The Triumphant Mr Sibbes

30 01 2008

Post No.8 in the Timmy Brister challenge.

One fact which emerges very clearly from ‘The Bruised Reed’ is that we feel the strongest doubts about our salvation at those times when we most let the Lord down. This is a recurring theme in the book, and in the posts I’ve been placing on this blog. It is a dreadful experience to know defeat in our walk with God, to sense that we have let Him down in thought, word and deed, and that our true fallenness has emerged with all its hideous force.

Sibbes is sympathetic to his readers when they are faced with spiritual let-down, and speaks tenderly and victoriously to their consciences. Listen as Sibbes brings balance and balm to Christians crippled by failure:

‘A Christian conquers, even when he is conquered. When he is conquered by some sins, he gets victory over others more dangerous, such as spiritual pride and security’ [95].


Which is more miraculous?

29 01 2008

Working as a part time librarian in a theological college carries certain advantages. One of these is the access I have to a variety of journals, both academic and non-academic, and the rich resources that can be found within their pages. Just yesterday I was reading in EMQ (Evangelical Missions Quarterly), when the following account grabbed my attention. It centres around an American interviewer who visited China to learn about the House Church Movement. The article* addresses the perception that miracles happen in the Chinese church, whereas in the Western church they tend not to. The words contained in the article contain a stiff rebuke to such thinking:

“The Chinese House Church movement is a story of the miraculous. Conservative estimates of believers in house churches in China begin at 100 million. The interviewer was astounded by the church growth observed in three church planting movements. In one location, over 150 house church leaders were being trained. Pastors sat on the ground in rows as other leaders passed among them. They seemed to be tearing pages out of books, distributing them to the people seated on the ground.

In horror, the interviewer suddenly realised these leaders were tearing copies of the Bible into page-sized pieces. He asked what could possibly cause such destruction of God’s Word. The answer cut him to the heart. ‘There are about 150 pastors here today,’ he was told. ‘Only five of us own a Bible. We are tearing our Bibles into its separate books and distributing them so that each leader can return home with at least one book to teach from the Bible.’

The interviewer watched as they passed books of the Bible back and forth. ‘Have you taught Genesis? No? Here it is.’ Rip. ‘Have you taught Luke yet? Here is Luke.’ Rip. The sound of tearing pages filled the air.

Then the house church leaders began to ask the interviewer questions. One asked, ‘Has Jesus made it to other countries yet or has he come only to China?’ The interviewer told them of millions of believers in other countries. The church leaders cried out in delight. They were amazed to hear of churches that were free to meet whenever they wished. They were astonished to hear of individuals who personally had several copies of the Bible, in addition to study books.

Suddenly, the house church leader began to cry, ‘Why, God, don’t you love us like you love the believers in America?’ The interviewer could not believe his ears. He asked them to explain their anguish. Their experience rivalled the stories of the apostles. Miracles of healing were common. Thousands were coming to faith in Jesus. Almost half of their pastors had served multiple years in prison for sharing their faith – often starting churches in those prisons. How could they possibly compare those miracles to what the interviewer had told them about America?

They were surprised the interviewer did not understand. ‘Which is more miraculous?’ they asked. ‘That we can divide our Bibles chapter by chapter, or that you can own dozens of them, along with music books and study materials? Which is more miraculous? That Chinese are being healed by the hundreds of thousands and that maybe a thousand of them can discern their healing had come from Jesus – or that you can access doctors and health care any time you choose? Which is more miraculous? That we move from house to house, meet on different days of the week and at different times during the day – or that you can go to church all day, every day, and that no one would ever think of arresting you or your pastor? Which is more miraculous? That we view prison as our theological training ground – or that you can study in special schools set aside for believers? Which is more miraculous?’

It was the interviewer’s time to weep. He realised what he had called ‘common’ in his own country would be considered profoundly miraculous by most of the believing and persecuted world.”

*Nik Ripken and Barry Stricker. ‘Five Lies About Mission’. EMQ, January 2008.

Edwards: Theologian. Pastor. Blogger?

28 01 2008

My wife and I watched ‘Amazing Grace’ a few nights ago, the biopic of William Wilberforce. As the various media utilised by the great Christian statesmen in his pursuit of the abolition of slavery were portrayed, we commented on what kind of use he could have made of the Internet!

