Thursday, 31 December 2009

The Year Of Our Lord, 2010

Tomorrow is AD 2010 - Anno Domini 2010, the year of our Lord, 2010. Or for those who don't like Latin, CE 2010 - the year of Christ's Empire, 2010.

One of the great contributions of Christianity to the world has been the very idea of history. To the pagan mind, history is simply the endless repeating of cycles and has no inherent meaning or purpose in itself. We are born, we live, work, eat, sleep, reproduce and die. The sun rises and sets again, and goes round to the place it began.

The advent of the God-man at Bethlehem changed that forever. As Christianity has spread itself across the world, so has the idea of history as progress - an idea which is one of the bedrocks of post-Reformation Western civilisation. The words which Jesus spoke after his resurrection - "All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations..." inevitably - to the believing mind - imply the meaningfulness of history, the reality of progress and the certainty of final victory however long it should be in coming. This is not unthinking triumphalism; it is reality. It does not minimise or ignore the setbacks, surprises and disappointments: it includes and transcends them.

Jesus has rightly reserved all the glory to himself and therefore no mortal is permitted to be more than - or should desire to be more than - the tiniest of cogs turning in the vast machine. Ours is not to redefine history around ourselves, but to rejoice every time that we remember that its who meaning, purpose and success is in him. Each time the calendar ticks round again we are one year's march nearer home and the final day when he shall be revealed and adored as the all in all. Let every knee bow. This is the year of our Lord and His Empire, 2010: all hail!

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Theistic evolution - what's at stake

In some questions which concern Bible-believing Christians, it's often possible to get a big hint by noticing that opinions can often split up into three:
  • Those who assert that the Bible says X, and that we should believe and obey it
  • Those who assert that it doesn't say X, and therefore they don't
  • Those who point out that the Bible really does say X, but frankly they have no intention of believing or obeying it
This is often in discussions where X is something controversial and/or intolerable in a secularist society - something that will cause friction for a Christian when dealing with outsiders.

Theistic evolution is a classic case in point. The Bible actually really does teach that God made the world in six days through an immediate word - not through long ages of providential superintendence of natural processes. But most Christians who've considered the questions have felt the pressure at some time to accept an alternative explanation - one that won't mean they have to be at variance with the contemporary mainstream scientific consensus. One that means they can say "both are true; there's no problem; move along please!"

Those who come into the third category are normally the theological liberals. Cunning fudges to make the Bible both say X but also be compatible with something that is basically "not X" aren't something they need to bother with. They don't accept the premise that the Bible is God's word and needs to be believed as a matter of obedience to our Maker and Judge; they feel free to say "yes, of course the Bible says X - and it's not true, and we've moved on from it."

Which brings us to the infamous John Selby Spong, the American Episcopalian Bishop well-known for denying just about every article of Christian belief one way or the other - but normally simply by flat and frank contradiction. Here he is on the impact of Charles Darwin. As I am sure Darwin's theory is wrong, Spong's conclusion doesn't follow for me; but Spong's logic in following the implications if Darwin wasn't wrong are in my opinion unarguable:
“And Charles Darwin not only made us Christians face the fact that the literal creation story cannot be quite so literal, but he also destroyed the primary myth by which we had told the Jesus story for centuries. That myth suggested that there was a finished creation from which we human beings had fallen into sin, and therefore needed a rescuing divine presence to lift us back to what God had originally created us to be. … And so the story of Jesus who comes to rescue us from the Fall becomes a nonsensical story. So how can we tell the Jesus story with integrity and with power, against the background of a humanity that is not fallen but is simply unfinished?”
Notice that the cunning fudge, promoted by theistic evolutions such as Denis Alexander, is flatly exposed by the Bishop here. The historic Christian gospel only makes sense against the background of a space-time Fall that happened at the beginning of a pristine creation. Against any other backdrop it is simply incoherent and can't be rescued. The attempt to merge the Bible with Darwinism without butchering the latter inevitably means you have to butcher the former. Spong doesn't have any spiritual currency invested in the Bible's truthfulness as Alexander does, and makes no bones about simply declaring it false. And that lack of a cognitive bias forcing him - in this area - to argue that black is white enables him, even though an outright heretic, to state the reality of the issue with crisp clarity.

