Monthly Archives: June 2017

Taking the Bible for granted by being Biblical!

Australia has been affectionately dubbed ‘the lucky country’. Many Australians interpret the term lucky as a synonym for blessed—a land of ‘golden soils and wealth for toil.’  However, when Professor Donald Horne first coined this oft-misquoted phrase in his 1964 book The Lucky Country; he was actually implying the opposite. Horne believed Australia’s prosperity was mistakenly based on ‘good luck’ and not ‘good management’: ‘In the lucky style we have never “earned” our democracy. We simply went along with some British habits.’

Australians like the idea of a secure, safe, and prosperous country—they believe it is a right. However, vigilance in keeping it safe, secure, and prosperous is often insincere. Despite the benefits of security and material prosperity, Australians constantly complain about paying taxes and the rising cost of protecting their borders. Yet in Professor Horne’s estimation only those who live in a fool’s paradise naively claim ‘prosperity’ as a right. Horne’s challenge is straight-forward, if we take our privileged position for granted, it won’t be long before it is lost.

Horne’s thesis, by way of analogy, represents a timely challenge for Evangelical Christians and their reliance on their Biblical heritage. We have been trading on the good will of the Reformation for nearly 500 years, claiming the privilege of its hard-won truths as our ‘god-given’ right.  However, are those of us who stand in this tradition, taking for granted the Bible as ‘God’s Word?’

We believe in the ‘idea’ of the Bible; we uphold the concept of an ancient text which supplies a cogent foundation for our doctrinal systems; we rejoice at the message of eternal security it offers; we claim its theoretical foundation for our ministry endeavors; and embrace its conceptual framework for a religious and moral way of life.

But, do we really treat the Bible as if we are dealing with the very words of God; living words that teach, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness, even when its truth is inconvenient?  Furthermore, when the pages of this sacred book are opened, is it simply providing the content for our next: sermon, devotional talk, bible study, or daily life-lesson; or do we ‘really’ see it as God’s life-transforming Word?

As you know, the Bible has spawned an entire industry: University departments devoted to its detailed study, publishers print versions of the Bible for every conceivable human situation, there are Bible commentaries, Bible Colleges, Bible Societies, Bible Camps, Bible Land Tours, Bible software etc.

Now I am not suggesting there is no value in any of these things, but I do want to draw our attention to the fact that the machinery of religion which has grown out of the Bible can easily subsume the Bible (as God’s Word) if we are not careful. Is the very thing given to prevent us from falling into idolatry, in danger of being distorted into a source of idolatry, providing us with a secure religious existence outside of a vital dependence on the God of the Word?

The casual familiarity of the people of God in Isaiah’s day, provide a tangible example of those who had forsaken a living relationship with God in exchange for contrived forms of religion that upheld the theoretical authority of God’s Word, yet ignored it’s personal challenge. Isaiah pointedly reminded them that religion within this frame is abominable to God (Isa 66:3).  He challenged God’s people to renew their vision: ‘But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.’ (Isa 66:2 ESV)

That familiarity breeds complacency there is little doubt, as it seemed the lessons of Isaiah failed to sway  the Pharisees, those, who in Jesus’ time held a high view of the Bible, but in their familiarity with it  failed to grasp its personal challenge.

Assuming the privilege of a Biblical heritage may make us feel secure, but unless we embrace it with a sense of humility and awe we will never actually understand what the Bible is saying and why!

Although a critical reading the Bible has value as a scholarly endeavor, in actuality the Scriptures were intended to be read in a pre-critical manner, a manner that  doesn’t ‘simply’ subject the Bible to technical examination, but approaches it as Holy Scripture that has been given to lead us an increasingly richer relationship with God—with all that entails.

Reading the Bible with a humble expectation of God challenging  us, we see it less about gaining a correct technical interpretation and more about encountering the God of the Word, with all the life transforming consequences that attend this.

Yes, it may be a privilege to stand in a Biblical tradition, but never forget what the Bible is, why it was given, and who gave it. If engaging with it doesn’t lead you to a deeper and richer life of obedience, then just maybe you might be allowing your devotion to be biblical to trump the bible?

Amazing Grace: Behind the Hymn

On the 21st of March 1748, a belligerent John Newton encountered the grace (merciful favor) of God for the first time. In reflecting on his impassioned plea to God in the midst of a violent North Atlantic storm, Newton first expressed the well-known words, ‘How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.’

