Monthly Archives: September 2021

Let’s Get Growing (3) – As Gospel Community

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in August 2021 (page 13), the third in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

Many years ago, Monica and I took our youth group for an all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut. During the evening, I saw a some guys at another table, probably stoned, one ‘resting’ his face in the pizza pan. I smirked. “Look at him!” Monica, concerned for the youth, whispered quietly, “The only difference between you and him, is Jesus.”

Monica was right. My smug sense of self-satisfaction, my snide superiority, my willingness to gloat over the failure of another all pointed in one direction: I had completely misunderstood, or even worse forgotten, the grace of God.

There are two ways to misunderstand grace: one is the way of self-righteousness: I assumed I was ‘more righteous’ than someone else because my life ‘looked better.’ The other is to fail to realise the depths of God’s goodness and love, and so fail to receive—and live in—the reality of this grace.

The two errors often are connected. The first error forgets that all of us lives only by the forgiveness of sins, not our own performance. The second error doesn’t quite believe that God can really forgive our sin. We still feel shame in our hearts and perhaps believe that we are beyond forgiveness. This shame is compounded when we believe that if others knew who we truly were and what we have done, they would never love us. Therefore, we learn to hide what we think is the ‘real’ me; we work harder, wear masks, and practise image-management, trying to earn our belonging, and prove our worthiness. We hide, and we perform.

Both errors indicate graceless community. The self-righteous person parades their own virtue and judges others—as I did, creating an environment where it is not safe to be less than perfect. They cannot create gospel community because they don’t believe the gospel. Their so-called righteousness is their own work and not the work of God’s grace. They have not learned to receive God’s love so they cannot show it to others. Where self-righteousness reigns, only moralistic communities are formed, and these can never become communities of grace and healing. Without a living experience of God’s mercy and grace we are like Adam and Eve in the garden, hiding from God—and from one another—in fear and shame. The possibility of gospel community is destroyed because self-righteousness destroys openness and trust.

Gospel communities are places of healing and growth because God’s grace has become real in the believers’ lives. We find a place where we are truly known, even in our sin, and yet deeply loved. We find a place where God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness is mediated to us through others. Convinced of this love, we take the risk of letting our masks slip. We begin to expose our struggles—our hearts—to another, and healing grace begins its work. Believing—experiencing!—God’s love and forgiveness through others, we learn to trust him more deeply—and to offer the same love to others. This is gospel community.

Picture Credit: Katie Workman

Center for Baptist Renewal Reading Challenge

I have only now become aware of this reading challenge from the Center for Baptist Renewal, and too late to join it this year, obviously. I don’t think I would have had time for it this year any way.

The list of readings provides a great introduction to the history of Christian theology, and maybe I will tick off the readings a little at a time. I have read only one of them entirely (Athanasius), though parts of many of them, but the idea of a systematic reading of twelve seminal works in twelve months is attractive. Though, given my time constraints I may well take longer than a month for each anyway. And it may be that I would swap some of them. For example, I have a copy of Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, but not On the Apostolic Preaching.

Worth considering, I think!

Let’s Get Growing (2) – in the Gospel

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in June 2021 (page 13), the second in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed” (Rom. 12:2). To the Corinthians he said, “We are being transformed into the image of Christ!” (2 Cor. 3:18). Yet it seems that this ‘transformation’ comes ever so slowly, especially in my own life!

Can our lives really be changed?
Can our lives be really changed?

Significant growth in a Christian’s life comes through a range of experiences, some unique to each person, others necessary for any Christian who wants to grow. All Christian growth is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit and involves a deepening engagement with Scripture and our response in prayer and thanksgiving. Trials, suffering, service, and ministry are also common catalysts of growth.

At the root of all Christian growth, however, is a fresh encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus is the gospel (Mark 1:1), and includes the story of his birth and baptism, his preaching and teaching, his healings and miracles, his parables and promises, his compassion and companionship, and supremely, his suffering, death, and resurrection. By returning again and again to the Gospels—prayerfully, studiously, hopefully, and in conversation with others—we open our lives to a transforming encounter with the gospel.

These stories speak to us, challenge, call, and commission us. They summon us to repentance and faith, to believe impossible things—and to hope for their reality, to a vision of the kingdom of God, to a life of companionship with Jesus, and to a participation in his mission.

So let’s get growing by reading, meditating, and pondering their message. And let’s do this in conversation with others in our small groups and at church. And with those who have written commentaries, and with the great preachers and theologians of the church. Let’s deepen our engagement with the gospel so that its message might penetrate the deepest corners of our minds, spark our imagination with new visions of life, and guide our decision-making and will in those directions.

But I want to say more.

If engagement with the gospel is the root of transformation, at the heart of the gospel is a message of grace. At the heart of the gospel is the story of God who has loved us, and turned to us, come to us, and suffered for us and in our place. God stoops to gather us up, even in our sinfulness and alienation, even in our opposition to him.

But this is a disruptive grace by which God not only forgives our sins but also claims us as his own. By this grace, he calls to us out of the life we have independently constructed, and into a new life of friendship and obedience. To be touched by grace is to know that we are profoundly loved—and confronted. When Peter saw Jesus’ majestic power and authority, he also saw himself with fresh eyes and cried out, “depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). That Jesus did not depart is pure grace. That he called Peter into a life of discipleship and service—this too is the same grace, and the two cannot be separated.