Scotland star Euan Murray explains why he won't play rugby for Scotland on Sunday

An encouraging testimony of faithfulness. Here's someone to pray for. Triple-jump legend Jonathan Edwards started out on this path but later left it, and his descent continued until he didn't believe in God at all.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Remember, remember

I was reading Deuteronomy in my Bible this morning. Amongst the various laws given to Israel in chapter 24 was the one I've picked out below:
8 Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that you observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you: as I commanded them, so you shall observe to do.
9 Remember what the Lord your God did unto Miriam by the way, after you had come forth out of Egypt.
10 When you lend your brother any thing, you shall not go into his house to fetch his pledge.
"Remember" is a common Biblical commandment. J C Ryle famously wrote a chapter of his great work "Holiness" on the words spoken by Jesus, "Remember Lot's wife" (Luke 17:32).

The thing that struck me is that this is indeed a command. It's not a suggestion, or a piece of good "works for me" advice being passed on. God actually requires his people to remember. And what does he command them to remember? In this case, it's not the great act of the redemption out of Egypt - though that is often itself commanded. Rather, it was just a simple single event - not involving their leader, Moses or the High Priest, Aaron, but their sister Miriam. It was a rather shameful incident for her of pride and grumbling, recorded in Numbers 12. On that occasion God judged her with leprosy for a short time before restoring her.

God's acts in history and his various dealings with his people are intended to be remembered. By this time, Miriam was dead (Numbers 20:1), but her memory was intended to be maintained. Our God is the God who acts in history, and Christianity is not just a belief system whose historical content can be safely jettisonned without any serious loss. Whether in theological liberalism arising in the 19th century which attempted to do this across the board, or theistic evolutionary teaching within modern evangelicalism which attempts to do this with the foundational chapters of Genesis - the historical acts of God in history are not just pleasant and optional side events in the Bible. They are acts which reveal God, which reveal fundamental principles that we are to take note of, and which themselves as our history as God's covenant people have shaped the present that we find ourselves in. Remembering them - in the sense of taking note and adapting our own behaviour accordingly - is not just helpful; according to God, it's compulsory.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Report on the marginalisation of Christianity in the UK

The Christian Institute has produced a report on the ways in which a secularist government, not reflecting the wishes of the majority of voters, has moved to marginalise Christianity in the UK:

Select committee rejects Badman

Here and here.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Meet Michael Otieno

Michael Otieno, a Kenyan preacher who I am privileged to count as a good friend (and who I worked closely with in the same church for a time), has started a blog: Christ has given Michael gifts as a pastor and evangelist and Michael is endeavouring to use them to church-plant in Nairobi, Kenya: a city of three million people with only two churches which are Reformed and Baptist in their doctrine.

In his first post he tells us how a lecturer telling them not to be either too Arminian or too Calvinistic made him curious to find out what Calvinism was - which is how he became a Calvinist!

I suppose for my readers this will be of most interest to those who receive our own newsletters and have seen Michael in them - but perhaps also to those who take an interest in the gospel in East Africa and Kenya: or perhaps you have not before, but will now!

Monday, 14 December 2009

The hilarious Richard Dawkins needs your pennies....

Famous atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins (who doesn't actually exist) is a multi-millionaire who lives in a large house (itself worth at least a million pounds) in splendid North Oxford.

According to Wikipedia, his most successful book, "The God Delusion", had sold over 8.5 million copies in English alone by November 2009, having also been translated into 34 other languages. The follow-up debuted at number 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list, having also hit number 1 in Ireland, Canada and Australia, and 3 months later remains high on the various Amazon country sales charts (90 in UK, 158 in US at time of checking - number 1 in the category " Books > Science > Evolution"), despite only being available so far in hardback. He has written nine other books, the first in 1976, all of which remain in print. He has produced 7 documentaries. His website (which, according to Alexa, ranks  in the top 3500 websites visited by UK Internet users and the top 11,000 for US users) has a store to sell you books, DVDs, audio books, t-shirts and other clothing, stickers, buttons, pins, tote bags and coffee mugs. A humble baseball cap will set you back $19.95 (about £13), and a coffee mug $9.95 (about £6.50).