However, it would take further 25 years before those initial reflections took final form in the mind of this one time slave-trader. In 1773, as an ordained minister of the gospel, Newton was preparing his New Year’s sermon as he poured over the text of 1 Chronicles 17:16,17 with keen interest. The scripture revealed King David’s meditations on God’s favor, and in those words Newton found voice for his own expression of gratitude.

The converted slave-trader believed that unless a Christian is bestowed with a thankful heart in view of God’s mercies, then any comfort gained from the Lord might be lost; and in reflecting on David’s words wrote, ‘They lead us to a consideration of past mercies and future hopes and intimate the frame of mind which becomes us when we contemplate what the Lord has done for us’. It was this contemplation that finally manifested itself as the hymn Amazing Grace!

Before his death in 1807, Newton composed his own epitaph. It read, ‘John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he long labored to destroy.’ This epitaph bears witness to the power of the divine grace that had: delivered him from certain death, emancipated him from the bondage of a profane life, transformed him into an agent of mercy, and above all redeemed him from eternal condemnation.

Any discerning reader would have little difficulty in ascertaining the powerful effect God’s grace had on him. However, unlike many Christians who misinterpret God’s abundant grace as a pretext for a life free of obligation (moral or otherwise), John Newton was possessed by a view of grace that compelled authentic loving devotion. The grace that had saved ‘a wretch like him’, arrested his whole life, inspiring him to  ‘pay it forward’ as a: loving husband, devoted friend, caring pastor,  faithful preacher, concerned writer, passionate hymn writer, and indefatigable advocate of human rights.

It shouldn’t surprise us then, that grace was so powerfully expounded in the words of a former slave- trader; given that the Apostle Paul employs the metaphor of slavery to describe God’s grace to us.

The Apostle doesn’t view grace as a gratuitous action of God that merely finds expression in personal assurance, but also affirms it as a ‘new state’ in which believers now stand (Rom 5:1-2).  For Paul, grace is more than a ‘attitude or action’ of God, it is an entirely new ‘dominion’ that God establishes. God’s grace doesn’t just free us to live as we want (Rom 6:1-2), but establishes a divine sovereignty that implores loving devotion. Having been freed from the realm of slavery and established in the realm of God’s favor ‘in Christ’, through dying ‘with Christ’ (Rom 6:6), we are no longer ‘slaves’ to the mastery of sin and its power (Rom 6:6).

Now, raised ‘with Christ’ we enter this new domain, free from: the bondage of sin, the condemnation of the Law, and the fear of death. Within this dominion of grace, the Christian is freed to be a ‘slave of righteousness’ (Rom 6:18). This is not an administration of fearful duty, but a state in which the love of God compels joyful submission to Christ’s lordship. Such submission invariably bears out the fruit of holiness and the assurance of eternal life (Rom 6:22).

Therefore, having been transferred from slavery to sonship, the Christian should no longer controlled by fear and guilt, but be compelled by a grace-conditioned love. Not only so, but within this ‘new’ dominion of divine favor, the authentic believer is free to live a life that pleases God– ‘in the Spirit’ (Rom 8:3-12).

If we can grasp this, then I suspect we are well on the way to understanding the motivating force behind John Newton’s comprehension of grace. God’s grace is amazing, but understanding this grace goes well beyond contemplating the ‘ideas’ sentimentally enshrined in the world’s most famous hymn. In fact, the hymn writer’s greatest appreciation of grace was powerfully revealed in his life; a life that knew the bitterness of slavery to sin and then the joy of liberty ‘in Christ’. His was a life immersed in God’s divine grace, which bountifully overflowed in loving service to others.

For John Newton, the wonder of grace was not something only to be admired, but a ‘state of being’ to be embraced and lived out. It was more than a truth limited to the lines of a beautiful hymn, but was most powerfully manifest in the story of a beautiful life. Such a life is not extraordinary–it is the norm for those who truly comprehend God’s amazing grace!

Sin,Shortcuts, and Small things

The quality of our ‘life’ in general is the product of our daily lives, our daily lives are the product of moment by moment decisions, and those decisions are the product of how self- aware or attentive we are. Whilst I have always known this as a general truth, it was not until I started to break down the particulars of my daily life, that I truly noted the potential impact that these small decisions and actions  we having on my  relationship with God.

