Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Reporter in Ambridge

Well, there are significant developments in Ambridge with Alan and Usha (for the background see posts under Ambridge) . A reporter from the local newspaper is prowling around trying to get a story. Originally, he got no response from the people he approached who thought it was none of anyone’s business. But now he has spoken to Susan, the wife of the new Church warden, who has been prepared to talk and give her opinion - anonymously, of course. When asked, she voices her opposition to the marriage saying that she thinks it inappropriate for a Hindu to be a Vicar’s wife. The reporter, whose name ironically happens to be Ross, is clearly very pleased.

You can imagine the headlines that there will be to this story!

This is all too believable. Reporters have to get a story and, despite our protestations to the contrary, we all like reading these sort of human interest stories. Sadly, for those involved, it is no fun at all. When I came here the schools my Church were associated with were regularly in the press and for all the wrong reasons. Some people like seeing their name in the newspapers, I can't say I much enjoyed seeing mine and my goal in the first year here was to get the Schools out of the press.

Anyway, Alan and Usha are fictional so it can't hurt them, but many people are living with this sort of attention in real life. Maybe we can spare them a thought and a prayer.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


Well Sunday has come round very quickly! I am getting ready for our Communion Service at 8.00am. Today my sermons will be on the verse from 1 Peter 3 about always being ready to give a reason for the hope that we have. My suspicion is that many of us don't know what the hope is in the first place! Going to heaven when we die? Getting on ok in this life? In the reading from Acts 17, Paul suggests it is a positive outcome at the judgement when God judges the world in righteousness by Jesus.

Which leads nicely into this the last in my series of radio talks!


5. Resurrection

St Paul writes to one of his churches:

‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures …’ (1 Corinthians

This is at the heart of the Christian message. Take it away and there is no Gospel, no good news, and Jesus’ life was just the life of another religious teacher. The Cross is the symbol of Christianity because the death of Jesus is at the centre of all that we believe. We believe that Jesus in his death demonstrated the love of our Creator for us and decisively dealt with human sin making forgiveness and salvation possible for all who turn to him.

All the Bible says may make sense logically, but how do we know that Jesus is in fact who said he was. How do we know that the Bible is right when it says that Christ died for our sins? How do we know that we can be saved by having faith in Jesus? This is where the resurrection comes in! Jesus really did die on the Cross and afterwards he was taken down and buried. But Christians believe that it was at this point, when all seemed hopeless and lost, that God intervened raising Christ from the dead and exalting him above all creation.

Death is terrible and there is no place in Christianity for the attitude that takes it lightly and pretends it does not matter. It does matter. It is the enemy of all that God wants for us and his creation. But it is not the end. Jesus offers us hope that death can be defeated and that there is the promise of life. It is a life which begins now, but which also continues for all eternity. Christians stake their lives on the resurrection. St Paul again:

‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.’ (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)

Christ’s resurrection guarantees our own future resurrection. We can face death, not flippantly, but nevertheless with confidence, trusting the promise of God that he will raise all those who hope in Christ. But God’s plan is greater even than our own individual salvation. He has a plan that encompasses the whole creation. The glory that the creation was always meant to have, sadly lost and marred by human sin, will be restored. The creation now in pain will be transformed to share the glory that is ours in Christ.

In the meantime, God is creating a people for himself under the Lordship of Christ. A people to know him and serve him. This people of God are drawn from all ages, races and backgrounds. They are one in Christ and although still imperfect are, through the grace of God, seeking to fight sin and evil in themselves and in the world.

The society we live in is often cruel, frightening, and lonely: its values futile and empty. But there is an alternative. Christ has made it possible for us to know God again and discover the purpose for which we were originally created. This is not some theoretical ideal, but something we can experience and which can change our lives, giving them meaning and purpose.

At times, the Christian message can sound somewhat unreal and unconnected with the lives most of us live. As we seek to express who God is and what he has done for us, words break down and fail us. How do we communicate thoughts that are themselves beyond our understanding? Yet Christians know that what they are experiencing in Christ is more real than life itself.

The love of God, the kindness and generosity of God, is overwhelming. And yet it is there, offered as gift and all we are asked to do is to accept it. Many choose not to. This world and its temporary glory are too enticing. But this world’s glory is a glory that quickly fades and is lost.

What God offers us in Christ is a glory that will never fade and which can never be lost.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

18. Life in the Spirit: No Escaping the Importance of ‘Good Works’

Well, the concert in Macau was every bit as good as I expected it to be! Angela Hewitt really is a talented performer. What was a very pleasant surprise was how good the Macau concert hall is. It is on the small side, but modern and very comfortable. The only problem with going to Macau for a concert is that it takes a ferry ride there and back, which means that it is quite late by the time you get home!

I am now looking forward very much to Angela Hewitt's visit to Hong Kong in the Autumn. In Hong Kong she is booked for two nights and will be playing both book one and two of Bach's, Well-Tempered Clavier. I just hope I can get tickets!

18. Life in the Spirit: No Escaping the Importance of 'Good Works'

As I argued in the last blog, in Paul, as in the New Testament and Judaism, eternal life is given with reference to how we have lived in this life. This troubles many Christians for it seems to re-introduce ‘works’ as the basis for salvation. It appears as though we ‘earn’ our salvation after all. This is an understandable reaction, but equally we need to listen to what the text actually says rather than simply following our theological traditions important though these are.

I came again across a wonderful text from Acts the other day while preparing a sermon. It is Paul’s words in his defence before Felix:

‘But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors, believing everything laid down according to the law or written in the prophets. I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept - that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience toward God and all people.’
(Acts 24:14-16)

Not everyone is comfortable with using Acts as a reliable guide to what Paul and others actually said, but this does seem a very good summary of Paul’s attitude. Paul did not see himself as departing from Judaism as such and accepted much that he had believed in his former life. As I have been arguing, how to become one of the righteous was a key idea in this. Paul disagreed with his fellow Jews and many Jewish-believers on how one became righteous. He did not disagree on the need to do so.

It followed for Paul, as again we have seen, that the righteous had to live righteously and God would judge whether in fact they had done so. This is why Paul does his best to have a ‘good conscience’. This raises the question of whether Paul allows a form of salvation by works in by the back door. Some think that he does and so embrace this by saying that the only works Paul is against are ‘works of Law’ - variously defined. He is not, they argue, against works as such.

At first glance there may seem to be some support for this in Ephesians. Again, it is worth noting that not all are convinced that Ephesians was written by Paul. I think we should accept that it is, or that at the very least it faithfully embodies his teaching. We read this:

‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’ (Ephesians 2:8-10)

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace … (Ephesians 2:15)

It could be argued that Paul is simply against works of Law because these were what separated Jew and Gentile believers, but that he was not against good works, which were required of all believers. However, we need to remember all that we have said so far not least that when Paul discusses the Law. He dismisses an ongoing role for Law by reference to what is sometimes called the moral law. Notice too how here he stresses that this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works so that no-one may boast. But surely our good works can be something that we boast in as well as Jewish works?

