Monday, June 22, 2015

The Great Charter of Liberty

15th June witnessed the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, that ‘Great Charter’ of our civil liberties. Local school children took part in the celebrations in Salisbury, where a copy of the revered document is housed.  
                                                                 
‘Freedom’ is one of the watchwords of our time. We rightly celebrate freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the freedom to get on with our lives subject to the rule of law. Magna Carta continues to enshrine our right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

To be truly free is to be able to live as we should as human beings. Fish are at their most free when swimming in the sea and birds when they are flying through the air. That’s what they were made to do. Christians believe that human beings were created by God and for God. It is when we live as he intended that we find true freedom.

The human story is a struggle to find freedom from those things that enslave us and keep us down; the greed, hatred and cruelty that fuel man’s inhumanity to man. People may think that they are free when they live just how they please and give very little thought to others. But in fact they have become enslaved to selfishness.

Jesus came as the great liberator. His mission was to free us from the power of sin by his death and resurrection. In the words of what might be called the Bible’s ‘Magna Carta’ Jesus said, ‘if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.’ (John 8:36).

*For Holy Trinity Parish Magazine, Dilton Marsh and News & Views, West Lavington 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Things aren’t always what they seem


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The General Election result reminds us that appearances can be misleading. In the run up to the election political pundits obsessed over what deals the Labour or Conservative parties would have to make with whatever combination of smaller parties in the event of a hung parliament. It was an acronym lover’s dream. Would we be governed by Con-Dem-Ukip-DUP, or Lab-Dem-SNP-PC-Grn, or what?

As we know, it was none of the above. The exit poll on election night and the subsequent result showed that almost all of the opinion polls were wrong and David Cameron is now back in Downing Street at the head of a Conservative majority government. Whether that's for good or ill I’ll leave you to judge, but it only goes to show that things don’t always turn out as expected.

When Jesus exercised his ministry on earth many Jewish people were looking forward to the coming Messiah. They hoped that he would smash the enemies of God’s people, overthrow Roman rule over the land of Israel, and put the world to rights. Jesus didn’t quite fit the bill. He had power alright; the power to heal and forgive. But he didn’t do a lot of enemy bashing. In fact, he taught his followers to love their enemies. When his opponents had him crucified he prayed, “Father forgive them, they know not what they are doing.”

Couldn’t have been the Messiah, then. But it was through his death on the cross that Jesus accomplished the salvation of the world. He died in weakness for our sins so that through faith in him we might be put right with God. Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God and appointed the world’s true Lord and King. False expectations can skew our understanding of reality. Things aren’t always what they seem. The once-crucified Jesus is Lord. 

* For June's News & Views and Holy Trinity parish magazine. 

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Independent Church: Biblically Shaped and Gospel Driven, Compiled by John Stevens


Independent Church: Biblically Shaped and Gospel Driven, 
Compiled by John Stevens, FIEC/10Publishing, 2014, 349pp.

Some would suggest that the Independent view of the church is the product of ‘don’t know any better’ default, or sheer pragmatism that sits loose with biblical principles. The key conviction of the authors of this book is that Independency is rooted in Scripture and centred on the gospel as the dynamic of church life and mission. Contributors define what is meant by Independency biblically and theologically and chart the history of Independent Churches in the UK and beyond.

While it is argued that the Independent model is shaped by the clear teaching of Scripture, the writers are not dogmatic when it comes to some of the finer points of church government and organisation. Objections to Independency, such as a tendency towards isolationism are acknowledged and measures suggested to help churches avoid becoming isolated and inward looking.

A useful chapter is devoted to Independency and the State. Independents believe in the separation of church and state, but that does not entail the view that believers should withdraw from society. Rather that Christians should seek to contribute to the common good, while affording freedom and toleration to those who do not share our faith.

Independency is not a recipe for theological anarchy and confessional confusion. Bill James advocates Independents adopting a full scale confession of faith such as the Savoy Declaration or the Second London Baptist Confession to help safeguard the distinctive doctrinal stance of the local church. A more basic statement like the FIEC Basis of Belief enables Independent Evangelical Churches to enjoy fellowship together while not always in agreement on every point of doctrine.

Attention is devoted to many other important matters such as Independency and preaching, elders, support for pastors, training for ministry, the role of women and mission. Space does not permit detailed comment on each contribution. Suffice to say that while the reader may not agree with everything in this book, the material presented will help provoke thought on the renewal of Independent church life and mission in the 21st century Britain. Free from stifling denominational structures and taking a stand against doctrinal compromise, Independent Evangelical Churches are well placed with God's help to partner together to bring the good news of Jesus to lost sinners today.

