Theology

evangelical repentance

I want to pick up an underdeveloped thread from my previous post before I move on. And that’s the thread of ‘gospel repentance’ — repentance that’s truly evangelical in that it both flows from and expresses (or declares) the gospel.

Here’s how John Calvin puts it in The Institutes (3.3.2) where he expounds Jesus’ agenda-setting sermon — which echoes that of John the Baptist — “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”:

[W]hen we refer the origin of repentance to faith we do not imagine some space of time during which it brings it to birth; but we mean to show that a man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God. But no one is truly persuaded that he belongs to God unless he has first recognized God’s grace.

I find this to be so profound. While refusing to separate faith and repentance as the necessary response to God’s grace, Calvin (rightly) insists on the priority of grace.

This is a fountain from which a very distinct approach to all sorts of things in Christian life and ministry will well up.

To give just one example, in explaining the gospel to someone (Christian or not), I don’t want to preach a fear-inducing law that causes them to run fleeing to grace; I would much rather try to describe the grace and mercy of God in Jesus in such captivating and compelling terms that it draws out the repentant response it demands…

first I’m too big to get where I want to go

The first disorienting situation Alice encountered down the rabbit hole was the corridor with many locked doors of different sizes. And the only one she could find a key for was too small for her to get through.

Which is a little like how I feel as I size up the summons implied in my gradually dawning recognition that right theology must open out onto right worship.

Basically, I feel like I’m way too big to get where I want to go.

Where I want to go is deeper than either merely cramming people’s heads with more information (the right answers, good theology, a Christian worldview etc) or simply giving people advice about how to lift their game spiritually or transform their lives.

Now it ‘s not that I’m opposed to good, solid gospel-centred theology and an integrated Christian worldview. I’d be the last person to suggest this!

And I also know that the best accounts of Christian theology and worldview-thinking conceive of these things less as a pre-loaded encyclopaedia of right answers to every question or situation we might face and more as a way of seeing things that has at its centre Jesus and the defining stories (e.g., creation and fall, Old Testament promises and New Testament fulfilment, resurrection and new creation) and symbols (e.g., the cross, the body of Christ, etc) of our faith.

Likewise, I’m a huge fan of life-transformation. I’ve grown and benefited heaps from having older, wiser heads advise me or share tips that help me lift my game spiritually. And I could tell you lots of stories about times when it’s been doing something that I know is right that’s sort of ‘led’ my heart into right attitudes and beliefs.

But like I say, I want to go deeper than that. Because — as I know not only from observation but also from personal experience — it’s all too easy to know all the right answers (and even write high mark-earning theology papers about them) and yet have an harbour sin in your life. And I also know that moral reformation can be a fig leaf for an unbelieving heart (like Tim Keller often says, the gospel demands we repent of our ‘righteousness’ as well as our sin).

Worse, it’s even possible to get so wrapped up in being right that you end up a whole lot more like the Pharisee than the Tax Collector in Jesus’ parable. (And we know which one of them went home in the right with God, don’t we?)

All of which is to say I want to lead people into believing, trusting, loving and surrendering to God. Which is exactly where right theology is supposed to take us, I think.

But narrow is the door — and few enter into it.

And I’m constantly wrestling with the fact that I find I’m still too big to fit through — let alone lead others through.

I’m too wrapped up in my own stuff. My own sense of entitlement (“the universe owes me”) and self-importance. My own desperate desire to be right. whether it’s because I like the attention and kudos of being the expert with all the answers or because ticking these boxes plays in to my own inner craving for control and having it ‘all figured out’.

I guess I need a dose of the spiritual equivalent of whatever was in that bottle labelled ‘DRINK ME’ that Alice stumbled upon…

come with me down the rabbit hole…

Photograph by Jenny Ihn (detail of a work in progress)

Photograph by Jenny Ihn (detail of a work in progress)

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve sort of disappeared underground lately.

And I’m not just talking about the past few weeks. In reality, I’ve been gone for months — hoping to distract everyone (myself included) from this fact by chucking a half-baked post up here and a rambling collection of thoughts there.

Instead of explaining or trying to excuse my absence, I’d like to invite you to come with me down the rabbit hole I’ve fallen into.

