Tag Archives: discernment

Functional hell, functional heaven and a functional saviour

In our sermon this morning the preacher introduced us to the idea of this concept. The idea is that we have things that are functionally our hell – the thing we most want to avoid, whether presently experienced or merely feared – and functional heaven – being released from that functional hell thing we most want to achieve. We tend therefore to look for a ‘functional saviour’ – someone or something that will save us from our functional hell and grant us access to our functional heaven.

The problem is that if these hells and heavens are the most important things in our lives, then they become the root of idolatry in our lives, and the functional saviour will be what we worship in the sense of being willing to do anything to achieve the freedom from this ‘hell’ and gain entry into ‘heaven’.

True Christianity is about recognising that God offers us salvation on HIS terms, not on the basis of what we want. Thus His priority is to save us from Hell – but that’s not the same as saving us from our functional hell, which may well be the place where He wants us to learn holiness for a time – which may be the rest of our life. This is HARD. We are always inclined to believe the claim of the Enemy that God doesn’t really want the best for us, but is making us suffer for His entertainment. So we need to be very cautious about what our priorities really are, and ask God to work with us to reveal when we are getting it wrong – as we often will.

But this analysis also helps bring other issues into sharper focus. For example the ‘social gospel’: one late 19th century presentation of it expressed it like this: ‘If cleaner streets, better housing and sweeter homes do not come within the scope of our aims, neither will those who are convinced of their right to these things come within the shadow of our places of worship’. Given that at the core of the gospel is the call to forgo all ‘rights’ except to be children of God, then we are not able to affirm their ‘right’ to these things. Yet of course we want to see them happen – but not at the cost of it being the only focus of what the church does, which is where the danger lies. At its most extreme this logic sees Christians endorsing the violent overthrow of regimes that are as nothing compared with the crudities of the Roman Empire, which the bible clearly indicates was to be accepted as ‘ordained by God’. Of course right involvement in politics with a clear set of policies may be what some Christians are called to, and we need to welcome this IF it is God’s call on a person’s life. But we must actively question such a calling because its effect is likely to make it harder for the person’s political opponents to hear the gospel. However if it is, then we should endorse it clearly.

This analysis also helps in understanding the attraction of the prosperity gospel. To the extent this promises God’s help in avoiding many functional hells, be it poverty or ill health, the danger is that the prosperity message is what is attracting the person to the church, not engagement with God for themselves. If that happens then there is a serious problem; a functional saviour is being offered, rather than our Lord Jesus. Of course it may be God’s blessing to heal people’s diseases and provide them with prosperity in order to serve Him, but the commitment to God must come first. And if the message of the evangelist is that these things WILL follow, then he is lying; this side of heaven there are no absolute promises about what we will experience.

But of course we must start by looking for the plank in our own eye: what is your functional hell and heaven.

Advertisements

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…

Politicians’ spin – an example dissected

As a remain supporter, I am deeply saddened by the revelation of the breakdown in trust between the voters and politicians that the referendum has dramatically. However when politicians persist in retailing as facts aphorisms that are misleading, if not actually untrue, it becomes understandable why this attitude has arisen.

In a Guardian article entitled ‘Ignoring immigration doesn’t work. Here are five reforms remain can sign up to’, Yvette Cooper made the comment, heard frequently elsewhere: ‘For centuries Britain has benefited from the dynamism and hard work of those who have come here from abroad’. The reality is that until 1945 immigration to the UK was negligible. A summary history of immigration to Britain gives the statistics, revealing a very small amount of migration over the years. So yes, there have been immigrants over the years who have blessed this country by what they have contributed. This does not however justify the conclusion that we must welcome mass immigration – yet that is her conclusion.

In what sense do immigrants offer dynamism and hard work? Immigrants probably are more dynamic than the locals. This is perhaps inevitable; they are people who have made the effort to move country, so are likely to be showing more initiative than the locals. This is usually regarded a plus, though in challenging the traditions of the host culture they may do damage. We may also face a diminishing returns; whilst the injection of extra dynamism may be helpful, later migrants will be less able to achieve. And we need to recognise the damage done to the sending country in seeing their most dynamic citizens taking off for pastures new.

What is less acceptable is the phrase about ‘hard work’. This does seem racist; the lazy locals are being shown up the incomers. Again it challenges the culture of the host community; if it has settled for a certain pattern of working as acceptable, the disruption by harder working newcomers IS damage to the local culture.

So perhaps the statement should read: ‘In the past, a small flow of migrants has disproportionately contributed to our economic development, at a time when their impact more broadly was very small. (in such areas as housing, infrastructure and demand for government services). On the basis of this I want to suggest that the large scale immigration of the past 20 years, that is likely to continue indefinitely. is a good thing.’

Ms Cooper’s original statement is, strictly, correct as she frames it. Once however it is explored, its flaws become clear. That such spin is routinely used to befuddle the electorate is why we hold our politicians in contempt. We are now reaping the consequences of this persistent self serving inexactitude (aka dishonesty…).

Christians whinging about ‘Easter’ – who do you think you are?

This year the meme ‘we shouldn’t celebrate Easter because it’s pagan’ did the rounds on facebook. It is depressing to see mixture of ignorance, arrogance and superstition that drives this meme. Let’s take it apart.