A quibble or two. I'm not sure that it is necessary (or biblical) to have women serve as deacons to ensure that female believers have a visible, full and active role in church life. And as the reading of Scripture in the context of the gathered church is an aspect of the Ministry of the Word (1 Timothy 4:13), how does having women 'do the reading' square with 1 Timothy 2:12? Like tradition, trendiness isn't always right. Andy Patterson's chapter on mission was helpful in a number of ways, but majored on church planting to the extent that mission on the part of already existing churches was not given enough emphasis. If you are a smallish church in a smallish town, planting another church isn't perhaps the best way forwards. One of the major challenges of facing the FIEC is to explore ways of revitalising smaller churches in town and village situations where the populations are overwhelmingly white British, non-professional and without a ready supply of students. Often it isn't that these smaller churches are too inward looking to bother with evangelism, or that they are too moribund and inflexible to try anything new. But workers are few,  the work is hard-going, and conversions are scarce. What's to be done to develop strategies that will help churches in settings like this flourish and grow?

This work is the product of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and sets out to advance its vision of the church. It can therefore sometimes come over a little 'in-housey'. Establishing pastor support and accountability is best done through the FIEC Pastors' Network, for example, rather than local fraternals. That said, the usefulness of this book should not be limited to FIEC churches. Believers from all gospel churches of whatever stripe when it comes to church polity will find resources here that will help them to be more biblically faithful, vibrantly gospel-centred and mission orientated. It will also help friends from non-Independent backgrounds to see that we are not Independent by default, but by firmly held and well-founded conviction.

* An edited copy of this review will be published in Evangelical Times

Monday, June 08, 2015

Cloud watching at Prior Park


Saturday is my day off and Sarah and I usually try to get out and about if we can. Last Saturday we headed for Prior Park, a National Trust property in Combe Down, Bath. It really is a remarkable spot, a verdant green valley that cuts a swathe through a densely populated urban environment.

At the base of the valley lies a Palladian Bridge spanning an ornamental lake. The Neoclassical bridge is one of only four of its kind in the world, apparently. The scene is overlooked by Ralph Allen's imposing mansion, perched on the top of the hill, "To see all Bath, and for all Bath to see". 

We took a picnic with us and settled down to eat it on a grassy slope near the bridge. The sky overhead was light blue, daubed by fluffy cotton wool clouds. I don't usually have much of an opportunity laze around watching clouds drift across the sky. It was one of those, 'What is this life if full of care/We have no time to stand  and stare' moments.

Only then I did have time to stand and stare. Well, recline and stare if truth be told. It was an delightful spectacle. No sermons to prep, pastoral visits to make, brain aching books to read, articles to write, governor stuff to see to, or household chores to do. Simply time to step off the busying /dizzying merry-go-round of the world and gaze at heavens playfully declaring the glory of God. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson

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The Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson,
Puritan Paperbacks, Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, 122pp.

I was asked to speak on the subject of 'Repentance' for Bethel Evangelical Free Church's 'Away Day' at the end of May. I remembered that some time ago (probably years) I'd started to read this little book by the Puritan, Thomas Watson. However, I only got through a chapter or two before laying it aside. Don't know why. Having agreed to speak on 'Repentance' I thought it might be an idea to take up the book once more and give it a proper read. 

Glad I did too. While some Puritans can be rather ponderous and labyrinthine in style (yes, I do mean you, John Owen), Watson is a delightful read. Short, pithy sentences, vivid illustrations, quotable quotes, meaty doctrine, telling applications. It's all there. 

In this work Watson carefully explains the nature of true repentance and calls for repentance without delay. It's weighty, heart-searching stuff, but done with a winsome lightness of touch, Objections are dealt with and means for inducing repentance are urged upon the reader. 

The Bethel 'Away Day' not only reacquainted me with Thomas Watson, it also reacquainted Sarah and I with Cloverley Hall Christian Conference Centre. We used to attend young people's holidays there before we were married. Happy memories. Like relaxing by the pool, reading The Fight of Faith, vol 2 of Iain Murray's biog of Lloyd-Jones. One sunny afternoon the stripey canvas deck chair on which I was sitting gave way and I ended up stuck in the wooden frame in a rather undignified tangle, much to everyone's amusement. Must have been the weight of Murray's book, rather than my mid 20's self that did that. Was all skin and bones back then. Anyway, I digress...  

