Conviction v Condemnation

In an excellent sermon last Sunday, my pastor articulated the difference between these in the Christian’s life:

Conviction: the work of God in pointing out a specific action which we’ve done and which is wrong. God calls us to reject this behaviour to be restored in our relationship with Him.

Condemnation: the work of the enemy, suggesting that because of our tendency to sin we are beyond hope.

We should expect and welcome God’s conviction in our lives. We are not perfect, we sin. ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 Jn 1) Part of the sign of it being God’s work is that it relates to specific actions, and when we have confessed it, the guilt goes away.

By contrast the sense of being worthless, hopeless, unvalued, or no use, because we’ve messed up AGAIN is the work of the devil, and we need to recognise it as such, and respond by praising God for our salvation, for Jesus’ death on the cross that made it possible, and that the Spirit has revealed this truth to us (assuming that we HAVE accepted God’s mercy for the sins that we committed in the past).

Christianity is realistic that it recognises that all have messed up in the past, are continuing to do so in the present, and will do so until sin is removed from the world. It calls on everyone to accept that we are flawed – but offers a way forward. By contrast the world offers lies: ‘believe in children’, ‘love wins in the end’, ‘everyone has a heart of gold’. When challenged by the reality of the world today, excuses about ‘them’ abound: the 1%, predatory men, unreasonable women, the greedy workers, the Jews, the Muslims, the fundamentalist Christians, are offered as the real cause, and changes to society are proposed as the answer. (To be fair to Soviet Communism and the Chinese cultural revolution, they did recognise the need for individual change – they just assumed that it was only their enemies that had a problem.)

So far, so ordinary. Where this starts to get interesting is to consider this in terms of the response of mainstream groups to criticism from others. Certainly at times they respond to legitimate challenges by confusing ‘conviction’ and ‘condemnation’; challenges to wrong behaviour by individuals is dismissed as condemning the individual, not the behaviour, with the result that the legitimate critique is dismissed. This is seen in such terms as ‘slut shaming’, ‘body shaming’, homophobia and even Islamophobia’; because the guilt of these individuals is so wrapped up in their identity, their behaviour cannot be declared wrong without condemning the individual.

By ‘coincidence’ the Guardian has a long read on guilt just out. Musing on the issue of feeling guilty all the time, Baum argues that ‘His guilt is a constant, nagging reminder that he has taken this wrong turn’ and ‘It keeps us, as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written, in thrall to that boring and repetitive voice inside our head that endlessly corrects, criticises, censors, judges and finds fault with us, but “never brings us any news about ourselves”.’ This is a reminder that the gospel IS that ‘news about ourselves’ that gives us a truth on which to base our lives. Our evangelism must scratch where people are itching; merely repeating ‘God loves you’ is insufficient. The starting point of the gospel is that we are worthless wretches who have every reason to be guilty; we deserve to be condemned.

But instead God has chosen to declare us not guilty, to adopt us into his family and give us a hope. Biblically this makes sense of John’s comment: ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (Jn 3) and Jesus’ words: ‘There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day’ (Jn 12).

We need to accept that if we are preaching Jesus then people will feel condemned – indeed if they aren’t we may well be doing it wrong. The answer to that condemnation is to offer them the grace of God revealed at the cross – at the cost of their dying to themselves and being born again to live as God’s children obeying His commands. If we offer less than that – or succumb to the temptation to assure them they are ‘all right really’ – we are in danger of stifling the work of the Spirit.

Advertisements

AfD, UKIP and other ‘horrors’: false hope sells

The AfD in Germany has followed UK in getting somewhat over 10% of the national vote. The commentariat is running around screaming. How should we react?

UKIP / Brexit and Trump were clear examples of the revenge of those marginalised from the mainstream of politics. The AfD vote seems to be similar; it is obvious to its voters that 1,000,000 refugees will deprive the state of the finances to keep the services they depend on going, quite apart from the nastier connotations of the development in a country scarred with Germany’s history.

The neo-liberal consensus is that most people benefit from globalisation, and the massive fall in worldwide poverty since its policies were introduced makes this a legitimate argument. Yet there are losers in globalisation; if the industry that you, or your town, has depended on for generations is swept away by foreign competition, leaving substantial unemployment, it is a challenge to be look beyond your own losses to rejoice in the gains of others. One of the problems is that Economics doesn’t know how to evaluate the stability that has been lost; it only looks at measureables.

