Friday, 31 October 2014

Why Pentecostals and Charismatics have all the more reason to rejoice on Reformation Day (A Reformation Day Re-Post)

Today is Reformation Day. Admittedly, it’s not the biggest of non-official holidays (there even happens to be another unofficial holiday taking place today that’s getting all the attention, which explains why there were ghosts in the shop this evening instead of hammer wielding monks), but it is the unofficial holiday of which I am most fond.

You see reformation day isn’t about cards or presents or activities (and hopefully never will be!), but rather it’s simply a reminder in the year of one of the greatest events in the history of Europe, the Protestant Reformation, and what it stood for (helpfully summed up in 5 Solas). It’s an annual reminder of the power of God’s Word and of the glory of the gospel that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

For some reason though, Reformation Day doesn't seem to be all that big a deal in Pentecostal and charismatic circles. Now, I’m sure that part of that is that we just tend not to be very historically rooted; we tend to forget about most of what happened in the life of the church either before the Welsh Revival or before the charismatic renewal. (In fact, sometimes it feels like we easily forget anything that happened in the life of the church before last Sunday!) And this aversion to history is definitely something we need to get over quickly (after all we profess that we believe in “the communion of the saints”, not just the communion of the saints who happen to be on earth at this particular moment).

Yet, fear of history isn’t the only thing that keeps us at a distance from reminders of the Reformation. Some Pentecostals and charismatics seem to be purposefully moving away from identifying with the heirs of the Reformers, whether with ecumenical goals or with a desire to be seen as distinct from Protestantism. Others are slipping away, by preaching more about what we’re doing than what Christ has done. Still others want to build identity on experience rather than belief (which I’ve seen worked out in practice as giving experience of speaking in tongues priority over clarity on the gospel!).

But, My intention isn’t to go about diagnosing our problems. Rather I simply want to point out today, on Reformation Day, that Pentecostals and charismatics have all the more reason to be properly Protestant than anyone else! (Yes, that is a bit of hyperbole, but indulge me.)

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Help, the Arians are Coming!: Now Even Statistics Show Our Desperate Need of Catechesis

Fulgentius might not be the most famous of figures in the history of the church, but he was a very interesting chap. Not only was he a significant theologian, but he was also remembered as a great preacher. (Apparently his Archbishop was moved to tears every time he heard Fulgentius preach and publicly gave thanks to God for the gift of such a preacher to His Church.) But one of the most interesting things about Fulgentius is really more a feature of the times in which he lived. For, you see, Fulgentius spent much of his ministry in exile from his church. Why? Because Fulgentius believed that Jesus is God, but the church had been overrun by the Arian heresy.

Fulgentius was on my mind after reading an article in Christianity Today this week which showed that Arianism lives today – and I don’t mean in the extremes of liberal theology or among well-known cults. No – Arianism lives today among evangelical Christians. Apparently 31% of Evangelicals either think the Father is more divine than Jesus or aren’t sure, and 27% either think that Jesus is the first creature created by God or aren’t sure. That suggests that over a quarter of American evangelicals are Arians, not believing in the true deity of Jesus.

And it’s not only Arianism. More than half of evangelicals (51%) believe that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being, with another 7% who aren’t sure. That means that only 42% of evangelicals actually believe in the personhood of the third person of the Trinity – which really means that less than half of evangelicals actually believe in the Trinity!

When it comes to salvation, 68% believe that ‘a person obtains peace with God by first taking the initiative to seek God and then God responds with grace.’ But that’s Semi-Pelagianism, which, once again, is a formal heresy. (Ironically, evangelicals are even more likely to strongly agree to this heretical statement than those they often like to accuse of Semi-Pelagianism.)

Now those three questions highlighted by Christianity Today are only a few of the many issues covered by the survey. (You can see the whole thing, as well as highlights at www.thestateoftheology.com). Yet even these three survey findings are reason for pause. The deity of Christ, the Trinity, and salvation by God’s grace are surely of the essence of evangelical theology, and yet significant numbers of evangelicals reject those basic doctrines of the Christian faith. In two of those cases, it’s the majority who reject those basic doctrines. How have we got to this state? And what is to be done about it?

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Love Stronger than Death: A Law-Gospel Wedding Sermon on a special anniversary

Scripture Readings: Ps. 121; Cant. 8:6; Col. 3:12-17

Everybody loves a wedding. All the best stories end with weddings: ‘And they got married and lived happily ever after.’ But why do we love weddings so much? Well that’s easy, because they’re all about love. We’ve read about love from the Song of Solomon this morning: ‘Place me like a seal over your heart ... for love is as strong as death ... love flashes like fire, the brightest kind of flame’ (Cant. 8:6).

Song of Solomon is a love song right in the middle of the Bible. The very first verse of the Song tells us that it’s the Song of Songs which is Solomon’s (Cant. 1:1). Song of Songs – that means the greatest song of all. So the greatest song is a love song!

