Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Jane Grey

Recently I read Five Women of the Reformation by Paul Zahl. I was challenged by the story of Jane Grey - the "nine day Queen".  After examination, where she had skilfully defended the reformation doctrines of sola scriptura, sola fide, and the sacraments, her Roman Catholic examiner, knowing that she would be sentenced to death, expressed regret that they would never meet again. The SIXTEEN year old Jane, not counting her own life above giving faithful testimony of our Lord, replied with great faith, courage and single-minded purpose: "True it is that we shall never meet [again], except God turn your heart; for I am assured unless you repent, and turn to God, you are in an evil case; and I pray God, in the bowels of his mercy, to send you his Holy Spirit, for he hath given you his great gift of utterance, if it pleases him also to open the eyes of your heart".

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

A time to speak up

"For everything there is a season ... a time to weep, and a time to laugh ..." (Ecc 3)

The last week or so has had its ups and downs. I will be honest, it has not been easy. But I am so thankful that God has taught me (and continues to teach me) about His sovereignty over all things. Even in times of great difficulty, I know that God loves me and will ultimately work all things for good and that He uses those trials to turn me from trusting in myself to find rest for my fearful, hungry soul in Him.

Being thankful for these wonderful truths leads me to be angry at those who, through their public ministry, would pervert them because, not only do they lead many astray, they leave those who are the Lord's in bondage and give them no comfort in the inevitable trials of life. Jesus said "in this world you will have trouble" and who can deny that this has been their experience? It is bad enough that the world seems obsessed with self-help and self-fullfillment from fitness to beauty, and relationships to success in business. Yet there are those claiming to be ministers of the Gospel who teach such nonsense as saying that if you have enough faith and don't sin you can have a wonderful happy, healthy and wealthy life.

I read that Joel Osteen's book "Your best life now" sold over 3 million copies and his second book "Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day" sold over 4. How sad that so many can be deceived. Do they even read their Bibles? Consider Joseph - he was sold into slavery by his brothers then imprisoned for years due to a false accusation. Or Jeremiah who was imprisoned in a dried-up well. Or the apostle Paul who was imprisoned and eventually killed and countless other prophets, priests and men and women of God who suffered for Christ's sake.
"Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth."
(Heb 11)
They didn't get their "best life now" why should we think we should?

What we all need to hear is a call to endurance and selfless living - I know I need to be challenged regularly about this - and the only way we will respond to such a call is by hearing of and delighting in the Lord Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice for our sake. The one who "for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame". Now there's a pattern for life. It won't be easy but it is the only thing that brings true meaning to our lives and provides the strength and hope to endure the storms of life.

Ecclisiates 3 also says that "there is a time ... to speak". Today was such a day.

Monday, 6 February 2012

How can suffering be 'good'?

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8)

3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die - 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5)
I've been considering these two passages in light of each other. I suspect most Christians will find themselves reflecting on Romans 8:28 at various times in their walk. It can be a cause of both encouragement and consternation. Consternation because often when we're in the midst of a trial what we experience feels far from good. Yet encouragement because we know that our great Saviour who endured the ultimate trial so that He could call us according to His purpose is at work for our good in all situations. Since Jesus demonstrated His love for us by dying on the cross for our sin we can be sure that He will never leave nor forsake us and, since we know that God rules over all His creation, we can be sure that the same love is actively at work when God allows suffering and tribulation into our lives. We may not understand what He is doing but we can be sure His motive is love.

Of course, it takes faith to believe all this and that is not always easy when our circumstances and emotions scream for our attention and our doubts and fears seem more real to us than God's promised presence. God may want to use it to develop in me endurance, character and hope but, if I'm honest, I'd rather He did that without me having to suffer! Besides isn't this the wrong way round? I mean, if I must endure suffering, then can't God give me the hope, character and endurance I need first? Then I'd be better equipped to cope with suffering! Why do I have to suffer in order to develop the sort of character that can endure suffering? That sounds like an employer who says you can't have this job without already having experience of doing this job! As if that's not enough, I'm talking about coping but Paul expects us to rejoice in our suffering! You have to be kidding, right? Sometimes God's ways can seem so hard to us.

