Part 2. What kind of congregation (ecclesia) can effectively journey with God into his world??
According to sociologist Prof. Josh Packard (University of N. Colorado) in his 2015 ‘Church Refugees,’ well over 30 million committed believers in the USA have left the institutional Church in recent years: ‘While everyone’s story is unique, there are some common tensions that emerge among the dechurched. They wanted community… and got judgment. They wanted to affect the life of the church … and got bureaucracy. They wanted conversation… and got doctrine. They wanted meaningful engagement with the world… and got moral prescription.’
Prof. Philip Jenkins (Baylor & Pennsylvania State Universities) in his 2002 ‘The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,’ has argued that the greatest movement of the past century was not communism or capitalism but Spirit-filled Christianity. He estimated that in 20 years, two-thirds of all Christians will live in Africa, Latin America or Asia (because the Bible is alive in these continents). He foresaw, in 20-30 years, a 25% ‘Christian’ China (1).
Oikos Australia reports (Nov. 2021) many traditional churches considering other ways of ‘doing church.’ Oikos promotes simple church, focusing on disciple-making in households and multiplication across the nation. In one town, groups are meeting in the town gardens, reading the Bible and praying together, over a shared picnic lunch. Sounds awfully ‘NT’ to me!?
We have missionary friends in N. India. There also, under the Spirit’s reviving, the Good News is spreading from town to town through small groups of ‘simple’ believers ‘gossiping the Gospel’ and baptizing those newly won to Christ.
Recently I attended a Simply Mobilizing Interface Seminar, which reported that 16,000 believers have undergone their extensive discipleship/church-planting training in the Philippines, with the result that these islands now boast one of the greatest church-planting ‘movements’ in the world. This organization reports that the non-Western world now represents about 80% of all evangelicals world-wide.
Chinese Church Support Ministry confirmed a few weeks ago that the Chinese Church is growing by approx. 25,000 new believers every day.
Back in 2005 Douglas Banister published his ‘God On Earth’: ‘The Church – A Hard Look at the Real Life of Faith.‘ Banister (Gordon-Conwell & University of Tennessee graduate) alerted us to the following:
1) ‘The church is not a machine or an institution. The church is alive, a living cell, organic, chaotic, nonlinear…’ Hmmm…
2) To use a precarious metaphor, the early church was organized like today’s al Qaeda terrorist networks. Contrary to popular opinion there is no ‘one great leader’ coordinating all activity from the top down in such networks. Instead, various cells within the network are interconnected like a spider web. The network has little hierarchy, and there are multiple leaders.
3) We can no longer follow the hierarchical leadership model of the military and corporate world! Personally, I see the Bible preferring an informal ‘plurality of elders’ (cf. Paul’s Pastorals) (function more important than office), leading the body horizontally (rather than top-down) through servant-leaders of Jesus’ ilk: “‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet… servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them'” (Jn. 13:12-17/NRSV) (2 & 3).
I recall with joy my visit to Cote d’Ivoir in West Africa some years ago. I had taken a team to meet with Pr. Dion Robert to learn from his influential cell-based congregation in Abidjan (generally I don’t favour megachurches). He and his elders were the humblest of servant-leaders. Across the front of the huge sanctuary was posted Jn. 13:17,‘If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them!’ [PS, I was privileged to share in a mass baptism (by immersion) of some 250 new, thoroughly-instructed believers. Unforgettable!] Returning to Jn. 13, I’ve seen this servant-leadership increasingly implemented in my own city over a few decades. Years ago Leighton Ford, American pastor and evangelist, called this ‘leading from within.’
How does the contemporary, largely nominal Church get to discipling all ethne? I humbly submit via repentance, revival, reformation and radical following of Jesus. It’s an historical fact that all true revival/reformation has sprung from penitent intercession of young and old, even on the part of a few (Cf. Archives Nov. 14, 2018 on ‘Revival’). By our obedience we can, under God, make a world of difference. I vividly recall meeting Happy (real name) in N.W. China. A grandmother from the USA, she chose to spend much of her time in a key university city. Almost every day she made her way up the mountain to intercede for the children living below. I was so moved by her example that I (prophetically?) called her ‘the mother of nations’ – she burst into tears, humbly accepting my accolade. On my desk there is a pink-and-white veined stone taken from Happy’s mountain. Another team member team related an experience in a Buddhist temple, where a young child followed him all over, repeatedly jumping into his arms while laughing merrily: hereby God showed him the future openness of the younger generation to the Good News!
It’s a ‘given’ that it is Christ himself who builds his Church (Mt. 16:18). Just maybe that’s precisely what he’s doing in our present world, doing it his/the early Church way? My beloved colleagues in traditional congregations agree that, following Covid, ‘church’ can never be quite the same again and that smaller is often better.
Concerning penitent intercession, may I challenge you to begin by gathering regularly with a few ‘simple’ but serious believers in interceding for God’s Church in these momentous days?? John Wesley reminded us that God does nothing redemptively, except through prayer (consider your own redemption!)
[Please look out for Parts 3& 4 of our Missio Dei series and check the footnotes below]
(1) Cf. email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org Cf. TIME’S David Aikman and his ‘Jesus in Beijing’ (publ. 2006)
(2) The academically-minded, cf my MTh Dissertation,“Toward A ‘Reincarnation’ Of Church In The Twenty First Century: The Re-Emergence Of ‘House Church.” Many helpful books on ‘organic church’ are available, e.g. Frank Viola’s ‘Finding Organic Church,’ ‘Re-Imagining Church,’ ‘Pagan Christianity’ (co-authored with George Barna), etc.
(3) Cf. Wayne Jacobsen’s ‘Can Institutions Be Redemptive?’ Blog Lifestream.
[My fellow-bloggers, my comments on the blogs I follow seem to disappear into spam, please note]
Well-known evangelist, Rebecca Manley Pippert, reminded us recently that (a) no matter how secular or hostile to Christianity our culture may be, it doesn’t have the power to erase the creational longings God has placed in all humans for meaning, love, purpose, identity, connection and belonging. (b) Recent studies (Barna/etc) have also shown that a majority of Americans are willing to have conversations about Jesus, as long as Christians listen respectfully to their story. (c) She also asks why many Christians, who sincerely believe the Gospel, often struggle to talk about it? She suggests one reason is that we’re too focused on ourselvesin evangelism: the solution is to rely on the Spirit’s strengthin our weakness. We lay far too much importance on our skills and gifts (or lack thereof) and not enough on God himself! (1)
Which takes us back to PART 1 of ‘A Gospel Worth Gospeling.’ We proceed with Rom. 1…
V. 2-3 refer to Jesus’ OT roots, which are important as he comes in fulfillment of the OT story of God and Israel. F.F. Bruce points out that while this was indeed a valid element in the earliest Christian preaching (e.g. Jesus didn’t refuse the title of ‘Son of David’ ascribed to him), Christ himself appears to have laid no particular weight on it: v. 2-6/MSG,‘The sacred writings contain preliminary reports by the prophets on God’s Son. His descent from David roots him in history; his unique identity as Son of God was shown by the Spirit when Jesus was raised from the dead, setting him apart as the Messiah, our Master. Through him we received both the generous gift of his life and the urgent task of passing it on to others who receive it by entering into obedient trust in Jesus. You are who you are through this gift and call of Jesus Christ!’ There you have it, Christ’s chief identity, and ours who trust in him. This flies in the face of so much proselytizing by often self-isolating ‘Hebrew Roots’/’Sacred Name’ followers (especially among white Afrikaners in my home country). One facebook group promoting ‘HR’ urges all Christians to learn Hebrew (I scraped three years at seminary, phew!), their website trumpeting ‘7 Hebrew words every Christian should know. With the use of the Hebrew language God revealed himself to mankind!’ Hello? Is that not only half the story of God’s self-revelation? Was not the whole NT written in Greek for the sake of the Gentile nations and the rest of the world? (2)
Back to the resurrection… there have always been those who insist on signs and wonders in order to believe God: “The Pharisees and Sadducees [the latter didn’t believe in the resurrection] came to Jesus. In order to test him they asked for a sign from heaven. But he replied, ‘At evening you say, ‘It will be nice weather because the sky is bright red.’ And in the morning you say, ‘There will be bad weather because the sky is cloudy.’ You know how to make sense of the sky’s appearance. But you are unable to recognize the signs that point to what time it is. An evil and unfaithful generation searches for a sign. But it won’t receive any sign except Jonah’s sign.” (Mt.16:1-4/CEB). In the mercy of God, humanity would in fact get one more sign: ‘just as Jonah was in the whale’s belly for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights…’ (Mt. 12:38ff). Jesus thereby affirmed that he would suffer and die, and on the third day rise again – the only sign humankind would ever need. It marks Jesus as God’s Son, sent from heaven to rescue us and share his eternal life with us both now and in the world to come. That constitutes ‘The Good News!’