As you know, life in the 21st century is fast paced. Indeed, technology augments this pace and enables us to do things so efficiently that we can often overlook the ethical/moral implications of those fast-paced actions. Let me give you an example, I have acquired a new accounting program that enables me to enter the details of all my business-related expenses (including a photo of the receipt) into my Smartphone as soon as I make a purchase; this then uploads instantly into the program’s server, recording it in the expenses ledger; its brilliant –no more logbooks.

Invariably, when I buy fuel at any petrol station I am also in the habit of purchasing a $1 coffee with a sausage roll (especially at 711) and including it with the fuel purchase on the credit card payment. Of course, the $3 I spend on food is not usually tax-deductible, but because it is on the fuel receipt and is such a small amount I just include the whole lot as fuel as a tax-deductible expense. I was doing this, not because I maliciously wanted to  defraud the government of the few cents in tax, but only because it ‘seemed’ too much of a hassle to differentiate the  two different expenses from an accounting point of view; after all I am too busy to bother with these small matters—right!

But you know, the wrong thing is the still the wrong thing—even if it’s just  a tiny thing.  It doesn’t matter if its a few cents that no one will ever know about or a big thing that will land you in jail.  When you think about what sin is and how it happens, it’s more complex than maliciously deciding to do the wrong thing. In fact, mostly its a spur of the moment decision that represents a simple short-cut. For example,  theft (stealing) is taking the short way of getting something you can legitimately acquire–if you could just patiently take the time to gain it the right way. In fact, in many instances, the difference in doing the wrong or right thing involves little more than taking a few seconds to think about it.

However, small sins and big sins affect the quality of our relationship with God in exactly the same way, even though they may not affect ‘you’ in the same way. In grieving the Holy Spirit (often through thoughtless disobedience) we can dull our sensitivity to God’s will, which in turn has an exponential effect hardening our sensitivity to bigger and bigger deviations from the truth, potentially leading us to a place where we can become  ‘relationally’ far from God— even while we  think we are ‘OK’ with God. From personal experience I have found its a dangerous place to be!

I learned a long time ago that small actions in your life can make a big difference. Both, small acts of disobedience and obedience alter the quality of our relationship with God, and consequently the joy and peace you have in life. How well we pick up on those small challenges and small opportunities depends on our self-awareness of that relationship; but that takes time! But, if  we allow the busyness of life to determine our agenda, we may soon find that those little insignificant short-cuts will lead us away from the very one who promised He would provide for our every need, if we would just seek first ‘his kingdom and his righteousness’!

I must be a slow learner, but I have been reminded,yet again, that shortcuts in small things can start a drift away from that place of intimate fellowship with the God and the joy and peace that attends it. God loves us and wants to provide for our every need, and give us fruitful life that comes with obedience to his will. I think, if we are willing to slow down and live on God’s agenda, even in the tiny things of life; in the end it will make a big difference. We will be more aware of God, his will, and ourselves—much more at peace. Who knows we might just find out that God’s provision is sitting right in front of us,whereas before we were just too busy to see it.

Demystifying Christian Mysticism

Surprisingly, many conservative Christians recoil at the idea that Christianity might be considered mystical or even spiritual!  For these, the very thought of mysticism conjures up notions of delirious individuals caught up in a mindless state; controlled by religious cult leaders , mysterious eastern religions, or new age gurus.  As such, to entertain any form of religion that might be deemed ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ is to take the first step on the slippery slope toward fanaticism. For such as these, the only valid alternative to this alleged error is to adhere to a strongly rational or objective form of religion that relies on a rigid  interpretation of texts or known traditions.

The Protestant emphasis on the Word of God,  filtered though the theological frames of scholars such as the 19th century theologian Charles Hodge (who presented the faith in a highly rationalistic manner) and the 20th century theologian Karl Barth (who theoretically negated the subjective elements of faith within his theological system)–both in reaction to a certain form of religious pietism–have, in no small part contributed to an acculturation of an anti-mystical sentiment among conservative Protestants. Moreover, in more recent history,  a strongly negative reaction to the rise of Pentecostalism—with its alleged emphasis on ‘introspective’ spirituality and ‘enthusiastic’ behavior–has also succeeded in engendering a deep suspicion of things spiritual/mystical.

