What I’ve been up to…

29 07 2007

I’m back from my recent blogging hiatus, and am looking forward to putting up a few new posts over the next few days.

In the meantime, you can read about the Mexico missions team that Carolyn and I had the privilege of leading during the past couple of weeks here.


13 07 2007

I’ll not be able to update my blog for a couple of weeks. If you’re looking for something else to read while I’m out of online circulation, any of the following will be a blessing:

Heavenly Worldliness
Exiled Preacher
Gary Cousins’ Blog

Just don’t get too hooked and forget this humble blog!!

‘The Iron Rations of the Soul’

5 07 2007

These are the words which Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to describe the teachings of John Calvin in his ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion.’ For a long time now I’ve been giving serious thought to the possibility of reading the Institutes from start to finish, but haven’t taken opportunity to do so thus far. Recently Guy Davies confessed to also having a desire to read the ‘Institutes’, and he has been working through them little by little each day to great effect.

This has fired my own thinking, and I have been wondering about the possibility of setting up an online reading club/forum where individuals could commit to read the ‘Institutes’ in their entirety over the course of a year. I have the two volume WJK edition (available at an excellent price here), and by doing some simple division have calculated that it would be possible to work through both volumes in one year by reading six pages per day for five days of the week. Would anyone else be interested in joining me in this venture? The benefit of doing this as a group would mean that we would all be covering the same material at the same time (although you’d have to do your own maths to divide up another edition/publication of the ‘Institutes’), and informed, stimulating discussion could follow. If you’d like to be involved in this, then please leave a comment, or send me an email. If enough people are interested the forum would start on 1st August, and I’d put a link in my sidebar to specific bloggers who are working through the plan.

It would be good to share these ‘iron rations’ with others…

Evangelical Ministry Assembly 2007 Pt.2

3 07 2007

If the internal atmosphere of the EMA is a little alien to someone coming from Northern Ireland, then the external world of the City of London and high finance is even more removed from normal everyday reality. There’s a certain delightful sense of subversion to be derived from walking through the financial region of London as a non-employee of any of the big organisations. St. Helen’s is right at the heart of the capital’s business world, with the ubiquitous gherkin directly behind the church. On the way to conference from the Tube there are all kinds of city-slickers making their way to the markets or the office, and it was fascinating just to watch a world with its own rules, ideas, and priorities. A world whose lifestyle is as alien to me, as mine would be to it. Strangers in a strange environment was to be a dominant feature of the rest of Wednesday morning at the EMA, both in terms of what was shared from the Word, and the experience of attending the conference.

Between session one and two of the EMA there was a coffee break. Beautiful Danish pastries were available, and I ate mine while walking to Starbucks – I fancied a decaf (to avoid the need for a ‘comfort break’ halfway through session two) and a read at the paper rather than feeling the awkward sense of not knowing anyone around me.

Session two started at 1215pm, with Vaughan Roberts (St. Ebbe’s Oxford) bringing a stirring message from Daniel. My only prior exposure to Vaughan’s ministry has been through his excellent little book ‘God’s Big Picture’ and so I was looking forward to what he had to share. We sang another hymn (this time with more musical accompaniment and less feeling), the Word of God was read, prayer followed and then Vaughan spoke. The pulpit in St. Helen’s is outrageously high, and while this is advantageous at such a large gathering – in that the speaker can be seen by all – it is rather removed from the congregation. Vaughan’s message did not suffer any ill effects from the altitude.

The message was introduced by a general contextual setting. The book of Daniel, along with the rest of Scripture, is a tale of two cities – Jerusalem and Babylon. For Daniel life was lived in Babylon with all of its attendant alien features, and hostile attitudes – but it was a life lived with a focus and aspiration for Jerusalem. This is always the experience of the believer.

Daniel is also a book of two halves: chapters 1-6 depict Daniel in public and are written in 3rd person narrative; chapters 7-12 portray Daniel in private and are conveyed via 1st person visions. The plan for the two expositions to be given over the three days was to focus on each of these sections.

What, then, can be learned from the first part of Daniel?

