Wednesday 31 December 2014

The End of 2014: The Sad Spiritual Condition of the United Kingdom

As 2014 draws to a close, a sad chapter in the history of the United Kingdom begins. One of the disadvantages of having such a blessed spiritual past, such as this nation has had, one that at one time was so committed to Christianity and the sending of gospel missionaries around the world, is that the dismantling of the Ten Commandments for everyday life seems all the more worse. Who could have imagined that in 2014 that we could expect better moral guidance from Russia than from the government of the UK? I know that the UK government take the moral high ground, but it is baseless, it is post-modern humanism based upon subjective assumptions, all in the name of democracy. Who knows what democracy means in such a time of flux? Democracy in the UK now enforces its new moralism upon all and it discriminates against all who disagree with her.

Let me give two examples of the sad spiritual condition of the United Kingdom.

1. The passing of the same sex couples legislation.

In the summer of 2014, the UK government to their great delight, passed this landmark bill. All major parties united together to move Britain into a new era. The Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, till death they do part. This biblical truth has not changed, but the UK government now openly contradicts biblical law at its most basic point.

It will take wisdom and courage for true Christians and true churches to make their stand against secular anti-Christian and humanistic forces. We can and must positively promote the biblical view of marriage, even though when we do so, the world will wrongly charge us with being bigoted. This is a dictionary definition of bigoted: "Having or revealing an obstinate belief in the superiority of one's own opinions and a prejudiced intolerance of the opinions of others". We must therefore, in humility, defend the biblical position on marriage and with courage against a bigoted opposition.

However, we must realise that this UK government is not happy to simply protect vulnerable individuals and I certainly do not advocate homophobia or the bullying of people with contrary opinions. But the UK government now want to positively discriminate and actively promote its new definition of same-sex marriage in all levels of education, civil services, the NHS, Universities, and of course the government's vehicle for change, the BBC. This is where the challenge really lies as Christians consider how best to respond to the ever-widening net of secularism on the frontline of life and their vocations.

2. The unveiling of the first woman bishop by the Church of England

Liberalism is Christian religion that places its own opinions above the plain and express teaching of the Bible. The Scripture is clear in its teaching that: "If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife ..." (1 Timothy 3:1-2). How then can the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby announce that he is delighted that the first woman bishop will soon be in post? It is because the senior hierarchy place their opinions higher than those of the written Scriptures. It is impossible to be a woman bishop, or to submit to the authority of a woman bishop and to be faithful to Jesus Christ the head of the church at the same time. Another crisis continues in the State Church.

Three ways to pray for the United Kingdom

People from around the world read this blog and I would urge you to cry out to the Lord for mercy for the United Kingdom. This nation is truly in a moral mess and it is a mission field today: we need the Lord's intervention. Here are three ways to pray.

1. To pray for the UK government as the apostolic command requires in 1 Timothy 2:1-3.

This is so that the church may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. We are not looking for an easy life, but let us pray that MP's and those in high positions of authority, that they would be converted to the One, true and living God. The sober warning of Jesus drives us to our knees in prayer for them. John 8:24 "For unless you believe that I am he [the promised Christ and only Saviour] you will die in your sins".

2. For the recovery of the authority of Scripture in the congregations of all kinds of denominations

According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 there is no other safe guide for the church than the written Scriptures. Nothing short of a grass-root's return to the sufficiency and authority of the written Scriptures, ones which are to be obeyed, loved and kept will be satisfactory. Anything less than this means the church will live in rebellion to the Lord and the Lord does not bless rebellion.

3. For the Lord to raise up labourers for the harvest (Matthew 9:36-38).

Pray that the Lord would raise up men who are called to be faithful pastors in God's church. Men who know the gospel and men who know how to preach the gospel and care for the flock of God. With that note, let us be sober minded in prayer regarding the sad spiritual state of the United kingdom, but let those who heed this warning seriously respond, and respond in faith and with much prayer. May the Lord restore the fortunes of Zion in the United kingdom again (Psalms 14:7, 53:6, 126)!!