But be warned! Things down here are a little bit awkward. The proportions are outlandish and kind of dizzying — you never seem to know if you’re too big or too small. And you may well be surprised by some of its denizens…

To cut to the chase, James K. A. Smith’s 2012 New College lectures — which you can download and listen to HERE — have helped me bring into sharp focus something I’ve been catching blurry glimpses of for the last 18 months:

Right theology (or, more broadly, an integrated Christian worldview) isn’t an end in itself; it’s got to open out onto right worship — in action as well as adoration.

Sounds simple. Uncontroversial even.

But the impact of taking this insight seriously… The alien light it throws on everything I’ve learnt… The dissatisfaction it has instilled in me when it comes to my otherwise perfectly serviceable preaching and Bible teaching…

It’s massive.

I’d love you to join me on the adventure!

spare the rod, spoil the child?

20120709-183222.jpg

Our son Benjamin recently passed the nine month mark. And Natalie and I find ourselves thrashing about in the murky waters of discipline.

Thankfully the profoundly divisive — and potentially explosive — topic of smacking isn’t on the agenda quite yet. But we’ve been bowled over by how frequent the word ‘No’ is becoming in our little household. (About the only thing that prevents us feeling like absolute tyrants is the assurance all the parenting books, e.g., What To Expect The First Year, give us that this is thoroughly normal.)

What I find most fascinating about the challenge of disciplining my son is the way I find it so easy to see the perfectly understandable dynamics playing out ‘behind the scenes’ of his bad behaviour (I suspect I would find this more difficult if we weren’t talking about my own child).

But I’m struggling to recognise the point I’ve heard many preachers make about people being obviously evil, corrupt, sinful, and selfish because you don’t have to teach children to misbehave or act selfishly.

Maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe I’m just going soft. But none of Ben’s bad behaviour seems malignant to me.

I may not always know why he is doing the wrong thing in the moment (often I have no idea). But, upon reflection, Ben typically seems to behave badly for one of three reasons:

  1. He’s tired, sick, and/or hungry. Because he’s hurting, he pendulum swings between desperately demanding comfort and affection and lashing out.
  2. He’s investigating his world — poking a prodding at its limits, seeing what happens when he does this (or when he does it again). Whether it’s hitting Dad in the face or messing around with the powerpoint.
  3. He’s (over-)excited. And so he pushes things to extremes that he normally wouldn’t — biting Mum in his enthusiasm to see her first thing in the morning, for example. Sometimes this is combined with reason 1. Although it seems less deliberate than reason 2.

With this sympathetic reading of the springs and motives of my son’s behaviour, you might think the whole Augustinian ‘original sin’ thing would go out the window. I mean how can I think of my child as totally depraved, corrupt, and sinful from birth when he’s simply hurting, exploring, or just getting carried away?

And yet…

I guess I’m not quite ready to surrender St Augustine’s intuition (or cash in my Reformed evangelical credentials and go deal myself into another theological game). Because the question that presents itself is:

Why does my son’s hurting, exploring, or getting carried away trip up so easily (and consistently) into hurtful, selfish behaviour?

That to me is an interesting question. And one that surely draws us in the direction Augustine takes us…

speaking of righteousness

I’m becoming fascinated by the prominence the Psalms give to speech in their description of the righteous human life.

Take Psalm 15 for example:

A Psalm of David.
1 O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

2 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
3 who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours;
4 in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honour those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
5 who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

I love this description of the righteous person. In just five short verses we’re given a comprehensive sketch of the distinguishing characteristics of the person who enjoys fellowship with God.

But what’s even more amazing is that no fewer than four out of the ten characteristics mentioned have to do with how we use our lips!

Speaking truth from the heart. Not slandering. Not taking up a reproach against our neighbours. Standing by our oaths even when that’s costly and painful.

Evidently, our speech plays a load-bearing role in the righteous life.

This understanding is reflected in the top billing much of the Old Testament prophetic hope gives to renewed and purified speech. Think of Joel’s famous promise about all prophesying when the Spirit is poured out. Or the way Zephaniah 3.8-13 spotlights speech behaviour in its vision of Israel’s restoration and God’s final vindication.

All this makes for a compelling ‘backstory’ to the New Testament stress on the difference trusting Jesus makes to our speech — whether we’re talking about the detailed case study of how Christians should speak to each other when gathered together in 1 Corinthians 12-14 or the broader-brush stuff in Ephesians 4-5.

Ultimately, I even suspect it could help us connect the evangelical emphasis on God’s achievement in Christ — proving him righteous as he declares us righteous, etc — with the more typically charismatic/Pentecostal accent on God empowering us here and now — especially in terms of speech-acts like prayer, praise, and prophecy/words of knowledge.

