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500 Years of Reformation

After our church’s bicentenary last year, you may not be aware that 2017 marks another important anniversary: it’s 500 years since Martin Luther unwittingly kick-started the Reformation – and the world has not been the same since.

Some people seem to think the Reformation was just a cause of unnecessary church splits and strife; although that is true in so far as Luther never intended to split the church, it definitely wasn’t unnecessary – people’s eternal salvation hung in the balance!

Still, you may wonder why we as Baptists should remember and celebrate the Reformation – I had a Twitter conversation in August about that very question. But even though the Baptist movement has spiritual roots from long before Martin Luther, it was the brave German monk whose resistance made it possible for anyone to read the Bible and oppose unbiblical traditions wherever they found them.

History is what made us what we are, and the reformation is part of our history. So this autumn we’re going to take a good look at what Luther said and did, and why it still matters 500 years later. And if you’re worried that it’s just going to be even more boring than usual, don’t despair – the spiritual and theological battles of the time are anything but, and the end purpose will always be to help us glorify Jesus and know the truth which sets us free. Which of course was exactly what Luther was after!

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God Uses Unique You!

You know what’s really fascinating? Yes, I’m sure you have many different answers to that question – and that’s exactly it!

It’s hard to exaggerate the wonderful variety in the world – God is incredibly creative, and he even incorporated that creativity into human DNA: even though siblings can be quite similar to each other and their parents, there’s usually enough individuality to set each and every one of us apart: unique creatures, capable of great good and (sadly) great evil; and all invited to become children of God and start sharing spiritual family resemblances through the Holy Spirit in us.

But even then, we are unique – and God can use every one of us. We tend to think that God would get on the best with people like ourselves (or is that just me?); but looking at the kind of people he’s been using throughout the history of the church will quickly disabuse of such pride!

Earlier this year I came across this quote from John Pugh, a 19th-century Welsh gospel preacher:

“Boys, they tell me that you are an awful set here, and that you were in the habit of throwing rotten eggs and mud at a dear old minister, who used to stand up here and tell you of Jesus and His love. I am not afraid of anyone in this crowd, but I am awfully afraid of myself, for if any of you should insult me and I lose my temper, I should surely mark that man.”

Now, that is not my style – and if I had been there, I might have taken him to task for such threatening behaviour… But he was mightily used by God and planted over 50 churches!

Christians have been wrong about politics, about economics, about baptism and bread-breaking and Brexit – and God has still used them. Churches have split for stupid, selfish reasons, and God has continued to use both halves. Immature Christians, stuck-up Christians, insecure Christians, drunken and immoral Christians, upright and judgmental Christians, old-fashioned Christians and hippie Christians – the Holy Spirit can and will use anyone who confesses the name of Jesus. Even you.

Yes, he might need to sort out your doctrine, deepen your love and increase your holiness – but he won’t wait until you have it all together. He can use you straight away, just as you are, as long as you let him. Just submit to Jesus, choosing to serve the Kingdom of God instead of yourself – and then stand back and see where the Spirit will take you!

 

Loving and Loving like a Disciple

It’s often been said that Brits don’t discuss money, sex or politics, and probably for good reasons: it’s either too personal or too controversial, and you don’t want to upset or alienate people. So isn’t it interesting that the Bible has so much to say about those topics?

It’s true that neither Paul nor Jesus discuss Brexit, pension funds or whether the HS2 should go ahead – but that doesn’t mean that your thinking on such issues shouldn’t be affected by your commitment to Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

On the contrary: if you’re a disciple of Jesus, all of life is subject to the Lordship of Jesus – no exceptions! So, when faced with an ethical or political or financial issue, your first question should always be: How would God be most glorified in this matter? And the second one, What would be the most loving – in the biblical sense! – thing to do?

Now, I imagine we will still arrive at different conclusions as to what is the best way to love our neighbours (and our enemies) as ourselves; but we should still ask those questions.

And when we find ourselves disagreeing, let’s start by agreeing on those primary goals: we want to glorify God and love our neighbour. That way we will at least have a common denominator and a common purpose, which must surely be better than assuming that anyone who thinks differently to us is a selfish heretic…

 

Replying to Brandon

[This post is a reply to @BrandonSeeSound who spent 1.5 hours yesterday going through my previous blog post Evidence of Evidence. You can listen to him here: https://www.pscp.tv/w/1yNGamDvNgbGj if you really must.]

 

Well, Brandon, I have to say I’m a bit disappointed. I was hoping for some serious interaction, a believable response to the things I listed as evidence, but that wasn’t forthcoming. There’s a fair bit of mocking and scoffing, and a number of “I can’t believe he’s saying this”, but you didn’t actually give any real factual counter-arguments. A number of times you don’t even seem to understand what I’m actually saying, which is very disappointing!

