Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Does desire really follow duty?

For some time I have understood that, when it comes to self-discipline, there are two types of people in the church: those who can and those who can't. I'm definitely one of the latter! Before I started to understand the implications of the gospel on every day life I used to beat myself up thinking I'd be never be a 'good' Christian like those organised folks. I think I knew that it was a motivational issue but my understanding of the Gospel was so limited that I didn't realise that it was the only God-given power to motivate me. When discussing this with other Christians who seemed so much better organised and committed than me I'd often be given the advice that "desire follows duty". In other words buckle-down and do your duty then you'll get the desire to do it! This felt like telling me that the way I could jump ten feet in the air is to jump ten feet in the air! I didn't know what to say at the time, but now I do: Rubbish! This is to get it exactly the wrong way round. The biblical way is always "duty follows desire".

The question we should ask is not, what duty do I need to perform, but how does my heart get so transformed that my greatest desire is to serve and glorify God? To answer this we need to start by recognising that we are born to worship. If we don't worship God, we will make our own 'idols' to worship. An idol is anything which we think we have to have in order to feel satisfied/accepted/valued. So, if we lack the desire to live the way God calls us to its because we have other desires which we love more than Him. Therefore the only way our hearts will be transformed is when we see the futility of chasing after our idols and see God as more desirable. How do we do that? Through the Gospel. The gospel reminds us of God's great love for us in dying in our place. It reminds us of His faithfulness and mercy and of our unconditional acceptance and adoption as His son or daughter and of our hope in Him that will never perish or fade. Transformation has two sides to it: we root out our idols and we replace them with love for Christ. To paraphrase Thomas Chalmers in his expulsive power of a new affection, the only way our hearts will relinquish their idols is when they are replaced by a greater love. A love born out of a deepening undertanding of the depths of our sin and the riches of His grace. So, in answer to the original question, in the words of Jonathan Dodson :
"until we clear the shelf of our hearts of subtle idolatries, discipline will not give way to desire".

What about you? What are you chasing after?
May Jesus be the treasure of your heart.

Monday, 28 June 2010

The Gospel for postmoderns (Part 2)

How do we present the gospel in a way which is uncompromising and yet culturally relevant to postmoderns? Some major on relevance others on doctrinal faithfulness. Few seem to wrestle with both at the same time. As a result, for those who concentrate on relevance, style becomes more important than content whilst, for others, content is king and style is largely overlooked. Unfortunately many gospel presentations trying to be culturally relevant end-up compromising the content of the message in the process. Yet those committed to representing the gospel in a way which is faithful to the scriptures often seem to assume that compromise is doing anything differently to how they’ve always done things.

However, this is not merely to argue that some happy middle ground must be found between these two camps. They are not two opposing views which must be reconciled. Rather they are both equally important. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. To compromise is to rob it of it’s power. If Paul needed to warn Timothy to guard his doctrine, how much more should that warning apply to us? Yet the gospel must be intelligible to the hearer (1 Cr. 14:6-9). Consider Paul’s presentations of the Gospel throughout the New Testament. Each one is different, suited to the needs of his audience. Contrast how Paul presents the Gospel to the pagan / pantheistic men of Athens in Acts 17 with his sharp contrast of law and grace to his Jewish readers in Romans. It is not just about the language used or even the style in which it is presented, the message must make sense to the hearer. And that means more than merely defining terms. Presuppositions that will prevent the hearer from understanding may need to be identified and challenged. For example, it is of little use trying to explain how someone has broken God’s law if, to them, there are no moral absolutes. First we need to challenge that presupposition. To fail to understand and deal with objections rooted in the other person’s worldview will more than likely lead to charges of arrogance or irrelevance and the conversation will reach an impasse.

I am not, however, arguing for extended apologetics that trades arguments for and against the existence of God and so on. Instead it is a call to go after the motivations of the heart. After all, what is a breaking of any commandment other than a failure to honour God as Lord in your heart? The essence of sin is to go after another ‘god’, by thinking, for example, that the thing or neighbour’s wife we covet will satisfy the longings of our hearts. It seems to me that churches either hardly grapple with how to see holiness develop in their people or, through the omission of the gospel as the only motivation to holiness, they effectively teach that holiness is about outward conformance. It’s our hearts God wants to transform not our behaviours. Don’t get me wrong our behaviour should change but only as the result of a transformed heart not as a means to gaining one.