At the heart of the gospel—and therefore at the beginning of all Christian growth and transformation—is God’s gracious gift of the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), and of friendship with God (John 15:13). But only real sinners need apply! It seems that it is only as we face up honestly to our own willfulness, brokenness, and sinfulness that this grace captures our hearts with its transforming power. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds (Rom. 5:20)—and begins its healing work.

How might we experience this transforming and liberating grace? By turning again and again to Jesus, the Friend of Sinners (Matt. 11:19), coming clean with him, and with those we have wronged, and letting grace do its work. And by participating in communities of grace where the gospel of this grace is practiced and exemplified. We’ll talk about that next time.

Calvin, on the Theologian’s Pastoral Task

I came across this note as I read a little of Calvin this evening. I was in the Institutes I:14:iv on the doctrine of creation where Calvin is beginning his discussion of the angels. He writes to head off the kind of teaching that indulges in endless curiosity and speculation not tethered to Scripture. His words are still apt today:

Let us remember here, as in all religious doctrine, that we ought to hold to one rule of modesty and sobriety: not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word. Furthermore, in the reading of Scripture we ought ceaselessly to endeavor to seek out and meditate upon those things which make for edification. Let us not indulge in curiosity or in the investigation of unprofitable things. And because the Lord willed to instruct us, not in fruitless questions, but in sound godliness, in the fear of his name, in true trust, and in the duties of holiness, let us be satisfied with this knowledge . . . 

The theologian’s task is not to divert the ears with chatter, but to strengthen consciences by teaching things true, sure, and profitable.
(See: Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics. Editor: John T. McNeill; Trans. Ford L. Battles, volume 1:164.)

Calvin reminds us of the limits our knowledge and so counsels epistemological humility. It is evident that he views Scripture as an inspired and authoritative source of theological knowledge, and that what is given us in Scripture might be profitably taught, learned, and believed. But not everything we might want to know is given us in Scripture. Standing behind this admonition is Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Of course, not all questions are fruitless. Many questions are necessary if we are to understand Scripture in both its parts and as a whole. Many more are necessary if we are to understand its significance and relevance to our everyday lives. Calvin certainly understands this as his own work testifies. But he is against the kind of mystical or merely academic approaches to Scripture and theology that neglect what he considers basic: the pastoral purposes for which Scripture is given – something also found in Deuteronomy 29:29.

The pastoral orientation of Calvin’s theological work is clear. In this, he differs not at all from Luther–see my discussion of Luther’s pastoral theology. In the citation given above, Calvin provides a framework for discerning that which is pastorally useful: that which edifies and strengthens the conscience; that which nurtures godliness and the fear of the Lord, true trust, and holiness. We might want to add to the kinds of pastoral outcomes we seek to nurture in the lives of God’s people: engagement in community and mission, the pursuit of just relationships, concern for the poor, etc. Nevertheless, Calvin’s concern for trust, holiness and a good conscience before God is also warranted.

I found this a salutary reminder that theological enquiry is never an end in itself but a means of being drawn more deeply into a life of faithfulness before God, and a participation in his creational and redemptive purposes – as revealed in Scripture.

Let’s Get Growing (1)

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in April 2021 (page 4), the first in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

One joy in life for Monica and me at the moment is watching our grandsons grow from little babies to little boys. Each so beautiful. So energetic. So curious. So full of life and learning. So unique.

Some things are predictable, other things not so much. How exciting when they take their first steps. When they speak their first words. Their first tooth. Their first lost tooth! The eldest of our five recently typed in and sent me his first text message. They’re growing up!

But there was also the first surgery. Little worries about speech or sleep or habits we don’t want to see develop. We long for our children to thrive, to grow, to be well-adjusted, healthy, and to become mature. We teach and train them, slowly and (mostly!) patiently. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. But then something wonderful and wholly unexpected emerges, and we can only express wonder and gratitude at the incredible gifts God has given.

No wonder the apostles Peter and Paul could speak of Christian development in terms of growth from infancy to maturity (e.g. 1 Peter 2:1-3; Ephesians 4:13-15). Spiritual growth can also be messy and unpredictable. It doesn’t happen according to a fixed timeline or schedule. It does not follow a nicely ordered path through a predictable series of steps or phases. Sometimes we progress in spits and spurts, sometimes two steps forward, one step back.

In the case of a child, it is possible to grow old but not really ‘grow up,’ not really become a mature person, responsible and respectful, accomplished and active. The same is true spiritually: it requires a strong intention to become mature, as well as some understanding of what spiritual maturity looks like, and how a Christian might take steps in that direction. And if someone does become mature it is not merely the result of human effort; surely a miracle of grace has also taken place! Only by the work of the Holy Spirit can someone become spiritually mature.

And yet the Bible consistently calls believers ‘to grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18). It is clearly God’s intention that his children grow up!

Over the next few issues of the Advocate we will explore some of the patterns and dynamics of Christian growth and maturity. Some things are predictable, even in the midst of all the messy unpredictability. We can mature as hearers of God’s Word, mature in prayer or in service, in virtuous character, in Christian concern for all people, in knowledge or in hope. We hope you will join us as we learn together what it means to become mature in Christ.