V. 15-17 further define this glorious gospel we are called to convey: “It’s news I’m most proud to proclaim…’ NT scholar FF Bruce reminds us that “I am not ashamed” is a figure of speech called ‘litotes,’ meaning that Paul actually glories in the Gospel and counts it the highest honour to proclaim it… ‘this extraordinary Message of God’s powerful plan to rescue everyone who trusts in him, starting with Jews and then right on to everyone else! God’s way of putting people right shows up in the acts of faith, confirming what Scripture has said all along: ‘The person in right standing before God by trusting in him really lives!'” Paul goes on to expound ‘justification by grace through faith’ in Rom. chapters 3-11.
[NT specialist Prof. NT Wright has rightly referred us to the alternate Greek rendering of Gal. 2:19b-20/NRSV, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith OF the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ That opens up a whole new perspective, doesn’t it?!]
This Gospel isn’t difficult to understand – I (with minimal Christian background) grasped its essentials as a 14-year-old teen with a baptism of glorious joy and assurance by faith in Christ. Eph. 2:8 flashed into the mind of this teen who was trying to earn his way to eternal life. Together with this experience came a life-long call to Gospel ministry wherever God would lead. I veered from the path somewhat in my high school years, but at age 21 it once more exploded in my heart and mind. Fifty+ gracious years later I’m still proud of the Gospel of Jesus Christ… are you?? And your congregation?? If not, the Gospel deserves urgent attention, both personally and corporately.
(1) Leonard Ravenhill: ‘Revival tarries because evangelism is so highly commercialized… because of cheapening the gospel…because of carelessness… because of fear… because we lack urgency in prayer… because we steal the glory that belongs to God.’
(2) See my archives for an exposition of Galatians 3 (April 18th 2020), under the heading ‘Crazy Christians!’ (that’s what Paul called those who tried to add to the Gospel) Notice Generation Z’s current experience of God’s heaven-sent love, shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Witness the move of the Spirit on many USA campuses, started among praying and love-hungry students at Asbury University in Kentucky. Perhaps read Rom. 12:9-20 (from a good paraphrase if possible): it was this passage, under God, that first sparked the fire at Asbury.
[FOLLOW THIS UP WITH THE REQUESTED ‘Q&A’ BELOW – PERHAPS AFTER A GOOD COFFEE BREAK OR LATER IN THE WEEK…]
Under the COMMENTS SECTION OF PART 1, a good friend of mine enquired about ‘The person or things I identify as taking over the place of Christ at the centre’… as a very experienced pastor I’m jolly sure he knows the answers better than I do! You’re welcome to add your own list, bro. Ed.
[As David Bolton has reminded us in his last few blogs, believers are called to declare and display to all creation the absolute need for Christ to be the exact centre of everything. We are to be God’s prophetic voices in this matter. David warns us that, failing to do so, will inevitably lead the Church into disunity, imbalance (doctrinally and behaviourally), impurity, etc. David mentions the example of the divided and immoral Corinthian church as a result of leadership idolatries. (cf. 1 Cor. chapters 1-3; Eph. 4:11-15 and 5:27)]
(1) First (imho) some things to avoid like the plague (as believers/communities/leadership)…
(a) Any self-exalting ego-spirit after the pattern of Lucifer (Is. 14). How many leaders today (here we must own up ourselves) have been guilty of subtle self-promotion in the Body: note our leadership styles, superior attitudes, neglect of unsolved personality issues, etc. Many today come across as outright narcissists! I attend two inter-denominational fraternals for the sake of keeping in touch with the wider Body. In a city-wide Fraternal (about 100+ pastors) I’m regularly disappointed by the self-importance of some leaders looked up to as ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets,’ etc. During a recent over-breakfast prayer session, one megachurch pastor was busy with his cell phone without pause for virtually the whole allotted time – wink, I often pray with my eyes open! As we know, power without character is a perennial danger to any leader.
(b) AW Tozer in his classic ‘The Divine Conquest’ used to speak of ‘self-sins.’ We did an edifying study-series on this subject in our house church last year. At a glance you can find a list of these self-sins in Gal. 5:16-21. Note, as one who pastored denominational congregations for 38 years, I’m painfully aware of my own failures as a church leader in this regard. Thus it’s essential for all of us to pursue a Spirit-filled life on a daily basis (Eph. 5:18-20). We expect our members to do so, why not ourselves?
(c) Imho, any complicated church system, including clergy-laity divides and titles (I believe with many, that biblical leadership titles describe gifting and function rather than status and office) should be avoided as far as possible. After leading institutional churches for decades, 16 years ago God sovereignly engineered our exit to engage in what has become known as ‘organic church’ or ‘simple church’ (cf. Frank Viola’s ‘Finding Organic Church’: ‘By organic church, I mean a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of being constructed by human programs. Organic church life is a grassroots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (as opposed to pastor-to-pews services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering’ [some of my readers may not agree with the above – I respect that, as long as one has diligently searched the Scriptures through ‘Jesus-lenses’ for a biblical eccesiology) (What’s more, there’s room for preaching/teaching as God leads: in our house church we have scripture expositions by gifted leaders on a regular basis). I’ve just watched a video-clip of the Asbury revival worship with just a piano leading – totally spontaneous yet under the control of the Spirit – powerful, yet sweet. Wolfgang Simson of ‘Houses that Change the World ‘ renown, mentions house groups currently developing in Sweden and Germany of all places, with conversions from every ‘ism’ you can think of. These converts are getting baptized and following hard after Jesus. This is besides the multiplying underground house groups in Iran and China – I’ve personally witnessed this phenomenon in China/Tibet on two occasions] (1)
(d) On a national level, we must avoid the idolatry of power, materialism, party politics, national exceptionalism, etc (in the USA, Africa and South Africa). Cf. Prof. Walter Brueggemann on Idolatry/ ANNOTATE below…
Brian Zahnd put it this way recently, ‘The kingdom of the heavens inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ cannot collaborate with the empires of this world. The empires of this age are predicated on violence – their capacity to wage war. The kingdom of Christ is predicated on the resurrection alone.’
(e) Obsessions with church leaders, ancient and postmodern [with respect, this includes Archbishops, the Pope, et al] While our spiritual heroes have much to commend, our life should not be dominated by any one of them. I have a friend who worships at home every Sunday (and during the week) by watching a particular American megachurch superstar pastor perform. Another friend has got stuck with Calvin’s Institutes written 500 years ago. Somehow church members are always looking for a ‘Guru’ of one kind or another.
(f) False ‘gospels’ like the ‘prosperity gospel,’ obsession with a particular spiritual gift among the many denoted in the OT and NT, etc. I.o.w. avoid poor doctrine and experience. ‘The hardest thing in the world is to keep balanced’ (Prof. Maxwell, decades ago at Prairie Bible Institute in Canada). Included here are Jesus ‘plus’ or ‘minus’ false gospels. Christ alone is supreme and necessary.
(2) Positively, we are called by the Gospel to pursue Jesus at all costs, until he returns. Here the oft-neglected Letter to the Hebrews is key. Only those who persevere to the end, will be saved. It’s about ‘costly grace,’ as Dietrich Bonhoeffer testified during WW2. Cf. Mk. 8:34. Rom. 5:5, ‘This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us!’ (CEB).
In closing, with regard to humility, here’s a little parable from the biography of singer Keith Green in the early 1980’s. Keith was singing to a crowd of 4,500 students, mainly from Oral Roberts University. As he sat down at the piano, he announced ‘Tonight we’re gonna speak about holiness.’ Sin was anything that caused a loving God pain. Using Bible characters he became specific re typical student sins. He made an altar-call of sorts, calling for repentance. Unexpectedly hundreds of students streamed forward to confess their sins, filling the stage and pressing right up against the piano. As the stage filled, they started kneeling and lying face down everywhere in the hall. Some 2500 of them. Keith wasn’t even looking at the audience, just quietly worshiping, then weeping and praying out aloud for the presence of the Spirit while confessing that he was nothing without God. Folk began to confess out aloud things like gossip, fornication, drug-abuse, etc. In the mean time Keith had crawled under the nine-foot grand piano – he wanted to ‘get out of the way’… (as I read this, I had to chuckle) Soon he felt God had done his work, crawled out from under the piano and announced the closing song. Today we all know of his incredible passion for revival and mission. He passionately pursued personal holiness and mission until the day he died in a private plane crash at the age of only 28. ‘Less of self, more of Thee!’
(1) The campus pastor at Lee University in the US testified a few days ago how the student revival on their campus has been marked by spontaneous prayer, repentance, public baptisms, love for God and one another, etc – all this without any prompting or organization from the university leadership. What the students and staff demonstrated was in fact the ‘functional headship’ of Jesus, the spontaneous priesthood of all believers, and the determination to make a difference in society in the most natural way. PS, NT theologian Scot McKnight indicates that both communion and baptism are gospeling events. Of course they are! Our mission team in China celebrated communion carefully but publicly on several occasions, as a sign of Christ’s triumphant Gospel!
