Bishops, the Bible, and marriage

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According to newspaper headlines about General Synod last week, the Church of England is in turmoil. True, in the sedate world of church committees, this amounts to a few teacups rattling. But there was a surprise.

The Bishops’ recent report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships was written after much “listening” to the views of church members and clergy. Going against powerful trends in secular culture which redefine marriage, it basically affirmed with commendable clarity the Biblical teaching that marriage is and remains a lifelong exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, and also recognised that gay people have at times been made to feel unwelcome in church, urging the Church to review its tone and pastoral care in this area.

The surprise was that whilst the Bishops and lay members supported the Report, the clergy members of the General Synod voted (by a narrow margin) not to “take note” of it. This refusal to “note” the report is a long way from the Church of England “moving towards gay marriage”, as some headlines had it. Yet some of those who spoke in the debate are apparently so determined to force the Church to change that Scripture can be ignored and the Church  divided towards that end.

Nonetheless it was widely acknowledged that one of the most moving and courageous speeches in the debate came from Sam Alberry, an evangelical minister who described his feeling of being bullied, first at school for being “gay”, and now at Synod for being same-sex attracted but faithful to Christ. His three-minute contribution is worth listening to here and starts at 1:07 into the recording.

Those who hold as I do that the Biblical teaching on marriage is based on Genesis 2:24 , “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, NIV), do not do so because we are being difficult or “fundamentalist”. We believe in taking the Bible literally – in the sense of meaning what the “letters” or words in it mean. We believe in interpretation of the Bible using the best tools of  learning – but not to make a text mean what the author could never have meant. We believe in being aware of the culture behind a text – but not in changing the text to fit our culture. We believe in reading the Bible as a whole, taking note of its diversity – but not in using one part to contradict another.

At their consecration bishops affirm their commitment to the Scriptures as revealing all things necessary for salvation, and to teaching the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it. The Bishops should be honoured for doing their job and faithfully teaching what the Bible says about marriage and relationships.

None of this absolves the Church from repenting that at times we have made gay people feel unwelcome – and for that matter, singles, or unmarried parents. All of us equally need the grace of Christ and the love of the Church, and we can start sharing these things today. But if Genesis 2:24 marriage is, as Paul says in Ephesians 5:31-32, not just a social convention, or a way to raise a family, but a sign of the union of Christ with His Bride the Church, it is surely right to defend its Biblical definition and value with every ounce of conviction that we have. Let’s pray for the bishops.

Revolution needed in ‘faith at work’ shibboleths

I’ve just read ‘Revolutionary Work’ by William Taylor available from  10ofThose.com . As you’d expect from William, this is a nourishing read which faithfully affirms the place of work in human life without rose-tinted specs. There is a thorough and clear Biblical overview of how Scripture paints a picture of work that is God-given, fractured by sin, yet to be done with integrity, as serving Christ (Ephesians 6:6-7).

Where this book is unusual is in the way William then boldly challenges some of the shibboleths of recent years which (he argues) go beyond Biblical teaching about vocation, excellence and purpose in this present creation. He points out that “calling” in Scripture is usually that to faith in Christ, and when the word (once) refers to station in life, in 1 Corinthians 7:17, it is to urge believers to faithful living where they are, whatever their current situation. He concludes that gospel-sharing ministry (and not therefore just “doing your job well as a Christian”) is the true “work of God” (John 4), whatever our employment. He challenges the (admittedly, comforting) notion that much (or some?) of our work done in this creation will appear in the next as, at best, unproven from Scripture, and at worst a distraction from telling our colleagues the gospel about Jesus.

As a pastor often told that churches “rarely if ever teach about work” I found this book a helpful pushback. The Bible does say a lot about work, at least in general terms as covered by this book, and there is indeed a need to push the ‘sacred’ across the sacred-secular divide and do all our work as “for the Lord”; but Scripture also claims less for secular work than some would have us believe.

Revolutionary Work would be great to give/recommend to workers, and not just those in 9-5 offices. Inevitably (having been preached first as sermons for St Helen’s in London) the book reads on the whole as especially good for office 9-5 (or is that 8-late?) types.It’s nice therefore that William has included an appendix, by musician Dave Bignell, for artists, whose understanding of the place of work may differ from those in the business or services world, but for whom the Bible teaching holds the same.

If you want to be helped to connect your faith with your work, read this book – but not if you don’t want to be challenged to think through what the work of the Lord really is!

How Holiness Happens

Do you know the story by Revd W Awdry of little Toby the tram engine being asked to help push the train over the mountain when Gordon (a much bigger engine who had earlier scornfully told Toby that he was no use) is unable to do so? He puffs up the steep incline with his friend Thomas the Tank Engine’s words echoing in his ears “You can (puff) do it, you can (puff) do it…”. He slows to a near standstill as the hill becomes harder, sheer grit carrying him forward, until at last they reach the summit. He did it.