Dr. Dawkins needs $100,000 (about £60,000) to fund his "Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reasons & Science". How do you think he might be able to do that? (This would equal 0.7 pence per copy from the sales of "The God Delusion" alone).

Yup.... by tapping up the users of his website for their spare cash! He's even launched (and presumably had to pay for) a new website with a promotional  video in order to promote it -

Wow! Here's the best bit - if you contribute $100, you'll get a "free" DVD! $200 gets you 2 DVDs and a book... all the way up to 10 books if you contribute $10,000. Oh - but not if you live outside the US, because apparently he can't afford the postage.

So - is RD broke, mean, or does he simply believe his audience of "rationalists" are credulous suckers? You decide... meanwhile, comment #2 on his website post introducing the fundraiser is an unemployed man who sent in his $5.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Permission to be a parent

Wow - just wow. A stunning new development in the UK government's progressively more Orwellian plans to take-over the rights of parents:

The government body OFSTED is now proposing that parents who wish to teach their own children must be cleared by the Criminal Records Bureau and obtain an appropriate document of clearance:
Parents face criminal checks before teaching own children

As Normal Wells, cited in that report states, the logical implication of this is that if parents require such permissions before being with their own children during the hours when state schools (which these children don't attend) are open, they should also require the same permission to be with the same children out of school hours, at weekends and during holidays. This issue is not a home-schooling issue; it's a parenting issue. The government is progressively taking to itself the right to be the parent, and to delegate permission to today's parents to be involved as and when it sees fit.

Love hurts

I love (amongst many other more important things!) running. Running hurts. Ergo, love hurts. You can stop rolling on the floor now, thanks.

Today I ran 20 miles for the first time in Kenya - aided a little by it being overcast and drizzly, which is a bit rare. I blogged two years ago that the way to really enjoy a bath is to run 20-odd miles before getting into it - it's still true!

When running such a long distance the temptation to give up comes most strongly when you've already gone a long way, and then you contemplate the whole way still to go. "There's that painful climb coming - and it's still 2 miles until I even get there - and it really hurts before I've even got to the bottom... then after that there's running into the wind... oh boy, oh boy."

And here cometh the application to the Christian life: don't do this. One day at a time, one challenge at a time, one bend at a time. God never promised to give us strength today for the rest of our lives. He promised to give us today's strength today (as long as we ask him for it!) - and then commanded us not to worry anxiously about tomorrow, because the problems of tomorrow can wait until they come.

If you ask, "have I strength for this" and look beyond today, the answer is "No", and unless you remember why the answer is "No", you might be tempted to give up. Even the biggest, most painful hills can be climbed as long as you just pick a point that's reasonably near and head towards that - and then rinse, lather, repeat. And somehow, rather surprisingly, eventually, you'll find yourself heading across the finish line - hopefully more comfortably than I did!

Wearing gradually out

Mark 6:30-31 - "And the apostles gathered themselves together to Jesus, and told him all things, both what they had done, and what they had taught. And he said unto them, “Come apart into a desert place, and rest a while,” for there were many coming and going, and they had no freedom even to eat."

Some Christians rarely or never seem to do any kind of service for the Lord that is likely to put them in any danger of needing any period of rest and refreshment from it.

Others think that exhausting oneself beyond the point of usefulness and being able to operate properly is a work of special merit and that rest is only for the weak and lazy.

Jesus teaches us a happy medium between these two errors. Our commission is not to spare ourselves and bury our talent in the ground whilst doing nothing to advance the Lord's kingdom; neither is it to burn out in a flash like a firework. It is to gradually wear out, according to the years given to us, giving our strength for Christ and pacing ourselves to run the race with perseverance until we finish and receive the crown.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Forgot the link

Ooops. On that last story, I forgot to supply the link:

Government to parents: thanks, but we come first

The UK government has published its response to the petition on its website which protested against the new right it is seeking to award itself - namely the right to interview your children, without you present, and decide whether on that basis whether you should be allowed to choose how to educate your child or not or whether that choice should be taken out of your hands.