John Calvin said in his own day: "“nothing is more ruinous to the Church than for God to take away faithful pastors”. Do you agree with Calvin on this point because this is vital for the health of the church? In the midst of spiritual decay in his own generation, Calvin never seemed to lose sight of the sovereign hand of God, something we must not lose sight of also. He also wrote that: God “preserves the Church by unknown methods and without the assistance of men” ... “the Church will always rise again, and be restored to her former and prosperous condition, though all conclude that she is ruined”. Let us be encouraged with this, but let us apply this truth as well by praying to our Sovereign Lord.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Young, Restless and "not really" Reformed

There was a book written by a man in the USA called Collin Hansen, around 2006, with the title "Young, Restless and Reformed". The title itself is gripping and so is the material in that book, which records the growth of a Calvinistic approach to the Bible, most especially in the USA. For this we are indeed thankful. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was the pastor of the largest church in the world in London, but at his death he died a disappointed man, being the witness of a doctrinal downgrade in his own day. He knew that those old doctrines he held would one-day make a comeback. Spurgeon wrote: "The doctrine which is now rejected as the effete theory of the Puritans and Calvinists will yet conquer human thought and reign supreme. As surely as the sun which sets tonight shall rise tomorrow at the predestined hour, so shall the truth of God shine forth over the whole earth" (Iain Murray, "The Forgotten Spurgeon", p 190".

I deem that we are seeing something of a recovery of what Jeremiah called the "ancient paths" (Jeremiah 6:16) in our day and we are thankful for it. My vantage point is of the state of evangelical and reformed churches in the UK mainly, though I am no expert. But I say this, to make the point that I am not commenting on the situation in the USA, though what I say may be relevant. I heard Mike Horton comment in a conference in 2013 on this so called "young, restless and reformed movement" and he made a good point; he said "there is one thing for sure, it is restless". This got me thinking.

There is a recovery of reformed thought in the UK and especially in England and Wales and yet there is the need to define what the word reformed has historically meant. I will briefly summarise what the idea of being biblically reformed has historically conveyed and then I will make a few brief assessments of the "state-of-play" in England, if I may.

A summary of what the word reformed has historically meant

To be reformed has historically meant a re-shaping of the church along three lines; its worship, doctrine and church government. Each of these three areas are to be shaped by a maxim to do only what Scripture commands. This ties the church to biblical faithfulness, but we do not interpret the Scriptures in a vacuum. To believe in the reformation cry for "Sola Scriptura" does not mean that we interpret the Bible without any aids. As a friend of mine Andy Young, recently stated in a conference, we need three compass points: "history, reformed confessions and the Bible".

Therefore, to be reformed has meant a commitment to a biblical pattern of church government, an apostolic pattern. The early church had a church government composed of elders and deacons. The elders were responsible for the governance and teaching, with the deacons being responsible for practical care and compassion. These churches were not isolated and independent and the final court of appeal was not solely a congregational meeting. There was a connectionalism which was vital for accountability and the spiritual well-being of the wider church. There should always be an enthusiastic commitment to a reformed confession and they should be used to teach the church. Nominal confessional commitment often is the seed-bed for a doctrinal downgrade.

Also public worship must be consciously shaped by a commitment to a regulative principle for worship. This means that it is Scripture that mandates what we do publicly. This view has been fraught with some difficulties, because some groups want to splinter off with divisive moves and to assert that unless every church does things exactly the way they prescribe, then they will not endorse them. This can be prideful, but a general principle must be upheld by all, that the Scripture is to direct our affairs in worship.

The "state-of-play" in England

There is widespread independency in England and also in Wales. This independency is almost proud of its defence for independency and it arose out of the liberalism which wrecked good denominations. As a result people came out of liberal denominations and often formed independent evangelical churches, sometimes they were called a "Free Evangelical Church" which meant "free" from denominations. These churches were rightly committed to biblical inerrancy, the major points of doctrine such as the resurrection of Jesus and in being committed to conservative hymn singing and preaching. However, church government varied in its application, most of these churches were baptistic in their thinking and the doctrine of the church had not been as well thought through as it should have been.

We are thankful for their stand against liberalism. However, after a generation, many of these churches and other types of churches as well, have had to ask themselves; what is the way forward? The choice before many churches has been to stay alive which often means one of two things: Either a return to the teaching of the Scriptures in matters of doctrine, worship and government or to seek to be contemporary and calvinistic (note my small "c") to win people to themselves.

My observation is that many preachers in England and Wales have promoted and have also endorsed a "young, restless, contemporary and 'not really' reformed position". The move to be contemporary has meant a downplaying of reformed confessions. Reformed confessions and creeds may not be rejected in such situations, but they are never mentioned, such documents simply gather dust on shelves. The term a regulative principle for worship is never mentioned because this could arouse their members to ask difficult questions, such as "why do we have to sing at least one Stuart Townend song every week?" or "why have you done away with using Psalm and hymn books? or "why has the pulpit been replaced with a music stand?". Similarly, church government is never mentioned, but it is just assumed that the way they do things is biblically based.

However, a truly biblical position and a correct expression of "being reformed" (note the present continuous participle) is an ongoing work, it should not lead to being stationary. There has arisen through the side-door of the church in England and Wales, a "young, restless and 'not-really' Reformed" breed of churches, in my opinion. I welcome blog comments and I welcome people disagreeing with me as well, especially if they do so in a calm and godly spirit. Feel free to add a comment if you read this blog.

