been scarred and misshapen by sin and enjoy the beauty of the life of the Triune God.

Jean Cauvin includes a wonderful discussion in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (chapter XI) on the second commandment and the failure of the church in his day, amid the proliferation of icons, to educate and teach people. Yet for all his insight, what is striking is Cauvin's omission of the incarnation of Jesus, the "the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being". "We have seen his glory" writes the Evangelist, and in that glory, according to David Bentley Hart, we see the beautiful:

The beautiful is not a fiction of desire, nor is its nature exhausted by a phenomenology of pleasure; it can be recognized in despite of desire, or as that toward which desire must be cultivated. There is an overwhelming givenness in the beautiful, and it is discovered in astonishment, in an awareness of something fortuitous, adventitious, essentially indescribable; it is known only in the moment of response, from the position of one already addressed and able now only to reply. This priority and fortuity allow theology to hear, in the advent of beauty, the declaration of God’s goodness and glory, and to see, in the attractiveness of the beautiful, that creation is invited to partake of that goodness and glory. So say the Psalms: “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good.” Beauty thus qualifies theology’s understanding of divine glory: it shows that glory to be not only holy, powerful, immense, and righteous, but also good and desirable, a gift graciously shared; and shows also, perhaps the appeal – the pleasingness – of creation to God. In the beautiful God’s glory is revealed as something communicable and intrinsically delightful, as including the creature in its ends, and as completely worthy of love; what God’s glory necessitates and commands, beauty shows also to be gracious and inviting; glory calls not only for awe and penitence, but also for rejoicing.
The particularity of Christ's advent means that we are yet to see his glory. But over the last eight and a half years we have seen that glory reflected in the lives of our brothers and sisters as the gospel was proclaimed and we peacefully served one another. And we also glimpsed it in the splendour of that place, built and consecrated by God's people for the praise of his glory.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Substance of the City of God

The Christian doctrine of creation is of primary significance to the church which confesses its faith in "God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth". That God made all things is part of the fabric of a Christian response to revelation. For this basic (though not uncontested reason) reason Christian doctrine relates creation to eschatology: this good but presently broken world which God made will be re-made, freed from its warped and corrupted nature, freed once more for its God-given purpose to exist for Jesus Christ

One current debate in the theological world is how to relate the two doctrines. Is the future such a breach from our current existence that the new creation bears little to no correlation to creation? The proposed solution in our previous approach was to relate the two Christologically, so that the eschaton is the perfection rather than the breach of creation.

The implications of this debate touch a whole range of areas: work, culture, the environment, and so forth. What is clear though is this issue is not an innovation of the third millennium and its present ecological crisis. A century ago the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck also reflected on this issue. Following on from Paul's description of the σχῆμα of the world - the outward form, appearance, and way of life according to BDAG - passing away, the substance of the creation is redeemed and renewed in the new creation. Bavinck at times is carried along with the poetry of his language, but nevertheless do not let that detract you:

"All that is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable in the whole creation, in heaven and on earth, is gathered up in the future city of God-renewed, re-created, boosted to its highest glory. 
The substance [of the city of God] is present in this creation. Just as the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, as a carbon is converted into diamond, as the grain of wheat upon dying in the ground produces other grains of wheat, as all of nature revives in the spring and dresses up in celebrative clothing, as the believing community is formed out of Adam’s fallen race, as the resurrection body is raised from the body that is dead and buried in the earth, so too, by the re-creating power of Christ, the new heaven and the new earth will one day emerge from the fire-purged elements of this world, radiant in enduring glory and forever set free from the ‘bondage to decay’ (…Rom. 8:21). More glorious than this beautiful earth, more glorious than the earthly Jerusalem, more glorious even than paradise will be the glory of the new Jerusalem, whose architect and builder is God himself. The state of glory (status gloriae) will be no mere restoration (restauratie ) of the state of nature (status naturae), but a re-foration that, thanks to the power of Christ, transforms all matter . . . into form, all potency into actuality (potentia , actus), and presents the entire creation before the face of God, brilliant in unfading splendor and blossoming in a springtime of eternal youth. Substantially nothing is lost."