This has led some to argue that good works are evidence of faith and salvation but not the basis for it. John Calvin, who certainly cannot be accused of making works the basis for salvation wrote in his Commentary on Romans:

‘It is quite nonsensical to insist that there is a fire, when there is neither flame nor heat.’

This is certainly a way forward, but again, in Paul, works seem to have even more importance than simply as evidence. They seem in some sense to be the basis on which our future judgement will be made. Indeed, Paul does not assume at any time that the judgement will automatically be favourable for either himself or the believer. In Galatians, he seems to suggest that bad works, if we can put it like that, might actually lose a believer their salvation.

Consider this verse:

‘Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.’ (Galatians 6:7-9)

And this earlier. Having listed the works of the flesh he writes:

‘I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ (Galatians 5:21)

Taken together and with what Paul says elsewhere, not least in Romans, it does seem that Paul sees what we do as Christians as being more than simply illustrative of faith, though they are that, but more than it appears that they be the basis on which we will be judged.

If we are to take Paul seriously we will not receive eternal life without good works. Now someone who believes that good works illustrate faith will do good works and so the question of whether they are simply evidence of faith or the cause of a positive judgement is in a sense an academic question as in any case eternal life will be the result! It seems clear, even if we come to the conclusion that we will not receive eternal life because of our good works, that we certainly will not receive it without them. In this sense, Paul is a lot nearer James than sometimes it is thought. You will remember that James rejects the notion that we can be saved by faith alone without works.

Next I will try to be more precise about how I think Paul sees good works working!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Musical Interlude

I am quite excited this morning as later today I am going to Macau to listen to a concert to be given by Angela Hewitt. Angela Hewitt is a well-known pianist who, at present, is on a world tour playing Bach. Her playing of Bach has met with great critical acclaim. She is back in Hong Kong in the Autumn, so I am hoping to catch her again then!

When I came here in 2000, Macau was a relatively small, quiet community, which had formerly been a Portuguese colony. Its transformation in recent years has been incredible. It is often described as an ‘Asian Las Vegas’. This description itself shows how people in the West still have not woken up to what is happening out here and in India. Last year, Macau took more money in gambling than did Las Vegas. Perhaps the time is coming when Las Vegas will be described as an American Macau!

Hotel and Casino building has been phenomenal. As in Las Vegas, the big hotels all invite well-known performers. Celine Dion has been here and many others will follow. Thankfully, Angela Hewitt’s concert will be in the Government’s Cultural Centre not as grand, admittedly, but with perhaps some more integrity. She certainly has more talent than most of the celebrities that will pass through Macau as bait to punters to throw away their money with each throw of the dice!

One famous Las Vegas performer was Frank Sinatra who famously sang of how he did it ‘my way’. In his song, he sang, ‘regrets I’ve had a few, but there again, too few to mention’. I often think of this line. I’ve heard many people quote it of themselves. Personally, as I get older, the more regrets I find I have: some serious, some less so. (Perhaps they may make a blog series in the future or would that be too depressing?)

One regret I certainly have, one of the less serious ones, is that I never learnt to play a musical instrument. I have to say that I have no-one to blame for this, but myself, but looking back I wish I had made the effort to learn even if I might never have been that good.

Growing up, I had little interest in classical music. That I think is probably typical of most young people. However, as I became a teenager I was ambivalent in my attitude to popular music as well. As a Christian with a certain theological outlook, pop music seemed worldly, if not of the Devil himself, and I listened to little of it. (Anyone interested in knowing more should see the blogs under Personal Journey). As I studied more, however, I moved away from this attitude and began to enjoy popular music.

I remember, though, the first classical concert I went to. I would have been in my early twenties. A friend had invited me to go with him. It was held at the Royal Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool. The orchestra was playing Elgar. I can clearly remember thinking how superior the music and playing were to all the bands and popular music Liverpool was so famous for. It was not that the bands weren’t enjoyable in their way just that they could not compare to this. Since then I have listened to classical music for pleasure without understanding it greatly (in a theoretical sense) and enjoy classical concerts very much.

As I see people walking round with wires dangling from their ears, bombarding themselves with the endless noise of mass manufactured, talentless bands, I remember this moment in Liverpool and wish that more people could share the joy of truly great music. Tonight Angela Hewitt will be playing the first book of Bach’s, The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were amongst the first pieces that I used to listen to for pleasure after discovering the joy of classical music. And I have recently been listening to and appreciating his music more.

Listening to Angela Hewitt play Bach tonight in Macau with its bright new casinos, I will think how her playing and his music illustrate how we were originally created in the image of God, capable of great beauty and creativity, and of how far we have fallen into ugliness and greed.

Monday, April 21, 2008

17. Life in the Spirit: Fulfilling the Law

I hope you aren't finding this series too long or too boring, but I would like to continue it while I feel I still have something to say!

17. Life in the Spirit: Fulfilling the Law

We are now in a position to bring together Paul’s statements about the Law, statements that many have seen as contradictory and inconsistent.

Paul had been brought up under the Law and had been deeply devout in his observance of it. Despite what some commentators seem to think he did not come to a negative assessment of it when he became an Apostle of Christ. He may have reached a negative assessment of our ability to keep it, but that’s another matter. For Paul, the Law remained God’s Law and so was holy, spiritual, and good (Romans 7:12-16).

Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ led Paul, however, to an entirely different view of its role. It remained holy, but Paul saw it as having a different purpose to the purpose he previously supposed it to have. Before he became an Apostle, he had seen the Law as a means to righteousness and had been blameless in his keeping of it (Philippians 3:5-6). He became convinced as an Apostle, however, that righteousness was no longer by the Law.

The problem and the reason why righteousness could not be by the Law lay in human weakness and inability to keep the Law (Romans 7:23, 8:7). Paul goes to some lengths to establish that humans are sinners, under the power of sin, and incapable of pleasing God by how they live. The Law, he believed, was never intended as a way of dealing with sin or as a means of righteousness and life. The Law’s role was to show sin for what it was. The Law pointed to the righteousness that God required, but did not provide the means to obtain it.