It is fascinating to think of how different our society, and the face of Christianity, would have been had the communication technologies we enjoy today been available earlier in history. One individual who expressed intimations of how science would speed and help the work of the Gospel was the eighteenth century, pastor, theologian and philosopher, Jonathan Edwards. In the introduction to his biography of Edwards, Iain H. Murray writes of these sentiments in moving terms:

“He believed…that the age of scientific discovery was only in its beginnings and that there would come new and better contrivances for assisting one another through the whole earth by more expedite, easy and safe communication between distant regions than now.’ The vast distances separating the nations of the eighteenth century would disappear, ‘the distant extremes of the world shall shake hands together’, and this progress would be God-given towards a day when ‘the whole earth may be as one community, one body in Christ’.”

How amazingly and fully these words are being realised in our age, when I can read the thoughts of bloggers from Wiltshire, London, California and Japan, and when I can listen to last Sunday’s sermon preached from Minneapolis or Donaghadee. We ought to give thanks to God for these gifts which He has provided and (whilst exercising due caution and integrity in their use) seek to see His kingdom extended through them.

The Measured Mr Sibbes

25 01 2008

Post No.7 in the Timmy Brister Challenge.

How can we know if we fit into the category of being a ‘smoking flax’? How can we be sure that we truly belong to God, and that we need encouragement to look to the mercy of God in Christ, rather than the judgement of God through Christ? This is a tricky question, and one which the folks over at Timmy Brister’s site have been wrestling with in his discussion of Sibbes over the past few days.

Thankfully Sibbes’ book answers this question for us, and in practical, identifiable terms. Sibbes spells out ten markers against which we can measure whether we truly have the fire of God’s salvation within, regardless of the smoke of our corruption which we are only too conscious of. His definitions are quite lengthy, so I’ve condensed them a little – hopefully without losing the flavour of what he has to say.

1. If there be any holy fire in us, it is kindled from heaven.

2. The least divine light has heat with it in some measure. Light in the understanding produces heat of love in the affections.

3. Where this heavenly light is kindled, it directs in the right way.

4. Where this fire is, it will sever things of diverse natures, and show a difference between such things as gold and dross. It will sever between flesh and spirit, and show that this is of nature, this of grace. All is not ill in a bad action, or good in a good action. There is gold in ore, which God and his Spirit in us can distinguish.

5. So far as a man is spiritual, so far is light delightful to him. He is willing to see anything amiss that he may reform, and any further service discovered that he may perform, because he truly hates ill and loves good.

6. Fire, where it is present, is in some degree active. So the least measure of grace works, as springing from the Spirit of God, who, from his operations, is compared to fire.

7. Fire makes metals pliable and malleable. So grace, where it is given, makes the heart pliable and ready to receive all good impressions. Obstinate spirits show that they are not so much as smoking flax.

8. Fire, as much as it can, sets everything on fire. So grace labours to produce a gracious impression in others, and make as many good as it can.

9. Sparks by nature fly upwards. So the Spirit of grace carries the soul heavenward and sets before us holy and heavenly aims. As it was kindled from heaven, so it carries us back to heaven.

10. Fire, if it has any matter to feed on, enlarges itself higher, and the higher it rises, the purer the flame. So where true grace is, it grows in measure and purity. Smoking flax will grow to a flame; and, as it increases, so it discards what is contrary to itself and refines itself more and more.

Dying to Live?

24 01 2008

Saturday’s Times newspaper ran a fascinating article about a new form of therapy which is proving popular in South Korea. In order to help people to deal with their problems, their past, and to face a better future, a firm is offering a service whereby clients/patients can go through the experience of having their own funeral. The ‘therapy session’ consists of individuals being placed in a coffin, and having the lid nailed down. Once safely enclosed within their caskets, earth is scattered on the lid, and they are left alone in their box. After fifteen minutes the lid is opened and as The Times says ‘the nearly-departed are declared reborn’. The therapy technique has proven so successful that companies are sending hundreds of their employees for these sessions, in order that they might be liberated from their past problems, and face the future with hope.

Whilst the method is completely absurd, it does carry a certain degree of recognizable logic. In a world which has cauterised its conscience, and done away with the concept of repentance, it is little wonder that people need to employ some means to try to forget their past mistakes and experiences. The Times states that ‘Lee Hye-jung, a 23 year old woman studying engineering, emerged from her coffin saying ‘I felt really, really scared. I’ll live differently from now on, so as not to have any regrets about my life’.