My talk wasn't based on Watson's work as such, but it proved a helpful stimulus and provided some juicy quotes. It was a reminder that Puritan preaching at its best addressed the mind with reasoned arguments, captured the imagination with attention-grabbing word pictures, challenged the conscience with the light of God's truth and called for a radical change of life through repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ. Come to think of it, those aren't simply characteristics of Puritan preaching at its best, but of preaching pure and simple. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants by Greg Nichols

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Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants,
Greg Nichols, Solid Ground Christian Books, 2014 edition, 365pp

Did you read that right, a book on covenant theology by a Baptist? Isn't that a bit self-defeating, like Turkeys voting for Christmas? Listening to some Paedobaptists you'd think that they had cornered the market when it comes to covenant theology and that the Baptist position is based on a few odd proof texts pulled at random from the New Testament. Nichols shows that this isn't the case at all. That said, his book isn't a polemical axe-grinder, where the author sets out to biff Paedobaptists by hoisting them on their own covenant petard. This work attempts to make a constructive contribution to our understanding of covenant theology. Its advocacy of the Baptist view is irenic in tone and all the more persuasive for its peaceableness.

Nichols begins by discussing covenant theology in the creedal and theological heritage of the church. This historical perspective highlights some mistakes to be avoided when grappling with the covenants revealed in Holy Scripture and also unearths important insights from which we can learn as we take a fresh look at the biblical material. The main body of the work is expositional. The writer gives an overview of the Biblical Testimony, charts the overarching Covenant of Grace and then discusses the biblical covenants in historical order; Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic (Old), Davidic, New and Messianic. This 'biblical theology' approach has the advantage of enabling Nichols to trace lines of continuity and discontinuity between the various covenants.

Each chapter is replete with an in-depth study of the biblical materials, an analysis of the leading features of each covenant and some reflection on matters of practical application. The use of diagrammatic charts helps to clarify things, ensuring the reader doesn't get lost in the wealth of expositional detail. Nichols handles the biblical teaching in a fresh and insightful way. Even the most seasoned student of covenant theology will learn a thing or two on studying this work.

When it comes to the Baptistic bit, the book's main point is that in the New Covenant there is no distinction between outward covenant membership by natural descent and actual participation in saving grace. Being a child of Abraham and having the covenant sign of circumcision in one's flesh did not mean that one's heart was circumcised. In the New Covenant it is expected that members of the covenant community have repented from their sins, believed the gospel and been baptised. While this does not mean that every member of every local church is a true believer, there is a much more organic relationship between outward membership and inward grace under the New Covenant than ever was the case in any of the Old Testament covenants.

Appendices are devoted to the Eternal Counsel of Redemption and the Adamic Covenant. The author's treatment of the former is alert to the trinitarian dimensions of the doctrine. He safeguards the oneness of God's being and will, while at the same time giving due attention to the different roles ascribed in Scripture to each person of the Trinity. The Father decisively gives a people to his Son and sends him to save them, while the Son deferentially receives the elect and is sent into the world to rescue them. The Holy Spirit is bestowed by the Father upon the Son for the work of redemption and poured out upon the church by the Father and the Son. While all three persons are equal, that does not mean they are interchangeable. When it comes to the Adamic Covenant, Nichols departs from the standard 'covenant of works' view, according to which Adam had to earn the blessings of the covenant for himself and his posterity by keeping the commandment laid upon him by God. The writer sees this as legalistic and reductionist and offers a much more rich and nuanced account of the Adamic Covenant that posits Adam as God's son rather than simply his subject.

This immensely insightful and stimulating work will repay careful and prayerful study. Nichols writes not simply with the skill and acumen of a practiced theologian, but also as a child of God whose soul has been gripped by the wonder of God's covenant grace towards undeserving sinners.

Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Devon & Cornwall break list


1. Plymouth Hoe, drizzle & Drake.
2. Proper pasties with meat chunks & real veg, not gristle & gloop. 
3. Brunel's Royal Albert (Tamar) Bridge. Enough said.
4. Worst public loos in Looe. Unisex & skank.
5. Polperro, quintessence of quaint.
6. Saltram House, Nat Trust. Grand relaxation.
7. Anthony House, Nat Trust. Genteel orderliness & uncultivated beauty.
8. Beat Sarah at Tenpin bowling. Twice. Air Football. Once. 
9. Eden Project, Biomes hot & humid. Ice cream needed. 
10. Saturns Pattern soundtrack. 

