Addendum to Yesterday’s Pursuing Purity

31 01 2007

After posting yesterday on Owen’s counsel to make matters worse with regard to our sin, I read the following quote which searched me about my own approach to mortification. It makes for challenging reading:

‘A characteristic of the man with false peace is that when this man falls again into sin he takes it much too lightly…This man says almost as soon as he has fallen, ‘It is all right, the blood of Christ covers me’. And up he gets and on he goes as if nothing had happened. You cannot do that if you have any true conception of what sin means, and what the holiness of God really is. This man with a false peace heals himself much too quickly, much too easily, much too lightly. It is because he takes sin as a whole too lightly’

[Lloyd-Jones, Exposition of Romans 5: Assurance, p.27]


Romans Series: Does James Contradict Paul?

31 01 2007

Recently on Sunday mornings we’ve been considering Paul’s teaching on ‘justification by faith alone’ from Romans chapter 4, and the example of Abraham as an illustration of this truth. It’s a wonderful passage, presenting as it does the sole sufficiency of Christ as Saviour. I trust that through the muddle of my words God has been speaking about the grounds of our confidence as Christians.

One of the issues that I haven’t dealt with on Sunday mornings has been the relationship between Paul’s teaching in Romans 4 and the teaching of James 2:14-26. In James’ epistle there are statements such as ‘was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?’ (v21) and ‘you see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only’ (v24). Right away this presents a problem to our minds, as it appears that Paul’s statements that Abraham was justified only by faith (cf.Romans 4:1-3ff) teach something radically different. How are we to reconcile this issue, presenting as it does an apparent contradiction in the New Testament’s teaching on salvation?

I had thought of writing an article about this myself, and publishing it here on the blog, rather than cluttering a Sunday morning with what would ultimately be a very technical message. In keeping with the ethos of ‘double usefulness’, however, I found an excellent treatment of this subject by John Piper on his ‘Desiring God’ website. The article can be read here, and I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to see how these two passages of Scripture relate to, and ultimately complement, one another. Piper can say things which are beyond my intellectual ability to express, and his generous view of ministry means that I can share his teaching here – and also print copies of his message for folks on Sunday morning who aren’t internet compliant! I trust that his words will bolster confidence in the authoritative integrity of the Scriptures, and help us to understand something of the breadth and richness of our salvation.

The Coming Storm Pt.1

30 01 2007

George Orwell is one of my favourite authors. His imaginitative ability, his lyrical economy, and his broad view of life and society give his books an almost prophetic edge in cultural terms. Whether it is the casual brutality of Nineteen Eighty Four with its ‘Big Brother’ image which remains so current in popular culture, or the deceptively warm and pastoral tones of the early pages of Animal Farm which descend into horror and atrocity, Orwell had a stirling capacity to see beyond immediate context, and imagine the consequences of the world which he inhabited.

Animal Farm is significant for our own times in the United Kingdom in terms of its consideration of equality. In the early stages of this short book the amimals take over the farm from its tyrannical owner through a revolution, and establish an egalitarian community, where each animal works for the benefit of others. The slogan of the farmyard community is ‘All animals are equal’. As Orwell continues his (not so) veiled criticism of communism, however, this community spirit gives way to the oppressive rule of pigs, who quickly become more cruel and demanding than the human farmer ever was. They change the slogan of the community during the night, to ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’. Ultimately the idea of equality collapses and the farm is worse off than when it began.

In watching our current news programmes/papers, one is almost tempted to mail a copy of Animal Farm to every member of Cabinet. Equality is the great watchword of our culture, and yet it is becoming increasingly evident that secular views of equality are lobsided and uneven. Take for instance the ‘Sexual Orientation’ laws which are already in place here in Northern Ireland, and will be soon in Mainland Britain. As Evangelical Christians our equality and liberty to proclaim the message of Christ is becoming more and more sidelined and restricted. Events this week over adoption laws for the Catholic Church are perhaps a taste of things to come, whereby central government is dictating to faith groups about the extent to which they can stand by principle and doctrine, and the extent to which they must conform to the agenda of the day.

Perhaps such thinking on my part is a little premature, but at 29 years of age, I now see it as unlikely that I will complete my ministry without opposition, or even persecution (should I live to retirement, and the Lord tarry). ‘All people are equal, but people of faith are less equal than others’ seems to be the dictum of our society, and eventually the laws being passed by government will come to encroach on our public worship, and our witness to what the Bible says. These are, to quote W.B. Yeats, ‘important times’ when our religious liberty may be on the wane.

Over the next while I intend to post some sporadic thoughts on how as evangelicals we ought to be preparing for the coming storm, what issues we need to be thinking through, what issues are being faced by our brothers and sisters around the world who are truly and presently suffering, and what encouragements we can take from Scripture on these issues.

Pursuing Purity Pt.5 – Make Matters Worse

30 01 2007

One of Bart Simpson’s favourite phrases is ‘I didn’t do it!’. Whatever misdemeanour the cartoon deliquent has pulled off, he constantly seems to be in denial. While John MacArthur has characterised The Simpsons as ‘plumbing the depths of moral nihilism’, its characters can very often mirror and prove to us our own behaviours in non-cartoon life. Which of us doesn’t look back to times in our lives, whether in infancy or adulthood when we have denied the things which we have obviously done wrong – whether that denial is to ourselves or to others?