At the beginning of 2023 I sensed our house church needed fresh clarity on just what the ‘Gospel’ is we need to be proclaiming and living. Coincidentally my son sent me an article by one of my favourite NT scholars, Prof. Scott McKnight of Northern Seminary, on ‘Gospeling the Gospel in Acts.’ ** Quote, ‘The task of evangelism (‘gospeling’) is no less demanding and difficult today than it was in the time of Peter and Stephen and Paul. It is also in need of creative adaptations to audiences. Perhaps what we need more of is the boldness (Acts 2:29; 4:13, 29, 31; 28:31) that came upon them through a fresh blowing of the Spirit. Perhaps the absence of resurrection theology in much of gospeling today is to blame for the lack of boldness. We need to recover more of the early resurrection gospel and we need less of the theodicy-like focus Anselm and the Reformers gave to atonement theories…’
‘There was a time that one thing all orthodox Christians generally agreed on was the gospel. But issues have arisen in the last generation that has shifted so many factors that the gospel itself is in need of careful clarification and even re-examination… as Protestants we want to go back to the Bible and see how the earliest Christian gospelers understood the gospel.’ *** Hence my interest in Rom. 1.
A little background to Rom. 1. The author was born a Jew in Tarsus in the Roman Province of Cilicia (modern S. Turkey, where the tragic earthquake took place recently). A zealot for the Law, he traveled to Jerusalem to study under the great Rabbi, Gamaliel. As a student, he zealously persecuted Christians near and far, and was present at the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7). Then followed his revolutionary conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Next he spent 3 years in ‘Arabia’ (Gal. 1:17) ‘digesting’ the very essence of the Gospel revealed to him. Now a radical believer, he set out on several missionary journeys to Asia Minor and Greece. He wrote Romans toward the end of his third missionary journey from a convert’s home (Gaius) in Corinth, Greece. Paul was planning to ultimately get to Rome (Italy) and Spain, in order to disciple the many new believers converted at Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and through his personal ministry of the Word in many places. To him Rome was ‘key,’ constituting the heart of the Roman Empire, with a population of one million in a very small area, of which 40-50,000 were Jews and the rest Gentiles. While some of these new believers gathered in local synagogues, they operated mainly in ‘house churches’ (cf. F.F. Bruce) such as that of his good friends, Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3-5). Paul eventually got to Rome after appealing to Caesar following his arrest in Judea. He arrived there in 60 AD, welcomed by an entourage of believers along the Via Appia. He used his two-year house-arrest to evangelize hundreds of guests, Jew and Gentile, who came to his abode. Sadly, he was eventually beheaded by Caesar Nero on the road to the seaport of Ostia.
Now to our text, introducing the very essence of the Gospel.
In v. 1a the apostle introduces himself as ‘a servant of Christ Jesus.’ ‘Servant’ = ‘doulos’ = ‘a bondslave.’ As such, he is totally at his loving Master’s disposal. You may recall Exod. 21:1ff, the process whereby a Hebrew male slave would serve his master for six years. “But in the seventh year, he will go free without any payment. If he came in single, he will leave single. If he came in married, then his wife will leave with him. If his master gave him a wife and she bore him sons and daughters, the wife and children will belong to the master. He will leave single. However, if the slave clearly states ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children, and I don’t want to go free,’ then his master will bring him before God. He will bring him to the door or doorpost. There his master will pierce his ear with a pointed tool, and he will serve him as his slave for life.” These days, many believers, redeemed by the costly blood of Christ, claim his blessings but at the same time choose to live their life on their own terms. Recently I heard a ‘believer’ saying at the dinner table about life in general, ‘I want to know what’s in it for me!’
In v. 1, Paul describes his calling ‘to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God…’ I.e. to be Christ’s special emissary, specifically set apart for the ‘gospel of God.’ Believers today, having in the last century been brainwashed by well-meaning evangelists, especially in the West, to understand the Gospel in very anthropocentric terms rather than theocentric terms, have to stop and ask themselves, ‘Exactly what is the Gospel??’ Simply Jn. 3:16, without reading v. 18ff? Paul in his Galatian Letter wrote that the Gospel was ‘sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father’ (1:1). Gal. 1:1 continues to speak of ‘God, who set me apart from birth (note!) and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him to the Gentiles…’ – i.o.w. God had from eternity ordained him, with all the gifts of his rich heritage (Jewish/Graeco-Roman), with a view to one thing viz. heralding the Gospel of God revealed in Father, Son and Holy Spirit! ‘Euangellion’ = ‘God’s joyful proclamation of the victory and exaltation of His Son + the consequent amnesty which men and women may enjoy through faith in Him’ (F.F. Bruce). Back in the OT the immediate context was Israel’s impending release from the Babylonian exile as referred to by the prophet Isaiah in 40:9, 52:7, 60:6, 61:1-4, etc: ‘”How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of a messenger who proclaims peace, who brings good news, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God rules!'” (52:7/ CEB) We don’t serve some wishy-washy God, a glorified Father Christmas figure who smiles benignly at sin and says ‘Well, boys will be boys!’ Our God is none other than the Almighty One, the Holy One, the Merciful One. In the NT the ‘Good News’ indicates the message whereby ‘believers’/’obey-ers’ are radically redeemed from the spiritual bondage of sin, the flesh and the devil, and this ‘redemption’ is procured by the crucified and risen Christ! He is Saviour and majestic Lord! By now you will have heard of the spiritual awakening at Asbury University (Kentucky/USA), with staff and students worshiping, reconciling and praying non-stop. The worship is described as permeated with a great sense of love (vertical and horizontal), peace, transcendence, and an unusual hunger for God himself! ****
N. American David Bolton blogs under ‘Christ-Centred Christianity.’ His latest post is headed, ‘Spiritual Eccentricity.’ I.e. Christ needs to be absolutely central to all our thinking and experience, individually and as faith communities. He suggests the metaphor of a wheel rim around an absolutely central axis. Thus Christ-centredness ‘comes into existence or someone takes on greater significance, centrality, and pre-eminence, than God’s ordained centre, Jesus Christ. If the latter, it brings nothing but disunity, diminishment, distortion and defilement!’ He refers to this as a kind of ‘Spiritual Law.’ Spot on!
** Scot McKnight is professor of NT at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lisle, IL. Interestingly he is an ordained Anglican with ‘Anabaptist leanings.’ He holds a PhD from Nottingham University where he studied under the renowned Prof. James Dunn.
*** The Apostle Paul preaches an essentially ‘resurrection Gospel,’ as we can see repeatedly in Romans: 1:4 & 9; 4:24-25; 6:4-5 & 9-11; 7:4-6; 8:9-11; 10:8-11. Cf. his lengthy exposition in 1 Cor. 15!
**** Many around the world are critical about this ‘move of the Spirit.’ Time will tell. Personally I am positive about it because of its emphasis on repentance and reconciliation. The worship continues non-stop as I write. I am familiar with the 1970 move of God at Asbury Seminary, which impacted the nation as student-evangelists spread out across the USA. That was a genuine move of God based on the Gospel of God, I trust the University move will be the same. It started without dramatics, just a teaching series from Rom. 12 on the outworking of the Gospel in the lives of believers.
JOIN ME FOR PART 2 OF THIS MINI-SERIES SOMETIME SOON!
If we are to find true contentment, my thesis is that such can only be found outside of ourselves through a relationship with the Almighty God of the Bible. Hence we have to ask ‘Is GOD content in himself?’ Looking at the Scriptures and history of the Early Church, there has emerged a teaching called God’s ‘Perichoresis’ or ‘divine dance’ (cf. symbol above) (smile, born with two left feet, I’ve always had an aversion to dancing). Perichoresis refers to the mystical, perfect and intriguing inter-relationship within the Trinity. It is a cyclical movement, capturing reciprocity and inter-penetration. I.o.w. all three Persons occupy the same divine, inter-acting ‘space’ shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit (cf. early Church Fathers and the Nicene Creed). A vital point here is that God is sufficient in himself, independent of anything/anyone outside of himself – this has been called his ‘aseity.’ I conclude that God is totally content within himself, that ultimately he does not need our company, though in outrageous mercy and grace he has chosen our poor company and included us in his creative and saving dance on earth!
The question I’ve had to pose myself is, am I truly content with God alone and who I am in and through his Son? You might here want to ask yourself if you’re content, and if so, how contented you are in this world, and whether that contentment is in the Lord God alone?? Two things inspired me to ask the question of myself. The first was following five years of serious ill-health. The second was the recent two-week visit of our youngest daughter who with her family had emigrated to New Zealand some years ago. Lyndall shared our cramped retirement cottage, bedding down on a mattress on the lounge floor, happily, contentedly, blessing us as parents with her sunny disposition and the presence of God himself! I need to explain that in New Zealand folk generally are not as competitive as we are in our country, few feel the need to ‘prove’ anything, their houses on the whole are much simpler and functional than ours, etc. Our daughter’s siblings here in South Africa, God be praised, like Lyndall are all minimalists given to simplicity of attitude and life. What a ball they had!
Turning to Scripture, our local house church recently took an in-depth look at 1 Tim. 6:3-10, where the Apostle Paul gives guidelines to his pastoral supervisors Timothy and Titus concerning the matter of believers’ contentment within a surprisingly materialistic context. He wrote against the backdrop of false believers who were infiltrating their midst and teaching that godliness is actually a means to financial gain: ‘There is constant bickering between people whose minds are ruined and who have been robbed of the truth. They think that godliness is a way to make money!’ (v. 5/CEB).