Now that righteousness by faith has come, the Law’s work is done. Paul can say he upholds the Law because he acknowledges the Law’s place in God’s plan and by receiving righteousness by faith he receives that to which the Law had pointed all along. In a few places, Paul talks of the ‘righteousness of God’. This phrase has aquired a life of its own in much recent discussion of Paul’s view of righteousness and the Law. For some, it is seen as something of a technical term with an established definition. Alongside many older writers, I don’t think this is right. The righteousness of God and the righteousness of faith are one and the same thing. I don’t think I can put it better than one very recent writer:

‘The righteousness of faith is the righteousness of God, in the sense that faith is the true righteousness, on the grounds of its validation and affirmation as such by God.’ (Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism and Gentiles – Revised Edition, page 236)

Now we have received the gift of righteousness from God, we have also finished with the Law (Romans 7:1-6). Christ is the end of the Law (Romans 10:4) both in the sense that it is to Christ that the Law pointed, but also in the sense that in Christ the believer has died to the Law and been discharged from it. We no longer need the Law not because it is bad, a suggestion Paul specifically refutes (Romans 7:7), but because it has done its job.

This, however, does not mean that believers can do what they like. It is understandable that some may draw this conclusion. After all, Law had regulated human behaviour in the past, what was to regulate it now? It seems that some, even within Paul’s churches, may have thought this was the logical conclusion to be drawn from Paul’s teaching. In Corinth, for example, some were arguing that all things were lawful for them (1 Corinthians 6:12) and in Galatians, while Paul asserts that the Galatians are free from the Law, he also warns:

‘For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.’ (Galatians 5:13)

As we have seen, Paul rejects any notion that the believer can continue in sin. The believer is to be a slave of righteousness (Romans 6). But we are slaves of righteousness by a completely different way to that of the Law:

‘But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.’ (Romans 7:6)

It is the Spirit who now makes it possible for the believer to live a life pleasing to God as a slave of righteousness. The Spirit is the key to living in Christ. It is the Spirit who enables the believer to fulfil the Law (Romans 8:4). The believer fulfils the Law in the sense that the obedience to God to which the Law pointed, but did not empower to achieve, is now to be seen in the life of those who live according to the Spirit.

It is this obedience that will be judged on the Day of Judgement. This also explains some of the enigmatic statements Paul makes in chapter two of Romans. Paul writes:

For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.’ (Romans 2:6-8)

It is not the hearers of the Law who will be righteoused (justified), writes Paul, but those who do the Law (2:13) He speaks of Gentiles who do instinctively what the Law requires thereby showing that the Law is written on their hearts. In chapter two, those who patiently do good seeking for glory and honour and immortality, those who do the Law, and those who instinctively do what the Law requires are those who are in Christ and, specifically in this chapter, Gentiles who are in Christ. What is more Paul goes on to say:

‘Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law.’ (Romans 2:27)

Paradoxically, ‘keeping the Law’ here does not mean keeping all its written commandments, but keeping the Law in the same sense as we fulfil it, that is, by being obedient to God in the Spirit.

One final thing perhaps should be said about the Law. For some this really is all too radical and they want to see the Law as having some ongoing role for Christian living. The way they attempt to do this is either, as we have seen, by arguing that the moral law of the Old Testament is still valid or by arguing that the Christian should keep what they call the Law of Christ, which they see as including, amongst other things, part of the Old Testament Law.

I am not happy with this because I do not think it is what Paul says. It comes, I think, from a fear of being without any written code to live by. I will discuss living in the Spirit in the future, but I do want to address just briefly this idea of a Law of Christ. Those who argue this sort of position argue that when Paul speaks of Christians not being ‘under law’, he means specifically the Mosaic Law and that he does not have law in general in mind. This opens the way for a new Law, the Law of Christ.

The reason I am unhappy with this distinction between types of Law is that I think what Paul says of the Law, referring to the Mosaic Law, by definition applies equally to law in general. Those who argue for a Law of Christ would include in it most of the ten commandments, but it is from these that Paul quotes to show the ineffectiveness of the Mosaic Law. If we are dead to the Mosaic Law, we are dead to these as well. Paul doesn’t simply reject individual commandments of the Law as being valid for Christians, but law as a way of doing things, the very principle of law, in fact. Yes, he does have things to say specifically of the Mosaic Law, and when he speaks of Law he normally means the Mosaic Law, but much of what he says about the Mosaic Law applies to any form of law, even if it is made to sound acceptable by calling it the law of Christ.

Attempts to rehabilitate law as way of serving God by calling it the Law of Christ miss the point of what Paul says about the Spirit and undermines the centrality of the Spirit in the life of the believer.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


You would not believe the weather here at the moment. Actually, it is probably much the same as it was this time last year - except that this is the first very heavy rain we have had for some time. You tend to forget what it can be like over the dry season so when the rainy season starts it is something of a shock. At least it is not hot, well, not by Hong Kong standards at least.

My leg is still sore so I am still feeling sorry for myself, but the good news is that I managed to finish my sermon ahead of time! St Peter says, in the build up to the reading for the day, that it would not be right for him to 'neglect the Word of God to wait on tables'. He wouldn't survive long as a Vicar then: not with that sort of attitude!

Anyway, here is the next in the Series of Radio talks!

Happy Sunday!


4. While We were still Sinners

Over the past few weeks, I have been focusing on the bad news of the Christian message. The bad news is that we have become separated from the One who made us, have become obsessed with alternative gods who are not gods at all, and in the process have picked up a deadly infection, which we are powerless to cure by anything we, ourselves, can do. We are lost, alone, and helpless. What is more we face death, not just physical death, but spiritual death. We are staring into a dark and frightening eternity. We need saving.

It is against this background that the Bible introduces Jesus. There are so many different views of Jesus: a prophet, a teacher, a moral example, a good man. And Christians would want to assert that there is truth in all of them. Jesus did challenge those in power and in the name of God denounced those who did wrong and who exploited the poor. He did teach and his teaching has inspired people of all ages to reach beyond themselves and to do what they can to help others and to improve the world for all people. He was a moral example: he did not simply tell people what they should do, he demonstrated it in his own life and actions. People were drawn to him because he was genuine. He was a good man, who people wanted to know, and simply by him being himself, he inspired people to want to change.

And yet those who knew him best, those whom he chose, and those to whom he entrusted his message, were convinced that although he was a prophet, a teacher, a moral example, and a good man, this wasn’t all there was to him and, indeed, they were convinced that these weren’t the most important things about him. Jesus, they believed, revealed the person and character of God, but, even more than this, he was God’s way of showing us his love and of rescuing us.