The other point is that the rise of this right is a reflection of the failure of the Left to articulate this pain effectively. The US Democrats have fixated on urban minorities, whilst the UK Labour party had become a cheerleader for the neo-liberal consensus; the inability of the Labour conference to have a debate about the single market after Brexit reveals that it is still struggling to resolve its issues. Graham Stringer, former leader of Manchester City Council and now one of the few Labour MP to favour Brexit, deserves far more credit for his willingness to challenge the Labour establishment.

In the UK Labour is starting to offer an alternative source of hope. Unfortunately their proposals are a largely a rework of the failed policies of the past, and will end in tears for the poor. Yet this is a more appropriate reaction than merely ranting about the racism of the Brexit / Republican / AfD voter as an excuse to ignore their issues, which is the hallmark of many of the responses seen elsewhere. Let’s hope that the new German government learns the right lessons from this upset, and provides some real change. The problem is that it is easier for a government seeking to assuage these voters to focus on the race / immigration issue than to get the economic correct. Whilst the prospect of a nasty government on the model of those now ruling Hungary and Poland seems remote, their experience should be salutary.

Making the church RELEVANT

‘We have a gospel to proclaim, good news for all the world’

So the song goes – but for any news to be good news, rather than a useless piece of information, it needs to address issues that are of concern to the listener. The news that Malaria is on the retreat, for example, is great news – but it’s almost entirely irrelevant to the average British person. One of the problems that the modern church faces is that our central message – there is hope for after we die – no longer seems to have any resonance with the British public, at least if this poll of what the British worry about is correct; it list 30 things that are worried about, but death / life after death just isn’t there. Its top 10 are:

  • Work

  • Financial worries

  • Being late

  • A relative or friend’s bad health

  • Bad health

  • Relationships

  • Missing a plane/train/bus

  • Not waking up for alarm

  • Appearance

  • Family safety

Yet what does the average church preach about? What does it resource? Do we provide space to respond to these worries? And should we?

Clearly issues of health do get some treatment at church, and the success of Benny Hinn and others show there is a desire to see this addressed. Our prosperity gospel ‘brethren’ also do financial worries, and, perhaps more appropriately, Christians against Poverty some great practical work.

Yet should we give up proclaiming our eternal hope, which is what make sense of life? Of course this asks hard questions, and may need trigger warnings(!) if we are to talk honestly. Yet its absence is surely something we shouldn’t just accept, leaving people unwarned of what the bible teaches about death and judgement. As ever the history is illuminating; certainly parts of the church reacted against the hell fire preaching that became seriously abusive in some circles by focusing on ‘the love of God’, to the total exclusion of judgement. Meanwhile the experience of most people moved from death being a regular part of life to its being something that was rare and hidden away. Funerals have become celebrations of the deceased life rather than a clearly religious occasion, and any sort of appeal for God’s mercy for their sins has long since faded out. Of course a funeral is not a good moment asking the hard questions, though Christians perhaps have a duty to encourage the preacher at such events to be more upfront when a Christian’s ‘promotion to glory’ is being marked. More generally perhaps church advertising should be more challenging: ‘what’s next’ over a grave stone might work…

Interestingly secular research is suggesting that thinking about your mortality is helpful. Meanwhile the Rule of Saint Benedict, the guide for Benedictine Monasteries describes keeping ‘death before one’s eyes daily’ as an instrument of good works. When the wisdom of both the 6th and 21st century says something, perhaps we should pay more attention.

When the bible bites back…

One of the advantages of reading the bible straight through is that you get to see the passages that are usually ignored by preachers. This has been been my experience in the last few days looking at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians; there are some verses in them that I’m sure I’ve never seen…

On church authority

1 Thess 5:12 in most versions is something like:

But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you NRSV

This is followed by v 27

I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. (NRSV)

So what we see here is a strong endorsement of clear church authority in the earliest days of the Gentile church; 1 Thessalonians is dated very early. In our individualistic membership of the church today we need to respect our leaders and take their authority more seriously; wandering around between churches for no good reason is deeply flawed.

On love for the brethren

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.’ (2 Thess 1)

It is extraordinary to my mind that Paul rates the growth of the love between the brethren as being as important as their faith growing more and more. And it’s a perspective that many of us who roll up to church once a week, or even maybe get along to a housegroup once a week as well will find challenging; our relationships in the body should be growing lots – and on that test we (I) fail spectacularly.

We (I) need to do better…

Penal substitutionary atonement – a necessary belief

Much ink is spilt in theological circles about what the atonement was about, why it ‘works’ and what lessons we can draw about God as a result. There are many models advanced to try to gain an understanding of what is one of the most challenging features of our faith: what does the death of Jesus in agony on the cross achieve?