And this verse that we’ve read, Cant. 8:6, is a conversation between a bride and a bridegroom. The Bride needs to know that she’s loved. She needs to know that it’s not just that she’s quite useful to have around – it’s not a marriage for a political alliance, it’s not a marriage for the financial benefit of the families (like something from Downton Abbey), it’s not because she’s a good cook and he’s hopeless in the kitchen. And it’s certainly not, (as might be most relevant today) because having her around might mean he’ll occasionally manage to turn up somewhere on time. She needs to know that it’s not any of those things, but her bridegroom has to really love her. ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.’

And this isn’t just some romantic notion, but God’s design for marriage. Eph. 5:25 – ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her.’ What sort of love is that? That’s not just a case of ‘I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes.’ It’s Sacrificial Love! Real love isn’t about getting, but about giving.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Proclaiming Jesus from the Very Beginning: 11 Sermons on Genesis 1-11

Today (23rd October) is the anniversary of the creation of the world (well, at least according to Archbishop Ussher's early 17th Century calculations). So in celebration, I thought it would be good to go back to the very beginning. So here are 11 sermons from the first 11 chapters of the Bible: from Creation to the Tower of Babel.

Of course, Archbishop Ussher and 23rd October don't actually feature in these sermons. Instead Jesus does, because the whole Bible, right from the very beginning is a book about Jesus. And Jesus is present and active right from the outset.

Friday, 10 October 2014

On my youthful eschatological fear of Crocodiles: Some thoughts on the Resurrection of the Dead

When I was very young I was fascinated by crocodiles. Yet I was also terrified of them. Now, I lived in Northern Ireland, so there wasn’t all that much risk of encountering a crocodile in the village and thus meeting a grizzly end. But that didn’t matter, because, you see, my fear was not of the grizzly end – for, as rather a young child I had little concept of how horrid such a grizzly end would really be - but rather, my fear was of what would come next, after said grizzly end. So, it wasn’t so much a risk assessment terror I had of crocodiles, as an eschatological terror.

And then one day the unthinkable happened. Our pastor was called as a missionary to South Africa, which meant that his two children – my friends – would be moving to a land where there actually were crocodiles. This led to two things: 1) excitement that they would be able to send me a postcard of a crocodile from South Africa (which they duly did), and 2) the great fear that my friends could possibly be eaten by a crocodile (a fear which, however, was not great enough to cancel out the importance of the postcard request).

At that age I had no real concept of violence and suffering. Yet, I did have a real concept of something else, something which made my being-eaten-by-a-crocodile fear very important for me. And what was this? It was the resurrection of the dead. For you see this was my crocodile fear: if you got eaten by a crocodile, how would you get out of the crocodile at the resurrection. (As I’ve said, I was very young, so the intervening death of the crocodile, never mind any other unpleasant consequences of being eaten, didn’t feature at all in my thinking: for me it was all a question of how you would get out of the crocodile’s tummy.) So perturbed was I about the possible fate of my friends – missing out on the resurrection because of getting eaten by a crocodile – that I had no other choice but to ask my father about this dilemma.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

On the Church and On Sin: With a (former) Tory MP and a Catholic Priest

What with the Extraordinary Synod going on in Rome this week, the Roman Catholic Church has been in the news a bit of late. And as a result of all this pre-synod hype in the media, two Roman Catholics wrote two of the best articles I read last week. One was an article in the Catholic Herald by a priest. The other was an article in the Spectator by a former MP. You should read both of them. (But if you're not going to read both, then please at least read the second one!)

Now, maybe that seems a bit odd. I am, after all, both a Pentecostal pastor and an Ulster Protestant. And as such, I'm convinced that very significant aspects of Roman Catholic theology are seriously wrong. I still believe that justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't read, and even learn from, Roman Catholics. Although we are justified by faith alone, it is by faith in Christ alone, not faith in the right formulation of the doctrine of justification!

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith's article expresses something to which we so often officially believe, but practically forget: the ontological reality of the Body of Christ:
One needs to distinguish here between a group of people who are united sociologically (for want of a better word) and a group of people who are united in Christ, which is a theological reality. Unity in Christ is something we are always on the way to achieving, if we were not constantly impeded by our sins. Thus we should be in a constant state of repentance for our sins, in that they frustrate the unity that Christ prayed for and which He bequeathed us on Calvary... This is the true fault line: those who believe in the Body of Christ and our vocation to belong to it through baptism, and those who believe the Church needs to catch up with the world, and other such dreary clichés. St Paul had to put up with a lot of them, because he writes: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).That was sound advice in the first century, and it remains sound advice today.
Lucie-Smith's mention in there of sin as not only a personal problem, but also an ecclesiological problem (i.e. our sins impede our unity in the one Body of Christ), resonates too with the second article.