  1. There IS reason to complain about the name ‘Easter’. Not that it comes from Mesopotamian Ishtar – as the fact that the name is only found in Germany and England reveals; elsewhere a name derived from Pascha is used for the Christian feast. It’s probable that the name of feast day comes from the Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility, though even that may be invalid. However given that all the days of the week are named after pagan deities in English, to be consistent you’d have to abandon those as well. Thor’s day, Woden’s day, Saturn’s day etc. Use those and Easter, or neither…

  2. The dating of Easter was finally set by the Council of Nicaea called by Emperor Constantine in 325. He didn’t invent the feast, merely got the council to get the minority of the church in Asia that was holding it on one date to come into conformity with the practice of the vast majority of the church that was holding it on another. It is certain that the feast had been celebrated by the persecuted church that preceded the days of Constantine; why do we, who’ve never been significantly persecuted, think we have the right to criticise those who were?

The modern challenge to Easter usually comes from ‘Sola Scriptura’ believers who try to pretend that it is possible to construct a working faith merely from the things in the bible. Whilst this is an improvement on the proponents of the ‘New Testament church’ fantasy – who try to do the church like they did it in the New Testament, but still insist on using the New Testament (think about it) – it not much better. The core objection is the idea that the Holy Spirit took a sabbatical from the earth for some 1500 years after the death of John until the Reformation. Really?

But it’s also defective because it fails to engage with the material in the New Testament that indicates that Christians are to be formed by the people through whom they were converted; Paul’s references to the Corinthians as his children who are to obey him as a result makes this clear. And any such Christian who wears a wedding ring is to be giggled at… In practice we ALL have traditions that we inherit; whilst it is appropriate to test them against scripture and discard what is CONTRARY to scripture, it is not biblical to pretend to a tradition free scripture.

Joshua 22:10-end – a text for the week of prayer for Christian Unity.

This story from Joshua is little known. When the Israelites first arrived in the promised land, some of the tribes settled on the eastern bank of the Jordan subject to a promise that they would help their brethren capture the territory on the western bank. When this task was finished, the Eastern tribes raised an altar to mark their commitment to the Lord – and to emphasis that they were part of the people of Israel. However this was misinterpreted by the Western tribes to be a violation of the law of Moses, which banned the building of an altar anywhere except the one place that the Lord would direct. So the Westerners organised to attack their Eastern brethren – but did make the effort to send a party to investigate first. These investigators were convinced by the Easterners’ explanation, and peace was restored.

So what lessons can we take from this?

  1. We need to take the commandments of God seriously. If a fellowship is reported to be acting in a way that is contrary to the scriptures, we should not ignore it. Although the New Testament model does not call for us to physically attack them, we should be prepared to clearly separate from them.

  2. Our actions need to be based on clear investigation. It’s NOT good enough to respond to vague reports that ‘those dreadful people are doing X and that’s not acceptable’. We see here that they were doing something that looked like X – BUT WASN’T. The classic example from church history is the attitude of the Reformation to pictures in church. ‘Must be idolatry – we must destroy them’ – an attitude that cost the UK much of the artistic heritage of the Medieval period. In more recent years allegations of ‘sheep stealing’ and ‘heavy shepherding’ were routinely made against the new Charismatic denominations. Whilst there may have been mistakes, the fact that those groups have now largely come to be accepted in the wider Christian community is a sign that the early rumours were, ultimately, unjustified.

  3. The outcome should be reported back. If a group has gone bad, then this fact should be declared publicly by the leadership of other Christian communities in an area. Equally if it’s been investigated and found healthy, then its clean bill of health is to be publicised as well. Of course this requires church leaders who are willing to ask those hard questions, take a stand and be clear about what they regard as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour or beliefs. Sadly instead we suffer a surfeit of rumours, a lack of clarity about where the lines are, and a general chaos, enabling the wolves to have free range in the flock. Meanwhile real relationships are disdained and opportunities are lost because those who have been hurt in the past by such wolves are more suspicious than they should be.

Why is this happening? A lot comes from an unwillingness to challenge other churches, to go and discover if they are ‘of the Lord’. It’s easier to avoid asking hard questions and drawing sharp lines. Part of this is because there is a strong belief that the church has tended to be more willing to reject the ‘new things’ that the Spirit is doing; the widespread rejection of Wesleys’ ministry and the Anglo-Catholic movement by the Church of England are trotted out as examples. So instead we’ve allowed liberal ‘theology’ to rule the roost – and seen chaos and massive decline in attendances.

It’s also hard work; there needs to be solid engagement between churches to enable the sorts of conversation that are necessary for this to occur. It’s interesting to note that the incident in Joshua occurs after the two protagonists had been fighting alongside each other – yet still distrust occurred. And today it’s not given the priority that it needs; because the leaders of churches don’t see this as one of their primary roles, they allow other issues that should be lower priority to distract them. Actually this follows from a belief that there aren’t really wolves out there – buying into the vague ‘ecumenical’ agenda – yet the reality is that there clearly are.

As ever we need to be discerning. It’s easy to get it wrong – it’s more attractive to look the other way – and that’s a dereliction of duty by our leaders. And remember where the story starts; the Easterners had wanted to affirm their full membership of the people of Israel – but didn’t talk to the right people to do so. We need to spend far more time in real communication – and far less in things that we KNOW are of no value, but are not prepared to actually kill off.

Qu’ran v Bible

The Qu’ran claims to be inspired instructions from the same God as the one who reveals himself in the Hebrew Bible. We should therefore expect that the two revelations will endorse the same attitudes at significant points. Yet once we start to look hard at the data, we find significant divergences. This series will look at some individually; the existence of these significant conflicts leads me to the belief that the spirit whom the Prophet of Islam encountered who identified himself as ‘Allah’ is not the God of Israel but an impostor.

Example 1

The Hebrew Bible prescribes a maximum sentence of 40 lashes. (Deut 25:3). The fact the Qu’ran has no similar restriction is one of the indications of its flawed nature; unlike the Torah, which imposes the restriction so that ‘your brother’ may not be degraded’ in your sight, the Qu’ran doesn’t care about the other.

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!