If our understanding of righteousness was large — and biblical — enough to have speech stitched into its warp and woof, then maybe we wouldn’t have to choose between the two.

Christ-centred apologetics

Last weekend I had the privilege of taking part in the launch of the Reason For Faith Festival.

I stepped in at the last minute to run a workshop on ‘conversational apologetics’, exploring what we can do with the big questions people have about Christian faith and how to respond without necessarily knowing all the answers. More on this after I fill you in on some of the context of the Reason For Faith Festival.

The Festival launch was all about the up-coming opportunity to open up some intelligent and generous conversations about life’s big questions in our city. This opportunity comes in the shape of the Global Atheist Convention’s return to Melbourne just after Easter.

Formally, there are some brilliant events planned. The Festival website has all the details. And if you want to get more of a feel for the Festival, check out the short promotional clip:

Informally, it’s all about the conversations the Global Atheist Convention and Reason For Faith Festival are likely to spark.

And that’s where my seminar and the other seminars ran on the weekend come in. You see, too often conversations about life’s big questions degenerate into Christians wheeling out ready-made, cookie-cutter answers that we download onto people (as though we’ve memorised a couple of pages of an apologetics textbook). Or they get lost and tangled in the thick scrub of some argument about what the fine-tuning of the universe say about the existence of God or whatever.

I’m coming to believe that what we need is something much more Christ-centred.

One of the seminars (not mine) did an excellent job at connecting the big Bible themes and plot-movements to Jesus and then exploring how they connect with people’s questions. We need heaps more of this!

But, more than a Christ-centred matter and method, I’m convinced we also need a Christ-centred manner.

That is, we need to hear what Peter says about letting Christ live and reign in our hearts and lives in such a way that we’ll neither be afraid and get defensive nor will we be afraid and go on the attack. Rather, we’ll be genuinely responsive — giving reasons for the hope that we have with gentleness, respect, and a clear conscience.

In short, we’ve got to believe the gospel to make the most of this opportunity and approach these conversations productively and well.

maybe we’re not meant to adopt Jesus’ priorities

One of the ‘thematic goals’ I’ve set for myself this year is to talk about the Incarnation of Jesus more than I talk about being incarnational (in imitation of him, etc).

Helpfully, this is what the New Testament seems to do — especially in the Gospels.

Take Mark’s account of the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry in Chapter 1.14-45, for example. There, we see that because everyone wants a piece of Jesus he must strive to maintain the following priorities arising from his sense of prophetic vocation:

  1. Focusing on people as he looks not simply to gather a crowd but to make disciples (verses 16-20)
  2. Carving out time to get away by himself to pray (verse 35)
  3. Taking steps to ensure that he isn’t so swamped by people’s felt needs that he can no longer fulfil his raison d’etre — namely, proclaiming the kingdom (verse 38)

It would be all too easy to pick up these priorities and say, “This is what we should be doing too”. (I heard two different sermons along these just this week — on the same day!) And, no doubt, prioritising people, prayer, and proclamation would be a good thing.

But there are a few irksome little details in the text that I feel should make us pause before going here. Details that suggest Jesus is on about something much bigger than simply modeling kingdom priorities.

For one thing, Jesus seems to want to maintain these priorities because he sees himself as something of a prophet. A herald. Announcing the kingdom and its ‘at hand’-ness.

But circumstances conspire to demand more of him. This happens in verses 40-45, for instance, where Jesus displays the power of the kingdom by healing a leper and ends up swapping places with him in the process — as he’s forced out into more remote places.

And for another thing, Jesus keeps telling people (and unclean spirits) not to talk about him, advertising who he is and what he’s doing.

My hunch is that this is bound up with the fact that Jesus’ contemporaries were bound to misunderstand it if he went around announcing that he was he Messiah. He needed to keep his Messianic identity secret so he could carry out his mission as the Suffering Servant.

But as far as I can tell this Messianic secrecy is unique to that moment of salvation history, not something we’re called to copy. Rather, we’re to take the news to the ends of the earth.

So maybe we’re not meant to adopt Jesus’ priorities…

is God calling me into mission? (i)

As I begin exploring the language of ‘calling’ — and calling into mission in particular — I want to start by embracing my inner Captain Obvious and declaring that God is a calling God.

When we talk about calling, we’re talking about something God does.