Friday, May 01, 2015

Voting intentions



I can't make up my mind whether I'm Red Tory or Blue Labour. I'm a South Walian and so should be Red Labour, I suppose, but I can't be doing with all that Leftist identity politics drivel. My views are progressive in terms of wanting the State to use its powers to lift people out of poverty and increase social mobility, but conservative when it comes to marriage and family life, abortion, euthanasia, and so on. I'm a libertarian when it comes to free speech and don't believe that the law should be used to protect people from feeling insulted or having their views held up for ridicule. But I'm concerned that faith-based views are being squeezed out of the public square in an increasingly secular society. I think that it's only right that the wealthy should pay their fair share of tax rather than do all they can to avoid contributing to the public purse that funds valuable services like health and education. But I also believe in personal responsibility, and that well paid work rather than feckless benefits dependency is the best route out of poverty. Cameron's championing of the Protestant Work Ethic redux on last night's Question Time certainly struck a chord with me. But I don't feel like a Tory and Ukip's 'Little Englander' mentality certainly doesn't appeal.

As is the case with with many people who are not card carrying members of a political party, none of the mainstream parties wholly represent my views in all policy areas. Neither do any the fringe parties for that matter. I don't think supporting 'The Christian Party' is the answer. While believers should take an active interest in politics, government belongs to the 'common kingdom' where Christians rub shoulders with non-Christians, engaging in a whole range of cultural activities, and in which there is often no distinctly Christian take on things. It's no good trying to throw a proof text at whether or not the government should continue to pay its 2% of GDP subs to NATO, or to decide on whether LA maintained schools provide a better education than Academies or Free Schools. Yes, we are instructed to pray for rulers, 1 Timothy 2:1-4. But Paul's petitions concern the freedom of believers to live in peace and proclaim the gospel, not more purely political matters, like whether we'd be better off in or out of the EU.

I suppose it's about choosing the least worst option, having listened to what party leaders have to say, read the manifestos and taken local factors into account. The likelihood of another hung parliament only serves to complicate matters, as the compromise deals needed to garner support for a ruling party inevitably means that some manifesto promises will have to be dropped. Con-Dem, Con-DUP, Con-DUP-Ukip, Lab-Dem, Lab-Dem-Nat-Green, who knows what combination of parties the electoral arithmetic will serve up? 

Anyway, I've pretty much decided who I'll be voting for on May 7th, but wouldn't presume to tell readers how they should cast their vote, bar saying that you'll need to use a stubby pencil to make your mark on a ballot paper in a polling booth near you. Glad to be of service. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

You want the truth? You can't handle the truth

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All we want from our politicians is that they tell us the truth about all the bad stuff they plan to do to the country when we vote them into power. I mean, we'd be more likely to elect a Conservative government if we only knew which poor slackers are going to bear the brunt of spending cuts. And hey, Ed, we'd not hold political fratricide against you if you were straight with us on how much the national debt is going to balloon because your lot isn't going to cut as much as those heartless Tories. C'mon tell us, added interest payments n'all and even Scottish Socialists will come flocking back to you singing, 'We'll keep the Red Flag flying here. Och, aye'.   

OK the Greens are more straight up, telling the electorate exactly what they'd do in the unlikely event of a landslide that increased their tally of MPs from 1 to 350. They'd ban the bomb, nationalise stuff, make global warming go away and solve the immigration crisis by making sure that Johnny foreigner was so happy in Libya and Somalia that they wouldn't even think of coming to good ol' Blighty. But let's face it, Greens are just commies who recycle. Who wants that? Really. 

'Tell  us the truth' we say, but we can't handle the truth. At least not too much of it and our politicians know that. The same applies in the spiritual realm. People reject the Christian message in the name of a free thinking quest for truth. But what they are really doing is fleeing from the truth that they are accountable to the God who made them. Much better to delude ourselves that, 'I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul' and bellow out, 'I did it my way', than acknowledge our human frailty and fallenness. 

The truth is often painful and uncomfortable. Whichever combination of parties win power at the General Election there will be tough times ahead as the nation struggles to live within its means. The 'anti-austerity' line spouted by Nats and Greens is a fine sounding mantra, but put it into practice and Greece is the word. The Christian faith doesn't seek to butter us up by telling us that all's well with the world and things would be even better if we were all a little bit nicer. The world is broken with evil, oppression, suffering. And we don't have the answer. And we are part of the problem. To took at ourselves in the mirror and confess, 'I have sinned' is to begin to handle the truth.

But the 'sinner thing' is one of the factors that makes Christianity so unpalatable. Although we all live our lives with the tacit understanding that it is an accurate description of our human condition. Why bother with democracy with accountable political leaders, constitutional checks and balances, the rule of law, personal freedom etc? Why not get rid of the whole caboodle, leadership debates n'all and install a Great Man to rule and give him all the power he could wish for to get things done? Because as it has been said, 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely'.

