Are we really ‘ambassadors of Christ’?

I minister within the Church of England Diocese of London. If you check out their website, or know this network already, you’ll be aware that the current vision here has a focus on “equipping and commissioning 100,000 ambassadors representing Christ in daily life”. As someone who’s been in parish ministry in London for 19 years, it’s refreshing to have a Biblical metaphor (ambassadors) used so overtly in an Anglican mission action plan. And bold to have (for the C of E) a large target for the number of church members we are aiming to train and send.

There’s a lot to like in the “ambassadors” initiative here. A great collaboration with the LICC (London Institute for Contemporary Christianity) has enabled churches to benefit from resources like the “Right Where You Are” workbook, tailored to the C of E in London. The church where I am Vicar just hosted a Diocesan Ambassadors training evening for lay and ordained church leaders, encouraging them to take the vision for “whole-life, 24/7 discipleship” back to their parishes. The paradigm shift away from clergy/Sunday-focussed church to “everyone, everywhere” mission is wholesome and Biblical as a model of Christian discipleship.

The church of which I’m minister has been learning how important it is to orientate what we do on Sunday towards equipping members for the rest of the week. We’ve taken on board the call to make micro-shifts in that direction, such as “this time tomorrow” interviews, and including workplaces, homebuilders and community places in sermons applications and in intercessions. Gone, I hope, are the days of the only mission that is prayed-for being done by clergy, youthworkers and mission partners (though I think I have heard enough jibes at clergy who “never preach sermons on faith at work” to keep me going, thanks).

So here comes the “but”: I am not convinced that much of the use of the language of “ambassadors” here is fully true to the nature of this metaphor as Paul uses it in 2 Corinthians 5:20. Coincidentally I preached on this text recently as part of our church series on personal evangelism, “Six Steps to Talking about Jesus”. The focus of the Diocesan ambassadors material that I’ve heard presented so far has been on enabling church members to see themselves as living for Christ all week,  but not on sharing Christ in words. An emphasis on the “manner” of the representation but really on the “message” from the One we represent.

The word “representing”, arising from the ‘ambassadors’ metaphor, is straight from 2 Corinthians, but only if the primary way we do that is by speaking on behalf of Christ and about Christ. “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: be reconciled to God” is Paul’s ambassadorial message. I recall being involved in early drafts of the Diocesan vision document and appealing, with others, that the language of “living and speaking for Christ” be retained, and it does appear in the banner heading of the Diocesan vision literature, but it does not seem to me to have been emphasised in the obvious place with Biblical foundations to do so, the language of “ambassadors”.

Of course that may be for two reasons.

Charitably, many church members are nervous about speaking about God’s mercy in reconciling us to Himself through Christ’s death – who isn’t? I understand that the Diocese does see equipping members with the message as part of sending ambassadors, and sees the “what is the message and how can we speak it more confidently?” piece as a next phase once members have gained confidence in their Christian calling. If so I’ve got a few ideas of how to do that in my next post. I’d still argue that the emphasis needs to shift from manner to message.

Let’s pray that the reticence to put front and centre the message that Paul spoke as an ambassador is not because some in the Church may not be wholly convinced that we have a message that needs to be communicated verbally for others to be saved. If that is the case, the initiative will only really be about 24/7 vocation, and we will end up a long way from the evangelism of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5. If that happened we should probably stop using the “ambassadors” image

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

youcandoit

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)

 

Tim Keller on doubting our doubts

I have not yet read his new book Making Sense of God but saw this very helpful excerpt on The Gospel Coalition website in which Mr Keller tim-keller-making-sense-of-godsummarises some neat work by Michael Polanyi on exposing the wrong beliefs that sit underneath our sceptical questions. As I am preparing a sermon at the moment on Doubt, I liked the head-on confrontation of the big triggers which make us sceptical, such as unjust suffering, moral atheists, and religious hypocrisy, and the call Polanyi makes on us to see the “defeaters” or unchallenged beliefs which undermine the doubt each time. I look forward to reading the rest of Keller’s book!