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Without suggesting the Christian life is always an uphill slope,  that is not a bad picture of the path to holiness for God’s people. We have not yet arrived at the summit (perfect Christlikeness) – at least until we reach glory. And yet it is not beyond us. We can (puff) do it. We can become holy.

In fact we are holy already. We are God’s ‘holy’ (dedicated, or God-orientated) people from the moment we begin to follow Christ and are born anew. The Holy Spirit who unites us cannot make us anything else but holy.

And our lives please God.

Because that sentence may sound heretical, I will repeat it: our lives are pleasing to God. Surely, you say, we are all sinners equally in need of God’s forgiveness of our sins, undeserving of grace,  and everything we do is polluted by sin, every good deed is tainted by wickedness, our righteous acts are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6)? I’m as Protestant and Reformed as Luther, Calvin and Cranmer, and I sign up to all these statements of human fallenness and incapacity to save ourselves or please God fully.

Holiness: we can please God

Yet there is a strong and unmistakable theme in Scripture that God’s people are capable of being righteous and pleasing Him. We are not only expected to be holy , we are empowered to be holy! We can do it. There are plenty of examples of believers in the Bible who pleased God: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David (in his better moments), Job, Elizabeth, Mary. But also all Christian believers who serve, love and pray (see Romans 12:1; Colossians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:3; Hebrews 13:21, etc). Supremely, Jesus at his baptism stands before God as the new Adam/king/Messiah, and the words “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased” come from heaven. In Jesus we are made anew to please God. “He will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17). Holiness is possible, and (without overlooking our many sins) God is pleased with his people.

This makes so much more sense of the imperative (“so do this…”) sections of the epistles, where we are told to keep in step with the Spirit, flee sexual immorality and greed, pursue kindness and patience, be reconciled to our enemies, and forgive each other. These commands only make sense if we have with the help of the Spirit (that’s the grace of the New Covenant) and the hope that obedience is possible (that’s the purpose of the New Covenant). Kevin DeYoung in his book “The Hole in our Holiness” puts it like this:

God does not expect our good deeds to be flawless in order for them to be good…There will always be elements of corruption in us. But by the power of the sanctifying Spirit in us, true believers will genuinely grow in grace. (p.67)

How does this happen?

As we’ve already hinted, holiness comes by the Holy Spirit in us. The Spirit empowers us to love God and neighbour, to fulfil the Law of Christ (Galatians 5:13-16) . The Spirit reveals our sins, and grieving Him prompts us to renounce them (Ephesians 4:30). The Spirit points us to Christ and transforms us as we gaze on his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). That is not to say that we sit back and do nothing: holiness requires effort on our part – hard work, in fact – to collaborate with the Holy Spirit. We press forward (Philippians 3:12-14). We are not lazy but endure and persevere (Hebrews 6:12). We “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5). But we can do it, because the Spirit in us does it with us.

There is a second way to look at how holiness happens. Theologians call it “union with Christ” and the New Testament calls it being “in Christ”. Jesus calls those connected to Him to “remain in me” (John 15:4). Ephesians 1:3 describes the spiritual blessings of election, redemption, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification, which all flow from our spiritual location “in Christ”. These two little words occur over 200 times in the New Testament. Although many occurrences do not carry a deep “incorporative” sense, but mean simply “in Christian matters” (eg 1 Corinthians 3:1), many clearly do imply that a profound change of metaphorical position has taken place through our relationship to Jesus (eg Romans 8:1) (see Moule Chapter 2, in ‘Further Reading’, on this). This makes me think this is not a marginal idea but a key way to understand where we sit as believers! We are spiritually no longer in the world, or in sin, but “in Christ”.

How does holiness work in practice?

By letting where we are in Christ change how we think in everyday life. We live in Christ’s kingdom, so sin has no power over us now. So Paul says “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). In sports imagery, we changed team, and now wear the bright colours of Jesus instead of the murky kit of sin. In baptism imagery, we died to the old life and rose to the new.  Holiness happens by acting in the light of the truth that I am “in Christ”. It starts in my mind. Become what you are.

How do we grow holy and close to God in mind and life?

Through the five key disciplines (yes, effort!) of prayer, Bible reading, Christian community, good use of the Sabbath rest principle, and holy communion. As we draw near to the throne of grace in prayer, meet Jesus in Scripture, experience the Spirit uniting us as “church”, set aside a day to remember God’s gifts of life and freedom, and encounter Christ through the symbols of bread and wine, we find sin ever more bitter, and Jesus ever more delightful.

