Tag Archives: challenging sin

Justin Peters’ testimony

This is a response to the fascinating document which Justin Peters, an American preacher whose shredding of the ‘Word of Faith’ movement in his ‘Call for Discernment videos is superb. Yet despite this service to the church, he was left with a sense of preaching the faith, but not really believing it himself. For him this led to a time when he responded more to God: ‘I had a guilty conscience to be sure, but did not have a true, gut-wrenching godly sorrow. I had never genuinely wept over my sin until then.’

He uses the bible to justify the claim that this is the ONLY gateway to a true relationship with God, going so far being ‘rebaptised’ after this experience, having first been baptised as a seven year old, when believing in Jesus was on a level with believing in Santa Claus. He extends his exposition to defend the Calvinist position that such repentance is given by God to His elect – so it’s not something to which can aspire, but just happens. That’s a secondary debate that I’m going to park for now.

There is a strong tradition in the Calvinist tradition that we should experience some such ‘gut-wrenching’ sorrow. This is what underlies the Calvinist revival tradition – most clearly seen in Jonathan Edwards’ experience in the early 18th century. Yet it is one that carries over into early Methodism, where a clear awareness of your own sinful state before God is the starting point for conversion. The ‘Evangelical’ movement is usually separated from this earlier Puritan tradition by Evangelicals’ willingness to allow the process of contrition to move to resolution by engaging with the grace of Jesus relatively quickly; the Puritans expected the period of contrition to be measured in days. Yet both remained committed to an expectation of visible contrition, as a result of engaging with God, before the salve of the Cross was to be applied for the individual. Both traditions are thus highly sceptical of the modern emphasis of preaching God’s love first…

The danger at this point is, of course, that it becomes the PREACHER who hangs his listeners over the flames of Hell and frightens them by such stories into signing up to the faith, rather than the process seeing God bring to an awareness of their sins. We can go too far the other way. The book of Acts shows us Peter being unsubtle in his criticism of the Jews on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), though it is notable that his focus is on the visible events of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Stephen similarly does not model gentleness on any understanding we can cope with in his attack on the leaders of the Jews that gets him martyred. (Acts 7).

However I want to pursue is how far a ‘gut-wrenching’ experience of repentance is a necessary precursor to coming to know God. A review of the gospel stories of Jesus’ encounters with people seems to offer little evidence for it. The emphasis there is far more on living out the decision to repent; thus Levi and Nathaniel are called to follow Jesus, and the Samaritan woman is wowed by Jesus’ knowledge of her life so that she tells all her neighbours (John 4). Peter’s reaction to the miraculous catch of fish hints at this sort of reaction (Luke 5), but it is notable in its uniqueness, and it doesn’t make the other gospels. From a historical perspective, Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ offers an experience that might or might not be what Peters insists on; he is indeed deeply miserable in his garden when he hears ‘Take and Read’, though it’s hard to assess. Is it ultimately about his struggle with lust, rather than ‘sin’. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confessions.xi.html Similarly CS Lewis’ report of his conversion in ‘Surprised by Joy’ doesn’t have such an episode, nor does GK Chesterton offer any such event. This modern paradigm can perhaps be traced to Luther’s experience of sin and being released from it when he discovers the meaning of Romans, and is seen in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, but that doesn’t make it normative.

And yet Peters’ focus on the need for genuine repentance is important. The issue however is whether it needs to be expressed by a specific experience, or whether, as with all conversion, the process can be gradual. The central issue is one of true engagement with God leading to a changed life in the medium term; the problem comes when we try to bottle this and do it purely on a human level. We’ve already touched on the ‘scare them into heaven’ approach. There are a number of alternatives. One is the ‘sign up now and all will be well for ever’ – a perversion of the ‘born again’ movement which validly emphasises the need to engage with God – but makes the process so easy that it takes no real commitment, requires no repentance and has no meaning. We have the ‘join the community, enjoy the buzz, have a great time at church’ approach, that at best does lead people to seek more, but at worst legitimates their sinful lifestyles. We have the Catholic solution to the conundrum; as the established church, it needed to offer its religion to all the citizens of the Roman Empire. As a result it came to see baptism as a infant as the entry point to the church and engagement with the sacraments as the way to progress. As ever, at its best, such an approach can lead to true engagement with God, but when combined with a desire to conform without such engagement, can easily lead a formalised religion with no reality.