One of the tendencies of Evangelical theology was to focus on a single explanation and be rather negative about others. This is unhelpful; reading the bible with an open mind leads to the discovery of many different understanding of the atonement, and it is thus bad theology to try to force them all to point to a single understanding. However it is important to understand when some models MUST be accepted in order to make sense of who God is. This is particularly the case with Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA).

God makes many promises in the bible. Yet two conflict spectacularly:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom 12:14)

versus

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  (1 Jn 1:9)

and

heir sins and lawless acts
    I will remember no more. (Heb 10:17)

I’m writing this on the day of the opening of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, where over 80 people were killed in a terrible fire. Those affected by the fire are looking for ‘justice’. The bible promises that God will give them justice. But if one of those responsible has now died having confessed their errors to God without suffering any consequences, it appears that they have ‘got away with it’ – there is no vengeance for those victims. The only way to hold those two promises together is to accept PSA as one of the components of our understanding of the atonement.

 

No – that passage in 2 Chr 7 doesn’t mean what you have been told it means!

Just repent before God and He will heal Britain…

You’ve heard the second verse here repeated to justify the expectation that God will heal the place we live in. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the verse doesn’t promise that.

The whole context is:

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

So the promise is only valid when there is demonstrably a plague on the land.

But more crucially is the question: ‘What is the land’ for the church? A strict reading of the NT would suggest heaven – as we are exiles and ambassadors of God. An alternative might be the church as a whole. But to apply it to the country we are living in simply won’t fly.  The idea appears to have emerged from our American brethren, and may be part of the traditional belief in some US circles that America has a special place in God’s heart.

Of course the eisgesis is pointing to a truth; if people in a country become Christians and seriously live out their faith, then that country will end up benefiting enormously. But that’s not how this story is presented: it suggests that if we, as Christians, pray visibly then God will change the way the pagans of the land get on. Nice idea. It’s just a shame it’s not justified biblically.

What is important about this is what it tells us about:

  1. The quality of ‘theology’ that is being spouted from the front by our preachers. If someone preaches this, they’ve clearly not engaged with the text for themselves. If they aren’t doing that on this passage, where else have they failed to test what they have been taught against scripture.
  2. The agenda of many in Christian circles whose focus is on improving the quality of life experienced in this world by everyone rather than seeking to evangelise people. Evangelism is frustrating, hard, work. Focusing on improved housing, better health care, and ‘being nice to the neighbours’ is less fun. And yet, as Terry Pratchett expresses it (as a non-believer looking in on the church:

‘Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched them like a father and cared for them like a mother… well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like “There are two sides to every question” and “We must respect other people’s beliefs”. You wouldn’t find me just being ge’rally nice in the hope that it would turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgiving sword. And I did say burnin’ Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that people don’t burn folks anymore, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathing the soul of it. THAT’S religion. Anything else… is just being nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbours.’

From Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett London: Corgi 1999 p.349

Are we anywhere close to living out that vision?

Christianity’s exclusiveness – what does the bible actually teach?

In a liberal society that wants to believe that ‘all roads lead to God’ – and is unwilling to accept that this might not be the case, it is important for Christians to hold to our claim that Jesus is THE way to heaven. The problem is that we can overstate the case, and leave ourselves exposed to legitimate challenge, and thereby end up failing to present the truth as it is.

The verses at first sight are unambiguous

‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14)

‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4)

Yet these are spoken to Jews, in the context of the Hebrew bible, where many clearly came to the Father without any explicit recognition of the role of Jesus, and Enoch and Elijah are admitted to God’s presence without even dying.

So what is going on here? The interpretation that makes sense for me is to argue that it is only through the death and resurrection of Jesus that it is possible for God to give anyone access to Himself. Yet this doesn’t require an explicit understanding of the nuances of the role of the cross in order to allow God to accept us; rather we see them benefit from the cross because it happened, despite its being in their future.

Yet it is crucial to recognise that this does not mean that we have any excuse not to offer the gospel to anyone. It MIGHT be that they have actually found God real in their lives – perhaps under another name. However it is clear from the attitude of the apostles that they sought to convert everyone to an explicit endorsement of the role of Jesus and membership of the Church. This offers an interpretation of

‘I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.’ (John 10)

For us to refuse to evangelise anyone on the assumption that they don’t need the gospel is therefore disobedient to the clear teaching of the bible. Unfortunately it is always attractive; it’s nice to be nice, and challenging others about something as deeply held as their religious beliefs is never going to be comfortable. Yet it is what we are called to. No, this is not an excuse for being obnoxiously challenging, but it is a call to be obedient.