What has been described as the golden verse of the Bible says this:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16) It continues:

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’

Saved, rescued, healed. They are all different ways of saying that God, out of love for us, decided that he had to intervene personally to help us. We were powerless to help ourselves and there was no other way. It is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, placating the wrath of an angry and vengeful God. (Although if God isn’t angry at what we are doing to ourselves, each other, and the world in which we live, he must be a pretty peculiar sort of God. Aren’t you angry when you see evil at work?) But no, it was God’s idea, and it was Jesus who was willing to put it into practice. God did not do this when we were being nice to him, he did this when we were rebelling against him and rejecting him - as we continue to do to this day. St Paul puts it this way:

‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:6-8)

Jesus life and death were no accident of history. Each Easter we think again of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ death and the people involved in it. All the Gospel writers are convinced that though he was the victim, he was also the one in charge. They are certain that death was an option he submitted to because this was the way that God had decided he would save you and me from our sin and its consequences. The crucifixion is not an event that Christians pass over to get to the happier news of the resurrection, the crucifixion is central to what we believe about God and ourselves.

In the first talk in this short series, I quoted a verse from St Paul:

‘For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’

Unfortunately, if predictably, our reaction to God’s new act of creation, as he seeks to rescue us from our sin, has not been any different to our reaction to the first. St Paul puts it this way:

‘For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:18)

The message of the Cross, that is, of Christ dying for us, to many sounds like foolishness, but for those of us who have put their trust in it, and are even now experiencing the healing it brings, it is the power of God.
An Announcement at the AGM

Well it's now out in the open. Alan and Usha have announced their engagement (see previous blogs under Ambridge for an explanation of the background). One man apparently walked out of the AGM, but he is not a character we actually ever hear in the programme. Susan, who is married to one of the new churchwardens disapproves, while Neil, her husband, doesn't see the problem. Many inside and outside the church are very happy for them though. What we are all waiting to hear is how Shula, the other churchwarden reacts. Susan suggests she is not happy.

Susan makes for me the quote of the episode. Speaking to Neil she explains that 'when you marry a Vicar, you marry the congregation'!

At the moment the way the scriptwriters are writing it, the impression being given is that anyone who disapproves is a narrow-minded, racist bigot, which is how I imagine most of the writers would think in real life!

It will be interesting to see how they write Shula who is a character at the heart of the programme. They did a good job with the family reaction earlier. They managed to capture the disapproval without making those who disapproved sound stupid. Maybe we'll find out on Sunday!

Oh perhaps I should mention that Shula a few years ago had an affair with Usha's then partner breaking up Usha's relationship. There is certainly plenty of material for the writers to work on!

Friday, April 18, 2008

16. Life in the Spirit: Preparing for Judgement

It's Friday! It's been a difficult week not least because I have been hobbling around with my ankle. It's not quite right yet, but it is much improved. Here at any rate is the next in the series on Paul and on Romans. Tonight in the fictional world of Ambridge it is the AGM and the Vicar is going to make his announcement to the Parish. It's nice to be able to listen to the goings on in another, albeit fictitious, parish. It helps take my mind off some of the problems in a real one! I'll let you know tomorrow how it goes.

Have a good weekend.

16. Life in the Spirit: Preparing for Judgement

Modern Christians do not give much thought to the idea of judgement. We rather assume that God is too nice to judge people and certainly too nice to exclude them from his presence altogether. As I have constantly tried to stress in this series, however, the idea of judgement is absolutely central to what Paul writes and, indeed, to the whole of the New Testament. It is legitimate for modern day Christians to say they no longer believe in it, but they should at least have the integrity and honesty to admit that it is there.

Personally, I don’t see how you can get rid of the idea of judgement and still keep anything else: it’s that central. If the concept of judgement goes, everything else goes because everything else is tied to it. And not just in Paul. In John’s Gospel there is a very clear statement of what is, in fact, the assumption of all the New Testament writers:

‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.’ (John 5:25-28)

This was the belief of all the New Testament writers as it was the belief of every section of Judaism. Again, it is the common belief and assumption in both Judaism and the New Testament that judgement will be by works. It sometimes goes unnoticed that even for Paul judgement will still be by works. This he could not spell out more clearly than he does in Romans chapter two, but it appears throughout his letters as well. All of us without exception must appear before the judgement seat of Christ where our works will be judged.

This is something that many Biblical interpreters and theologians, not to mention Christian preachers, find very hard to come terms with. Surely Paul teaches we are saved by faith, not by works? Isn’t that the whole point of what Paul writes? For those who think like this, chapter two of Romans with its emphasis on judgement by works just doesn’t fit. Consequently, some argue that Paul must be talking hypothetically. If people did do what was right, then their works would count, but, of course, we all know no-one does do good works in the way God requires and so salvation is by faith instead. Others argue that Paul has just carried over his old Jewish way of thinking and hasn’t thought it through properly!

I think we have to accept that Paul was sufficiently intelligent to be able to think clearly and consistently about an issue as important as this whether we agree with him or not! Furthermore, it doesn’t sound as if he is talking hypothetically. It sounds as if he is in deadly earnest describing what will actually take place. If he is talking purely hypothetically, then he hasn’t made himself very clear.

It is important to remember what I have stressed earlier in this series, namely, that Paul does not say we are saved ‘by faith’. Never. We are saved by grace, certainly. Through faith, definitely. But not by faith. Nor is this splitting hairs over words. The reason that people assume that Paul says we are saved by faith, and the reason it comes as a surprise to them to discover that he doesn’t, is because righteousness and justification clearly are ‘by faith’ and for many justification and salvation are one and the same thing.

Again, however, as I have stressed, while they are intimately related justification and salvation for Paul are not the same thing. The distinction can be seen most starkly in Romans 5:9:

‘Much more surely then, now that we have been righteoused (justified) by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.’

At the risk of repetition, righteousness is a gift we receive through faith in the present. It is not a future event waiting to happen or one that is somehow read back into the present. It really is something that happens now. And Paul believes that it is those who even now are righteous by faith who will be saved at the future judgement. This is the whole point of his opening statement to the argument in Romans 1-8:

‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous by faith will live.’’ (Romans 1:16-17)

The phrase ‘will live’ means will receive eternal life passing the judgement and escaping God’s wrath and destruction.

But the judgement itself will still take place on the basis of what we have done and only those whose lives are pleasing to God will live. Paul could not be clearer about this. In Romans 6, he emphatically tells us that now we have been forgiven and set free from sin we must no longer continue in sin. We who have received the gift of righteousness through faith must now be slaves of righteousness. This doesn’t mean that God simply forgives us our past sins and then leaves us to get on with it. Not at all! Rather the gift of the Spirit is given to enable us to do what formerly ‘in the flesh’ we were unable to do. Lives of righteousness are now a possibility.