Further reading

“The Hole in our Holiness”, Kevin DeYoung (Crossway, 2012)

“The Origin of Christology”, C.F.D. Moule (Cambridge University Press, 1977)

“Communion with God”, John Owen (abridged R.J.K. Law) (Banner of Truth, 1991)

“A Passion for Holiness”, J.I. Packer (Crossway, 1992)

“Christ our Life”, Michael Reeves (Paternoster, 2014)

 

A conversation with ‘The Hole in our Holiness’ (Kevin DeYoung): Part 1 of 3 (Chapters 1-4)

We are studying Exodus 19-40 as a church this autumn, and one of the key texts is the LORD’s words in 19:4-6

If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

The theme of holiness – God’s and ours – is central not just to Exodus but also to Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It’s also a missing theme in the evangelical church in the West (hence DeYoung’s title). That’s why we decided to enrich our vision of “holHoleinourholiness.jpginess” through this “Book of the Term”. As Kevin DeYoung claims in Chapter 2, holiness in God’s people is both the purpose and the necessary condition of our salvation. We are not saved by our holiness; but we are not saved without it either.

So what is holiness?

Holiness is not the same as niceness (appearing godly but with no love for Christ inside). Nor is it wistfulness (living like Christians in the past). Nor is it mindfulness (a version of our culture’s fad for being ‘spiritual but not religious’). (For even more angles on what holiness is not, see DeYoung, pages 33-38). Holiness has a shape given to it by God.

According to Exodus (and also, for instance, Isaiah)  God is Holy. In the New Testament too, God’s Holy presence is expressed through his Holy Spirit especially as he indwells Jesus, the “holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). The Hebrew word translated in English”holy” means “set apart”. It means not so much “separate” from the world as “different from” the world and from impure humanity. God is good and we are worldly. God is pure and we are sinful.

We are called to be holy because God is holy (Leviticus 19:2). Holiness is when we turn our hearts, minds and actions towards God instead of towards the world or ourselves, directed by  the Holy Spirit in us. As DeYoung says, that doesn’t mean we are to be miserable kill-joys who spurn anything pleasant. If anything it means the opposite: we delight in God’s goodness and all good things he has made, living distinctive lives of Christ-centred worship, selfless love, joyful self-restraint, consistent truthfulness and authentic kindness – holy lives. Holiness is being truly human, and truly happy.

So why does holiness matter?

It has become alarmingly characteristic of Christians in our culture to talk and act as if how we live does not matter to God or to others. “We are saved by grace not works”, we say, forgetting that we are not saved without good works! We are concerned to protect the truth that Jesus died for our sins to bring us to God, but forget that he also died to purify us and make us “holy” as His Bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). We talk a lot in our generation about “grace”, but have become nervous to talk about “duty”. So holiness matters, and DeYoung spells out why in his chapter “The Reason for Redemption” and in an impressive list of Bible verses which motivate Christ’s people to holiness, in Chapter 4.

Here are four key ways in which holiness matters…

Because it’s why God saves us. That is not to say that being holy is what saves us – grace alone does that in Christ! But Paul says that God “chose us in Christ…that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (Ephesians 1:3-4) and “saved us and called us to a holy calling not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:8-9). He is reflecting the message of Exodus we saw earlier: God led his people to freedom in order to make us “a royal priesthood and holy nation” belonging to Him. Holiness is good news (gospel) as much as is forgiveness. It is what DeYoung calls “our glorious calling”.

Because it’s what God commands of us. As evangelical Christians we know that the Law of the Old Testament leads us to grace in Christ. But Biblically, grace equally leads us to the Law. Jesus says “if you love me, you will obey my commands”. In Exodus, God rescues his people from slavery and THEN gives them the Law. Anglican prayers reflect this double truth of grace AND Law, for instance in the Communion Service where it is our “duty and joy ” to give God thanks and praise (in word and action) “at all times and in all places”. Holiness is a joyful duty and command.

Because it’s how God assures us. Holiness as the sign and fruit of a genuinely converted heart and life is a necessary part of our salvation. With all our ongoing faults, followers of Christ are aware of the upward drag of the Holy Spirit renewing our thoughts and actions. “you were taught…to put off your old self which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires, to be made new in the attitude of your minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:21-24)

Because it’s where God speaks to others through us. Holiness makes our witness credible. Those we pray for and speak to about Christ will not be impressed if they see nothing in us which is distinctively directed towards God (holy). Holiness strengthens our witness, but worldliness undermines it. “Let your light so shine before men and women that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Book of the Term Discussion

As you read our Book of the Term and reflect on the nature and necessity of holiness, questions will pop into your head, if you are anything  like me! Isn’t holiness an old-fashioned idea? Am I a Christian if I am not always very holy? Make a note of them, and bring them to our open book discussion on Sunday 27th November after our 6pm service!

Next time, we will continue this conversation with DeYoung’s book, chapters 5-8. We will discover a great truth: that by faith we are holy already. We may still be sinners, but our lives please God, right now and today!