Monday 8 December 2014

Book Review: "Confessing the Faith: a Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith" by Chad Van Dixhoorn

This companion volume for a reader of the Westminster Confession of Faith is heartily welcomed. Chad Van Dixhoorn is not only the world’s expert on the minutes and papers of the Westminster assembly, but he is also an ordained minister and a church practitioner. He is not writing this volume with a detached view of theology. Far from it. His writing style seeks to engage the reader with the doctrines of this Confession and he does so intelligibly and with a lively style.

Following on from the "Foreword" by Carl Trueman, Van Dixhoorn introduces his own book and he writes of the Westminster Confession that “perhaps it is the wisest of creeds in its teaching and the finest in its doctrinal expression” (xix). A chapter in the book is devoted to each of the 33 chapters in the confession and the author imposes his own nine headings to summarise the confession’s teaching. These headings are: Foundations (1-2), The Decrees of God (3-5), Sin and the Saviour (6-8), Salvation (9-18), Law and Liberty (19-20), Worship (21-22), Civil Government and Family (23-24), The Church (25-31) and Last Things (32-33).

Van Dixhoorn has developed a helpful writing style where he inserts good “pithy comments” and “turn of phrase” at appropriate moments. For example in his explanation of the clarity of Scripture he writes that “mapping the high points of the Bible is tiring work” (22). Again on the texts and translations of Scripture, he wonderfully summarises: “The Bible we have is authentic” (23).

This book contains a freshness which can only serve to further recover confessional Christianity in our generation. The chapters on the Law, the Christian Sabbath and the Communion of the Saints may be useful starting points for those contemporary Christians and ministers who have been brought up with a reformed background and yet somehow they feel they can improve the "state of play" by down-playing key reformed doctrines. On the other hand, we must not think that this book is the final word on the doctrines of this confession. This is simply a reader’s guide, an introduction, and a companion for those who desire to teach the confession or to understand it better. “Tolle lege”; pick up and read, both this book and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Monday 1 December 2014

Book Review: "A Trinitarian Theology of Religions"

"A Trinitarian Theology of Religions" By Gerald McDermott & Harold Netland
Oxford University Press, pp 336.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5

The church is indebted for the contribution made by this book. I cannot think of another book which intelligently interacts on an academic level, from an evangelical perspective, with the many aspects of religious pluralism which are found in many parts of the world, including the West. This book is published by the highly acclaimed Oxford University Press and this alone causes me to pause in thankfulness. It would have been unthinkable in the 1950's to have evangelical scholars publishing on such a topic by such a publisher. This shows how far the influence of evangelical scholarship has advanced, by the grace of God, in the last sixty plus years.

The target audience of this book is primarily the evangelical world and the authors seek to competently handle two opponents. The first are wild liberal claims that move on a syncretic trajectory, the second are narrow-minded evangelicals who refuse to even talk about other religions with a kind of bigotted blindness. Indeed the opening chapter gives a masterful explanation of the bounds of what it means to be evangelical  (pp 4-6), and also a summary of the three possible responses to religious others: exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism (pp 12-21). This book contends for the exclusive claims of the gospel, but it does so responsibly. Our theology affects our attitudes, and these need to be biblical in order for the church to win religious others to the gospel.

Perhaps, the weakest link in this book is chapter 2 on "The Triune God". While I greatly welcomed the chapter on the subject, it left me with the impression that the authors assumed too much knowledge that the readers already held on the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is a non-negotiable for such a book, because this marks out the Christian God as unique among the many other claims for deity. However, greater explanation of the foundational aspects of the Trinity should have been given, in the same helpful way that the opening chapter outlined foundational material.

There are five further chapters and each one upholds the exclusive claims of the gospel, while interacting with many different religions and religious leaders. Such religions as Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, as well as individuals such as the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Ghandi and Confucius. A highlight section is found in chapter 4 on "Salvation and Conversion". The growing but unbiblical claims of universal salvation are tackled "head on". The idea of a universal salvation is swiftly rejected, and everlasting punishment is unashamedly defended. Evangelicals are no longer immune to liberal claims, as Rob Bell's book "Love Wins" proves. However, this book refreshingly summarises: "For the biblical and especially New Testament authors, hell is not a problem but a solution" (p 181).

The influence of Jonathan Edwards is felt throughout this book because Gerald McDermott is an advocate of Edwards and he uses him without "trying to smooth off the rough edges" of his favourite theologian's clear sighted view of sin, judgment and hell. Perhaps a return to reading some of Edwards' sermons such as "The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners" could embolden the church to preach clear truth in our own generation.