Lives of righteousness are not, however, an optional extra. It is not that we are righteoused (justified) by faith and then don’t have to worry too much about how we live afterwards as we know we will be saved anyway. Paul dispels any such notions with the following words:

‘So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh - for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’ (Romans 8:12-13)

Paul could hardly be more clear. He is talking to those who have been righteoused (justified) by faith and who have received the Spirit. He expects them now to live righteously by the power of the Spirit. This is why he can say that the righteous requirement of the Law is fulfilled in us. It is not that we now obey every written command we see in the Law, but that the obedience to God to which the Law always had pointed is now possible, by the Spirit, for those in Christ. Paul is elaborating in chapter eight on a statement he has already made in chapter seven:

‘But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.’ (Romans 7:6)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

15. Life in the Spirit: The Remaining Problem of the Law

It's been a bit of a funny week for me so far. Over the weekend I hurt my ankle without really knowing how. Of course, I had no alternative but to stand on it on Sunday so it was rather sore by Monday. I have since been trying not to walk or stand on it to give it a rest. So far so good. Fortunately, I have been able to rearrange most of the things that required me to use it!

This next post has taken quite a time to write. I am conscious that while Paul's view of the Law may be hard to understand, books and articles about it are often even harder. Sometimes, I think, writers just go out of their way to be difficult to understand! Anyway, I apologize if this is not as clear as it should be, but I can promise that I have at least tried!

15. Life in the Spirit: The Remaining Problem of the Law

As we saw at the end of the last post, Paul writes in Romans 8:4 about the righteous requirement of the Law being fulfilled in us. Paul has made other seemingly enigmatic statements about the Law previously in Romans. In Romans 2, for example, he writes of Gentiles who do not possess the Law ‘doing instinctively what the law requires’ (Romans 2:14). He goes on to say that they show that the Law is ‘written on their hearts’ (2:15). Again, later in the chapter, Paul says that for the uncircumcised who ‘keep the Law’, their uncircumcision will be regarded as circumcision (2:26) and that Gentiles who ‘keep the Law’ will condemn Jews who do not (2:27). These statements have caused endless debates between scholars and commentators on the Epistle. Is it any wonder when Paul in just the following chapter says this:

‘For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.’ (3:20)

Paul’s whole point is that no-one can keep the Law because of sin. What on earth then does he mean when he talks about Gentiles ‘who keep the Law’? I will return to this later.

There are other puzzling comments. In chapter 3, Paul says the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from Law, but that it is ‘attested to’ by the Law and prophets (3:21) It is faith, not Law, he argues, that righteouses (justifies), but he then says:

‘Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.’ (3:31)

Some of you may remember Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ fame. Bishop Robinson was also a New Testament scholar who worked on the original New English Bible translation. Working with him on this was anther scholar called C H Dodd. Bishop Robinson, in his short book on Romans, tells how when they reached this verse in their work, C H Dodd exclaimed, ‘What rubbish!’ I think this is a wonderful quote. How can Paul of all people claim to be upholding the Law? Other scholars, more recently, have argued that Paul is simply inconsistent in what he says about the Law.

Certainly, we can imagine Paul’s opponents also saying, ‘What rubbish!’ Indeed, when Paul arrives in Jerusalem not long after writing this letter, he meets with James and the elders who say to him:

‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.’ (Acts 20:20-21)

Paul’s reputation was as one who preached against the Law. The advice that James and the elders give Paul is that he should prove this isn’t true by publicly going through the Jewish rite of purification with four men. It convinces no-one, however, and, ironically, this advice leads to Paul’s arrest and subsequent trip to Rome! How then can Paul say he upholds the Law and keep a straight face?

One of the excuses made for Paul’s apparent lack of clarity on the Law is that his letters are ‘circumstantial and situational’, that is to say, he is not writing an essay on the Law or any other subject, but dealing with specific issues that have arisen in his congregations. Now it is, of course, true that all Paul’s letters, Romans included, are circumstantial and situational. But the circumstance and situation of the letter to the Romans is precisely a circumstance and situation related to the issue of the Law. Frankly, if Paul is inconsistent in the course of this one letter, a letter in which the issue of the Law is so central, then his letter must be judged a failure.

Before reaching this negative conclusion, however, it might be worth seeing if Paul is more consistent than he is sometimes given credit for being. I have been interested in what Paul has to say about the Law for many years now, and have read much on the subject. I have read the accounts that see him as unclear and inconsistent. However, I just don’t see the inconsistency and lack of clarity. I think that Paul is perfectly clear when you listen to him on his own terms. Doubtless there is more we would like to know and questions that we would like to ask about the implications of what he says, but what he says, I am going to suggest, is clear enough. The statements that jump out, and which I have highlighted in this post, do actually all hang together, I believe, very well.

I’ll try to show how in the next post!

Sunday, April 13, 2008


It's my normal routine for a Sunday. Up early, a cup of coffee, check my email and the news in case anything has happened overnight that I need to know about before the service, and then any last minute preparation. I have a baptism today. Only three families, which is small by our standards. This is because the application season for the schools is largely over for this year! Enough said.

Here is the next in my series of radio broadcasts on Salvation.

3. Not the Way to Salvation

John Calvin, the 16th century theologian begins his greatest work, and one of the most influential books of all time, with these words:

‘Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.’

St Paul reminds us that we as humans have, generally speaking, declined the offer of knowing God. We have preferred to go it alone, and it has got us into a right mess. A mess that the Bible describes as sin. Much of the time, we have no problem with this: we rather enjoy being selfish and self-centred, but sometimes we realize the damage we are doing to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. We become conscious of the emptiness of our existence and of the futility of our pursuit of material possessions. It is at this point that we start to search for something beyond ourselves that can give meaning to our existence here.

This is perfectly understandable. St Augustine said to God in a prayer: ‘you have made us for yourself and our hearts our restless until they find their rest in you.’ Sometimes we become aware that there must be someone out there, a god, who is bigger and greater than us. We sense that if we can find him, we may find the meaning of our life and a purpose to our existence. After all, if He does exist then it is he ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ so that only by finding him can we find the secret of life.

Sadly, this at times intuitive knowledge, this sense that there really must be a god - a sense which humanity has had for all its existence - is not always accompanied by a similar knowledge of ourselves. We still think we are in a position to do a bargain with God. ‘I’ll show an interest in you if you will reveal yourself to me.’ ‘I’ll show you this interest by doing good works, by being religious, by trying not to do bad things, in return I expect you, god, to do your bit. After all that’s what I deserve. I am not a bad person, am I?’

It’s like a sick person with only days to live planning a cruise next summer in the Bahamas. We just don’t realize how ill, how sinful, we are. We are infected to such an extent that, even if we wanted to, we would be incapable of doing any good that would merit our Creator showing any interest in us. We are, as an ancient prayer expresses it: ‘powerless of ourselves to help ourselves’. We don’t need to do a deal, we need rescuing, we need someone to intervene and help us.