This of course we recognize today in the worldwide ‘prosperity gospel’ heresy especially in the West but also rife in our poverty-dominated continent of Africa! This has seduced many ‘Christian’ leaders and congregants alike. Generally it’s evidenced in an obsession with power, control, money, earthly comforts, passing pleasures and personal happiness – all this in a world where 80% of the population is poor and young. It can poison the most unlikely persons including Christian celebrities. We S. Africans recall the personal tragedy of the renowned ‘Christian’ Proteas cricket captain, Hansie Cronje. After much media hype he tearfully admitted in a law court to accepting monetary bribes from different cricketing power groups to ‘lose’ certain pivotal matches. Apparently he had a reputation for stinginess among the players, a millionaire who never offered to buy his compatriots the traditional after-match drink or such-like. Tragically he was killed in a cargo plane crash in the Southern Cape, leaving a devastated family and nation. In recent years I’ve personally had to deal with other issues, like academic achievements (a cherished PhD), personal and kingdom ambitions, unfulfilled future plans amid frail health, physical and material comforts with a hopelessly inadequate pension fund, etc. All/some of these can easily lead to a spirit of discontent even as a committed Christian. Maybe you can relate to at least some of these subtler temptations? It was Henri Nouwen who said that God turns some of our ‘wishes’ into ‘waitings.’ That’s not so easy!
Paul’s main conclusion in our text passage is that the secret of contentment is ‘godliness:‘ ‘Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy with what you already have’ (6:6). Elsewhere (2 Tim. 3:1ff) he had warned his readers that ‘the last days will be dangerous times. People will be selfish and love money. They will be the kind of people who brag and who are proud. They will slander others, and they will be disobedient to their parents. They will ungrateful, unholy, unloving, contrary and critical. They will be without self control and brutal, and they won’t love what is good. They will be people who are disloyal, reckless and conceited. They will love pleasure instead of loving God. They will look like they are religious but deny God’s power. Avoid people like this…’ Ouch! Note it’s not money that’s the problem, but the love of it: 6:9-10, ‘But people who are trying to get rich fall into temptation. They are trapped by many stupid and harmful passions that plunge people into ruin and destruction. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal.’
The apostle’s overall conclusion is that the secret of contentment is godliness (Christ-likeness). V. 6, ‘Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy (content) with what you already have.’ To clarify and apply, we can isolate four critically important matters for every believer/faith community:
The importance of a simple life. As grandparents we pray daily for our children and six grandsons – the latter, particularly, are being bombarded (as you well know) by daily media given to materialism, hedonism and instant gratification. We can’t police them as parents or grandparents, but we can live Christ-like and ever prayerful lives as an attractive alternative.
The importance of good teaching. Paul has already referred to poor doctrine in 1 Tim. 6:3ff and 2 Tim. 3:1ff and the destructive consequences. Here prayerful listening and intelligent Bible-reading is vital.
The importance of humility.V. 7-8/NRSV, ‘For we brought nothing into this world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing we will be content with these.’ The NRSV underlines the importance of humility in our stance toward God our Creator and Father!
The importance of life-long learning. I.e. in all the up’s and down’s of the Christian life. Cf. Paul’s personal testimony in Phil. 4:10ff, ‘I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it). I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength…’ Imagine the powerful and winsome combined witness in the world of tens of thousands of contented communities!
At the end of the day, contentment/happiness is a choice! You know the story of the puppy who chased his tail endlessly, until he realized that if he just got on with the job of growing up to be a healthy and mature doggy, happiness would follow him everywhere he went! (1)
(1) Over many years I was able to use as counseling tool Christian psychiatrists Dr.’s Minirth and Meier’s ‘Happiness Is A Choice.’ If you can find a copy somewhere, it’s a worthwhile companion.
American theologian and philosopher of L’Abri fame in the Swiss Alps, Francis Schaeffer, asked long ago, in the light of the rise and decline of Western culture, ‘How should we then live?’ We ask the same question decades later concerning Christian living in a rampant libertine culture. Jude reminds us in v. 17, “… remember the words spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, ‘In the end time scoffers will come living according to their own ungodly desires…'” (CEB). Then in v. 20ff Jude gives us God’s five-fold strategy for faithful living in a secularized world. ‘But you, dear friends…’ :-
‘Build each other up on the foundation of your most holy faith…’[cf v. 3, ‘I… urge you to fight for the faith delivered once and for all to God’s holy people.’] What did Jude mean by ‘most holy faith?’ It referred to the unique Christian revelation, handed down by the apostles to the Church of all ages. From other NT references it’s clear that this faith required some study (Acts 2:42), in order for believers to grow in faith and be of use to others (Heb. 5:11-14). This faith, outlined in the Bible and fulfilled in Jesus, is ‘holy’ because it is ‘utterly different,’ entirely set apart from all others and beautiful. ‘It is unique in the message it teaches and in the moral transformation it produces’ (Michael Green). You and I today need to read the Bible text in a Christo-centric way, in dependence on the Holy Spirit and in the communitas of fellow believers. How many Christians in the West still do that? I submit a small minority! The ugly consequences are there for all to see…
‘Pray in the Holy Spirit…’v. 20. For the battle against false teachings is not won purely by argument but by revelation in answer to prayer: cf. Eph. 1:14ff; 2 Cor. 10:3-5. Today many ‘come of age’ Christians’ have given up on prayer, just like the libertines of Jude’s day. But to outrun the scriptures and prayer is to outrun Christianity (M. Green). Followers of Jesus have the Holy Spirit within, in contrast to the false teachers of Jude’s day (v. 17-19) and their post-modern counterparts. As to ‘praying in the Holy Spirit,’ most Bible students agree that it does not refer primarily to ‘speaking in tongues’: Rom. 8:18ff sheds some light, v. 26-27 (NLT), ‘And the holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.’ The wordless sighs and groanings of a humbled heart mean so much to the Father and are surely signs of ‘praying in the Spirit!’ In summary, the person led by the Holy Spirit in his/her prayers as in all else, certainly prays in the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who brings us into relationship with the Father as ‘Abba’ (Rom. 8:15).
‘And keep each other in the love of God…’ v. 21. It was God’s love that first drew us to him, and now we need as a body to remain within that unique love at all times. God’s love is always present with us, but we can cut ourselves off from it by disobedience! (1 Cor. 13 addresses the divisive Corinthian believers). I.o.w. believers must at all times cultivate, in company with one another, their love-relationship with God. As the false teachers demonstrated in Jude’s time, it’s possible to turn one’s back on the love of God. Jesus indicated that ‘abiding in’ God’s love is dependent on keeping his commandments (Jn. 15:9-10). [NB, as ecclesia we cannot separate the word ‘love’ (so easily bandied about today) from the Person of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice. Love in its essence is at all times cruciform. Sadly today’s society and much of the Church has divorced ‘love’ from history and eschatology (‘the end things’): resulting in mere sentiment and do-goodism]
‘Wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will give you eternal life…’v. 21. This means to keep God’s bigger kingdom-picture in mind at all times. Jude’s assemblies had to keep alive in their hearts the fire of Christ’s return and hope. When too much attention is paid to future hope, believers tend to become so other-worldly that they are not of much use in this world. However, if the future hope is soft-pedalled, the Christian faith becomes a mere religious adjunct to social services. Christians become irrelevant, discouraged and irresponsible.
‘Have mercy on those who doubt. Save some by snatching them from the fire. Fearing God, have mercy on some, hating even the clothing contaminated by their sinful urges…’ v. 22-23. It is of God’s mercy that we are not consumed. Even ‘man come of age’ cannot survive without God’s mercy, manifest on the Cross. ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’ (Lk. 18:13) is our cry at all times. To reject this, is colossal arrogance and raw rebellion on our part.
So wrote CT Studd (1860-1931), English international cricketer, Cambridge graduate, millionaire and missionary to China, India and Africa. What he wrote, he lived (1). We all have to give attention to those in danger of being excluded from the kingdom of God. Surely those who’ve experienced God’s mercy must be merciful to others. When our friends are still in two minds, that’s the time to humbly but clearly present the inescapable truth to them. Those blase toward the Gospel, need a more direct approach.‘When there is a danger of fire, we hesitate not to snatch away violently whom we desire to save; for it would be not enough to beckon with the finger, or kindly stretch forth the hand!’ (John Calvin) It’s become a cliche, but remains true that we must ‘hate the sin, yet love the sinner’ (a very tricky balance in today’s ‘pc’ world). And as Michael Green reminds us, ‘one of the best ways of discovering the true value of any new theology is to test it in active Christian evangelism.’ Evangelism has always suffered when theology has gone wrong – I’ve asked many a time, where are our Christian witnesses and gifted evangelists (Eph. 4:11ff) today!? still awaiting responses…
My reader, graciously adorn the above biblical principles in your individual/corporate life, remembering that these are useless without our ‘absolute surrender’ (Andrew Murray) to the beautiful Lord of the Church!