1. Don’t Withdraw
When the first section of this book is presented and preached on there is often an imbalance present – only the abstinence of Daniel and his friends is emphasised. A more careful reading of the text, however, shows just how much Daniel and others were willing to accept as necessary features of living in Babylon.

They said:
YES to a pagan education (1:3-5)
YES to a change of name (1:6-7)
YES to a political career (1:5b; 19b)

Clearly, Daniel shows us how to live whilst in Babylon. We are not to withdraw, but to engage the alien culture in which we are located. The speaker related how that St.Ebbes had recently purchased a new centre for outreach in Oxford which had previously belonged to the Exclusive Brethren. The building had no windows in its walls, but had windows in the ceiling. The architecture itself was betraying the perspective of these sincere, if misguided, Christians, in that they felt it more incumbent to look to the heavens, that to see the world around them as well. Such an approach contradicts the experience of Daniel.

2. Don’t Compromise

The above issues notwithstanding, there is still a need for a stand to be taken, and for compromise to be avoided whilst living in Babylon. We are reminded in 1:8 that ‘Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine’. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. Could this have been because of food laws? Or because the food had been offered to idols? Or because to have eaten from the king’s table would have implied too strong a relationship and identification with the throne and the prevailing power of Babylon? In any case it is clear that lines had to be drawn and honoured.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego also exemplified this kind of godly separation through their unwillingness to commit idolatry – ‘we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up’ (3:18) – even when it was on pain of burning in the fiery furnace.

Daniel had a similar experience when confronted with horror of the lion’s den.

All of these episodes and experiences point to the crucially important need to be separate and to make a distinction in our behaviour as believer whilst in Babylon.

3. Don’t be afraid

Through all of this, Daniel and his companions learned more and more that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. God’s sovereignty is evidenced by the repetition of the phrase ‘God gave’ in 1:2,9,17. Chapters 2 and 7 reinforce the fact that God’s kingdom is eternal and universal.

This is shown by the nature of God’s rule – He knows the future because He controls the future (2:20b-22,47) and His kingdom lasts forever (2:44).

Chapters 3 and 6 prove God’s power in the rescue of His people. Both, the three friends’ experience in the furnace, and Daniel’s in the den, prompt certain conclusions to be drawn about God – ‘No other god can save in this way’ (3:29); ‘He is the living God and He endures for ever…He rescues and He saves’ (6:26-27).

This sense of God’s sovereignty is shown in chapters 4-5 as He exercises judgement over proud rulers. Nebuchadnezzar is humbled. The point is proven that human kingdoms are derived and finite (2:21, 37-38; 4:17, 25,32; 5:21) and that God’s kingdom lasts forever (2:44; 4:3,34). Belshazzar is judged later (5:30) and shown the majesty and sovereign disposing power of God.

The upshot of all of this is that we learn that the Lord reigns, reveals and rescues, and that it makes sense to serve Him at all times.

In exegetical and expositional terms Vaughan’s message was superb, and tremendously encouraging. I suppose the sense of cultural difference felt in the City of London is also felt through the ministry of God’s word. As someone from Ulster I am used to a much heftier injection of passion when God’s Word is preached, and much greater engagement of the personality of the preacher. Vaughan’s approach is much more Anglican ,composed, detached. I suppose both styles of delivery are simply ways in which God allows treasure to shine through vessels of clay. It can just take a moment or two to tune one’s ear and heart to this different presentational style. I remember at last year’s Banner of Truth conference listening to Edward Donnelly’s Tuesday evening message on Jeremiah and feeling incapable of speech afterwards, so strong was the sense that God was gloriously present in His Word. That sense of heart engagement was absent in this message, and yet my love for the Lord was still greatly increased, and my worship more rich, for having listened to God’s Word expounded.

Spurgeon on the Will of God and Man

2 07 2007

Yesterday morning I preached on Romans 8:29-30 on the sovereignty of God in salvation, and made brief allusion to the balance between God’s free election and man’s responsibility. The Pyromaniacs have posted some very useful material from Spurgeon on this issue which can be found here. To top it all, it even has the word ‘usefulness’ in italics. Wow!