The government's reply is basically, "sorry, but government's opinions about a child's best interests must ultimately trump the parents'." Oh, and other countries do it this way, therefore it must be right.

The petition raised the legitimate question of who is the "parent of first resort". It's a zero sum game - either government has got to trump parents, or parents trump government. You can't have a tie. Either parents have the right to decide that they need to protect their children from the bad education being offered by the state; or governments have the right to decide that they need to protect children from the non-state-approved education that parents are giving them at home. One or the other must win. (This has nothing to do with the question of child abuse which is already a criminal offence).

Until now the status quo has been that parents trump government. The government is now attempting a legislative reversal. The difference is that before the disagreeing party just had to deal with it (if the LEA officer doesn't really like home-schooling, they'll just have to put up with it); but when governments trump parents, if you disagree they confiscate your child or cart you off to the slammer. Not really a level playing field, is it?

As for other countries doing it this way.... this response totally ignores the history of the countries at question, presuming we're talking about Europe. Home-schooling became illegal in Germany under the Nazis because the Nazis didn't wish children to learn any ideology from their parents that contradicted Nazism. It was outlawed in the 1930s by the National Socialist party, and its that same ban which has remained on the books. Likewise, home-schooling is illegal in Spain, which has only emerged from fascism in living memory. Home-schooling is suppressed in other countries because of those countries totalitarian histories, and has been a right of parents without the threat of government take-over in the UK because of the UK's heritage of freedom, based on its Christian past.

I find the rest of the government's response nauseating in the extreme. The home-ed community is up in arms about these appalling proposals; but the response keeps banging on about how helpful they're being by providing these new "services". The home-ed community doesn't want them; people choose to home-ed because they've looked at what happens when the government takes over education, and they'd rather not, thank you. It's no coincedence that this "review" with its proposals was cooked up by someone whom the government hand-picked from outside the home-ed community, who was a state education system insider. And lo and behold, his proposals were to make home-edders conform more to the state system - exactly what they're trying to avoid. To have these new "blessings" enforced by law unasked-for is one thing and bad enough; to be lectured about how wonderful the government is to condescend to grant you them when you suck so much at the same time is beyond the point of extreme nausea that my constitution can stand.

I have no idea what the government's timetable is, or what happens to such reviews if there's a change of government. Will it run out of parliamentary time and come to nothing? Here's praying!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Kenyan churches according to Kenyans

I've so far marked about 15 essays on 1 Corinthians. In these, I asked my 2nd year students to apply the teaching of chapters 1-5 to Kenyan churches. Very interesting, though not very encouraging. It ties in with the same story we hear from many others.

The following refrains were heard in their essays again and again:
  • That 1 Corinthians would fit pretty closely as an epistle to the Kenyan churches!

  • Pastors aim to gain followings for themselves, build personal empires and personality cults, demand personal loyalty, openly rubbish other pastors. They are insecure and authoritarian. In preaching, the aim is to impress with one's skills rather than to communicate truth. (The sign of being filled with the Spirit is that you work yourself up into a real lather).

  • Church discipline is a means exercised unilaterally by pastors to get rid of their enemies. The aim is not to lovingly restore with "tough love", but to punish and humiliate. The rich and influential are not disciplined because the pastor/church committee doesn't want to lose the income.

  • Sexual immorality is so rampant - including pastors preying on young girls - that it's thought nothing of, and laughed at.
I was chatting with a church member yesterday at his place of work. He told me that at a nearby "church" they collected (over a period of time) 3 million shillings from the congregation - about £27,000 - for the pastor to have a flash car. (In Kenya the average daily earnings are somewhere about 150 shillings, or £1.20; only the tiny middle class can afford to own any kind of banger, let alone such a vehicle). The pastor rejected it, demanding 6 million. For a new Mercedes Benz - which in Kenya is considered the ultimate status symbol; these are what cabinet ministers get allocated. The church then raised the rest. About 110 years of average earnings. Why do people give to such collections, I asked? It's because of the "miracles" - desperate and ignorant people believe these well-dressed charlatans' claims to be able to bring the Holy Spirit to heal, and hear them promise/threaten that God will honour their gift/curse their refusal.