And a reminder, what is impossible with humankind (escaping legalism and libertinism) is gloriously possible with the God of the Bible! Note Jude’s magnificent doxology-benediction in v. 24-25 below…
(1) My son, while at High School, wrote Studd’s words on his school satchel. The result was being summoned to the Head Master’s office! As a young adult, my peers and I witnessed in the city square and in down-town cafeterias. Despite our bumbling efforts, there were a few who came to Christ!
In looking at Jude again, I recognized the need for two things:
(a) In addition to correctly interpreting the text of Scripture we must above all allow it to interpret us! I learned this from some of the best Bible students in the world. So whether the text is easy or difficult, we submit to it and thereby to the loving lordship of Christ. He must reign over our minds, conscience and lives. [Rom. 1:18ff warns against the age-old idolatry of worshiping the creature rather than the Creator]
(b) We need to recognize how the world and the Church has been swamped, particularly in more recent centuries, by a subjectivism/relativism that leaves no/little room for any kind of ‘objective truth’ (‘objective’ being a swear-word in many circles today). Hence folk speak of ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth.’ The fact is, truth is both objective and subjective. Lost at sea in a little boat at night, it’s virtually impossible to navigate it to safety in the absence of a lighthouse or clear night sky! Key role-players in this existentialist drift over recent centuries have been people like Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Bultmann, Jacques Derrida and their followers at many universities and seminaries today. They all promote an ‘inward Jesus’ apart from the historic, verifiable Christ and his unique resurrection from the dead (cf. 1 Cor. 15). The celebrated Australian theologian, Prof. Leon Morris (1914-2006), commenting on 1 Tim. 6, put it like this: ‘It is important that we take Christianity for what it is and not impose our own pattern on it, making it what we wish it to be. That is the way of pride(v. 4), the way which in effect means (whatever its exponents may say) that those who put it forth know better than Christ and His apostles. A concern for orthodox teaching does not come simply from an innate conservatism. It comes from a firm conviction that there is a finality about God’s sending of His Son. Men cannot improve on the teaching of the Son God or on that which he committed to his apostles. The apostles bore the definitive witness to Jesus and to reject this is to walk the way of pride and self-sufficiency…’
Back to our text, Jude v. 8-16. The thing that forcibly struck me was the pervasiveness of sin, i.e. humankind’s bias toward self-centredness, idolatry and moral licence since time began. Like a drop of black ink dropped into a tumbler of clear water, the water doesn’t turn midnight-black but has a greyish tinge to it, i.o.w. there is no area of the water where there is no ink. In the opening chapters of Genesis and Romans this pervasiveness is referred to as the ‘fall,’ i.e. from a place of grace and favour at the hand of a good God, revealed in creation, conscience and Jesus Christ.
As Jude points out in v. 8, those who drown themselves in sensual pleasures are ‘dreamers’ – i.e. they are not living in reality but are caught up in a life of worshiping their ego at the cost of moral authority. Thus the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, at the southern tip of the Dead Sea (1), were acting like irrational animals, insulting God’s heavenly messengers sent to his servant Lot, slandering what they did not understand. Note Gen. 19 where they beat Lot’s door down to fornicate with the angels over-nighting in his home (v. 8-10/CEB). And Lot, can you believe it, offered these lusting men his two virgin-daughters, as if the latter’s protection was not as important as that of his angelic visitors! Talk about confusion and twisted thinking. All these people obviously didn’t realize whom they were up against, viz. the deceiver of all humanity and father of lies (v. 9). Of course, many postmodern believers also don’t realize what/whom they are up against, viz a demonized world and the devil himself. Over the years in my ministry on different frontiers in Africa, South America and the Far East, I have encountered frightening occultic powers – I didn’t go looking for demons, they came looking for me! There are many undiscerning Christian leaders who try and take on this ‘evil supernaturalism’ (Michael Cassidy) without proper understanding of the Gospel and the war waged against us as described in Eph. 6:10ff. I’ve witnessed lives and even marriages torn apart as naive leaders have walked where angels fear to tread. I.o.w. beware of the populistic, showman-type ‘deliverance ministry’ we witness on so many platforms today!
Jude goes on to give 3 historical examples of ‘false leaders/shepherds’ misleading God’s people:
Cain. Gen. 4 relates how he killed his brother because of a toxic jealousy, when he was supposed to be his younger brother’s ‘guardian.’
Balaam. Num 22ff relate how this ‘man of God’ dialogued with a pagan king and lusted after his esteem.
Korah. Num. 16:1-50 describe how he and his followers, despite God’s loving overtures, rejected the LORD’s instructions through Moses and succumbed to a violent earthquake.
All three the above had to learn the hard way that no one can mess with the Holy One and get away with it!
These were the kinds of people secretly infiltrating the churches also in Jude’s and the apostles’ time. Just as Jesus in his day exposed the false ‘shepherds’ of legalism in Jn. 10, his brother exposed the false ‘shepherds’ of libertinism! V. 12, ‘These people who join your love feasts are dangerous. They care only for themselves. They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; fruitless autumn trees, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom the darkness of the underworld is reserved forever.’ In recent times we’ve seen the devastation of narcissistic leaders/’shepherds’ in politics (N. America; South Africa; etc) – there are more subtle narcissists manipulating mega-congregations through flattery, charm and empty promises, of which we must beware, dear Bride of Christ! A well-known N. American pastor recently said to his own and the congregation’s rapturous applause, ‘God is busy changing us back to ourselves.’ If only he had read again Jesus’ words in Mk. 8:34 about ‘denying ourselves,’ and the apostle Paul’s words in Rom. 6 about ‘dying to ourselves.’
In a recent dinner conversation, the topic turned to ‘heaven and hell.’ One party defined hell as ‘hell on earth.’ True, but only partially, for it is surely past, present and future, according to Jesus himself. What is sure is that there is a final day of restoration but also of judgment. V. 14-16, ‘See, the Lord comes with his countless holy ones, to execute judgment on everyone about every ungodly deed they have committed in their ungodliness as well as all the harsh things that sinful ungodly people have said against them. These are faultfinding grumblers, living according to their own desires. They speak arrogant words and they show partiality to people when they want a favor in return.’ Are you and I prepared to submit to this clear and present danger, written on virtually every page of the Bible and the pages of history? If not, we’ll have to face the inevitable.
(1) Archaeological evidence tends to place ancient Sodom beneath the shallow waters of the southern tip of the Dead Sea.
According to British theologian J.A. Motyer, many OT and NT scriptures concerning Sodom and Gomorrah became synonymous with brazen, public sins (Is. 3:9; Lam. 4:6; Jude 7). On the other hand Ezek. 16:49-50 lists their inward sins of pride, complacency and lack of compassion toward the poor.
Gen. 19 focuses on sexual perversion, particularly homosexuality. Lot’s vicious offer of his daughters indicates the demoralizing influence of Sodom’s society. Sadly the Church over the centuries has been almost totally insensitive to the issues facing ‘sincere’ LGBTQI+ folk. They face tremendous societal and personal challenges, e.g. their youth are twice as likely to commit suicide compared to heterosexual young people (recent study at University of Georgia). At the same time they are the targets of much brain-washing and lies and being absolved of all personal responsibility before their Creator. There is huge confusion re gay behaviour. In South Africa the LGBTIQ+ family has e.g. come out in criticism of an 18-year-old who has been living as a trans-woman since age 4, who now wants to undergo the rigorous traditional initiation into manhood, camping in the mountains for 4 weeks and undergoing circumcision at the hand of local bush surgeons (hundreds of initiates have died at their hands, due to unhygienic surgery, etc). One LG leader has commented, ‘I don’t understand how one can transition to be a woman and still want to undergo a ritual to become a man. I don’t see how this will help her. It’s complicated!’ (NEWS24) It certainly is! On this topic of homosexuality, I commend the materials of Ian Paul (https://www.psephizo.com) on the Church of England’s gay debate tearing it apart, ex-gay activist Prof. Rosaria Butterfield (YouTube), ex-gay Becket Cook (YouTube), apologist Sean McDowell, and Anna Waldherr’s blog (A Lawyer’s Prayers) headed by the moving testimony of an abuse victim (‘Abandoned Duty of Care to Transgender Youth,’ 23/10/22). I also mention respected Bible scholars who have taken a clear biblical stand on the gay issue, like Dr. John Stott, Dr. J.I. Packer, and in more recent years Dr. Tim Keller and Prof. Tom Wright. RC theologian Henri Nouwen admitted to a same sex attraction, but consciously chose to be celibate ‘for Jesus sake.’
Back in the mid-70’s my newly-wed and I pastored in a small Eastern Cape town of South Africa. It had only one restaurant, named the ‘Galloping Chef.’ The service was so slow we nick-named it the ‘Galloping Tortoise!’ Their piped music often included the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude!’ which I’ve always enjoyed. Hence my title for this little series on the Letter of Jude, written by Jesus’ brother ‘Judah’ (Hebrew) approx. 65 AD (i.e. if Peter quotes him in 2 Pet. 2). The sad bit about the song was that Paul McCartney composed it especially for John Lennon’s 5-year-old son ‘Jules’ (short for Julian, but ‘Jude’ falling better on the ear, according to McCartney). Jules’ father, John Lennon, had abandoned him and his young mother for the artist Yoko Ono. Paul had built a relationship with Jules, John never did.