The first step to finding the God we have rejected and lost is to realize how desperate is our situation, how great is our need of him, and how incapable we are of doing anything to win his favour and attention, how impossible it is for us to do anything that might please him, because anything that we do carries the infection that afflicts us. But we are proud. We do not want to admit our weakness, our failure, our powerlessness, and our need.

But the Bible tells us, honestly and categorically as a doctor must tell a seriously ill patient, that we are sick and unless we accept the treatment being offered, we will die. We can continue to pretend that we are not ill, that we will soon get better, that we do not need to undergo treatment, but at the end of the day we are only deluding ourselves and as surely as night follows day: we will die.

It’s not a message we want to hear. We do not want to be lumped together with murderers, thieves, and cheats. But these are just specific manifestations of the sickness we all have. And it is one we need outside help for. St Paul puts it like this: ‘the good that I would I do not, the evil that I would not that I do … Wretched man that I am? Who will rescue me from this body of death?

The first stage in getting better is to accept that you are ill and that you are not going to get better unless you get help quick. To find healing it is essential we are realistic about the seriousness of our illness and wise enough to seek out professional help to deal with it. The Bible is clear that we ALL need help and that help cannot come from ourselves, it has gone too far for that.

Who then can help us? How can we find healing? How can we be saved?

St Paul says:

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith …

The word ‘Gospel’ means good news. The Christian message is good news, but it is only good news once we have heard the bad news and it is only for those who have faith, that is, for those who realize that there is nothing that they themselves can do!

But faith in what or whom?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Alan and Usha Update

Not a lot to report on the Alan and Usha engagement (for those who haven't a clue what I am talking about, see previous posts under Ambridge!) However, Usha now has an engagement ring, the date has been set for August, the wedding will take place in St Stephen's in Ambridge, and Rachael, a friend, has been asked to officiate at the ceremony. They have decided to include Hindu prayers in the service.

All they have to do now is tell the parish. Next week, it is the Church AGM. They have decided to 'slip in' an announcement under Any Other Business. It's all building up for the most amazing explosion. My experience as a real Vicar is that AGMs get everyone a bit tense even when there is no need for them to be. Precisely not the time, in fact, to make a personal announcement that you know is bound to be controversial. I am sure that the script-writers are aware of this and hence are doing a good job at showing church dynamics in action. My bet is that there will be resignations from the Church Council. My money is on Shula, one of the main characters, to be one of the first to go.

You will be amongst the first to know!

It's Friday already and I need to get our weekly Newsletter done for Sunday. Have a good weekend whatever you are doing.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

14. Life in the Spirit: Receiving the Spirit

I am just off to a meeting with the Education Bureau here so I am posting this now in case I don't have a chance later. As I say below, it has taken Paul some time to get to the Holy Spirit in Romans. Now he has, he shows how central the Holy Spirit is to living the Christian life. As we shall see over the next few posts in this series, what he says is very radical indeed. No wonder he got into trouble if this was the sort of thing he said!

I hope your week is good!

14. Life in The Spirit: Receiving the Spirit

Quite amazingly, in Romans Paul has only mentioned the Holy Spirit a couple of times before chapter eight. These are suggestive references certainly, but it is only now in chapter eight that he discusses the Holy Spirit. The terms in which he does so show that his hesitancy hasn’t been because he thinks the Holy Spirit unimportant, far from it, rather he has been waiting until he has dealt with sin, righteousness, and the Law. Having written in chapters six and seven that the believer should live a life of righteousness, and having shown why this is impossible through the Law, he now turns to the secret of living lives pleasing to God.

Paul has said in Romans 5 that it is through the Holy Spirit that God’s love is poured into hearts. Now he is even more dogmatic:

‘Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ (Romans 8:9)

For Paul to have the Holy Spirit is an absolute and fundamental requirement. Paul assumes that if anyone is a believer then they have received the Holy Spirit. However, this is not simply an academic assumption, a theoretical deduction that we make, for Paul having the Spirit is something that we should know about. It is through the Spirit that we ‘cry, Abba! Father!’ (Romans 8:15) This is the language of experience, feeling, and relationship. Paul would find it inconceivable that a person could have the Spirit and not know about it.

This is not to say that he limits what form that experience should take or reduces it to a particular expression, but if someone has the Spirit, they will know. They will be able to answer the question that Luke records Paul asked the Ephesian disciples:

‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ (Acts 19:2)

It is a simple question to which Paul expects a simple answer. It is important to repent of sin, to have faith in Christ, to be obedient to the Gospel message, but a person will get nowhere if they haven’t received the Holy Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 2:12-14, Paul describes how the Holy Spirit is essential in understanding what God wants to give us:

‘Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.’

It would be interesting to explore the significance of this for theological study. Is the confusion we encounter in Biblical interpretation partially due to the fact that it is often carried about by those who are not, as Paul would put it, spiritual? But that is an issue for another day!

By giving us his Holy Spirit God enables us to live life in the dimension of the Spirit rather than in the dimension of the flesh. The Spirit sets us free from the Laws which keep us enslaved to sin in the dimension of the flesh and makes possible the life he has told believers in chapter six they must live as ‘slaves of righteousness’. But even more startling, Paul tells the Romans that the Spirit makes it possible for us to achieve what has hitherto been impossible:

‘… so that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’ (Romans 8:4)

Paul has gone to great lengths to show how it is impossible for people to keep the Law because of sin. Righteousness, he has explained, cannot come by the Law or by the works of the law. He has told the Romans that they are now dead to the Law, freed from it and do not serve God in that way. In Galatians, he warns the Christians that they are not to return to the Law.

So what does he mean by this statement about the Law being fulfilled in us?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

13. Life in a New Dimension

Quite a difficult post today. I will try to make the next one in this series more straightforward!

13. Life in New Dimension

Peter says that there are some things in Paul’s letters that are hard to understand. For me we have come to one of them in this post. Again, the secret is to keep one’s eyes on the big picture and not get bogged down in the minute details of the text. Paul’s main point is, I think, clear.

Paul makes it plain that everyone is already condemned because of sin. This condemnation is not something that is waiting to happen, but is something that has already taken place. The final punishment of those who are condemned may yet lie in the future, but humans stand condemned already:

‘For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings righteousing (justification).’ (Romans 5:16)

Paul then makes the following point:

‘But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through righteousing (justification) leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ (Romans 5:20-21)

This leads Paul into an explanation of why we should not continue in sin and then what the purpose of the Law was. Subjects discussed in previous posts. This explanation occupies chapters 6 and 7. Paul in these chapters discusses two laws:

1. The Law: God’s Law that includes what we know as the 10 commandments and such commandments as circumcision and the food laws. This Law is good, holy, and true. How could it be anything else?