An interesting feature of this story is Peters’ decision to be ‘rebaptised’. Whatever else happened, that isn’t it; you can only be baptised once, so he is rejecting his baptism at the age of 7 and claiming his new one as his baptism. Note, in passing, the problem for who favour believers baptism in the legitimation of the cycle of feeling that a further baptism is justified because the first one wasn’t real. However I do want to highlight that baptism does point to a specific point of transition in a person’s life, which should be recognised in our theology. Instead we have a tendency to downplay the crisis of conversion, perhaps leaving a legacy of people hanging around in our churches because it’s a comfortable place to be, rather than because they’ve met with God.

So – what conclusion are we to draw? Surely we must accept that God works in a variety of ways to bring His children to new life. An experience that is central to the spiritual life of one person may have no resonance in the life of another – because that’s not God’s priority for them. Of course this can be taken too far; at some point if a person is TOO far from a pattern of experience that resonates with the rest of the Christian community, it becomes necessary to conclude that they haven’t actually engaged with God at all. The complexity comes where the same experience is truly of God in one person – but not for another; Satan has disguised himself as an angel of light, as we are warned (2 Cor 11). It is here that the gift of ‘discerning of Spirits’ becomes required…

NT Wright declaring only the fashionable part of the truth?

NT Wright being a prat

The ‘true truth’ is non-violent. Really? Jesus’ assault on the money changers challenges that statement, as does the image of him in Rev 19:

“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.”

That final verse is a quote from Ps 2 which says:

Ask me,

and I will make the nations your inheritance,

the ends of the earth your possession.

You will break them with a rod of iron;

you will dash them to pieces like pottery.

And even in the New Testament we have the story God taking it out on a ruler (Acts 12)

Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.

On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

So what do we make of a leading theologian coming up with this phrasing? He’s right to some extent – God’s way FOR NOW is not to have Christians use force to impose their way of living. However this is easily heard as suggesting that this is God’s only game plan, which leaves Christians looking absurdly unrealistic. This is not healthy for the effectiveness of our evangelism, and we surely need to resist soggy quotes that give the world the wrong impression about our God. Too often what they hear is: ‘It doesn’t matter how you live, but you might find God helpful’. Paul, addressing the dilettantes of Athens offers: ‘“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17)

Of course the former is a lot more comfortable to be preaching!

Should a Christian attend a gay wedding?

[Please note – this is written on the basis that gay sexual activity is inherently wrong. If you disagree with that, then what follows will be irrelevant to you. And, to be clear, I regard the attempt to redefine marriage and therefore weddings to include gay relationships as totally flawed. But it’s easier to use the terms as commonly understood to present this argument.]

Given that we now have gay ‘weddings’, as Christians we need to work out how to respond when the invite arrives. The discussion that follows is about how to choose whether to attend or not; how to actually respond to the invitation is a separate issue.

The reasoning varies depending on whether the ‘wedding’ claims to be a Christian event or not.

If the wedding is a ‘Christian’ occasion, then we need to be applying the principles of 1 Cor 5. This offers:

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— 10 not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? 13 God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Therefore if we endorse the behaviour of the ‘Christians’ participating in the wedding, either as the partners being married, or the celebrant of the occasion, we are clearly associating with someone ‘who bears the name of brother who is sexually immoral’. This we are commanded not to do…

This is relatively straight forward IMHO, although I would add that it’s important that we recognise the purpose is to challenge the behaviour of the people involved, not out of a sense of disgust.

The more complex situation is where there is no attempt to add a religious content to the occasion. The challenge from the above passage is ‘For what have I to do with judging those outside?’ So does this mean we should go along out a willingness not to judge? I have some sympathy with the view; however in practice I think we need to consider what we are going along to. In attending a gay ‘wedding’, we are attending an event that is intended to celebrate something that we believe to be wrong. So we are being invited to an event that, if we are serious about believing God’s word, is celebrating sin. It’s the moral equivalent of going along to a party to celebrate a new porn website or a paedophilic relationship; would you want to go along to the wedding of a man to a 10 year old girl? So why would you want to go along to a similar celebration of sin? Sin is sin. We should not celebrate it, we should mourn it.

The difficult bit comes from holding Paul’s clear command to be involved with non-Christians in light of this. There is a tension between a clear Christian witness and being non-judgemental to those outside the faith. Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 10 about meat offered to idols may offer a way forward:

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29 I mean the other’s conscience, not your own.

Thus in responding to an invitation to a gay ‘wedding’, we shouldn’t volunteer an explanation. However if challenged, we should gently explain why it would be a problem for us. The problem of course comes from the confusion within the church on the issue these days, with the result that even if we are known as a ‘Christian’, that may not be heard as a challenge to the gay relationship, whereas Christians in Paul’s time would have been known for their resistance to idol worship. But I think Paul’s approach justifies a willingness to leave alone until asked.