Could I stop being a Christian?

cross_in_sunset_my2I have been thinking about why I am a Christian recently, and whether I might one day be persuaded or compelled to stop being one. There are lots of reasons that come together to give me confidence in the person of Jesus such that I identify myself as one of his followers. They include the evidence for the existence of God (as a personal, good, eternal creator etc see my thoughts here), the reliability of the Bible, the evidence for the resurrection and so on. I guess that might be enough, but there is a deeper root of conviction and certainty in my heart, and it’s this: “grace”. Not just the idea of grace, but its perfection, origin and embodiment in the person of Jesus Christ.

Grace is “giving someone something good that they do not deserve”. Some distinguish mercy from grace, defining it is as “not giving someone what they do deserve”, but for me, when I use the word grace, I usually include this too. Grace is person A blessing person B and showing them favour in a way that is not determined by person B’s actions. Rather, grace finds its origin and source in the one being gracious. Here is Packer’s classic expression of this:

“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it — the fact that He knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him, because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me, and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment therefore, when His care falters.

This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort — the sort of comfort that energizes, be it said, not enervates — in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love, and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me. There is, certainly , great cause for humility in the thought that He sees all the twisted things about me that my fellow-men do not see (and am I glad!), and that He sees more corruption in me than that which I see in myself (which in all conscience, is enough).

There is, however, equally great incentive to worship and love God in the thought that, for some unfathomable reason, He wants me as His friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given His Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.”

– JI Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, 1973), pages 41-42.

Grace is anchored and has its source, its motivation, in the one being gracious. Their grace is grounded in them being “gracious”, not me being worthy of grace. Being worthy of grace is an oxymoron if ever there was one.

I can’t hope to get close to Packer’s eloquence with words, but I’ll try to give a short explanation of God’s grace. The gospel is the good news about Jesus. It is a gospel of grace. Though we have sinned (done evil), forfeiting God’s love and goodness and earning his wrath and rejection, God has freely given us his Son, Jesus. Jesus lived as we should have lived, died the death we deserved and is now risen and ruling at his Father’s side. Simply by trusting in him as our Lord and Saviour, we get his good life credited to us in exchange for our bad life. Our sin having been punished in Christ on the cross, and us being now in possession of Jesus’ life of obedience, we have an eternal, unhindered, unbreakable relationship with God as our Father – just like Jesus does. I was destined to a deserved hell of separation from God, the source of love and joy and life, yet I find myself, without there being any minuscule of merit in myself, as an adopted and dearly loved child of God. It’s simply stunning. Simply stunning.

If I, in any way, earn my way into some good situation, I might have cause to congratulate myself and even begin to revere and worship ‘yours truly’. But I find the thought of worshipping me, wearisome. My petty achievements, such as they are, do not particularly impress me. Nor could I see that they ever would. In fact, daily my deeds pile up in disappointment. But I have something far better. I have Jesus!

If the gospel of grace is a fabrication, an imagining, and Jesus is not its personal, knowable epicentre, then we live in a dull, shabby universe. Reality is a depressing disappointment. There is an idea, a possible glorious reality, that could have been but wasn’t, and we are left in the darkness to make the best of it. If there is some sort of other god in this sad, second-rate world then he, or she, or it, is also, to be frank, going to be a bit of a disappointment. How could one summon up the enthusiasm to worship such a god when all the time the idea of this other (all be it unrealised) one blinds us with his dazzling glory?

I can, I guess see, that if a person has not had such a life changing view of grace as I see in the gospel, that they could perhaps be content casting their eye about this world without knowing the God of the Bible. The God of Jesus Christ. They may well entertain and serve other gods and ideas, with deep commitment and sincerity. But for me, having caught a glimpse of his glory, I cannot entertain a lesser reality.

If you are going to live, live and give your life for the best conceivable reality. To do anything else is to live with a sense of “Oh well, that’s a shame”. Like going to your favourite restaurant and finding it shut for the night. I cannot do that. I will not do that. I want, and will give myself to, a God of infinite grace and goodness.

