Monday, 29 March 2010

J. I. Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood (Crossway).

The cross of Jesus is central to the Christian faith and to the life of each Christian. Therefore it is important that we know what was involved in Christ’s death, how we can explain it to others, and what difference it makes in our lives once we have trusted in Jesus.

Of course, many books have been written on the death of Christ, so some reasons should be given for highlighting this one. First, it is short – I hope we all realise that a book should not be judged by its length but by its depth. There is little point in using a lot of words to say a small amount, but there is obvious benefit in using sufficient words to say a great deal. Second, it is scriptural – our understanding of what happened at Calvary cannot be based on any other source apart from the Bible, and this volume is an exposition of what the Bible says took place there. Third, it is succinct – sadly, not every short book is to the point, and so misses it. This book cannot be defined as doing that. Indeed it goes straight to the cross and stays there. Fourth, it is scholarly – not in the sense that the writers are above our heads, but that they actually use theirs and convey to readers the profound insights they have been given concerning this important doctrine.

This book contains three important articles by Packer on the atoning work of Christ, one article by Dever on the significance of the blood of Christ, plus some additional material. Its publication was prompted by the appearance of books from within the evangelical community that downplayed, if not actually denied, the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. In this book, readers will discover the meaning of theological terms such as penal substitution, propitiation and reconciliation and will be led to reflect on the wonderful love of God that sent his Son as Saviour. There is also a chapter, compiled by Ligon Duncan, which lists and summarises important writings on the atonement and their authors.

Sinclair Ferguson assures us that this book is ‘a must read – a tract for the times to call Christians to be Bible-based, Christ-centred, atonement-believing and -understanding, God-adoring people.’

Words of Power

At one of my services yesterday I was preaching from 1 Samuel 3. One of the verses in that chapter that hit me like a mallet was verse 1 which says that 'the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.' The writer does not mean there was not any Scripture (the priests at that period would have read to the people from the Pentateuch and Joshua); nor does he mean that there were not any sermons (the priests would have instructed the people from these books), and neither does he mean that people were not attending public worship and participating in it (although aspects of their worship left a lot to be desired). The religious leadership was a big concern (Eli was ineffective and his sons Hophi and Phinehas were sinful rebels against God), and no doubt their behaviour was one of the reasons God was silent. Thankfully he had taken steps to prepare a servant who would be different, although at that time Samuel was still very young. The point that I suspect the author is making is that God was not speaking powerfully in a fresh way at that time.
It seems to me that one of the greatest tragedies that the church can go through is implementing a religious programme in the presence of a silent God, when he chooses to say nothing to them, and also chooses to say nothing through them to others. Such a situation does not include the absence of words; there were plenty words during the period of 1 Samuel 3, the problem was that God was not often involved. What was absent was the presence of divine power accompanying these words. Whenever I speak, I do so according to the energy I have. When God speaks, he does so according to his power and listeners are affected by what he says.
I don't suppose there has ever been a period in which so many words have been said or written about the things of God as today. Books come from Christian publishers in an increasing number, Christian newspapers and magazines appear regularly, and thousands, if not millions, of Christians are blogging about this or that. Yet in all we have to say, how many of us are aware of God speaking in power to us and through us?
I don't know how many words I read and spoke yesterday. Obviously I wanted the Lord to speak powerfully to me before I preached and through me as I preached. The message I preached was the gospel, which Paul says is the power of God unto salvation for all kinds of people. So hopefully God was at work. But what if he was not?
I often hear people say that if we returned to the Bible's message we will see blessing. The congregation I am in has never departed from that message in its history, nor have the other congregations in my denomination. But are we satisfied with merely repeating a true message about God that does not give evidence that he is speaking to us or through us in a powerful and widespread way?
Perhaps the source of the problem is that we would rather speak for God than to God. In one way, that is a very simple analysis of what is wrong. Yet it has been shown many times in church history that power comes through prayer. In 1 Samuel 1–2, true power (that is, power with God and power from God) was with a woman who prayed (Hannah), although few would have realised it. Earlier I said that I don't know how many words I read and said in preaching yesterday. More importantly, God knows how many words I used in prayer for power.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Lord's Supper as Communion

Today we have a communion service. In the Supper the Lord Jesus has fellowship with his people. The Supper is not merely an occasion for remembering what Jesus did, it is also an occasion for feeding on him in a spiritual way. This aspect of feeding is illustrated by the eating of bread and drinking of wine as symbols of his body and blood. The connection between Jesus and his people at the Table is brought about by the Spirit who brings believers to Christ in a spiritual and not a physical way.