Free E.M Bounds Audio

2 07 2007

Christian Audio are offering E.M. Bounds’ wonderful ‘Power through Prayer’ free of charge at the moment. Just follow this link, and be careful to put in the promotional code at the checkout. Prepare to be challenged!!

Evangelical Ministry Assembly 2007 Pt.1

2 07 2007

Last Wednesday morning (27th June) I caught the 6:15am Easyjet flight from Belfast International to London Stansted, in order to attend the first two days of the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in St. Helen’s Bishopsgate. The conference is organised by the Proclamation Trust to encourage focussed, God-centred, expository ministry.

Coming from Northern Ireland, it was something of a culture shock to enter St.Helen’s amidst around 800-1000 other ministers and speakers. Most of the people my own age were well spoken individuals with universally monosyllabic names like Ben, Ed, Dan and Giles. They greeted me (and one another) with a well-intoned ‘Hi, how are you?’ (pronounced ‘Hai, how aw yoo?) and a robust confidence which reminded me strongly of my two years spent in Grammar School education. The wardrobe choices varied with age. Some middle aged folks wore blazers, open necked shirts, and slacks, emitting the cool aplomb of university academics; the older men wore short sleeve shirts and chinos; the young men tended either to wear Ralph Lauren type shirts with chinos and cashmere jumpers draped across their shoulders or cords, shirts, and walking tops (either waterproof-type jackets or fleeces). Unwittingly I had fallen into the last stylistic category, but just couldn’t master the ‘Hai, how aw yoo?’. I did, however, manage to avoid embarrassing myself by the use of ‘How’s it goin’?’ or ‘What about ya?’.

The conference began with rousing singing, accompanied only by the organ. The sound of men’s voices singing in unison never fails to move me, and the volume from 1000 voices was tremendous. The simplicity of format also impressed me, with prayer, singing and Bible reading being the only items preceding the messages.

The first session featured Dr. Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan, on the subject of ‘What is an evangelical?’ His message was enormously helpful, with dashes of humour, incisive cultural analysis, and practical challenge. His main thesis was that the status of evangelicals has changed in recent years, from being a group largely ignored by the world’s media, to one which is now facing open hostility. In addition to this hostility there is a growing sense of fragmentation within evangelicalism, chiefly (although not solely) characterised by an emerging movement which holds a different emphasis than old evangelicalism. Such groupings place emphasis on synthesis of views rather than singularity. They do not view Truth as the basis for community, but community as the basis for Truth. They commonly deny penal substition, as well as the inerrancy of Scripture.

In the light of such hostility and fragmentation there is a growing sense of need to define what an evangelical is. There are others, however, who oppose the concept of definition. Their objections are threefold:

(a) The word ‘evangelicalism’ has had it
(b) Boundaries shouldn’t be drawn among Christians
(c) Evangelicalism is a meaningless category outside of tradition.

Keller contends that definition is vital. To abandon the use of the term ‘evangelical’ would merely invite the use of another term which could similarly be evacuated of its meaning. Boundaries are inevitable – even by advising against boundaries one is separating oneself from those who find boundaries desirable – and thus a boundary has been unwittingly drawn.

Keller’s definition of an evangelical is threefold:

1. A belief in the final authority and clarity of Scripture

2. Sheer grace alone by faith alone in the substitutionary atonement of Christ alone

3. A view of repentance which sees it as normative and not episodic; an understanding that all of life is repentance.

Whilst such a definition may seem inevitable, or a little pedestrian, Keller was able to show how vital these issues are in our contemporary context.

The session was very helpful and I’m looking forward to the MP3 becoming available so that I might pick up more of the nuances of what Keller had to say. I came away from the first session feeling encouraged and challenged by what had been shared, and perhaps a little foolish that many of Keller’s observations had not struck me personally before. His style was rigorous and intellectually engaging without being stuffy or prententious.

The next session featured Vaughan Roberts speaking on Daniel, which I’ll try to outline here in the next few days.