I guess this line of reasoning, if you can call it that, is akin to the Ontological argument. The grace of God revealed in the person of Jesus, his sacrificial death in our place, and our subsequent forgiveness and adoption through faith alone, seems so glorious that it must be true. Necessarily true. It is so perfect in every respect that to not exist would be a lone lack sticking out like a sore thumb. I know you could pick holes in that argument, but that’s the way it seems to me. Let the gospel be true and everything else a lie. I take my stand on the most glorious truth and judge all else by it. I am sure you would not pretend to me that you do not also stand upon a pile of presuppositions. Forgive me if I just happen to choose the grandest pile upon which to build my life and view the world.

This grace of God seems also to have about it something eternally sustaining. What’s the point of everlasting life, for it seems to me there must be such a thing, if it becomes an eternal tedium? I find it hard to describe God’s grace, but that’s not all down to my limited communication skills. Part of it is due to the fact that it’s so infinitely glorious. Take a million views and there will be a million more angles from which to appreciate it, a billion more perspectives to perceive it. The Bible itself is full of stories, and analogies, and metaphors, and poetry, and letters, and apocalyptic literature, all expressing various aspects of God’s grace. When we’ve had 10,000 years to appreciate and explore and enjoy the atonement, we will still need an infinite many more before we can even scratch the surface of it.

It’s not just that this grace benefits me so much, though it does more than I will ever know. That is not what captivates me most about it. It’s the very act of God in being gracious in such an astounding way, that captivates me. His grace to me is wonderfully beneficial, but since grace has its origin in the giver, it tells me less about me than it does about God. His grace draws me to gaze upon him and marvel at what it is in him that caused him to act in such a way towards me.

So if you ask me why I am a Christian, I might talk about various historical and philosophical arguments and I hope they would be helpful. But probe a bit deeper and I would begin to talk about the grace of God in the person of Jesus. This truth (I cannot call it anything else, for if this is false then all else is fiction), is everything to me. I have heard of something so wonderful, so glorious, that it has gripped my heart and my heart has gripped it in return in an unbreakable embrace.

Maybe I don’t know exactly how Genesis 1 is to be interpreted. Maybe I don’t know the best way of aligning the kings of Judah with the latest archaeological evidence. Maybe I don’t understand why there is so much seemingly unnecessary suffering in the world. But I’ll tell you what – nothing could persuade me now to give up the priceless treasure I have in Jesus. That would be like taking out my eyes in order to see better without them getting in the way.

 

 

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John Lennox on science and faith

Just watched John Lennox lecturing on science and faith.

“Science has buried God, but atheism is on its way to bury science, because it undermines the very rationality that we need to do science”.

Science is something our brains do when looking at the world, and so if our brain is the product of random mutation then why should we (whoever that is) trust it? I guess one answer would be that its development/survival necessitated a linked between it’s representation of reality and the way things really are. To be totally wrong about reality, would seem to be detrimental to survival. Could a deluded brain be the fittest organism? Could a brain that saw a cube and thought a sphere survive for very long? To be wrong about the truthfulness of inference and deduction would not be very advantageous to reproduction.

But I think the argument is saying how can we trust “our conscious thoughts”, rather than whether the representation of the world in the synaptic connections of our brain is right. And that question is hard to answer because we don’t know what our consciousness actually is, at least in material terms.

In any case, as he says, any scientist must “believe” that the universe is rationally intelligent before they can get started.

I love the point he makes about contrasting two world views.

  • Mater and energy is fundamental (or nothing is fundamental, or a quantum vacuum is fundamental) ie everything is made of and comes from and is reducible to these things.
  • The word (information, meaning, morality etc in a person) is fundamental (and I would add “with” is also fundamental. “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God”).

It makes so much more sense having a personal relational being behind everything than nothing, or mater or any sort of vacuum, quantum or otherwise.

Now, some Q&A:

Q: “Doesn’t our knowledge of the laws of nature make belief in miracles impossible.”

A: “NO…this is one of the biggest issues [of our time?]”