One form of that denial which we engage in as adult Christians is letting ourselves off the hook too lightly when we offend God by our sin. Perhaps we take a step, entertain a thought, or make a statement which we know is offensive to our Heavenly Father. For a moment the shock and awe of our action makes our heart sink, but almost immediately we find the mechanisms of denial swinging into action. We begin to think of the comparitative innocence of our actions compared to others, we attribute our behaviours to diet/too much sleep/too little sleep/hereditary and a whole host of other factors, until we’re persuaded that our sin is something small, insignificant, not all that offensive to God. In so doing we offend our Master even more, and do untold damage to our own consciences.

John Owen writes against precisely this behaviour in The Mortification of Sin. People in the seventeenth century must have been every bit as good at Bart Simpson behaviour as we are today, and so Owen leaves them no quarter for self-commendation in their sin. Rather, he counsels them to make matters worse, to dwell in detail on the offense of their sin, in order that their repentance might be deep and true, their mortification of sin genuine and lasting. His words pack tremendous weight in helping us to watch our own hearts:

“Bring thy lust to the gospel – not for relief, but for farther conviction of its guilt; look on Him whom thou hast pierced, and be in bitterness. Say to thy soul ‘What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on ? Is this the return I make to the Father for His love, to the Son for His blood, to the Holy Ghost for His grace?”

In the area of personal holiness things really must get worse before they can get better! Mortification isn’t a matter of ‘I didn’t do it’ psychology, but ‘I did do it against God’ theology. Such reasoning will not be pleasant for us, but will yield rich benefits of true holiness if we see our sin in the light of God’s salvation.

An interesting debate…

24 01 2007

The BBC website has an interesting debate running re the Church and the law. Could this be the shape of things to come? Read about it here

Pursuing Purity Pt.4 DIY Deliverance

23 01 2007

So far in John Owen’s ‘Mortification of Sin’ we have been brought face to face with the seriousness of indwelling sin which everyone faces. Owen pulls no punches as he portrays the ferocity and persistence of sin, and its ability to ruin our walk with God, not to mention our public testimony.

The temptation for anyone reading his words is to hatch a plan. We hear the writer’s warnings about killing sin, about the utmost aim of our sinful impulses, and so we resolve on certain issues, we decide to break certain habits, and change our thinking. In essence we approach the issue of sin in the same way as our ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ (remember those from the start of the month?!). Perhaps we adopt the Boots the Chemist ‘Change One Thing’ approach and conscientiously avoid certain areas and issues in our minds.

All of this is commendable and vital but, Owen contends, in the absence of an essential ingredient, utterly futile. His concern is that we don’t embark on self-help courses in our Christian lives, which will ultimately be frustrated. DIY deliverance is simply not an option. Of those who seek to use purely physical cures to deal with their sin he writes,

‘They combat without victory, have war without peace, and are in slavery all their days’.

He also diagnoses the reason for this failure to beat failure:

‘There is no death of sin without the death of Christ’.

This is wonderfully rich teaching. Owen is proving that our only hope of deliverance from sin lies in the Lord Jesus Christ and His saving work at Calvary. In other words mortification is spiritual work, not physical. We need a Saviour, and this is what all of our sinful actions point to – we are hopelessly lost without Christ. This might seem elementary, even patronising, but how easily we can gloss over the core and kernal of our Christianity. It begins and ends in Christ – He is all and everything, He is our only hope of redemption, He is all our righteousness. Without Him we are lost in sin, dead to God, without hope.

For the casual professor these words pose a challenge. It is easy to be moralistic, but much more difficult to be pure. It is easy to say we hate sin, and much more difficult to hate it in our own flesh. It could be that the behaviours we manifest are being used by God to show us our own depravity, our own sin, our own need of a Saviour. Perhaps God is allowing us to feel the weight of inquity in order that we might realise how badly broken God’s law is in our own lives. Perhaps we’ve never truly repented of personal sin, and turned with desperate faith to Christ as Saviour. Owen says ‘a man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit’.

For the true believer these words are both impetus and comfort. Our ultimate ground and source of deliverance is our Deliverer, Jesus Christ. To pursue purity with no reference to Him or His work, with no cry for help from the Holy Spirit, is nonsensical. WE have no power over sin, but HE does. Our lives must find as their true north the atonement at Calvary – only then can we know something of the liberating influence of the gospel, and the sweet balm of Christ’s work. This doesn’t mean that we ‘let go and let God’, in the hope that He will purify us while we do nothing. Rather it means that we will pursue purity for the glory of God’s Name, in the power of His Holy Spirit, on the basis of Christ’s finished work. ‘The use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours, the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative’. What a wonderful Saviour we have, let’s make him the centre of our pursuit of purity.

What Baptists Believe…

23 01 2007

Over at Heavenly Worldliness, Gary Brady is conducting an interesting series on the elements of the 1689 Baptist Confession of faith. It is a fascinating document, and Gary’s comments help to explain the essence of what it means to be a Baptist. If you’re curious about the background and basis of Baptist belief this makes a superb starting point.