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Honour of God

"[Only...] a renewal of the world...accords with what Scripture teaches about redemption. For the latter is never a second, brand-new creation but a re-creation of the existing world. God’s honor [sic] consists precisely in the fact that he redeems and renews the same humanity, the same world, the same heaven, and the same earth that have been corrupted and polluted by sin." - Herman Bavinck

This year I enter my fourth and final year of studies at Moore Theological College in Sydney. The past three years have, I believe, been fruitful for my heart and mind in growing in the knowledge and love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

In this final year of study, I hope to spend some time reflecting on the connection between Christian eschatology and the doctrine of creation. This seems to me a profitable area of research, as rightly correlating the two necessarily involves relating them both to God's work in Jesus Christ. Without this connection, the relatedness of creation and new creation is abrogated from the person and work of Christ, resulting in an unbalanced and distorted gospel more akin to Gnosticism and the fantasy of 19th century liberal Protestantism. As the great Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck noted, the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus is God's "YES" to his good but ruptured world, realigning creation away from death and annihilation and towards its ultimate end. God's work of creation and redemption are not two separate works, but united in Jesus Christ, the firstborn over his creation.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Moving from Advent to Christmas

In the lead up to Christmas Alison and I helped produce an Advent series for our church: 'Waiting for the King'. This is taken from something I wrote for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, on  the transition from Advent to Christmas. It's largely built upon some work I did for college in 2014 on the theology and practice of gratitude

How do we move from Advent to Christmas? Advent interrogates the desires of our hearts in light of the coming of Christ; Christmas celebrates his first coming – God with us. If Advent is the preparation, then Christmas is the feast. It’s the celebration of God coming into his world to liberate it from the darkness and brokenness that holds it enthralled, to set us free along with it from death and our own sin.

This aspect of Christmas can easily be lost amidst the stuffed stockings and Christmas ham. But it may surprise you that the solution lies not in stripping these things back from our festivities. The gospel’s solution is to receive these good things with thanksgiving. Every good part of creation – even the toys and the food – is to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4.1-5). It’s gratitude which prevents a mindless consumption at Christmas, and instead allows us to view the presents and the meals as good gifts of our generous father, as an echo of his extravagant generosity towards us in giving us his Son that first Christmas.

So as we move from Advent to Christmas, will you celebrate with gratitude and thankfulness in your heart?

One of the most extraordinary thanksgiving prayers ever written is found in the Anglican prayer book. It’s a prayer which connects our ordinary life with our salvation in Christ Jesus. It’s printed below, and you may like to use this Christmas to give expression to your heart’s delight in all of God’s gifts to us.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving kindness to us and to all men; we bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace; and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us that due sense of all your mercies, that our hearts may be truly thankful and that we may declare your praise not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, now and forever. Amen.
Photo: Ben Garrett 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Societas 2014

Since 1919, the students of Moore Theological College have published an annual magazine: Societas. I've been involved with the team that produces the magazine of the last two years, and the 2014 edition was launched last Friday. It contains articles from the students, along profiles of the college's students and faculty which I've found very useful in praying for the college.

Described as "a highlight of the diocesan calendar", Societas can be viewed online. Hard copies can also be obtained by contacting the college: 02 9577 9999 or email marketing@moore.edu.au.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Our Humble and Hearty Thanks

"There is something about gratitude that is so fundamentally different to grumbling." 
Back in February I wrote a piece that prescribed thankfulness as an antidote to grumbling, and speculated that the authors of the Book of Common Prayer had noticed the same dynamic. Well, it seems that the good folk at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation are also aware of this dynamic, as David Powlison - editor of the excellent Journal of Biblical Counseling - describes in this video:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parish Family Tree

Long term readers of hebel will know of a slow, on going project to map the parishes of the Sydney Diocese.