Miracle = “something to be wondered at”

CS Lewis gave a helpful example here : “if I put a hundred dollars in the draw of my hotel bedroom and then after dinner come back up and find it has gone, do I conclude that the laws of arithmetic have been broken or that the laws of Texas have been broken”. I’ve heard that before but I’m still not quite sure what it means…I think it’s just saying that natural laws are very different from government laws. You can’t break a natural law as it’s just a description. The fact that the money is gone means that someone from outside the system (the draw) entered it and took it out. Jesus rose form the dead because God reached into the world he created and exerted a massive amount of energy (and information etc). The laws are not being broken because they describe what normally happens.

In fact we wouldn’t know that it was a thief unless we knew the laws of arithmetic… “the only way you can recognise the supernatural is by knowing the natural laws”.

Joseph was not a gullible fool. When he found out that Mary was pregnant he was going to divorce her. He knew where babies came from. It took a massive supernatural phenomena to convince him that a miracle had taken place. Same with the blind man. “since the beginning of the world it has never been known that  a man born blind has got his eyesight back”. He knew the law. Jesus was not raised from the dead by natural processes. It was an injection into the system of colossal power. A hand reaching into our world and raised him from the dead . The natural laws were not being broken. An outside influences was being exerted.

Antony Flew who was (according to Lennox) the world’s greatest interpreter of Hume (Mr Anti-Miracles), towards the end of his life, converted to deism. When John Lennox asked him about his books on Hume he said

“I was wrong about Hume. I’d love to write those books again. I will never be able to do it though. I was simply wrong”.

Faith is not always spelt RISK

I have heard the expression “Faith is spelt R.I.S.K.” a lot and I think in certain contexts it’s a good one to use. Its bold, memorable, challenging and succinct. However, it’s worth thinking a bit about it lest we make some unhelpful deductions from it. If we take it as a literal equation of faith and risk then there are some limitations of the statement that we need to be aware of.

Faith is not the same as risk. When I take a risk I am not necessarily expressing faith. It is better to think of faith as trusting in God. In what he has said and who he is. In general it is that he is good and faithful and can be relied upon, and specifically it’s in his word and what he has said is true and promised to do.

Similarly, it is also not the case that the more risk I take the more faith there must be. This thinking could lead us to us increasing the risk in order to increase the faith, and therefore the likelihood of something happening. We might burn our bridges when we do not need to. Or worse bet someone else, putting them in more danger in order to up the stakes and increase the amount of faith around.

Ironically faith can feel risky because it is actually so small. You would think that big faith equals complete confidence in the outcome and therefore no risk at all. Or maybe it feels risky because there is a spiritual dynamic that works to attack faith. Risk is what we feel in the fight of faith we are engaged in.

Anyway, maybe it’s better just to spell faith “T.R.U.S.T”. That seems to highlight the personal aspect of it and focus on God’s faithfulness, power and sovereignty rather than naturalistic probabilities. It may feel risky at times but at others it may feel more risky not to trust God.

Oprah with Joel

Just watched Oprah with Joel or was it Joel with Oprah. Anyway, it was really interesting.

 

Apparently, Oprah has said “I am a Christian.”

Although some are still criticizing Winfrey, The Black Christian News Network (BCNN) is standing in defense of the sincerity of her confession….BCNN thanked the likes of Stedman Graham, Tyler Perry, T.D. Jakes and others who wisely encouraged Winfrey and coached her on how to make her public profession of faith in Christ before the world.

“We believe that Oprah’s true ‘next chapter’ is to finish her life leading millions to the Christ that saved her,” BCNN wrote. “We want to encourage all Christians to pray for Oprah as she grows in her faith in Christ.” quoted from here

Joel said about the prosperity gospel:

“Does God want us to be rich?” he asks. “When I hear that word rich, I think people say, ‘Well, he’s preaching that everybody’s going to be a millionaire.’ I don’t think that’s it.” Rather, he explains, “I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say God wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?” quoted from here

Mark Driscoll seemed quite warm towards Jeol in this comment:

“I am aware of the theological differences that exist between our tribe and Pastor Joel,” Driscoll responded. “I also know my Reformed brothers like to treat Pastor Joel like a pinata, but there are worse things than being happy and encouraging at a time when the most common prescription medications are antidepressants.”