As I reflect on these verses I have to admit that my experience of rejoicing in suffering is very limited. Naturally, I would rather not suffer at all, but, since scripture tells me to expect it in so many places (e.g. 1 Pet. 2:21) then my goal has to be to endure it well and seek to glorify God through it. It is quite humbling to think how often I have sought to escape suffering rather than embrace it as part of God’s necessary plan of working all things for good. No surprise then that I know little about rejoicing in suffering.

This brings me to why I am considering these two passages together. The problem with Romans 8:28 is what we do with the word 'good'. It is very easy to read into it whatever we want to define as good. Thoughts of a life of comfort and ease may readily come to mind. Certainly it’s hard to think of suffering as being good. Then there's the danger that we may happily endure a season of trail only because deep down, we expect some sort of reward from God in this life. The truth is, it may never come.

So, what is the 'good' of Romans 8:28? And, if suffering is a necessary part of our walk with Christ that is to be embraced, how does suffering work for this good? Drawing from Romans 5 we can see that suffering is a necessary part of being transformed to become more like Christ for it produces character and character in turn produces hope. This hope is a confident trust in Christ. It's a hope that will not disappoint because it’s not based on anything this world has to offer but on the rock solid promises of God. However what I am learning is how hard it is to have this kind of hope when we are also secretly trying to trust in our own performance, seek approval from those around us, control people and circumstances or satisfy the longings of our souls with worldly pleasures. These are all false saviours and gods - idols. Thus any suffering that takes these idols from us is a mercy because it leads us to trust in Christ alone who is our true treasure in heaven.

So one answer to the question how do we rejoice in suffering is because we know that through suffering we will be further stripped of our dependency on the things that we would trust instead of Christ so that we may rest and rejoice in Him alone. Since we were made for God, that is, to find our purpose and satisfaction in Him, all created things are meant to be pointers to lead us to thank and worship Him. The problem is we turn created things into ultimate things that we value above the God who made them. Thus anything which leads us further into the purpose for which we were made and into the loving embrace of the God who is love and who will never reject us and who is the only one who will truly satisfy the longings of our souls is a far greater 'good' than anything else we can imagine. This is a 'good' worth suffering for.

So, in summary, I put these two verses together to remind me that the good I really want is the one that God has planned for me. A good where I am always looking to Him, rejoicing in Him, being satisfied in Him and counting all things as rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. Though this will involve suffering, in fact, it will require nothing less than me dying to all my own selfish fantasies about how my life should go, yet, because God is working that good in me, it will be worthwhile because the ultimate goal, to borrow the language of John Piper, is for God to be more glorified in me through me being more satisfied in Him.

There is a line in the song "It was Your grace" which goes "You stripped me of everything I would depend on, so I’d depend on You". I am realising that this process has a long way to go in me but I have tasted of His goodness and am thirsty for more. May God who gave His son for my sake and who has poured His love into my heart through the Holy Spirit work all things for good in me for the glory of His holy name. Amen.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Union with Christ and hope

Just enjoyed The Plan (Gospel Coalition Booklets) by Colin Smith.

He quotes Martin Luther:

"Faith . . . unites the soul to Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage . . . it follows that everything they have, they hold in common. . . . Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own."

I think there's a danger this analogy can be pressed too far but, for the believer, it could be said that:
  • As Christ is perfect so, in the Father's eyes, are you;
  • As Christ has infinite riches so have you;
  • As Christ is the Father's son with a guaranteed inheritance so are you.
Later in the booklet, when Smith speaks about our common doubts and fears he writes:
"We love Christ, but we feel the pull of the world, the flesh, and the Devil. We trust Christ, but we struggle with many doubts and fears. We have new life in Christ, but at the same time our bodies are subject to sickness, aging, and death.