2. The Law of Sin and Death: this is a Law that all are subject to, whether they like it or not, and it means that we cannot keep the Law even though it is good. Paul has explained in chapter 5 how this means that we all stand condemned.

Then in chapter 8 he writes:

‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’ (Romans 8:1-2)

I have always felt that this verse follows slightly awkwardly from what immediately precedes it. Paul has been talking about our inability to keep the Law and then says ‘There is therefore now no condemnation …’ How does the ‘no condemnation’ follow from what he says about our inability to keep the Law? The answer, I think, is to see Paul returning to his argument in chapter 5, the last time he talks about ‘condemnation’ and the ‘therefore’ as referring to what follows. It is what follows this opening statement in chapter 8 that explains why there is no condemnation for those in Christ. There is, says Paul a third law to add the other two: the Law of the Spirit of Life.

We are given the Law, God’s Law, but cannot keep it because of the Law of Sin and Death. It is because of this failure that we are already condemned. However, for those in Christ, the third law, the Law of the Spirit of Life has set us free from the other two, that is, from both God’s Law and from the Law of Sin and Death. Given that it was these two Laws working together, in an unholy alliance, that resulted in our condemnation, now that we are set free from them means that we are no longer condemned.
It is not that we will not be condemned in the future, we are no longer condemned now. Not only have we been forgiven our past sins, we have been freed from sin and the two Laws that meant we kept on sinning even when we did not want to.

Paul goes on to explain that there are two dimensions that people live in. The dimension of the flesh and the dimension of the Spirit. The flesh is the dimension we are all born into and in which the first two Laws apply (God’s Law and the Law of Sin and Death). The Law tells people in this dimension what God requires of them. The Law of Sin and Death, however, stops them from doing what God requires and the result is condemnation and death. In the future, all those who are now condemned will experience the wrath of God. Paul has explained in chapter two what awaits those who are condemned:

‘For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.’ (Romans 2:6-10)

Our only hope is to be righteoused (justified) now and then to live righteously. By being righteoused (justified) in the present our past sins can be forgiven. By living righteously as slaves of righteousness now, we can escape the future punishment of the unrighteous. If, however, we are to live righteously, we need to enter life in a new dimension where the Laws of the old dimension no longer apply.

This is the dimension of the Spirit and it is the dimension in which we, as those who have faith in Christ, are to live.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


It is 7.30am just time to post the next of my recent radio talks before early morning communion. The weather has become very hot here this week which means feeling very hot in the robes we wear for services!

Have a good first day of the week!


2. Sin

So what went wrong? If God made us to know him, love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him for ever in the next. How is it that not only do we not seem to know him, but have made rather a mess of the rest of the creation as well. The Bible describes what went wrong using the story of Adam and Eve. For most Christians this is a parable although some think it is meant to be taken literally. All are agreed, however, that it is what it teaches about our relationship with God and our present condition in the world that matters most. When we read Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, we don’t argue about whether there actually was a Good Samaritan. For all I know Jesus might have known a Samaritan who behaved in this way, the point of him telling the story, however, is to teach us to show compassion even towards our enemies.

What the story of Adam and Eve is meant to teach us is that the knowledge of God was open to us and we chose instead to reject God and go our own way. We, like rebellious children, preferred to do things our way and not to have anything to do with the God who made us in the first place. It is this that the Bible calls sin. Sin has been defined by taking away the s and the n. What you are left with is the letter in the middle: this is what sin is, I. I: thinking that what matters most is me, that I am at the centre of the world, and that it is my interests, my desires and my concerns that matter most and before anyone else’s.

This sin, this self-centredness and selfishness, leads to what the Bible describes as sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth – the traditional seven deadly sins. It also leads to environmental pollution, genetic manipulation, accumulating excessive wealth, inflicting poverty, drug trafficking and consumption, morally debatable experiments, violation of fundamental rights of human nature – the modern Vatican list, which has recently received some publicity in the Press.

We may smile condescendingly when religious people talk of sin, whether in traditional or modern ways, but when children suffer from allergic reactions to chemicals discharged into the atmosphere, when young girls are forced into prostitution to satisfy a rich man’s lust, people are beaten up and robbed because of someone else’s greed, - and the list could go on - it just doesn’t seem so funny any more.

Of course, we all disapprove of this sort of behaviour in principle - and principally in others, but the Bible’s point is that we are all guilty to a greater or lesser degree: we all manifest the symptoms of the same disease. Some may be at a more advanced stage than others, but all of us have it, and it is a deadly disease that leads to death. Not simply physical death, which would be bad enough, but spiritual death. You and I, who were created for life, are subject to death, and it is because both of the sin, which is a common factor of human existence, and of the sins that we knowingly and willingly commit each day.

It’s not a happy story! And it’s not one that even Christians like to talk about nowadays. While bad news may sell newspapers and play well on television, it doesn’t fill churches. But make no mistake the bad news we see on television, relentlessly, day by day, is a consequence of the same disease that infects us all.

The Times invited several famous authors to write essays on the theme, ‘What's Wrong with the World?’. One writer, G K Chesterton, made his contribution in the form of a letter:

Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton

Human beings, created by God in the image of God to know God and to be happy with him for ever, chose - and choose - instead to do their own thing and to ignore God. As a consequence, we have become infected with a deadly virus, which destroys ourselves, those around us, and the planet we inhabit. We desperately need to find a cure before it is too late both for us and for our world.

The Bible tells us that there is a cure. In the language that the New Testament was written, the verb ‘to save’ from which we get the word ‘salvation’, means ‘to heal’. The good news of Christianity is that there is a cure, there is salvation. But we will only be able to be cured when we are prepared to admit we are ill, and that, sadly, many of us are not prepared to do.

Smoking kills! We all know that, but many of us prefer to go on smoking. Sin kills too, but, sadly, many of us also choose to go on sinning rather than seeking help. But for those who are willing to give it a try there is help. There is the offer of a cure. There is hope.

There is salvation!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

An Unholy Alliance?

Well, first Mabel, mother of Alan's deceased wife, laid in for the Christian fundamentalists against his plans to marry Usha, his Hindu girl-friend. Mabel believes a Christian, especially a Vicar, should not marry a member of another religion. She is now praying that Usha will be converted. Alan seems to regard this with some amusement. Apparently converting Usha is not something that has occurred to him.

This catches liberal Christianity very well. Respect for other people means accepting them as they are and not trying to convert them to your point of view. This is a long way from Orthodox Christianity, which wants everyone to find the love of God in Christ. Alan is presented as loving Usha so much that he doesn't want to change her. In the Bible, loving someone means you want them to come to faith in Jesus.