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.

 

 

Top ten books on church history for non-academics

Luther at Diet of Worms

Like others, I lament the weakening awareness of  doctrine in the faith of many modern Christians, and see one remedy to be giving people the tools to learn about how great Christians in the past grappled with issues like God, the world, human fallenness, purpose and salvation.  Here are ten astounding books which I recommend when church members ask me what to read (in chronological order by subject):

Henry Chadwick “Augustine of Hippo” – a great writer, on one of the greatest thinkers in history, and perhaps the first autobiographer and historical interpreter

GR Evans “Anselm of Canterbury” – a key medieval thinker on the existence of God and the nature of the atonement

Josef Pieper “Guide to Thomas Aquinas” – highly readable introduction to the life of the thirteenth-century “dumb ox, whose bellow the world will hear”; another remarkable theologian

Roland Bainton “Here I stand”, a page-turning biography of Martin Luther, tinderbox of the Reformation (pictured above)

JC Ryle “Five English Reformers” – one for Brits: a passionate case for the Protestant identity of the Church of England

THL Parker “John Calvin” – balanced and accessible account of this cool pastor-theologian who is interested in so much more than predestination

JI Packer “Among God’s Giants” – a superb introduction to the thought of the Puritans, who tried to reform the reformation, and banned theatres

John Pollock “George Whitefield and the Great Awakening” – the Anglican evangelist and (arguably) founder of Methodism

Jeremy and Margaret Collingwood “Hannah More” – a remarkable female writer and abolitionist of the late eighteenth century (available secondhand)

Edwin Robertson “The Persistent Voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” – controversial but remarkable pastor and protestor against the Nazi ideology

What would you add to this shortlist?

What should pastors read?

books

Many of us who are pastors love what our ministry requires us to do – prayer, preaching, evangelism and pastoring people – but struggle with the challenge of the work involved and the nature of it. Preaching is hard work. Sundays come round with amazing regularity. And we are fallible people working among fallible people, who receive encouragement from many – and face discouragement from others, not all of it deserved.

Personally I find that the longer I go in in ministry (it’s twenty years since ordination this summer) the more I need to read books to keep me inspired and fresh. Some advocate only reading the Bible or books about it, but I read biographies (currently one on Whitefield, and one on Stalin for contrast), history, and classic novels, as well as books expounding the Bible (often the more ancient the author, the better). It all helps us to be nourished by the faith or wisdom of others, to sharpen our skills, or to understand our culture better.

I have several “favourite” books on ministry and preaching, but Charles Spurgeon “Lectures to my Students” is always arresting. I enjoyed this Spurgeon quote last week from Justin Taylor about the vital importance of reading books to our ministry, entitled “Paul was inspired, yet he wanted Timothy to bring him books to read!”

It is probably the nature of pastoral ministry (we’re too busy) that not many great modern books have been written by seasoned pastors passing on their hard-earned wisdom. I’ve read some Paul David Tripp before (a former pastor but not recently in frontline pastoral ministry). Here’s a not-entirely-positive review of his “Dangerous Calling” from just such an experienced minister, Paul Levy. I agree with the reviewer: we need books on ministry that are both realistic and encouraging to those who are in the trenches doing the work.

So what should pastors read? My top five favourites on pastoral ministry (apart from Spurgeon) would be:

The Art of Prophesying – lovely short work on preaching followed by two extended reflections on “The Calling of the Ministry”, by Puritan William Perkins

Preaching and Preachers – D Martyn Lloyd-Jones – preaching on fire!

Ordering your Private World – Gordon MacDonald – written out of the crucible of pastoral ministry

The Contemplative Pastor – Eugene Peterson – rich modern pastoral wisdom

Courageous Leadership – Bill Hybels – a unique pastor, and his best book, IMHO

And, erm, of course – the Bible. I hope that goes without saying.

Other suggestions on preaching and pastoral ministry?