View Sydney Diocese Parish Boundaries in a larger map

Partly this comes out of an appreciation of the Anglican parochial missiology. But it also comes from the present inaccessibility of parish maps. Well, related to this project has been an interest in the history of the formation of parishes in Sydney. Thanks largely to pre-existing family trees at St Philip's Church Hill and St Peter's St Peters, I've begun to compile a family tree of Sydney Anglican parishes. You might like to check it out below (click to expand):

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

From Sinner to Singer

Jesus said that it is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean, but what comes out of their heart. Out of the abundance of the heart come all kinds of sin: evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. This failure of heart, what Christian theologians have described as concupiscence or our tendency to sin, is described by the Apostle Paul in a tight little passage as the consequence of false worship.

Despite the beauty and delight of the world around us, we refused to respond to our Creator with a due sense of thankful or praise (Romans 1:21). Instead, we turned to from the Creator to the creation, worshipping it in his place, desiring the things he had made rather than our maker (Romans 1:23, 25). Through idolatry, our hearts became just as darkened and our thinking futile as the things we worshipped.

Paul is probably picking up on the idea prevalent in the Old Testament that we become what we worship. This is seen in Isaiah; the prophet is commissioned to preach to his idolatrous generation with the result that they deaf, blind, and dull hearted (Isaiah 6:9-10) – just like the idols they worship (Isaiah 42:8, 17-25)! Hence why one of things the Servant of the Lord brings is the restoration of sight to the blind.

Likewise, the Apostle John can describe our hearts in this manner. John can urge his readers to guard against idolatry (1 John 5:21; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:7, 14) because he knows that our concupiscence lies in our love of things in God’s good world (1 John 2:15-17). The problem lies not out there; it lies in mangled love or over-desires: ‘the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, pride in possessions’.  It is not hard to imagine as Andrew Cameron does that this is John’s commentary on that moment in the garden when sin was let loose on the world: (cf. Genesis 3:6) good for food’ [desire of flesh]; ‘pleasing to the eye’ [desire of eyes]; ‘desirable for wisdom’ [pride].[1] What John describes is our thankless, obsessive, destructive misappropriation of the Creator’s creation. Our love for the wrong things has bent us out of shape.

It was his reflection on these verses that led St Augustine to describe our propensity to sin as disordered love. Human beings are liturgical creatures – we are made to worship something. In our refusal to thank and glorify God, our hearts have turned to find something else to worship.
These are thy gifts; they are good, for thou in thy goodness has made them. Nothing in them is from us, save for sin when, neglectful of order, we fix our love on the creature, instead of on thee, the Creator.  (City of God, XV.22)
What is needed is for our misdirected hearts to be reordered, for our hearts remain restless until they come to rest in that for which they were made.

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)
Millennia later, the former Augustinian monk Martin Luther diagnosed the human condition in a similar way. According the Luther, our life and worship is incurvatus in se, turned in on ourselves.

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake. (Lectures on Romans)
In like manner, John Calvin wrote in his Christian Institutes that “the human heart is an idol factory” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, I 11.8). Our hearts and minds are perpetually industrious in imagining new things to love and worship. This long tradition of equating sin with idolatry was neatly summarised a few years ago by moral theologian Oliver O’Donovan:

 [I]t is possible, notwithstanding the truth that we love and know only the good, also in a sense to love evil. We love evil by resting in the pattern of loves and dreads that comes immediately to us, treating our dreads as though they were equally real with the goods we love. ... This is perfectly expressed in the traditional Christian doctrine of original sin, described memorably by Martin Luther as an incurvatus in se, a self-enclosure. In sin we divide the good world God has made into two “worlds”, one good and the other evil, and we make our own contingent perspectives the criterion for the division. And this gives a new, negative sense to the term “world”, which we have hitherto spoken of positively as God’s creation. This negative sense is characteristic of the New Testament, and points to the reality a constructed world, a world of our own imagination, pitched over against the created world and in opposition to it.[2]
The great human tragedy is that despite being the divinely commissioned image-bearers in the world, we turned from reflecting that image to the creation and love of other images. We exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped idols of our fashioning. Out of the abundance of the heart comes all kind of impurities, and our hearts had grown ruinous. Yet whilst the human heart spewed forth impurity, the Jesus Christ – the very image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15) – came forth to heal our hearts. His work is summarised by Hebrews 1:3 as such:

He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…
Hebrews goes on to say that this purification came through Jesus’ own blood (9:14). He has put away sin once and for all (9:26), enabling those purified by him to serve the living God. The end result as pictured in Hebrews 13 is a life issuing forth as a sacrifice of praise. Those purified by Jesus the great high priest are enabled to live a life of worship to God. Along the same lines Paul encourages the mind set on the Spirit to be transformed, as the body worships God (Romans 12:1):

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
This is the antithesis of the perverted worship of Romans 1. Whereas in Romans 1 humans were dishonoured in their bodies, worshipping and serving creatures, disapproving of God which issued in a depraved mind, in Romans 12 Christians are instructed to present their bodies in the service and worship of God, which leads to the renewing of their minds, that they may approve God’s will. The achievement of Christ is to turn God’s enemies into those who are by the Spirit conformed to the image of God’s Son. We are set free from sin to respond to God by grace. In other words, we are turned from sinners into singers. We do not live under slavery to sin. The prayer of conversion is, with John Donne, that God would “Come | And recreate me now grown ruinous.”   We are made fit to worship the true and living God. Far from being hostile towards and unable to please God, I am someone who lives for the praise of God’s glory. Rather than being incurvatus in se, I live (in another of Luther’s phrases) coram Deo; that is, before God, before his face, and in his presence.

This is not to deny the presence of sin in Christians, what Don Carson describes as “shocking, inexcusable, forbidden, appalling, out of line with what we are as Christians.” But to be a Christian is to have one’s darkened heart renewed by the Spirit, so that the abundance of this heart, by God’s grace, produces fruit. Having been purified by our high priest, we are transformed from idol makers to glory reflectors, from incurvatus in se to coram Deo, from sinners to singers.

We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:6)
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. (Hebrews 13:15)

[1] Andrew Cameron, Joined-up life: A Christian account of how ethics works (Nottingham: IVP, 2011), 52-53.
[2] Oliver O’Donovan, New College Lectures 2007: Lecture 2 ‘Admiring’. http://www.newcollege.unsw.edu.au/newcollegelectures.html.

Friday, August 15, 2014

For Christ’s sake, stop calling me a sinner

Language is important. The language we deploy shapes our imagination of how we perceive the world and ourselves. Christians, committed as we are to an ontological and moral realism in creation, have a peculiar interest in the way we use language. We hope that our language reflects the order God has created, preserved, redeemed, and will one day prefect, all for the sake of his Son. This is a humble project; the finiteness of our creaturely minds, and the disordering of our hearts, makes us dependent upon revelation to be to understand the world. The way Christians speak of themselves and the world around them is contingent upon God’s revelation to us in Christ Jesus, the one through whom and for whom all things were made. It is the particular work of the Holy Spirit to renew our minds, thereby freeing us to attend to and participate in this moral order.

One contemporary linguistic glitch in the Christian world today is the way in which Christian’s are described as “saints and sinners”, or using the term coined by German reformer Martin Luther, simul iustus et peccator. This phrase seeks to capture the ongoing presence of sin in a believer’s life, alongside the reality that in Christ they are cleansed and renewed. It gives account of one’s experience besides gospel truth. 

It is curious to note though the absence of the term “sinner” in Paul’s description of Christians. Whilst “saint” is used throughout the Pauline corpus to describe Christians, including six of Paul’s introductions (Romans 1.7; 1 Corinthians 1.2; 2 Corinthians 1.1; Ephesians 1.1; Philippians 1.1; Colossians 1.2), the term “sinner” is nowhere used to describe those who belong to Jesus.  This is not to deny the ongoing presence of sin in a believer’s life. The task of sanctification and perfection is ongoing. Sin may mar our lives, but we are charged with presenting our bodies in worship for the renewing of our minds, the re-ordering of our heart as St Augustine would put it. We who live according to the Spirit no longer live according to flesh; we are to walk in the light, and not the darkness. What is most true of us is not sin, because it has no mastery over us. Despite the presence of sin in my life, I am not sinner, but a saint who trusts that the same God who justified me will bring that work to completion in my sanctification. The gospel shows me that I am much more broken and stained by sin then you could ever imagine;. Yet his grace has appeared; God has adopted me as his child, declaring me to be a saint of the Most High.