Christians are a mass of contradictions, but it will not always be so. Your love for Christ will be complete, your faith will be turned to sight, and you will experience the joys of everlasting life in a resurrected body. You will be with Christ in glory forever."

What a hope we have! How easy it is to forget that "I am my beloveds, and my beloved's mine" (Derek Webb).

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Calvin's Institutes - Book 1, ch. 4

Though deep down we know there is a God, we try to supress what knowledge of Him we have - "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" Rom. 1:18). For Calvin, the consequence of this for many is that they "fall away into superstition". Those that "set up a fictitious worship", he warns, "merely worship and adore their own delirious fancies". Or, as Romans 1:22 says, "Claiming to be wise, they became fools".

Not surprisingly, those who will not revere God hate the thought of His justice more than anything else. On the one hand they try to deny it yet on the other, because of the guilt deep within, they imagine they can appease His wrath by doing good deeds of some sort ("a few paltry sacrifices" and "punctilios of no value"). At the same time they will "defile themselves with every kind of vice". In short, says Calvin, instead of fixing their confidence on God, they trust in themselves. The eventual outcome of this is that "they bewilder themselves in such a maze of error, that the darkness of ignorance obscures, and ultimately extinguishes, those sparks which were designed to show them the glory of God".

Yet, in all this, the conviction that God exists cannot be completely extinguished. Calvin demonstrates this by reference to when some great calamity threatens them, those who previously had nothing to do with God, will suddenly resort to prayer in their despair. I am reminded of the saying: there are no atheists on a sinking ship.

Thanks be to God for His mercy for rescuing a God-suppressing, justice-hating sinner like me!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Calvin's Institutes - Book 1, ch. 3

The knowledge of God has been naturally implanted in the human mind.

Everyone, even the most "barbarous" or those in some tribe far from civilisation, have some sense of a deity "indelibly engraven on the human heart" says Calvin and this leaves them without excuse before Him. This is because God has "endued all men with some idea of his Godhead". No matter how much man may harden his heart in hatred against God, this sense of a deity "now and then breaks forth" and "gnaws" at his conscience. Calvin argues that, since we are "born and live for the express purpose of learning to know God" to fail to seek Him is to fail to live in line with the very purpose for which we were made.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Calvin's Institutes - Book 1, ch. 2

What it is to know god and the result of this knowledge.

In Ch. 2 Calvin says that only those who love and revere God will have true knowledge of Him:
"Until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that nought is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity."
How true that is. We will cling so tightly to the slenderest of threads rather than surrender completely to God.

For Calvin, knowledge of God necessarily involves trust and reverence:

If we know that God: We will:

· Governs all things

· Confide in Him

· Trust his faithfulness

· Is the source of every blessing

· Trust His care in any difficulty or need

· Is good and merciful

· Rest in God with supreme confidence

· Has all authority as both Father and Lord

· Love and revere Him

· Aim to glorify Him

· Obey His commands

· Is a just judge who will severely punish all sin

· Restrain ourselves for fear of provoking His anger

· Embrace God as much for His justice as for His mercy

Blogging the Institutes - Book I, ch. 1

The knowledge of God and of ourselves are mutually connected.

It's a new year and I thought it was about time I resurrected the blog. I can't promise how long I will keep it up though. :-)

Having started a few years ago I also thought it was about time I got round to finishing Calvin's Institutes so I decided to use the blog to record memorable quotes and reflections along the way.

Calvin begins with the thought that without knowledge of self we cannot really know God. It is only though an awareness of our imperfections that we will seek the one who alone is perfect. We will not seek after God until we are displeased with ourselves he says. I must admit, even as a Christian, I find this principle still at work in me all too often. How easily we think ourselves to be God!

Calvin continues that it is equally true that without knowledge of God we cannot really know ourselves. For,

"Since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white."
Again, I am reminded how easily we will compare ourselves to others and think ourselves not so corrupt. Why do we want to settle for a righteousness of our own instead of resting in the perfect righteousness that is ours by faith in Christ Jesus?