In the same article Joel is quoted as defining “prosperity” as

“The way I define it is that I believe God wants you to prosper in your health, in your family, in your relationships, in your business, and in your career. So I do … if that is the prosperity gospel, then I do believe that,”

Driscoll says lots of good things about Joel but cautions against encouraging people with the same route to happiness as the worlds, ie

“Get rich. Get healthy. Be happy. That’s the equation. Health and wealth. Prosperity.”

Apparently Time magazine did a poll of people in America and

“31 percent—a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America—agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.”

The reason that sort of “prosperity gospel” belief is wrong is because it is so one dimensional. Something beautiful and true has been squashed and stretched and stamped on until it is a flat splat. Like an ice sculpture that has been melted. It makes God sound like a good investment bank for your money where you get amazing interest.

The truth is that that God has already given us all that he has in his son. His generosity is unquestionable. We have forgiveness, adoption, and eternal life to name but a few.

It is also true that God works through faith. His kingdom comes and his blessings flow through our wholehearted trusting in him and his goodness and grace. The goodness of God builds up and up in our lives but first breaks through and flows as we trust in him. Our trust itself is of course his doing and in any case has no merit in itself except that it points to him and his glorious grace and provision.

Now someone might give money to feed someone in need or rescue someone from slavery. Should they then expect God to provide for them? Yes they should. Might that be in a financial way? Yes it might. It might not happen in that way, but it would be right to expect that it would. Especially so as we trust God while standing on the firm ground of his incredible provision for us in the death and resurrection of his son. Should we not get what we hope for, or expect, the bottom does not fall out of our world. God is still good and trustworthy even though we will have to live with a measure of mystery (and poverty!) as to why something did not happen as we thought it might.

It is the same for healing. Should we expect God to heal? 100% yes. Does that always happen. No. Were we wrong to expect it? No. The fact is that we live in a war zone between two kingdoms. Not every battle is won and there are setbacks. Satan does have power and this world is fallen. Every bullet may not meet its target but that does not mean we cease fire. We keep exercising faith based on God’s goodness to us in Christ. We can’t always draw straight lines in this life. It’s a chaotic war. The final victory is at the end of this age when Jesus comes back. Then every injustice will be righted. Every sickness healed. All poverty eradicated. It’s then that we will be able to add everything up and say “yes, I gave £100 and got back one hundred fold”  ie £10,000.

I’m waffling so let me try and summarise, or inflate the prosperity gospel a little by talking about true faith:

  • Faith looks to God’s kingdom coming in all its fullness. It reaches to the heavens for God’s kingdom to come on earth. That happens in all sorts of ways and it’s often patchy.
  • Faith presses through short term losses to an eternal victory.
  • Faith is personal. It is in the context of a relationship. It’s not like internet banking. It’s trusting our heavenly Father.
  • Faith is reasonable. We have already been given God’s son and through him forgiveness and sonship. Of course we should expect everything else too. After all it will be ours one day.
  • Faith trusts through situations where it does not see what it hoped for, believing that God will somehow bring good out of the more terrible defeat.

The prosperity gospel is a shrivelled prune if God is understood as an impersonal investment back. But it can be rehydrated with some of the above concepts. After all, Jesus does say “give and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38).

The opposite to the prosperity gospel is the poverty gospel, ie that Christians should expect to be poor, ill, and disliked. I think that also needs some rehydrating but I’ll leave that to you. I bet you could join elements of the prosperity gospel and the poverty gospel together to get something more accurate than either of them. Anyway, enough for now.

Jesus’ suffering and ours

Jesus suffered so that we would not have to. Though he was innocent, he took the punishment that was due to us for the wrong we had done. In doing so he was demonstrating what God was like. So loving and gracious that he was willing, in the person of Jesus, to let himself be crucified by sinful people to save those very same sinful people. Amzing isn’t it?