It seems then that the description of saints as sinners is a category error. Archbishop Glenn Davies comments that:

“Clearly the Bible affirms the presence of sin in the life of the believer will continue until their death, but this is not to be equated with the term ‘sinner’. […] To use the term ‘sinner’ is to fly in the face of the whole teaching of the Bible, that those who belong to God’s people are ‘the righteous’ and not ‘the wicked’.”
The Apostle Peter, following the lead of Psalm 1.5, uses this dichotomy of wicked/sinner against the righteous in his first letter:

‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?’ (1 Peter 4.18)
Biblically and theologically, we are dealing with two diametrically opposed categories: saints and sinners. Those in Christ, and those outside of him. To be a sinner, is to be, as Luther described it, self-enclosed – incurvatus in se. But conversion and repentance is the beginning of a reordering of our love. Apprehending Christ’s work of salvation done to me and for me, we cease being curved in upon ourselves, as we are sanctified in him. Clearly then, Christians can only belong to one of these theologically laden categories.

If language matters, then the practice of describing believers as “sinners” is dangerous. We are allowing our experience to drive our theology. The reality is that through our union with Christ, we are ontologically and theologically speaking freed from slavery to sin. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described it, “I am all at once what Christ is, ' since he was what I am”. If anyone does sin, our advocate in heaven is able to cleanse us, and the perfecting work of the Spirit continues to redirect our desires towards Christ. I take that the part played by regular confession in corporate worship inducts into this dynamic of sanctification and grace; us we hear the call to repent, make confession of our sins, and assured of our forgiveness, we respond with praise and thanksgiving to our God and his Son who freed us and cleansed us by his blood. When we call one another “sinner”, we fly in the face of this glorious gospel truth: that Jesus, the friend of sinners, died my death, securing my adoption by our heavenly Father. We are saints of the Most High. For Christ's sake, will you stop calling me a sinner?

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Why Liturgy?

Alison and I recently put together a Lenten supplement to our work last year during Advent. What follows here is the introduction I wrote for the resource, briefly outlining the place of worship in formation. You can view the rest of the resource here.

One way of approaching Christian anthropology is to say that humans are lovers. We are what is known as Homo Liturgicus; liturgical animals, who can‘t not worship. That before you say anything else about humans, whether it be as rational beings or believers, you must say that we are lovers. The centre of gravity of a human person is not the brain but the kardia – the heart. Although there is deep and complex relationship between our heart, mind, will, affections, and body, we are, when it comes down to it, made to love and be loved. 

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
                                                                                    (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”
                                                                                    (Matthew 22:36-39)
"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
                                                                                    (Augustine of Hippo)
It follows then that one of the major changes wrought on humans by the entry of sin, evil and death into God’s good world was on our heart. We become people who loved the wrong things. We love the creation rather than the creator. We make good things ultimate things, instead of receiving them as gifts of a kind and gracious Father. And instead of cherishing something for the thing itself, we use and abuse them, as we look to them to give something they weren’t created to provide. Our desires are disordered.

The work of the Holy Spirit amongst who have been united to Christ and justified by grace through faith is to reorder our desires so that we love in the right way. This is the work of sanctification, grounded in our justification that changes our hearts to love in a right way. One of the ways this happens is through worship – as we apprehend the generosity of our heavenly Father and the work of his Son, our affections change. As we hear the gospel again, we apprehend the beauty and majesty of Christ, and so worship him. And this happens with our bodies. You and I are embodied beings. We inhabit a body. As we stand, sit, or knell, as we sing, pray, or declare, as we partake in the sacraments, we worship with our bodies. And what we do with our bodies has the power to shape and drive who or what we love. That is to say the practices in which you habitually engage have such power to shape what you ultimately love. Our heart’s desires are shaped and moulded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate daily and weekly.

Worship plays a transformative role in our growth towards Christ likeness. And liturgies – the practices that we habitually partake in – when they are charged by God’s word and his Spirit, they reorder our hearts and minds to desire God and his kingdom. It expels the disordered loves that have occupied our heart, and brings forth a new affection. Worship forms who we love. And we are what we love.*

* James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom.