Another day, the same member told me that a few years ago a friend had invited him to the weekly all-night prayer meeting at his church. At about midnight, various (including the friend who'd invited him) started "pairing up" with members of the opposite sex, heading off for a quiet spot and... you can work it out. Apparently this is one of the regular functions of all-night religious meetings; to provide such a meeting point.

Are those stories shocking? Here they're fairly run of the mill. Do pray for Christ's kingdom in Kenya!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A few good men/women/churches

Here's another observation from my short time as an overseas "missionary".

A few good people / good churches do a lot of work. Time and again, we'll see something worthwhile going on somewhere in the world - and later find out that it was being helped/supported by church X or had in the past been greatly influenced by preacher Y. The same Xs and Ys keep coming up again and again.

What has struck me is that often these people and churches are obscure - in the sense that the church is small and struggling, or the individual has no particular profile beyond his own backyard. And yet, their works are at the same time known and appreciated in far-away places.

God's work depends on no man - the graveyards are full of people who used to be linchpins. And yet God uses means, and on the last day God will reward his people according to their works. Our aim is not to become famous, an Internet celebrity or conference darling (we do thank God for those who have useful ministries in these areas), but to be useful. And when that's the aim, God always finds a way for us, a little at a time as our faithfulness is proved. It does seem to me that a few good people and churches do a great deal - but are there on the other hand large numbers of believers and churches, even larger ones, actually doing very little?

Monday, 30 November 2009

Anyone for a bit of Swastika?

In our part of Africa, the unusual is routine! Sometimes I think, "hmmm, let me take a photo of that, as my friends/family will never believe me if I don't." But then I think, "Not now... there'll be another one along tomorrow." Well, I got round to snapping one today, from the shelves of the supermarket... 

Anyone for a bit of Swastika-brand Sat-Isagbol? I'd be surprised if they sell this in the West. Let me know if you see it in Tesco. It's a fiber dietary supplement; yours for just 185 shillings.

(The Swastika was a symbol used in the East for many years before the Nazis commandeered it - it can be seen round here on lorries belonging to Indian-owned transport companies too).

Is penal substitution Biblical, continued

Nick replied to my post "Is penal substitution Biblical?", as follows. As that post has been buried under a few others, I'm posting it as a new item and am interacting with it here.


I was away from the computer during Thanksgiving, but I am thankful that you made a new post on this addressing the issue.

Here are my thoughts:

1) Dying for sin does not entail a penal substitutionary framework. In otherwords, you're quoting 1 Cor 15:3 and such, but you're inserting the notion of 'punished' into it, as if a judge sentenced someone to receive the electric chair but was legally transferred so that Jesus received it in their place. I don't believe Scripture is describing that concept.