Jude in his brief letter was addressing scattered believing communities, both Jewish and Gentile or mixed. He was about to explore their wonderful mutual salvation in Jesus (v. 3a) but now felt compelled by circumstances to take on the subtle heresy of libertinism being evidenced in their midst. This libertinism was essentially the old Gnosticism, which minimized bodily/sexual sins as long as the ‘spirit’ was left untainted – an obvious contradiction and impossibility as our personalities are holistic.
This false teaching also flew directly in the face of the absolute, loving lordship of the Master who bought believers out of slavery to self, sin and the enemy (cf. v. 4 (CEB): ‘Godless people have slipped in among you. They turn the grace of God into unrestrained immorality and deny our only master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Judgment was passed against them a long time ago…’ cf. 2 Pet. 2:1, ‘But false prophets also arose among the people. In the same way, false teachers will come among you. They will introduce destructive opinions and deny the master who bought them, bringing quick destruction on themselves.’
Of course we have our share of such free-spirited ‘Christians’ today, those who hold no tension between spirituality and bodily sin – note the multitude of ‘fallen pastors’ and ‘Christian’ politicians in N. America in recent years, and in Africa. On the other hand, this past weekend, 150 people died in S. Korea in a ‘Halloween stampede.’ NBC news reminds us of a huge upsurge of paganism and witchcraft worldwide, including South Africa: here in my city we have had the Nigerian false prophet and alleged multiple paedophile Timothy Omotoso (whose occultic ministry I personally witnessed on one horrible occasion), after years still being held in St. Albans Prison whence he continues to protest his innocence. This in the face of overwhelming witness by teen virgins groomed for his sexual pleasures!
We have to also mention those syncretists who either add to or subtract from ‘the faith once delivered’: witness New Ager Oprah Winfrey’s flirtation with spirit-guides and popular preachers. Add to this the underlying witchcraft (‘evil supernaturalism’ – cf. Dr. Michael Cassidy of African Enterprise), which has manifested wherever AE has been invited to evangelize a key city in our continent. By contrast Jude reminds us to ‘contend for the faith once entrusted to the saints,’ i.e. that body of essential truth built around the person, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This stands in stark contrast to those ‘new revelations’ promoted by ‘Christians’ around the world, e.g. Mormonism (the Bible + the Book of Mormon), cheap grace/prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen and countless others. Canadian theologian Dr. Brad Jersak has for years written about the ‘spiritual deconstruction’ of millions of Christians in North America: he recently wrote, ‘Once a Christianity corrupted by civil religion, consumerism, and clerical abuse is put on trial, the fate of Christian faith hangs in the balance.’
These heresies are nothing new, of course, and are mentioned in various parts of Scripture:
a) Mt. 24:5,24-25. Jesus himself, in talking with his disciples on the Mount of Olives about ‘Signs of the End of the Age’ warned that “Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ.’ They will deceive many people… False Christs and false prophets will appear, and they will offer great signs and wonders in order to deceive, if possible, even those whom God has chosen. Look, I’ve told you ahead of time.’
b) Acts 20:29-31a. The apostle Paul, in speaking to the Ephesian elders, says ‘I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you and won’t spare the flock. Some of your own people will distort the word in order to lure followers after them. Stay alert!’ My wife and I have experienced this in several formal pastorates, despite clear teaching from the pulpit.
c) Rom. 6:1. Again, Paul, in addressing the Roman church concerning ‘Dying and Rising with Christ,’ writes, ‘So what are we going to say? Should we continue sinning so grace will multiply? Absolutely not! All of us died to sin. How we can still live in it?’ [with respect, in certain instances the Reformed Faith, via hyper-Calvinism, has fallen into an emphasis on covenantal grace to the neglect of ‘working it out’ in personal experience (Phil. 2:12-15) in the power of the Lord. Growing up in a nominal Christian home I was baptized as a baby without any understanding/experience of the new birth, faith and cruciform discipleship called for by Jesus himself (Mk. 8:34). How helpful is the whole Letter to the Hebrews on the biblical balance of grace and the pursuit of ‘holiness without which no one will see the Lord!’ (Heb. 12:14)] ***
d) Gal. 5:19-21. Paul reminds the Galatian churches of ‘The Works of the Flesh:’ ‘The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and others things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.’ [how postmodern is this list!]
e) 2 Pet. 2. The apostle Peter is even blunter and more specific concerning the issues above: cf. Part 2 of our series.
We, like our famous African theologian Augustine, need to heed again the child in the garden’s repeated plea, ‘Tolle lege! Tolle lege!‘ Augustine did just that, turned to the Roman Epistle and was saved from a life of debauchery and emptiness. As we pick up our Bibles once more and read them contextually and through the Christ-centred spectacles of his new covenant, we also shall be saved to eternal life and godliness. Then, as someone has said in his commendation of Jersak’s latest publication ‘Out of the Embers,’ we ‘deconstructors’ and the masses disillusioned with ‘church as we have known it,’ shall surely recover and rediscover the imperishable treasure that fire can never destroy but only refine!!
*** See Prof. Leonard Verduin’s (Calvin Theological Seminary) (1897-1999) ‘The Reformers and Their Stepchildren.‘
There is a huge emphasis today on personal ‘confidence.’ Research on the raising of children has shown that saturating them with super self-confidence, e.g. ‘You can do anything, you can achieve anything’ can also set them up for failure when encountering real life and perhaps not gaining the promised/imagined/expected results. We hear the success stories but not the drop-out ones. This is what happens, I believe, when we over-exalt human achievement, reason and ‘success’ in our society.
There is of course a valid and healthy self-confidence, when we recognize that each of us has been created uniquely in the image of God, having been given different gifts according to our Father’s wisdom. If you have parents/mentors who nurture this value, you are most fortunate.
On the other hand there is a self/over-confidence which is built on extreme self-belief and pride. E.g. the (smile) example of South Africans priding themselves on leading the top rugby-playing nations of the world. Traditionally the champions have vacillated between our ‘Springboks’ (type of leaping antelope) and the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ (that’s their uniform).
We recently thrashed the Kiwis in a test-match only to fall prey a week later to over-confidence and succumb before a record crowd of 63,000 at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg. How embarrassing! There’s the example of world-famous Virat Kohli, India’s incredible cricketing batsman, confessing just a while ago that he was suffering from a mental slump in his health, so that he now often feels ‘alone’ in a room full of people. He’s short on runs and his confidence has gone through the floor, the same man who has over many years enthralled hundreds of thousands of people across the globe with his talented captaincy and batting. Think of Steve Jobs of Apple renown:he (understandably) took pride in his magnificent achievements: however before he died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer at the age of 56, he declared that none of his business successes really mattered, the only thing that mattered were relationships and life itself.
Is this not the story of God’s covenant people Israel, repeatedly turning from reliance on GOD to reliance on themselves and the pagan idols of the surrounding nations? Take the account in Judges 6 of Israel being plagued by the Midianites, until God calls one man, Gideon, to stand up and blow the trumpet of truth and call out the nation’s trust in dead idols. The Book of Hebrews chap.’s 2 and 4 emphasize the importance of hearing and obeying God’s Word when he speaks, for he reigns supreme! However in our present Western world we (both society and Church) are ‘thick into idolatry!’ (Walther Brueggemann) We are bound to the gods of military consumerism, greed, fear-driven violence, materialism, exceptionalism (our nation’s enemies are God’s enemies), power and control – only to reap the judgment of a collapsing morality all around us (witness the Russian-Ukrainian war; US gun-violence resulting in the deaths of 12 children every day; etc). And it all starts with the individual, you and me: I’m reminded of the words of William Cowper, ‘The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be, help me to tear it from thy throne And worship only Thee!’ (the hymn is pasted in the opening page of my Bible, but is it pasted in my heart? And yours?) [btw, Brueggemann concludes that the only way to a peacable society is by living the meta-narrative of the Gospel, viz, God’s holiness and neighbourliness]
Then there are assaults on our confidence through personal trials. In my case sickness: I’ve been hospitalized 6 times this year, including for a quadruple bypass with several complications. Beforehand I was issued a pamphlet warning that often males undergoing bypass surgery suffer a collapse of personal confidence during the long recovery period. And yes, it happened in my case! Needless to say, the road back to a healthy self-confidence is a long one and takes constant working on in the power of the Lord. Like the psalmist of old I have to remind myself regularly, ‘Light, space, zest – that’s GOD! So, with him on my side I’m fearless, afraid of no one and nothing. I’m asking GOD for one thing… To live within his house my whole life long. I’ll contemplate his beauty; I’ll study at his feet. That’s the only quiet place in a noisy world, The perfect getaway, from the buzz of traffic.God holds me head and shoulders above all who try to pull me down (Ps. 27:1 and 4ff/MSG). How often, on a daily basis I have to tell myself that my life and circumstances are in the Lord’s hands and that I cannot hasten his healing in my life in the least way.