 

But here is the thing. Through faith in Jesus we are being transformed to be like Jesus, so that like Jesus, we too will display what God is like. We were made in the image of God and we are being resored to the image of God. And just as the cross supremely displays God’s excelt qualities and characterics, we too are destined to suffer for the love for others, to save some. Of course we don’t look for suffering, but it should not come as a surprise if we follow Jesus. He called his discples to pick up their cross and follow him.

That the work of God might be made manifest

God drew me to a scripture recently that deposited a unit of thought in my head. “Why was this man born blind” the disciples asked Jesus. He replied “so that the works of God may be made manifest in him” (John 9:3).

The world exists, warts and all, so that the works of God may be made manifest in it. Sin, sickness, and evil exist in order for the works of God to be displayed. It’s like setting skittles up in order to bowl a strike. Why is that skittle standing there? To be knocked down. Jesus is asked why a particular person born blind? He says, in effect; in order that he receive his sight. This puts a rather different perspective on the fallen aspects of the world we see all around us. They do not merely stand there to oppose God and his kingdom, forcing God to exert himself to do something about them, a bit like weeds push through the soil and force a gardener to remove them. No. God has the real initiative. He waits, like a marksman, allowing his foe to come towards him so he can dispatch them.

It is not just the removal of evil that is the issue. It’s the means by which it is accomplished that is a key to the whole deal. Evil is dispatched at great cost and in the name of God’s son Jesus. God is not just having a fun game of skittles, the manifestation of his works cost him the agonising, sin bearing, death of his son. He decided before the foundation of the world that he would manifest (make known, display, let shine forth, make visible, make concrete in bricks and mortar) his works.

When you see evil, or suffering, we need to have the perspective that this is only permitted right now in order that the works of God might be manifest. God’s cross hairs are trained on it. It’s time is shoot. God will work good through it. And if Jesus’ ministry is anything to go by, then nine times out of ten that’s going to be supernatural healing. Ok. It is10 out of 10. The only reason I shy away from that is because it gives the impression that  God’s works cannot also be manifest in long term care for people who are unwell, or that God cannot decide to end someone’s life to take them to be with him. His works can be manifest in both those cases in different ways. I guess I’m just saying its “both and”.

Helen Keller (someone who had her fair share of trials being born deaf and blind) sums up what I am waffling about in one sentence:

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it”. Helen Keller. Quotes in Robbie Dawkins book. P171

The story of the bible, the manifestation of God’s works in the earth, is not simply in created perfection, but in overcoming evil at great personal cost. Swallowing it all down and destroying it in himself.

Focus on what God is doing

Just listened to some more helpful stuff from Bill Johnson:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=quqJaA2TPS4&feature=related

John the Baptist was given great revelation that Jesus was “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world“. That is rich truth right there! It’s like the whole OT came right into focus for him. But later in prison as he sits there confined in the dark he begins to wonder. If Jesus is the Messiah how come he isn’t getting him out of prison. How come John who had such a key role in recognising Jesus is now out of action. What kind of Messiah leaves his messenger to rot? He sends messengers to ask Jesus if he is really the Messiah.

Jesus sends them back to report what they have seen and heard. He doesn’t give them a lecture on the OT and how he fulfils it, although I guess he could have. He just says “look the lame walk, the blind see and the good news is preach to the poor”. He is basically saying “Look what God is doing”. Get John’s attention back on what God is doing rather than what God is not doing.

Focusing on what God is not doing can cause you to slip into unbelief and even cause you to be offended with God. “God can’t be loving if he isn’t doing this thing right here”.How can God be good if he doesn’t sort this?”. It’s easy to get offended when we focus on what God isn’t doing. One person gets healed but we can focus on all the people who are not yet healed and think God is uncaring and unloving.

Not only do we need to focus on what he is doing now but we need to focus supremely on what he has already done in Christ. He has given up his son to death on a cross so that our sins can be forgiven, so that we can be adopted into his family, so that we can have eternal life. He has paid the ultimate price to give us every spiritual blessing in Christ. He true offence was our rebellion and disobedience which through the love of God has been removed.

Having said all that there is a right way to focus on situations where God doesn’t seem to be working just yet. In fact it’s essential that we spot them and call out to God for his kingdom to come there, and step into them ourselves to bring his presence into them.