I did not simply arbitrarily "insert", but explained why "for sin" in 1 Corinthians 15v3 should be interpreted as penal substitution - you've ignored the explanation. We won't go far if you do that. Let me state again. In 1 Cor 15:3 in the phrase "for sin", "for" can only mean "on account of", "because of". And in Pauline and Scriptural theology, the reason why people die on account of sin is because death is the penalty for sin. This context is fixed from the beginning; Genesis 2:17 - "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." Romans 6:23 - "for the wages of sin is death". "The soul that sins, it shall die", Ezekiel 18:20. Please interact with this argument and don't simply say I'm "inserting" things without reason!
2) Regarding 1 Jn 3:16, you said I was making a grammatical error. I would hope "lay down life for" means the same thing when used twice in the same verse. My point was that "on account of" does not necessitate a legal transfer of punishment, because using the parallelism indicates believers will undergo that as well. So, simply turning to a passage indicating Christ died "for" sins, that is not evidence for Psub in particular but only atonement in general.
You've side-stepped my argument here too. The grammatical error I said you made is including that "for" in one verse necessarily must mean the same as in another (such as 1 Cor 15v3). I actually agreed with you that for (Greek "huper") in 1 John 3:16 cannot carry the sense "in the place of"; what I denied was your deduction that therefore it cannot carry that meaning in a different verse. If your theory here that a preposition can only carry only meaning in every usage is correct then every lexicon of the Greek language is wrong.
You said: "the only way that someone dies on account of sin is because death is a punishment"
I'm not sure how what you mean here. Christians still die physically, so Christ didn't take this punishment.
Though Christians still die physically, they no longer die penally. Death is no longer the gateway to eternal misery, but ultimately to glory because of resurrection. Thus in the essential substance of it, Christ has indeed taken this punishment for us. 1 Corinthians 15:26 states that physical death is an enemy which is destroyed through Christ's death and resurrection. Christ has removed the sting from death for us because having paid the price for sins, death is no longer penal.
 Also, your quote from 1 Cor 15:17-18 is about Christ being resurrected, not His death.
You have made an arbitrary separation here. Christ's death and resurrection in Scripture are different nodes of a single event, e.g. Romans 4:25 (and these verses in 1 Corinthians). In those Corinthian verses Paul says that if Christ was not raised then we are still in our sins; this is just after saying that Christ died for our sins. Obviously the death-resurrection is a single sequence because according to Paul in these words it had one great end in view - dealing with our sins.

3) Regarding the scapegoat: I still don't see how keeping the penal substitute alive helps prove Psub.
Well, surely the fault is in your vision if you cannot see! The Bible is full of warnings that we cannot see, not because the glorious light is not shining, but because we are blind to it, e.g. John 9:39-41. It's dead (!) simple: penal substitution takes place when there is a punishment (penalty), endured by a substitute. The scapegoat fulfils these conditions, and is therefore an example of penal substitution.
4) Regarding the punishment of hell: What is the "equivalent" of suffering in Hell?
What a daft question. The acceptable substitute for all of God's people suffering in hell is obviously the death of Christ at Calvary. That's the whole thing we're discussing. The only way to deny this is to a) assert that you, the guilty sinner, are a more competent judge of the fit punishment for sin than God, the righteous judge, is and/or b) to deny the value of the person of Christ as the Son of God and to put a lesser value on his death than God does.
5) I should have been more clear on my comment regarding transfer of punishment in the Mosaic Law. When it comes to 'confessing sins over' with the hands, the scapegoat is the only time such instructions are given.
In a debate, you only need to concede a principle once to allow its validity. Once it is established once that the OT contains an example of penal substitution, then that is all I need to do. If the scapegoat is a shadow to teach us about Christ's death (which it is, Hebrews 13:12-13), and if the symbolism of the scapegoat exemplifies penal substitution, which you've conceded, then that's what was being argued for.
6) You said: "Nobody claimed that every sacrifice in the Bible was penal and substitutionary."
True, but then two issues arise: (1) the example I gave was of the sin offering, and if Psub isn't taking place then, then I don't know what other offering you can look to; (2) other sacrifices, not relating to atonement, entailed the death of an animal, which means a death need not correspond to Psub.
Your logic here in (1) is wonky. You're arguing that:
1) The sin offering could be substituted with grain for the very poor
2) Therefore, the sin offering was not substitutionary as grain cannot endure punishment
3) Therefore, the sin offering was never substitutionary
The fallacy is of failing to consider alternative explanations. The sin offering could exemplify penal substitution in its normal and usual mode, but God could make a provision for the poor Israelite so that they could make an offering. The substitution of the grain here would then simply be a social provision for the circumstance, and not intended to alter the essential meaning of the normal offering. You cannot prove that this is not the case (and I assert it is the case), and thus it cannot be a grounds for an absolute assertion as you've made.