Now, however, it is the turn of Usha's Hindu family. Her Aunt Satya acts as the spokesperson telling Usha that the news has broken her mother's heart and that if she marries Alan she will be cut off from the family and community and it must not happen. Usha is worried that Alan will feel that if they go ahead with the marriage they will be being selfish and wants more than anything for the marriage to take place despite what their families may think. Alan, however, reassures her by telling her nothing will stop him from marrying her.

I should say that seasoned Archers listeners will now be convinced the marriage won't happen because when someone makes this sort of statement, it is usually an indication that the scriptwriters intend the precise opposite! I can't wait for the news to be released to the congregation and village. It will be interesting to see which characters line up in favour of the marriage and which are against it.

Watch this space!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

12. Romans 1-8

If you have been following this series, you will know by now that I have not been following a strict plan, but have been allowing the subject to develop as I have gone along. That's part of the fun in writing blogs, but I hope it hasn't all become too long-winded. I have found it very useful being able to think these subjects through again. They are after all at the heart of the Christian faith. Today I want to try to move on to think about how Paul sees the Christian life and what it means to be someone who has been righteoused (justified) by God. And it is, I think, a bit different to how most of us think of it.

12. Romans 1-8

I have on my bookshelf several commentaries on the book of Romans. Some are very detailed; every word of the letter is pondered over and analyzed. This kind of study has its place and can help us in interpreting and understanding Paul’s message. But we need to be careful. We can get so bogged down in the detail of Paul’s message that we fail to hear the message itself. We need to see the picture as well as analyzing the paint.

In Romans, we have what Paul refers to as ‘my Gospel’. He is sending it to Rome so that they may know the message he preaches and will know what to expect when he comes. Paul is only too aware of how people misrepresent both him and his message. He refers to some of these misrepresentations in Romans and tries to answer them and clarify what he means.

Chapters 1 to 8 of Romans deal with the subjects I have been discussing in this series on Paul. They remain hotly debated and argued over today. I don’t think they are as unclear as is sometimes made out, but then others who take a very different approach to me feel the same!

As is well-known, Paul states his argument in the opening chapter:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ (Romans 1:16-17)

I actually prefer the translation, ‘The one who is righteous by faith will live’, but the main point is much the same.

Scholars are agreed that this is an important statement, but does it cover just the argument in the first part of Romans or in the whole letter? My own opinion is that this is a statement of the argument in the first eight chapters, while the following eight chapters work out the implications of the argument in certain key areas. But others think it applies directly to all the chapters. Whatever, all are agreed that it does at the very least apply to chapters 1 to 8.

Paul is seeking to explain why it is we need saving and why faith is so important. We need saving, argues Paul, because even now the wrath of God is being revealed against all unrighteousness. Who is unrighteous? We all are: both Jew and Gentile. We are all sinners under the power of sin. It is no good Jews boasting that they have the Law, the fact is that they do not keep the Law. Jews and Gentiles all need righteousing (justifying), but righteousness cannot come by the Law. How then are we to be righteoused (justified) so that we can escape the wrath and judgement of God and in the future receive eternal life.

Paul is categoric: only by faith. It is because of what Jesus has done for us by dying for us that God will count our faith in Jesus as ‘righteousness’. Faith in Jesus righteouses (justifies) us. Being righteoused (justified) results in the forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation with God from whom we are alienated because of our sin.

All this takes place in the present. However, as I have already argued previously that’s not all there is to it: there is still a future judgement that we will all have to face. Believers need not fear condemnation on the day of Judgement, but can look forward with confidence to the gift of eternal life. One thing I do find interesting is that nowhere does Paul say salvation is by faith. We are righteoused (justified) by faith certainly and salvation is for those who have faith, but we are saved by grace through faith. This takes us to chapter 5 of Romans.

And that’s where many Christians stop. Once this much has been said they do not feel that there is much more to say. Paul, however, has quite a bit more to say. In particular, he wants to answer the question about sin and the believer. This he does in chapter 6, which leads him into a discussion of the Law and the believer in chapter 7, followed by a discussion of the Spirit in the life of the believer in chapter 8, with a wonderful concluding paragraph about the love of God to finish this first section of the letter.

For Paul, it is inconceivable that the believer should continue in sin. Believers are to behave as slaves, not of sin, but of righteousness. They have died to sin and are freed from it and from its power. They are now free to do what previously, because of the power of sin, they were not able to do. As for the Law, believers have died to that as well. The Law is no longer a factor in the believer’s life and experience. This obviously raises the question as to why the Law had been given in the first place. Paul’s answer seems to be that the role of the Law was to reveal sin and show it for what is was. It was not the role of the Law to free us from sin, but to point to where freedom was to be found.

What I find interesting, challenging, and problematic is the way that Paul seems to assume that it is possible for believers not to sin. I know all the arguments on this subject, and I am not suggesting that Paul believes in sinless perfection in a Wesleyan sense, but reading Romans 6 it certainly sounds as if Paul expects the Christian to be able to resist sin and overcome it in a way that is just not possible for those who are not believers. Just take this statement, for example:

‘We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.’ (Romans 6:6-7)

Most Christians today, I would suggest, know no such thing. We find sin to be a very real presence, power and force. What is more, Christians, while sincere and genuine and doing their best to be good, don’t live especially better lives than many other people, atheists included. It is a problem that needs to be taken seriously.

I will return to it in the next post in this series when I will start to discuss what Paul has to say about the Holy Spirit and the final judgement.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Inter-Faith Marriage

One thing you have to say for Alan, the fictional Vicar of Ambridge in the BBC Radio series the Archers, is that he is a brave man. First, he tried to remove the pews from the historic Village Church – unsuccessfully, thankfully! Now he has proposed to his girlfriend. Nothing wrong with that except that Usha, his girlfriend, is a Hindu. Usha’s family are not exactly ecstatic, but Mabel, Alan’s mother-in-law is absolutely opposed to the union.

Now I had better explain. Alan is a widower. Mabel is the mother of his dead wife. Mabel is a pretty fundamentalist, black Christian. She is a decent, kind person who wants Alan to be happy and who likes Usha. She just does not think that a practising Christian, especially a Vicar, should marry someone of a different faith. The news hasn’t got out yet to the wider parish. I imagine the scriptwriters are going to have fun with this one!

It is a serious issue, though, and raises many more. Alan is on the liberal wing of the Church and is presented sympathetically by the programme writers. Alan is the sort of Vicar many non-Christians like. He believes in God, but doesn’t go on about it and puts social action at the top of the agenda. I wonder where this story is going to go. Will Alan and Usha marry whatever the reaction? Or will they give in to the opinion of some sections of the community? My problem is that I like Alan and Usha as characters and so find myself supporting them.

But when you think about it, surely Mabel is right?