Thus we all need to build a biblical confidence, learning to confide in GOD as our chief confidant on a daily basis. This is underlined by literally scores of biblical references, including Ps. 27 already referred to, where David addresses some of his personal fears, e.g. personal enemies (like King Saul) seeking his death, etc. But he re-assures himself of ‘living/abiding in’ the LORD’S house (presence) all his days, sure of his defence and protection at all times: ‘But I have sure faith that I will experience the LORD’s goodness in the land of the living…’Hope in the LORD!’ Be strong! Let your heart take courage! Hope in the LORD!’ (v. 13-14/ CEB).
Think of wise King Solomon in Prov. 3: ‘Trust GOD from the bottom of your heart don’t try to figure out everything on your own (how we love to do that). Listen for GOD’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track… ‘(MSG/v. 5ff) ‘The LORDwill be your confidence, he will guard your feet from being snared!’ (Prov. 3:25/CEB)
In the NT, the apostle Paul, having unpacked the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Roman church, rejoiced in the Good News reaching the Gentile world so that they also‘might give glory to God for his mercies to them’ (Rom. 15:9/NLT). In the next few verses, citing the Psalms and the prophet Isaiah, he rejoices in Christ who rules over all and who alone is our abiding hope. “I pray that God, the source of all hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit!’ (15:13/NLT)
My friend, I don’t know where you are in terms of true confidence as you read this, but trust some of the biblical and experiential principles shared from my heart will be, by the revelation of God, of help and blessing to you. Shalom!
The abiding value of Habakkuk’s little prophecy (late 600’s BC?) is that it presents the picture of a man who believes and yet questions. God explains that he has sent the surrounding pagan nations to chastise his people Judah, who despite God’s many mercies insisted in corrupting themselves and yielding to pagan idolatry. The next instrument God would use would be the mighty Chaldeans, who ‘worshiped their own strength.’ Habakkuk’s confidence in God amid trial is vindicated by his towering expression of faith scarcely equaled anywhere else in the OT (cf. 3:17ff).
[Immortality of course belongs ultimately to the living God alone (cf. Ps. 90, etc), it’s not innate to every person born into this world, as for example the ancient Greek philosophers believed]
Human mortality is such a well-supported historical/biblical fact (Genesis to Revelation) and such a daily reality, yet surprisingly, most try and avoid thinking/talking about it at all costs! In the past 5 years I’ve undergone two major, life-threatening surgical interventions, which in a way forced me to get to grips with the reality of my personal mortality. At present I’m still very much trying to cope following quadruple by-pass surgery, accompanied by some on-going complications. My caring wife and I have been so heartened by the prayers of so many – our wholehearted thanks!
One major thing I can share from personal experience is that we need to learn early the lesson of Francois Fenelon and his ilk that the Christian life and service is all about dying to ourselves and embracing Christ’s cross (Mk. 8:34). In reflective times, I’ve had to say to myself repeatedly, ‘your ministry is not about you, Erroll, its about Christ and him alone!’ – therefore surrender all personal ambition immediately and let the glory go to Jesus. By grace there have been some positive results, but ‘ego’ dies hard. I think of the old hymn ‘The Way of the Cross Leads Home:’ this holds true not just for receiving God’s free gift of salvation (Jn. 3:16) but following Christ in true discipleship. (Mk. 8:34)
The other thing I am very slowly learning is that one cannot hasten the purposes of God. For me, at this moment, my main aim is not to become impatient but to be a daily blessing to my wife and family and reflect something of the grace of Jesus to those around me. I’ve not always been successful but hopefully there has been some progress!
In this journey of pain I’ve found that in the ecclesia believers so easily become condemnatory of others who are suffering in one way or another: you know the popular heresy ‘Christians should not feel depressed,’ etc.The reality is there are often doubts and fears that come our way, even as long-standing Christians. I often pray we could embrace a more Christlike God and human Jesus (D. Bonhoeffer). Trite answers don’t help. I’m reminded of the native American who said, ‘Do not judge your neighboruntil you have walked two moons in his moccasins!’
Take for example the need for believers to minister TO JESUS himself: cf. Mt. 25:31-66, where Jesus as the Sovereign, Human One announces the judgment of all the nations which includes a final separation, brought about not by him but folk turning their backs on his Christ-Love. To the latter he dares to say, ‘Get away from me… I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat… thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink… a stranger and you didn’t welcome me… naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me…’ When some query his argument, he replies ‘when you haven’t done it to the least of these, you have not done it for me!’ (v. 41-45, CEB). Hmmm…
We see the same principle in Mt. 26:36ff (‘Jesus At Prayer’ in Gethsemane). Jesus is in deep, personal crisis: socially, emotionally and spiritually. “He said to his disciples, ‘Stay here while I go and pray over there’… ‘I am very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert with me…’ As he undertook to drink ‘the cup of suffering’ he asked the Father three times that he may be spared this torment, to no avail. And all this while his closest friends, whose companionship he was counting on, were repeatedly found wanting. Now it was too late… Would we have acted similarly? If so, Jesus had mercy on the ultimately repentant Peter, and so will he on us if we submit to his Kingship here on earth.
In conclusion, the best way to face our immortality is by being at home with God! Both now and in the future…
I relate the prayer-story of Richard Foster, Quaker theologian and author. In tackling a book on prayer, he was spending endless hours in the university library, late at night on his own. One night he was at the end of his tether and about to abandon his task when something happened! He ‘saw’ something, ‘What I saw was the heart of God, and the heart of God was an open wound of love.’ He heard a voice, that of the true Shepherd: ‘I do not want you to abandon the project. Instead I want you to tell my people, my children, that my heart is broken. Their distance and their preoccupation wounds me. Tell them, tell my children, to come home!’ By this Foster understood that the Father is calling us to turn from all our busyness, striving, pushing and shoving and ‘come home,’ to where we belong, to that for which we were created, home to the loving heart of God! We are to come into his living room, the kitchen, its chatter and batter mix – we are co-labourers with Him, working together for the outcome of events…’ In this interchange, prayer is of course key: hence the book title, ‘Prayer, Finding the Heart’s True Home.’
Is this not what Jesus was teaching in John 15, about the Father’s abiding in us and our abiding in him? ‘Abiding’ refers to being ‘at home,’ with other believers and chiefly with God. ‘Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me… Those who abide in him and I in them bear much fruit… whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers… If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you… If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love…’ (15:1ff/NRSV).
The apostle Paul likewise drives ‘home’ (pun intended) the same metaphor in his Ephesian Epistle, ‘This is why I kneel before the Father… I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith…’ (3:14ff). Dr. Rex Mathie (SA theologian) once equated it to ‘Christ being/feeling perfectly at home in your hearts’ by faith. He must feel perfectly comfortable in every nook and cranny: family life, our bedrooms, relationships, conversation, etc. The point is does he??
In conclusion, what a beautiful reflection of heavenly life we’re given by the prophet Isaiah long before coming of Messiah; take time to read it in Is. 65:17ff; whenever I despair of life on earth, I find it refreshing to ponder this passage from the prophet giving a realistic picture of life in our ultimate abode. Read it at leisure and let your imagination run…
[How do we, under God, grow our faith in him?? My previous post submitted 5 avenues]
Sixth avenue, by putting our faith into action. Dr. Jordan Peterson (below) is a world-renowned Canadian behavioural psychologist and emeritus prof. at the University of Toronto. He’s a high achiever but simultaneously wonderfully in touch with his own and others’ emotions. In recent times he’s abandoned atheism for a journey toward God, weeping at the mere mention of Jesus’ name. Peterson argues cogently and enthusiastically that ‘belief absolutely necessitates acting on it!’
2000+ years ago the apostle James made the same point in writing to scattered, persecuted Christian groups about ‘Listening and Doing’ (I guess most of us are poor at both?). His readers were surely familiar with the many ‘religions’ of the day – James writes concerning a unique, ‘pure religion’ of God the Father: “Don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word but don’t obey it, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it! If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows and refusing to let the world corrupt you’ (1:22-27/NLT) (‘world’ here = the idolatrous, humanistic, egoistic, materialistic society-system of every age). And so we could be long-time professing believers, kidding ourselves about the genuineness of our faith and practice! If so, let’s repent and act, beginning with v. 26-27!