That God does it becomes obvious almost as soon as you flip open a Bible. Without saying anything about the (long) biblical backstory, consider the four New Testament Gospels.

All of them commence with stories of Jesus calling people. Calling them out of their prior occupations and allegiances. And calling them to himself. To belong to him. To be his followers. To learn from him. To imitate him.

But the significance of my initial observation that God calls runs much deeper than this. You see, when the Gospel writers zoom in on the calling of Jesus’ disciples, they disclose that God calls.

That’s why they’re at pains to stress Jesus’ winsome and apparently effortless authority. In response to his call, Jesus’ disciples do make a genuine — and at times costly — break with their former life. And yet they seem to do so with joy.

So even though there are occasional hints the first disciples may have had prior knowledge of Jesus, the emphasis always falls on the radical, disruptive and yet profoundly right character of his call — perfectly blending the authority of command and the goodness of invitation.

Jesus’ call isn’t issued with naked, coercive force. Rather, it comes clothed in the omnipotence of love.

Which is nothing less than you’d expect of the God who meets us in the Bible. Indeed, the God who reveals himself in the biblical story that reaches its climax with the Lord Jesus, is love — eternally and in the perfect, dynamic overflow of life shared by Father and Son in the unity of the Spirit.

Hence, I’m inclined to say that ‘calling’ is nothing short of the fundamental way the Christian God expresses his moral authority in relation to human persons.

In fact, I think I even want to push towards saying all other more or less appropriate ways of speaking of this authority — command, decree, warning, threat, etc — will bring us back to ‘call’ when they’re understood against the backdrop of who God has shown himself to be, and so placed in the context of his divine and holy love.

Our God is a calling God.

why having a child hasn’t taught me anything about God

A little while back, a friend asked me what having a child had taught me about God.

It’s a common question — and, given how frequently preachers refer to their children and experience of parenthood, seemingly quite legitimate.

Now, I’m sure my friend didn’t mean it this way but I object to the idea that my experience of having and beginning to raise a child should somehow give me special insight into God. As though I can now ‘get’ his being a father now that I’m a father or something.

I’ll be the first to admit that having a child has taught me — and will no doubt continue to teach me — all sorts of things.

On the one hand, our son’s desperate crying whenever he’s hungry is a pretty good picture of what we’re so often like with God. Even though he’s proven it again and again, we’re still infants who can’t seem to see past our immediate need or pain to trust God’s provision for us.

On the other hand, the fact that our son often “acts up” when he’s tired, hungry, or in pain, has reminded me that there’s a pretty big element of this to our sinning. We hurt others (more often than not) because we’re hurting ourselves.

So why do I object to the idea that having a child would teach me about God?

For one thing, this way of thinking would seem to exclude any non-parents from a true and deep understanding of God.

For another, the kind of father God the Father is, he is eternally. Unlike me, he never became a father. The difference between God’s fatherhood and mine can’t be erased.

And, ultimately, isn’t the only way to gain an ‘inside’ knowledge of God as father the way the Lord Jesus provides? As he invites us by his grace and achievement for us — in the power of the Spirit — to join him in calling God “Father”.

Perhaps I’m overreacting?

the true God is humble (unlike the idols)

This week I’ve had the pleasure of re-reading one of my favourite bits of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics — Section 59.1 in IV/1: ‘The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country’.

Barth’s at his best here as he thinks Christmas and Easter — incarnation and atonement — into each other, teasing out the implications for how we view God. It’s dense, demanding, invigorating, and uplifting … often all at once!

Take this, for example, where Barth pivots to the question of how you distinguish the true God from the idols we manufacture mirroring our pride (pages 158-159):

In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, God acknowledges man; He accepts responsibility for his being and nature. He remains Himself. He does not cease to be God. But he does not hold aloof. In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, He also goes into the far country, into the evil society of this being which is not God and against God. He does not shrink from him. He does not pass him by as did the priest and Levite the man who had fallen among thieves. He does not leave him to his own devices. He makes his situation His own. He does not forfeit anything by doing this. In being neighbour to man, in order to deal with him and act towards him as such, He does not need to fear for His Godhead. On the contrary … God shows Himself to be the great and true God in the fact that He can and will let His grace bear this cost, that He is capable and willing and ready for this condescension, this act of extravagance, this far journey. What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this. In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty He is humble. It is in this high humility that He speaks and acts as the God who reconciles the world to Himself.

Glorious!