We know full well that given human fallenness, dictators can't be trusted to use their power benignly for the common good. When a culture ignores the stubborn reality of sin and begins to dream Utopian dreams that involve giving massive power to to unaccountable leaders for the betterment of the world, the result is always despotism and disaster. That's why Bolshevik Revolution started with off Lenin (not that he was that nice) and finished up with Stalin. Ironically one of the best bulwarks against totalitarian madness is a belief in human captivity to sin that insists on the separation of powers and the establishment of rigorous systems of accountability in the body politic.

So what's the answer to the fact of human sinfulness to which history and our own personal experience bear their tragic testimony? It's this. The God against whom we have sinned and whose judgement we deserve sent his Son into the world as one of us. He was born of woman, lived a sinless human life and was crucified, bearing the weight of the world's sin upon his shoulders. Jesus was his name. His Cross at once exposes our inability to save ourselves and demonstrates the costly love of God towards sin-ruined humanity. He was condemned that we might be justified. He was forsaken by God that we might be reconciled to him. He died in weakness that we might live by the power of his grace.

But this message of salvation through the Son of God crucified for us is hard to take on board. The preaching of the cross is an offence to the religious and foolishness to the intelligentsia. You want the truth? Here's the thing: 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners' (1 Timothy 1:15). That's it. The question is, 'Can you handle the truth?'   

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bible-centred church: Running a church in the biblical way by John Temple

Bible-centred church: Running a church in the biblical way,
 by John  Temple, Day One, 2014, p. 144

Someone or other sent me this book for free in the post. Can't remember who it was, or why, but it seems I'm not the only one. A friend at the Banner Conference said that he had also received a copy. Whoever it was, thanks. Although I have to confess that had I not been sent a freebie, I probably wouldn't have read the book. It's a bit 'how-to-ey' for my liking, but has the advantage of being concise and carry-aroundable. That was a real plus when looking for something to bring with me to while away time when taking my daughter to Uni interviews. Man bag busting, shoulder aching tomes of theology wouldn't have done the trick.

The author argues in favour of an eldership team-led, gathered church model of ecclesiology that is grounded in the teaching of Scripture. In his handling of the biblical materials Temple makes helpful distinctions between precepts, principles, precedents, guidelines and freedoms. He clearly sets out what the Bible has to say on the role and appointment of elders and deacons and gives attention to some of the practicalities of church life. He is good on the flow of authority in the church from Christ though the elders to the deacons and church members. 

However, I didn't always agree with Temple's conclusions. For example, he reasons that only existing elders should appoint additional members of the team, which gets him into some difficulty when it comes to planting a new church that has no elders. The biblical pattern seems to be that the local church appoints new elders in accordance with guidelines laid down in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and subject to the oversight of the existing eldership if there is one. In Acts 14:23 we read that Paul and Barnabas 'appointed elders in every church'. The churches existed prior to the appointment of elders and in the original the word translated 'appointed' means 'elected by show of hands'. Which suggests that under the oversight of Paul and Barnabas church members elected their own elders. 

Also the writer argues in favour of female deacons. While I certainly value and honour the work of women in the church, I don't think that 1 Timothy 3 supports female deacons. For one, the deacons should be 'husbands of one wife'. which kind of assumes that they are men. On the subject of deacons, Temple argues deacons are simply individuals with a special serving role in the church, unlike the eldership team, they do not constitute a body; 'the diaconate'. But what's to stop deacons meeting together to co-ordinate their activities, subject to the oversight of the elders?

The book provides a model Constitution, which by-and-large reflects biblical principles, includes wise practical counsel on procedural matters and complies with the legal niceties. Speaking personally, I wouldn't accept 9.3 Special Members' Meetings without some amendment. Our Providence Baptist Church Constitution allows for a weighted proportion of church members to call for a Special Members' Meeting, but it is made clear that an elder, ideally the pastor should chair that meeting, not, as Temple suggests, whoever a simple majority of members elect for the occasion. The elders' oversight of the church should extend to Special Members' Meetings and that should be reflected in the who gets to chair the meeting. 

If I've been somewhat critical, it's not because I take delight in churlishly looking this gift horse of a book in the mouth. Neither does it mean that I didn't find it helpful. Overall it was. I certainly agree with Temple's basic thesis that the eldership team-led, gathered church model presented here has biblical sanction. But perhaps Running a church in a biblical way would have been a more modest and accurate subtitle. The inclusion of the definite article claims more than can be justified for all the points made in this book. And there is more to being a Bible-centred church than getting church government right. As I'm sure the author would admit, the Bible must not only give shape to our church government, it must re-shape the lives of the people of God by refocusing them on the Christ-centred gospel to which Scripture bears witness so powerfully.