Further reading

The Hole in our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung (2012, Crossway), is available from Christ Church resources desks at just £7 (RRP £10.99)

Holiness, J.C. Ryle (Evangelical Press reprint)   available at https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/holiness

A Passion for Holiness, J.I. Packer (1992, Crossway) available at https://www.eden.co.uk/shop/a_passion_for_holiness_18675.html

How is Jesus still serving you today?

Forty days after the resurrection comes the ascension of Jesus. He was “declared Son of God” through his resurrection (Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4) and now he returned to God’s throne, having completed his work in atoning for our sins and giving his life to serve us (Mark 10:45).

Yet Jesus’ work for us does not end there. He  serves us still in his life in heaven, interceding for us (Hebrews 7:25), sending his Spirit to teach us the truth (John 14:26), and giving gifts to the church in the manner of a conquering king handing out treasures to his victorious people – except these gifts are not silver coins but spiritual roles in the Church (Ephesians 4:7-12).

The significance of Jesus’ ascension is not only that he reigns – now, today – over all things. This Sovereign also serves his people. Our risen Lord is still, wonderfully, our serving-without-sinking_3servant. He intercedes for us, teaches us, and equips us to serve Him.

In our book Of The Term “Serving without Sinking” (a unique gospel-shaped book about grace, not a guilt-inducing one about sacrifice) I have loved reading the three middle chapters which illustrate how Christ serves us.  His grace defines the nature of our serving Him in grateful response.

The three metaphors the author finds in the Bible for Christian life are all stunning privileges: we are not servants but friends of Jesus, not a self-justifying client but a forgiven bride of Christ, and not convenient slaves but forgiven sons of God. These chapters alone are worth the book price and worthy of reading over and over again.

Is Jesus serving you today? If you want to know more, “Serving without Sinking” is highly recommended.

 

 

How (not) to serve Christ

What makes you volunteer to serve at church? When the notices include an appeal for new people on the welcomers’ rota, what makes you stick your hand up? Are you motivated by what  I call the “NAG” way for churches to fill gaps: there is a Need, you are Available, and if you don’t do it, you would feel Guilty?

The trouble with “nag” volunteering is that it misrepresents God (as if He is unable to run His Church and I have to come to the rescue!) and it misrepresents church membership (as if anyone should serve God motivated by guilt). There are much healthier ways to serve God with the personality, passions and gifts I have, and our church has found the “SHAPE” course from Purpose-Driven church really helpful here. But in the first of these three articles about Christian service, prompted in part by reading our book of the term, the excellent “Serving Without Sinking” by John Hindley, I want to ask why serving Christ sometimes goes wrong and  becomes a burden to us instead of a joy.exhaustion2

For anyone who has taken on a serving role and it has become dry or burdensome, it may be good to take a break for a while or find a new ministry for a change. But it may also be good to ask if somewhere I am serving for the wrong motives, arising from a skewed image of God. I recommend John Hindley’s chapters 1-5. Here are three false images of God that make serving Him a burden instead of a delight:

Slot machine God. I may tell myself I know God loves me  as I am but in reality, deep down if I am honest, part of me is serving because I think that by what I do I put God in my debt. If I turn up and give two hours every Sunday to Him, He will give me something in return, like getting chocolate from a machine. He will mend my relationships, or further my career, or answer my prayers more. Of course, this is a false image of God, who showers blessings on us all the time not because we do good things but because He is a good God.

Am I serving God thinking I will get something in return?

Loan-shark God. It is good to recognise how much I am in debt to God for the gift of grace and forgiveness in Christ. It is good to serve in gratitude for what God has done for me. But gratitude can slide into grudging guilt: “God did me a favour, so I owe Him in return. Eternal life comes not as a gift”, I think to myself, “but like a loan which I am paying back every time I do something good.”

Am I serving God thinking that what I do will keep Him loving me?

Damsel-in-distress God. I look around at church and see gaps in the ministry teams: the creche has no helpers, nor does the youth ministry, and the catering team is clearly stressed and undermanned too. “Thank goodness I am here”, I think, “to rescue these people who clearly need my multiple gifts and dedication. I am here to get them, and their God, out of a hole. God needs me to do the things He clearly cannot take care of without me”.

Am I serving because “God needs me” as indispensable to the life of His Church?

All of these three images of God are false ones. God is not a slot machine, a loan-shark or a damsel-in-distress, but a beautiful and bountiful Being1. His service is perfect freedom. Work done for Him is delightful worship. False images dishonour Him and discourage me. They make serving a burden, where it should be “our duty and joy2.

So what is the healthy way to serve God? We start with a more accurate image of who God is as revealed in Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve us by giving his life for us3. That is where we pick up in the next article reflecting on “Serving Without Sinking”.

1   James 1:17 “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of heavenly lights.”
2  Communion Service Eucharistic Prayer A & C, Common Worship
3 Mark 10:45