Thursday, February 06, 2014


"I am troubled, Sir," said I, "because that unhappy creature doesn't seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn't wicked: she's only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right."

"That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler."

"I should have thought there was no doubt about that!"

"Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman-even the least trace of one-still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there's one wee spark under all those ashes, we'll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there's nothing but ashes we'll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up."

"But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?"

"The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye'll have had experiences . . . it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.
    – C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
It has been suggested that our habits serve as a fulcrum to direct our love.* That is to say the practices in which you habitually engage have such power to shape what you ultimately love. Our heart’s desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate daily and weekly. If that is true, there is then perhaps no other habit more destructive than grumbling. The Bible consistently warns against it. Repeatedly throughout their time in the wilderness Israel are reported to have grumbled against the Lord:

...in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against the LORD. – Exodus 16:7
“How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me." – Number 14:27
And reflecting on those years in the wild, Paul writes:

We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. – 1 Corinthians 10:9-10
It was Jesus’ own assessment of those who rejected or doubted him during his ministry (John 6:43). It is presented as an opposite habit of Christlike humility in Philippians 2 (cf. v.2), whilst Peter contrasts it with genuine love and service, which are to be free of grumbling in the way Christians show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:8-9). And the Apostle James, who has much to say about the power of the tongue (James 3:1 ff.), cautions against grumbling in these last days:

Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. – James 5:9
Whilst the normative Christian practice is one of patience and waiting, grumbling kills our steadfastness. Instead of feeding and strengthening our hearts as James encourages Christians to do, grumbling poisons our desires, our love, our heart. Instead of waiting it leads to impatience and hastiness. Instead of building one another up in love, grumbling turns us against one another. It kills our endurance, leading to the double minded instability James warns his readers against. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the cultivation of the habit of grumbling leads to an expectation that things can never change. Grumbling kills our hope, leading to malice, bitterness, and cynicism. It is a serious soul killer, as C.S. Lewis vividly portrayed in his description of the woman who has so habitualized grumbling that she herself has been reduced to a grumble.

What then is the balm to grumbling? Thankfully, there are what James K.A. Smith describes as habits, virtues and practices that are so charged with the gospel of God that they feed our hearts and direct our love more and more towards God, his church and his world. Thanksgiving seems to play an important role in producing endurance without double-minded grumbling (cf. James 1:2-8). The cultivation of receiving gifts with thanksgiving from God’s generous hands is a counter habit to grumbling. I suspect actually that this is why the Anglican divines incorporated so much thanksgiving into the Church of England liturgy. The practice of kneeling side by side with your brothers and sisters as you thank the “Father of all mercies” with the “…most humble and heart thanks for all they goodness and loving kindness to us and to all men [sic]” forms a humility and patience. After thanking God for the bounty of creation and all the blessings of this life, you thank him for his “inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ”. And as you pray this prayer of thanksgiving, you hear again the gospel and God’s extravagant generosity towards you; and this melts your heart, so that you worship anew the Lord who is compassionate and merciful (James 5:11).

There are of course many other habits and practices that can be employed against grumbling. But thanksgiving is foundational to producing the patience and endurance during good times and bad that firstly continues to hope for the coming of the Lord, and secondly serves others with love and imagination until the end comes, and all things will be made new.

* See Practice Makes Perfect? Exploring the Relationship between Knowledge, Desire, and Habit, Michael R. Emlet, JBC 27:1 (2013), 26-48; Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Cultural Liturgies), James K.A Smith, Baker Academic 2009.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Advent Project

Christmas is only two weeks away!

Things have been relatively quiet here at hebel, but I have been kept busy in the wider blogosphere. Alison and I have been working on The Advent Project, a labour of love that we have been planning and writing since 2012. Now we are in Advent and our blog has been live for a couple of weeks. There is (if I may say so myself) a great collection of music, poetry, quotes, art, DIY ideas and book reviews to help reflect on the Advent season, which reminds us that our celebration of the first coming of Christ is an anticipation of his second coming. Please have a look, and I hope you find something interesting and edifying.