I was hoping for some serious interaction and a chance to sharpen my arguments, but if you can’t even deal with my putting “evidence” in quotation marks, what hope do I have? You clearly aren’t interested in a serious discussion.

Still, I’m going to comment on a few things you said, just because like the xkcd cartoon, I can’t stand people being wrong on the Internet…

Creation: You can’t possibly be blown away by me using the standard argument from creation, which BTW has not been demolished. I might need to add a few direct quotes, but still: you didn’t actually refute creation as evidence at all.

Morals: your discussion proves my point. You state that “we are becoming more and more moral as a people” – but on what grounds do you judge that 21st century values are more moral than 18th or 12th or 23rd century values? Your statement only makes sense if there is an external, absolute moral norm, which would suggest a divine norm-giver. Unless you believe that you are the absolute norm, of course, which would simply confirm my point: without a divine norm-giver, all norms are relative and subjective.

(BTW: I wasn’t arguing for any particular ethics, as some of your listeners seemed to think; my point is that the very fact that we believe in absolute ethical norms suggests the existence of a norm-giver. You missed this completely.)

Trial and error does not create improve morality; in what way would slave owners conclude by trial and error that abolition was good? By trial and error you could conclude that if you’re a lewd and dishonest bully, you can become POTUS, whereas being fair and honest and compassionate isn’t likely to get you very far in life… but based on my absolute, external standards, I still think the second option is better.

Bible: why do I compare Christianity to fairy tales? Because Richard Dawkins and many other online atheists talk about religion using exactly that terminology, and I think it’s slightly dishonest of you to pretend that they don’t. Same with “sky fairy” – I see that on Twitter quite frequently, much more often than “sky daddy”.

And my point wasn’t that Christianity is better than a fairy tale – my point is that Christianity doesn’t fit the category of fairy tale, and shouldn’t be treated as one. A narrative that makes serious claims to historicity can be dismissed simply because it contains supernatural events.

As for Mary’s virginity: you’re right that the Hebrew word can mean just “young girl” (although as you said, that would still imply virginity), but the Greek word in the New Testament unambiguously means “virgin”.

The church: I realise that I need to clarify that it’s specifically death by crucifixion that would have made the message so unpalatable. Crucifixion wasn’t heroic, it was the most shameful death you could imagine (it was illegal to crucify Roman citizens); so even though the idea of somebody giving their life for you might have some appeal in the non-Jewish world, getting yourself crucified would ruin it.

And the initial message of the early church was clearly the resurrection, not the Sermon on the Mount (remember that Paul’s letters were written before the gospels). The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t say much that other moral teachers weren’t already saying – but none of them had defeated death, and that was what the Christians were preaching.

Your repeated assertion that “all kinds of things could have happened” that caused Christianity to get off the ground is frankly ridiculous. “They met somebody looking like Jesus” ? Seriously? To my mind the birth of the church and the spread of the gospel is one of the strongest arguments for Christianity: what on earth could have made it happen? Maybe all kinds of things could have happened – but very few things would have had this result, and that is the evidence that you were supposed to examine.

(Last year I had a debate with another atheist who’d written a whole book about his alternative explanation, which was at least a serious attempt to answer this question. Your attempts were feeble at best.)

You did ask one serious question: “Is it possible that there was a man called Jesus who was the Best Jew and he … gained a lot of fame and then things got out of control and rumours spread?” At last an attempt at interpreting the evidence, but I’m afraid it’s not possible. If the authorities had really displayed the body of Jesus, there would be records about it in the contemporary Jewish records – but all they’re saying is that the disciples stole the body, which is highly unlikely. And if they did (or if the Romans had displayed the body), the ensuing persecution would have stopped the church in its tracks, since very few people are prepared to die for what they know to be a lie.

And it’s irrelevant (and tragic) that Constantine and Theodosius made Christianity state religion; the faith had by then already spread all over the empire, which is why Constantine decided to favour it to achieve unity.

To conclude: my point is that there is evidence for Christianity, in the sense of “relevant facts that have to be evaluated in order to reach a conclusion”. You even once reluctantly admit that these facts do constitute evidence. You kept saying it was very weak evidence; if so, it shouldn’t have been hard for you to demolish it. Instead you just mocked and implied that I don’t know what I’m talking about, which suggests that you can’t actually refute any of it.

I tried to avoid “conjecture” – my intention was to set out the evidence itself, to be examined by people like you. So it was a bit sad to see just how much conjecture you applied yourself in your reply!