This meeting between Christ and his people is to be recognised by faith. It is not their faith that brings about the encounter, but their enjoyment of it is enhanced by a spiritual understanding of what is taking place. By faith, they are to think about what is occurring at the Supper. I would mention briefly two blessings that we should receive from Jesus at the Supper – Christlikeness and assurance.

The purpose of spiritual feeding is to make us spiritually strong, to develop into mature Christians marked by Christlikeness, which is helpfully depicted by the various details listed as the fruit of the Spirit. These details are found in Christ and they are transferred to believers as they meditate on them as they were and are displayed in Jesus. As they think of his love, they become loving; as they focus on his peace, they experience his peace; as they reflect on his joy, they become happy; as they consider his gentleness, they become mild and kind.

The symbols of bread and wine point to the person and work of Christ. When we think of the bread, we should think of his humanity and not just his physical body. Think of the way he displayed love to needy sinners, think of his gentle manners as he interacted with them, think of the joy he experienced when they responded to him, think of the peace he knew in the company of his disciples. When we focus on the wine, which depicts his death, we can think of his sacrificial love, of his gentle response to the soldiers who crucified him, of his delight in rescuing the penitent thief as a picture of how he rescues all condemned sinners, and of the peace he had as he committed his spirit to God.

If our minds and hearts are active in considering Jesus at the Table, he will meet with us and give to us progress in the spiritual life. By receiving from him through this channel of grace, we will become more like him.

Some might say that these benefits will be given through other means of grace, such as preaching and prayer. In a certain sense, that is true. Yet the Lord’s Supper is the only occasion when the family of God share publicly in a means of grace that is exclusively for them. At the Supper Jesus meets with them corporately as a family and gives them the assurance that they are children of God and that he is their Elder Brother. Fresh assurance is therefore also received by taking part in the Supper.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Reformed evangelism

In my congregation at present we are giving thought to methods of evangelism. At one level, evangelism is simply telling another person about Jesus and this can take place anywhere. I can recall many Christians who spoke to me about Jesus in a very natural way before my conversion; their words were the overflow of a heart that was focussed on Christ. I was not converted the first or the hundredth time someone did so. Nevertheless I was aware that they had a warm affection for Jesus Christ.

I have been at a conference this past couple of days and communication of the gospel in our postmodern, post-Christian European society has been one of the topics on the agenda. Personally I don’t think that what is called postmodernism is very new; instead I wonder if what has happened is that thinking people (i.e., those with degrees), who in the past focussed on evidences and theories (modernism), have now caught up with the rest of us who did not place much attention on these details in the first place and merely did what we felt like doing. Perhaps then the way to evangelise contemporary people is to imitate how previous generations did it, making allowance of course for changed environments. For what it is worth, evangelism as far as I can see involves three actions by us (by actions, I mean actions from the heart).

First, we have to look for lost sinners rather than looking at lost sinners. Often, discussions of postmodernism and modernism are merely expressions of paralysis by analysis. I may be able to assess that a postmodern human does not believe in the certainties of technology while he plays with his pocket computer, mobile phone etc, but unless I go and speak to him in a loving way about his need of Christ my diagnosis is merely an opinion heading for the waste-paper basket (or for the delete button in my paperless world).

Second, having looked for lost sinners by making contact with them, we have to love them. I’m curious as to why many Christian commentators give the impression that postmoderns are the first group not to experience true love. From my limited understanding of society, the absence of true love was a feature of previous situations as well (families sending children to work in factories and up chimneys was hardly an expression of a loving society, nor was the presence of starving migrants wandering about the countryside). Was family life so wonderful in previous periods? The church (the true one, that is) has always been the counter-cultural society that showed love to its members and to those outside of it. Love requires involvement and time, and it is hard for a society focussed on its own shallow needs (by purchasing things) to give love to those with deep needs (by sharing things). True love cannot be programmed beforehand and slotted into one’s diary; it can only be given at the place of need. Of course, the love we have to show is the love of Christ, and we can only have this love by spending time with him personally in private devotions and corporately in church fellowship.

Third, having loved lost sinners into the kingdom, we continue to show love to them by loosening them from the chains that they drag along with them from their past. I have been puzzled (mainly by looking in the mirror) by the reluctance of some Christians (who were loosed from their chains by others) to spend time helping new Christians find the meaning of spiritual freedom. One way by which brotherly love is expressed is by spending time trying to find out why a new Christian is not making as much progress as he should. Often, the failure is caused by actions or attitudes which he did not realise were unhelpful and which could easily have been shown to him by someone spending time with him.

I’ll probably come back to this topic later. But it seems to me, for what it is worth, that evangelism involves looking for, loving and liberating those enchained by their sins. I know it can only be done by the power of God blessing the message about Jesus, but usually he conveys his power alongside or through our words and actions.