However, developing  a view of Christian spirituality based on reactions to perceived theological error or religious fanaticism is no way to develop a legitimate understanding of the spiritual dimension of the Christian faith.

Christianity is not a rationalistic philosophical system. In fact, Christianity is primarily a faith-oriented religion that relationally connects humanity with divinity. In the Gospel of John we read that God is spirit. Now given that God is ‘essentially’ spirit, and given that God necessarily engages us in various ways, it should necessarily follow that some kind of spiritual and or mystical dimension to this relational engagement is simply  unavoidable. However, it is at this very point the potential for error and misunderstanding arises.

If mysticism is understood as a purely intuitive and unmediated mode of communion with the divine, it falls within the category of what Albert Schweitzer calls God mysticism.  God mysticism implies that God can be engaged in a direct or unmediated sense, and that the so-called gnosis (knowledge) that is conceived in the experience of this mystical engagement, has the capacity to override  all other forms of authority: reason, tradition, and Holy Scripture.  However, as tantalizing at it may be to think that we can have a direct line to God, this is not the kind of spiritual experience validated by the witness of the Bible.

The Apostle Paul ( one of the first and primary advocates of Christian spirituality) knows nothing of this direct and unmediated union with God. Rather, Paul speaks of a union with Christ (the divinely appointed mediator between God and humanity). In many of  his letters, Paul’s uses rich in-Christ language to describe the nature of his intimate relationship with God. For Paul, union with Christ is much more than a logical belief in the life and acts of the historical Jesus vis-a-vis  a rational union of human and divine wills; rather he intimates a union with the risen Christ as a present existential reality: ‘I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me…’ (Gal 2:20NIV).

Now we know that Paul was not literally crucified with Jesus Christ, nor does Jesus physically live in him, so what does he mean by this? The 16th century French theologian,  John Calvin offers this  explanation: ‘He [Paul] does not live by his own life, but is animated by the secret power of Christ…believers live out of themselves, that is, they live in Christ; which can only be accomplished by holding real and actual communication with him’. But, how is such a life of communion animated?

Calvin and those who understand what is going on with Paul, know that this ‘real and actual’ communion is only possible through  the secret power of God’s presence–the Holy Spirit.  Indeed, a  legitimate belief in Jesus Christ and ongoing relationship with God through him, is only possible within a spiritual dimension. In fact, without the Spirit of God engaging us, God is, on a relational level, effectively unknowable.

However, this  ‘in-Christ’ mystical union through the Spirit, does not imply that:  the church, the bible, and even theological reflection are superfluous.  Indeed, Paul’s concept of spiritual union with Christ does not presuppose an introspective, spiritualistic, or private pilgrimage of faith free from external constraints. Rather, Paul conceives his personal union with Christ, in terms of a larger context of a communal union with other Christians within the Church and under the authority of God’s direct revelation,  a communion he metaphorically calls the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

In the Church the Holy Spirit endows Christians with specific gifts to bring to bear the teaching of the Holy Scriptures in an instructive way into the lives of its members.  Moreover, the Spirit that calls Christians who are ‘in-Christ’, into the body of Christ, is the very Spirit that insures that the material testimony of the Spirit (the Holy Scriptures) is not subsumed by introspective God-mysticism, but actually regulates the ‘in-Christ’ experience.  Not only so, but the Holy Spirit also gifts Christians with abilities to encourage, help, heal, and minister to others, that through the medium of divinely animated human charity they might also have a tangible experience of  divine love.

Demystifying mysticism should not come down to a flight to the ‘safe-haven’ of a rationalistic adherence to religious texts or tradition based tribalism, motivated by a fear of fanaticism. In fact, sound theology is rarely, if ever, achieved by taking and becoming entrenched in reactionary positions. Yes, error and perceived error might be a catalyst to think these difficult things through, but defining what we stand for in reaction to what we stand against, more often than not, blinds us to the real truth.  I would suggest conservative Christians, who wish to come to a clear understanding of Christian spirituality,  begin with a simple and humble reading the New Testament. When the kind of spirituality that is evident in, and validated by, the New Testament is carefully observed, the necessity to take extreme positions is removed. I know it sounds too simple, but for those who really do believe in the authority of Holy Scripture, I can honestly think of no better place to begin the quest for demystifying mysticism.