There is need not only for individual repentance but corporate repentance. A week ago News24 in South Africa published an article by Dikeledi Molatoli,‘The Dead Faith of Christian Churches.’ In it he highlighted the SA Council of Churches’ response to one of the deadliest floods ever to hit our country (in Kwazulu-Natal), claiming the lives of some 500 people and leaving 8,000 homeless. The message included condolences and a request to ‘set aside a moment of prayer’ on Good Friday. The author expressed dismay at this inadequate response: not even calling the Church to contribute finances, food, water, blankets, clothing and equipment. All this when the local Islamic ‘Gift of the Givers’ was already on the ground with immediate practical aid, many churches working alongside that organization because of its proven record in SA and abroad. Molatoli then goes on to quote Jam. 2:14ff, ‘”My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? … Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, ‘Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!’? … In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity!” (CEB)
I’m reminded of a powerful, personal encounter with Jam. 1:26-27 many years ago. I attended our annual national ‘Synod’ on the Reef (Gauteng). One of the early speakers was Ds (Pastor) Christo Botes from Belville in the Cape. I remember feeling so disappointed at the turnout, approximately 50 leaders out of a potential 200? He and his flock had been engaging the poor and broken on the streets and under the bridges of their suburb. His text was Jam. 1:26-27, an ‘unusual’ one for ‘evangelicals’? As he shared those brief verses and his congregation’s journey with the needy, the Spirit was powerfully at work. At the conclusion of his message, he made an invitation in the context of James’ definition of ‘true religion.’ Now imho professional pastors can be some of the proudest and self-sufficient people, believe you me! Overwhelmed, I made my way to the front of the meeting place and knelt there weeping. Others joined me, a bit of heaven came down, and I knew I would never be quite the same again – a powerful, living seed was planted within me that day, and grows within me still. [PS, 15 years ago I learned that 80% of our world is young and poor]
While we are all called to this ‘pure religion,’ some of my readers may/will be called to give themselves more fully to the challenge of the poor – some of my younger readers, and even older ones! (I recall visiting the underground church in China and meeting an elderly couple from the West overseeing a home for children with special needs). So let me tell you the story of Craig Greenfield and family (pic below)…
Craig grew up in New Zealand, came from an affluent home, and from his earliest years wanted to be well-off, climb the corporate ladder and drive a really fast car! Then, as a corporate executive, Jesus interrupted his life while travelling in Cambodia. He recognized his Saviour in the distressing eyes of the many orphan children. ‘I realized that Jesus left the most exclusive gated community in the universe to move in among us!’ (see Addendum). He and his wife, a Khmer Rouge refugee, emigrated to Canada. Soon God called them both to plant orphanages in Cambodia, and they moved in among the destitute of that distant land. God gave them much success, under extremely trying and dangerous circumstances. At one point, with their lives in danger, they were forced to return to Vancouver, again moving into an inner city community, this time to create a safe community for addicts and the homeless. Over the years they’ve established ‘Alongsiders International,’ a grassroots youth discipleship-movement spreading into Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond. In fact I’ve just read of their work in Malawi in Central Africa, where thousands of children are starving. [In my own tiny ministry in the slum areas of my city, I have learned from Craig ‘never to do for the poor what they can do for themselves’ – quite a challenge to keep the balance, I can tell you]
All of us need to ensure that we escape the extremely subtle self-interest and materialism of our time, live a simple life, so that we can take care of the vulnerable in one way or another. Bob Goff, NY TIMES best-selling author, lawyer and philanthropist, has challenged comfortable churches and church leaders with these pungent words: ‘If you want applause, join the circus, if you want Jesus, find the poor!’
We’ll never be able to fully plumb the depths of that pivotal scripture, Jn. 1:14, this side of heaven! The apostle John has been speaking about the eternal ‘Logos/Word of God’ moving into our world of time and space at a specific point in history. We need to read the preceding verses, i.e. v. 1-13, to capture the the context of God’s massive self-revelation to humankind: v. 14ff/NLT, ‘So the Word became human (Gr. ‘became flesh’) and made his home among us (lit. ‘pitched his tent among us’). He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son’ (the OT word ‘glory’ carries the idea of weightiness, the NT word that of splendour/beauty). The MSG paraphrases v. 14, ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.’ Here is God’s own expression of ‘true religion!’ How shall we express our faith today?? Please ponder that before moving on in your busy world, and may God be with us all!
HOW do we, under GOD, grow our faith in him?? Let me suggest 6 biblical avenues worth exploring, hopefully avoiding that ‘magic formula’ approach so popular in today’s ‘Church’:
First, by recognizing our helplessness before God and looking to him alone. I refer my readers to Luke’s account of the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals crucified beside him: “One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him, ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, ‘Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise’ (Lk. 23:39-43/CEB). Someone (despite many attempts I’ve been unable to identify the author) has asked very aptly, “How does the thief on the cross fit into your theology? No baptism, no communion, no confirmation, no speaking in tongues, no mission trip, no volunteerism, and no church clothes. He couldn’t even bend his knees to pray. He didn’t say the sinner’s prayer and among other things, he was a thief. Jesus didn’t take away his pain, heal his body, smite the scoffers. Yet it was a thief who walked into heaven the same hour as Jesus simply by believing. He had nothing more to offer other than his belief that Jesus was who he said he was. No spin from brilliant theologians. No ego or arrogance. No shiny lights, skinny jeans, or crafty words. No haze machine, donuts, or coffee in the entrance. Just a naked dying man on a cross unable to even fold his hands to pray.”
More than a century ago 15-year-old Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) was on his way ‘to church’ during a snowstorm in Colchester, England. The blizzard worsened and he decided to shelter in a Primitive Methodist Chapel on the way. The congregation was small, the ‘licensed’ preacher hadn’t arrived, the teenager sat down to hear a ‘layman’ (I don’t enjoy these terms) preach. The preacher kept repeating the words of the Prophet Isaiah, ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else!’ (45:22/KJV) The outcome? Charles simply ‘looked to Jesus’ by faith that day and went on, despite chronic illness and seasons of depression, to become ‘The Prince of Preachers’ and initiator of orphanages for the poor. All of London was plunged into mourning, with 100,000 lining the streets for the funeral procession, flags at half-mast and every pub closed in honour of this man.
Second, by habitual Bible-reading through the lenses of Jesus. His sent-one, the Apostle Paul later wrote to the Roman ecclesia concerning the Jews, “So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news.’ But everyone has not obeyed the good news… So, faith comes from listening, but it’s listening by means of Christ’s message” (10:14-17/CEB).
My wife grew up in an assembly proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. Her mother regularly instructed her girls, ‘Just read the Bible, even if you don’t always understand it.’ I fell in love with the beautiful ‘product’ of that old-fashioned up-bringing, more than 4 decades of happy marriage behind us. I would add, read the Bible even if you have no Christian background. English Professor Rosaria Butterfield of Ohio State University was an outspoken lesbian and gay rights activist for years. She was befriended by a pastor and his wife, hated his preaching, but decided to read the Bible for herself multiple times… she was converted in 1999. She married a pastor, raised a family and is currently an astute apologist for marriage according to the original Creation mandate (cf. YouTube).
Third, by regularly feeding our belief. CS Lewis wrote in his ‘Mere Christianity’, ‘There are three things that spread the life of Christ to us: baptism, belief… and Holy Communion. If you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive. It must be fed!’ At simplest, The Apostles’ Creed comes to mind, i.e. reciting it, thinking about it’s statements and even singing it (cf. Hill Song’s ‘This I Believe’ below).
Fourth, by lovingly ‘gossiping the Good News.’ The story is told of Englishman John Bunyan (1628-1688) of Bedford being powerfully influenced to faith by a few poor women in conversation one day in a doorway. He paused and overheard them speaking of their ‘new birth’ and the Spirit’s indwelling. He listened amazed, painfully aware that he knew none of this. Bunyan, through many spiritual struggles, was eventually converted to bless the world with his ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and 60 other titles! You may protest ‘I’m no Bunyan!’ May I resume the story of my wife: like her mother (the latter sadly died of cancer at 42) who would spontaneously engage with anyone in the neighbourhood concerning her Saviour, she is one of the most ‘natural’ evangelists I know. I can’t tell you how many have entered her nursing clinic over decades, been gently prayed for (with their permission and without wasting her boss’s time), resulting in an amazing harvest of ‘ordinary’ and professional people drawn nearer Christ. Even if you’re not some Bible scholar, never underestimate the power of your personal testimony to Christ and the change he’s worked in your life!
Of course, winsome Christian Apologists (my personal favourite? Prof. John Lennox of Oxford) have a powerful role to play in our post-modern world. However, I believe Swiss theologian Karl Barth was also right when he said:
Fifth, by persistent prayer even in the face of our world’s stubborn unbelief. As one Ukrainian believer reminded the world recently, ‘Prayer is more powerful than rockets!’ To quote Barth again:
I think the notion of mass prayer being somehow more powerful than small group prayer, generally speaking, is a fallacy (I can think of at least one exception, the 1994 mass stadium prayer-gathering in Durban, South Africa, when a peaceful transition to democracy was sealed at the last moment: however we must never underestimate the many preparatory small all-night prayer meetings across the nation under the leadership of Dr. Michael Cassidy and African Enterprise, leading to that national breakthrough). Consider again Christ’s assurance in Mt. 18:18-20 to the effect that two or three believers in prayer-agreement can bring down his divine presence and power. The young praying Evan Roberts of the 1904/5 Welsh revival comes to mind, his prayers and testimony impacting Welsh society and nations for years! I treasure my copy of David Matthews’ ‘I Saw the Welsh Revival:’ I heard the latter preach in my city as a teen – he was in his 80’s, but the fire was on him still!
This post has just borne twins, I’ll leave point 6 for the near future. We’ve more than enough to process in the mean time!