Louise Mensch has written in the Spectator an article which is, at the same time surprising, powerful, profoundly sad, and beautiful. And this is not an article by a priest or theologian, but rather by the ordinary (albeit prominent) Catholic in the pew. This is an ordinary believer dealing with sin and church and salvation and Jesus and grace. It's not someone rolling out the official line before the Synod, but rather someone who, in the eyes of the world, should be advocating change, doing the very opposite of all worldly expectations. And why? For the simple reason that she believes.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

These are the Bones of Elisha (Declaring the Word of the Lord)

One of the most curious events in all of Scripture is found in a single verse in 2 Kings 13. That chapter records the death of the prophet Elisha, and yet, there’s still one more story of Elisha here some time after his death. 2 Kings 13:21 tells us:
So it was, as they were burying a man, that suddenly they spied a band of raiders; and they put the man in the tomb of Elisha; and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.
Elisha was dead. And yet when a corpse was thrown into his tomb hastily in an attempt to hide from marauding bands of Moabites, the man came back to life simply by his corpse touching Elisha’s bones. Even as miracles go, that one’s quite impressive.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Money, Money, Money (Must Be Funny, in a Rich Man’s World!)

‘Not the Pentecostals! Watch out – they’ll be trying to get all your money.’
     – The reaction when a new Christian told her Muslim uncle that she’d got saved and           started attending a Pentecostal church. 
‘Hello, I’m calling from [“Christian” TV channel]. We have some great deals on advertising during our broadcasts and wondered if the church would be interested.’
     – A phone call yesterday. 
‘$11,150’
     – the amount one American church is appealing to raise to produce a worship album 
$750 plus expenses
     – an American amount recommended as a gift for visiting preachers 
‘US pastors paid up to $300,000 - are Church of England vicars getting a raw deal?’
     – recent Headline in Christian Today

£5.75 million
     – the amount of money an evangelical church down south is trying to raise for               building improvements.
$25,000
     – the amount two American pastors are raising to produce a six minute teaching video
Money has been on my mind a bit of late. Not my money, but what evangelicals and Pentecostals do with their money, and our reputation when it comes to money. The statement at the top of the post, made to me by a new Christian last week, opened my eyes with a nasty start to the reputation of Pentecostals among the wider world when it comes to money. And I think the phone call I got trying to sell advertising time on "Christian" TV was the last straw. It left me shocked and appalled by the low to which we have sunk in this country (not only with what we do with money, but also with our notion of "success" and the accompanying lack of trust in the power of God's Word - Christ grows His Church by His Word, not through marketing and advertising!).

Monday, 6 October 2014

Walking on Water Redux: Darkness and Water

I’ve been writing about Jesus walking on the water at the Easter before Easter – the Passover before the Crucifixion. So let me just wrap this up today (and then I promise I'll change the subject). At that second Passover of His earthly ministry Jesus fed 5000 people, then He walked on water,and then He told everyone that He is the Bread of Life (Jn 6:35) and that ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you’ (Jn 6:53). So, we’ve got 2 of Jesus’ most famous miracles and one of His most difficult sermons. But what on earth does that have to do with the ultimate fulfilment of the Passover the next year on Good Friday?

Lots. For example the Passover Sacrifice is connected to His flesh given for the life of the world (Jn 6:51). But what I want to focus on is the walking on water. So how does that fit in with Passover and Good Friday?

John 6:17 tells us that ‘it was already dark’ (Jn 6:17). Now, we’ve just been told that it was ‘evening’ (v.16), and at Passover time in Israel sunset is at about 6pm, so it’s basically dark all evening. Then why does John mention that it was dark? Well, John likes to point out details of what happened that remind us of the spiritual reality. Yes, it was dark physically, but by highlighting it, John wants to point out something more.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Who Knew Not Walking on Water was so Controversial! (A Bit of a Response)

My post from earlier in the week about walking on water (or not, as the case may be), has proved to be the most controversial thing I’ve ever written, and lots of people have been in touch in various ways either to critique it or ask questions. (To be fair, it's probably also the post that's had the most encouraging feedback as well.) Now, of course in writing a short blog post, I didn’t show all my exegetical working (after all, it’s not a maths exam), but as it’s raised questions, let me show a bit more of the background thinking and respond to some of the objections. This post is really written as a reply to some comments from Chris Anthony which ended up being far too long for the comments section (so that’s why it looks like a response to an individual, because in a sense it is). However, as Chris raised some of the common points brought up by several others elsewhere, I thought it would be helpful to post this reply in its own right. You can see Chris’ comments at the bottom of the original post, and I’ve replied to some issues there already (like the text of Job 9:8).

Peter may have walked on water for a moment. I’ve been aware of that all along as it (seems to be) stated explicitly in the text. (In fact, it may well be an inceptive aorist here, meaning that he stepped onto the water to begin to walk, but without any implication that he succeeded in walking at all. But for the benefit of the doubt, I’ll just read it as ‘walked’ here.) So my claim from Job 9 has always been in the full consciousness of Peter walking on the water. Which means that I’m convinced that Peter doesn’t contradict or undermine that argument. Why not?