You may disagree with my interpretation of the facts, or provide other facts that indicate that my interpretation is flawed (as in the case of cargo cults: once you know where the planes actually come from, the supernatural interpretation crumbles). But since you didn’t present actually any sensible alternative explanation of the evidence, my conclusion stands firm: the best explanation of all the relevant facts is that Christianity is true and Jesus is indeed risen.

 

Singing My Sermons?!

A couple of weeks ago I realised something interesting: almost all my sermons can be found on YouTube… in musical shape, performed by various Christian artists. So here you are: almost everything I regularly preach on, in a much more enjoyable format!

[Disclaimer: most of these videos are not official music videos and may not be approved by the artists featured; some of them are also not great artistically speaking. So, if you enjoy the songs, please go on to find them elsewhere, or listen to them on my special “Sermons in Song” Spotify playlist!]

God’s Nature: Rez Band, Attention

The Origin of Evil: Petra, This Means War

Messiah promised: El Shaddai

Messiah born: Casting Crowns While You Were Sleeping  

Messiah ministering: Larry Norman, The Outlaw

Messiah crucified: Petra, It Is Finished

Messiah Risen: Don Francisco He’s Alive

Original Sin: Theocracy, Hide in the Fairytale

Life without Jesus: Glenn Kaiser Band, Carolina Moon

Invitation to repent and believe: The Choir, Wonderful Scandalous Night  [Spotify version: the Lost Dogs]

It’s for everyone: The Electrics, There’s a Party Going on Upstairs [not on Spotify] 

Discipleship: Toby Mac, Backseat Driver

The Bible: Petra, Counsel of the Holy 

Prayer: Casting Crowns, What If His People Prayed

Jesus Return: Edin Ådahl I’m Waiting for You [Spotify: the Swedish version, which is much better anyway!]

Our Death and Resurrection: Petra, Graverobber 

What we should all be because of all this: DC Talk, Jesus Freak 

 

 

The Minister’s Musings (with Apologies to Will S)

To preach or not to preach, that is the question!
Whether ‘tis nobler for the Rev to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous doctrines
Or to take arms against a sea of falsehoods
And exegetically end them? To preach, to teach
Lots more – and by such teaching try to end
Confusion and the thousand natural whims
The church is prone to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished!

To preach, to teach.
To teach, perchance to judge – aye, there’s the rub
For from that judgment awkwardness may come
When we have shuffled off our Sunday best
And face each other in the aisle at Tesco.
Might make calamity of someone’s faith!

Thus conscience does speak caution to my soul
And thus the native hue of hermeneutics
Is moderated with some past’ral care
And Bible studies of great wrath and moment
With this regard turn into conversation
And lose the fear of judgment. –  Soft you now!
The service starts! – O church, in all your meetings
Be all God’s truth remembered…

 

Some Summer Suggestions

Summer is (hopefully) upon us – where are you during the summer? Outside enjoying the sun and heat as much as possible, or staying inside because there’s too much of it? It doesn’t matter which you do, as it’s purely a matter of personal preference – but there’s one thing you can do in either place: read a book!

Or even better, read several. If you have time on your hands, there are few things better than to read a good book. Even Paul missed his books in prison, and asked Timothy to bring them to him (2 Tim 4:13). And just in case you don’t know where to start, here are a few suggestions:

Mere Christianity; The Screwtape Letters; The Great Divorce – all by C S Lewis, of Narnia fame. All three help you grow in your faith – the first one is a quite comprehensive (but very readable!) overview of what Christianity is all about, the other two more down-to-earth and easy to digest, despite their serious subject matters (living as a Christian in the face of temptation, and some reasons why people end up not going to heaven…).

The Jesus I Never Knew; The Bible Jesus Read; What’s So Amazing about Grace; Church – Why Bother; Where Is God When It Hurts – all by Philip Yancey, a very able teacher with no illusions about how difficult and messy life can be. He grew up in a racist fundamentalist church in the American south, and that story alone is worth reading.

Red Moon Rising; God on Mute; Dirty Glory – all by Pete Greig, and all about prayer. I have recently decided I want to focus more on prayer (which can be harder than you think, even for a pastor!), and these books tell stories about answered and unanswered prayer, and about the God who is so much greater than our understanding and our limited experience.

Who Made God? by Edgar Andrews, defending faith from the perspective of a Christian scientist.

The Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw, and Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry: two homosexual Christians (one is an Anglican vicar) explain why they still believe homosexual activity is wrong.

There are so many more books worth of our attention: some are challenging, others edifying; some take weeks and some can be read in a few hours. So what are you waiting for?!