So what does this look like? How do we tell someone who has no belief in God nor in His laws that they have broken His laws and deserve His wrath? There is no right or wrong way but the key is to try to understand what makes your listener tick. What is the thing or things to which they have ascribed ultimate meaning? The thing which they just have to have? From what or whom do they get their sense of identity and purpose? The answers to these sorts of questions reveal the idols of people’s hearts. The things they worship in place of the Lord our God. Exposing how people’s idols do not satisfy their deepest longings can lead to a greater openness to hear what we have to say and begin to sow seeds of doubt in their own worldview.

In the next post I’ll give an example of what that might look like.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Gospel for Postmoderns?

(Yeah, I know it's been a long while since I wrote something. :-)

If you go back a few decades in most western cultures, there was a time when most people knew something about God and His law. They may not have believed upon Jesus Christ but nevertheless they would tend towards the view that there is a God and would have known something of the Ten Commandments. In that context you could preach the gospel by reminding people of God's law and getting them to see they had broken it. You could then explain how Jesus had perfectly kept God's law and had been crucified for their sins. You could then urge them to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, assuring them that their sins will be forgiven and that they will be saved from eternal damnation (hell). Of course all was not rosy in the church garden, a decline had already begun in the 19th century with the advent of enlightenment thinking which claimed that science had all the answers and that man didn't need God or religion any more. Nevertheless, basic knowledge of the bible was widespread and the gospel could be presented this way.

Today it can no longer be assumed that people have even the most basic bible knowledge. In fact, western culture now seems to generate people who are predisposed to be opposed to Christianity - despite knowing very little about it. The irony is that, at the same time, the enlightenment thinking that led to the decline of traditional western Christianity is increasingly being rejected. God is no longer "dead", contra-Freidrich Nietzsche. Powerful arguments against aggressive opponents of Christianity such as Richard Dawkins are beginning to be raised from non-Christian philosophers. Soon Dawkins and his ilk will be 'dead'. (Unfortunately much of the church, as ever behind the times, doesn't see this so they're still expending their efforts vainly trying to counter Dawkins, disprove evolution and so on. In effect, relying on science instead of the Gospel.)

Though spirituality is good again, the 'god' that now 'reigns' in people's minds is manifold. At the centre, of course, is 'me'. What matters most are my feelings, my wants, my needs and my rights. Materialism, fame, self-gratification and wanton sex are the gods we worship. Just add in a bit of Oprah or some self-help pop-psychology with a hint of eastern mysticism to complete the mix. Relativism and pragmatism (what works for me) is the order of the day. Now spirituality is fine. Just as long as you don't make any exclusive claims of course. So is that it? After thousands of years on the earth, is that the pinacle of man's ability to answer the most fundamental questions like why are we here? or what happens when we die? Seems so!

So just how do we present the gospel in this context? How do we present the gospel in a way which engages with people? In a way which is relevant to the culture? The old ways just don't work. How do we engage with people in a way which isn't going to result in them immediately switching off? I say we need to listen to people, without confronting them, to understand two things:
- why they think Christianity has nothing to say to them, and
- what matters to them.

Increasingly with postmoderns, in understanding why they have dismissed Christianity, we find that the reason given isn't because they think science has disproved Christianity. Rather, they will have fundamental intellectual and philosophical reasons why they have dismissed it. Often, we'll find that what they have dismissed is not the gospel but religion. Religion teaches that we must do good works in order for good to accept us. But the gospel teaches that God accepts us, therefore good works will follow. Religion in effect puts God in your debt, he owes you, whereas, in the gospel, we owe God everything. As a result it is vital to spend time explaining the difference between the gospel and religion.

I hope to explore these issues further and suggest some example ways in which the gospel can be presented to postmoderns in subsequent posts.