There is – unsurprisingly – no mention of eternity, or what may lie beyond death. Rather than the prospect of one’s own demise acting as a prompt to seek God, and receive Christ, death is now being treated as just another form of catharsis, through which people might be liberated to live.

The Scriptures, of course, describe a better way – but it still entails dying to live. Paul writes to the Romans, and provides them with a wonderful survey of the Christian message. In dealing with the difference that the Gospel makes in the life of a believer, Paul states ‘Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life’ Romans 6:3-4.

This is teaching which really changes things. Having died in Christ to our old sinful ways and having come to life in Him, we truly know what it is to die before our death. Such a death, and such newness of life, makes literal physical death become not a conclusion, but a continuum in the presence and grace of God.

Now that really is dying to live.

The Encouraging Mr Sibbes

23 01 2008

Post No.6 in the Timmy Brister Challenge.

Of all the areas which Christians struggle with, I imagine that prayer must be one of the most prominent. In my own Christian life, and from conversations with others over the years, I have come to learn that one of our biggest challenges is to seek God’s face on a consistent and disciplined basis.

This is particularly so when we are faced with major problems and temptations as believers. Whenever we feel ourselves to be ‘bruised reeds’, when we are keenly aware of our failings, faults, and indwelling sin, we have a tendency to avoid the presence of God in prayer – fearing that we will not be heard, or accepted, or received. At times like these our prayers can be a confused mass of trying to confess sin, whilst not truly daring to seek the Lord fully.

Sibbes’ mind is fully alive to this fact as he writes to encourage Christians who are struggling in their walk. He writes of seeking God in tender terms, and warm tones, showing us the way in which God receives our most garbled of prayers. His depiction of God’s attitude to us in prayer is quite simply beautiful, deeply touching, and hugely encouraging to us in our darkest and most difficult of times spiritually:

“God can pick sense out of a confused prayer. These desires cry louder in his ears than your sins. Sometimes a Christian has such confused thoughts that he can say nothing but, as a child cries, ‘O, Father’, not able to express what he needs, like Moses at the Red Sea. These stirrings of spirit touch the heart of God and melt him into compassion toward us, when they come from the Spirit of adoption, and from a striving to be better” [pge 51].

Only the Lonely

22 01 2008

Solitude is overrated apparently… At least that is what a recent BBC Horizon documentary has found, through tests undertaken on six candidates. Saturday’s Times newspaper ran a fascinating piece in their ‘Body and Soul’ supplement about the effects of sensory deprivation on the human psyche. Professor Robbins decided to repeat some experiments which were originally banned in America in the 1950’s whereby individuals are isolated for 48 hours in a darkened room, with no stimulation or contact. The effects were dramatic, to say the least.

Simon Crompton writes, ‘two of the participants coped well, sleeping through much of the period. All found it profoundly boring, most found it distressing’. Amazingly the effects of this kind of isolation can lead to such phenomena as hallucinations and paranoia, with those involved reporting having seen creatures and critters in their rooms. The isolation also led to individuals being much more suggestible and easily influenced, which is why such isolation serves as an excellent torture technique. I’m looking forward to seeing the whole programme which is televised tonight at 9pm on BBC2.

All of this leads me to think of the life of the Saviour. The one incident in particular which springs to mind is His temptation in the wilderness. If 48 hours in a darkened room can lead to such weakening of the resolve and mental composure, imagine the effects of 40 days in a barren environment with no company but wild animals, and nothing to see but arid landscape. Add to this the suggestions of Satan and the tempting words with which he urged Christ to abandon His purpose, office and ministry. Imagine the physical temptation which the very mention of bread would have brought, and how weakened Jesus would have been in all of His humanity as He faced the onslaught of constant suggestion.

And yet how He conquered, how He overcame! What a thrill it is in Matthew’s account to read of Jesus’ steady resolve, of His manifest deity, of His profound quotation of God’s Word as a means of resisting the enemy. Christ’s power and person were vindicated, and His obedience stood in stark contrast to the unfaithfulness of God’s people, Israel, in their wilderness temptation. Christ fulfilled the Law of God, and also set us a supreme example of how to resist the pummeling and provocation of Satan. What a Saviour!