In relationship to (2), you need to substantiate this point. Are you talking about a bloody sacrificial death, offered by a priest on an altar, or some other animal death? Are you making a comparison that is truly valid? I can't know this until you give examples of what you mean.
7) You said: "All such examples are in principal moot. Read Romans 3:25-26"

Rom 3 has not been established as a Psub proof, so I don't think they are moot. Rom 3 mentions 'atonement', the very term I'm demonstrating doesn't require Psub. Further, Rom 3:24 mentions "redemption," which is likewise not a psub term but instead indicates a buying back at a price (Ex 21:28-30 is a good example).
You've missed the argument I was making in citing this Scripture, which is as follows:
  • Christ's death, in Romans 3:25, is said to be an act in which the subject performing the action is God. "Whom God has set forth".
  • Furthermore, the verse tells us the reason why God set him forth as an atonement: it was "to declare his justice for the remission of sins that are past."
  • In other words, the death of Christ was an act in which justice is satisfied on account of sin. Which is as much to say that Christ's death was penal, unless you want to deny that justice in regard of wrong-doing means punishment!
  • Whose sins? Not Christ's, of course. According to the verse, "sins that are past" - in other words, the sins committed by people before the coming of Christ. Which is to say, that his death was substitutionary.
Romans 3:25 says that God satisfied his own justice in respect of certain people's sins, through the death of Christ. Cunning parsing of certain words, such as "atonement" or "redemption" can't get you off this hook - the whole context makes the meaning abundantly clear.
Next, you went on to address my atonement passages, here are my comments:

-"Phinehas slays the sinner."
The sinner wasn't the only guilty party, the Israelites as a whole were engaging in sin and under a plague. Killing the guilty individual is not making atonement. Verse 25:11,13 is clear God's wrath against the whole Israelite camp was propitiated.
I have no problem in accommodating this observation. As explained above, the true and ultimate atonement for sin was at the cross of Christ - Romans 3:25 - when Christ made the true atonement for past sins. All previous atonements were symbolic, shadows and anticipations. Here you're finding fault because you're demanding that every anticipation should be whole and entire - it must shadow every single aspect, perfectly. This is an arbitrary and unreasonable demand. But in any case, you've still missed the point - which was simply that you can't use these verses to establish that death is not a penalty for sin, when in actual fact a sinner died.
-"Exodus 32, the Levites go out to slay the evildoers."
You're not addressing Deut 9:16-21, esp 9:18-19, and Ps 106:23 where God spared them on Moses' intercession. The fact some of the guilty were killed off does not address the fact the nation as a whole was guilty for engaging in sin and had to be atoned for as per Ex 32:30.
Again you've missed the impact of Romans 3:25-26. Why could Moses' intercession be accepted? Why could anyone be accepted under the Old Covenant? Because of the great act of justice at the cross that would actually pay the price. And again I'd assert that you can't use verses to prove that death is not the legal penalty for sin, when in the same incident a sinner endures a penal death.
-"Num 16, lots of people die in a plague - and it is stopped using implements from the tabernacle"
That some of the guilty died is irrelevant to the fact more would have died had not atonement been made. The atonement required no Psub.
Same here.
-"Surely you're not seriously suggesting that Proverbs 16:6 and 14 are intended by the author as statements about the wiping away of a man's sin before God?"
The main purpose was to show "atonement' need not require Psub, and those verses say that.
You're loading an unbearable burden onto these verses. They were never intended to teach a complete theory of atonement, and to make them carry that weight is something someone would only do if they were fishing around for a hook to hang their pet theory on, instead of believing the Bible's own explanations of what Christ's death achieved in the key and primary passages. Using this method we could prove anything. If "The wrath of a king is as messengers of death: but a wise man will pacify it" in verse 14 was intended by the Holy Spirit to teach that God's justice does not require that the wages of sin be death and that Christ's death was not a penal substitution, then "In the light of the king' countenance is life" in verse 15 could equally mean that looking at the face of an earthly king will deliver you eternal life. This is arbitrary exegesis, reading in your own ideas.
The Biblical idea that atonement can be made without Psub has not been overturned by what you've said. Just so people don't misunderstand me: I believe Christ made atonement for our sins, but I don't believe the form of atonement was PSub.
It would be difficult for me to even begin to overturn a Biblical idea which is not in the Bible, so I won't be too sad about my alleged failure! To say that Christ can make atonement for sins without paying the penalty for them is a nonsense statement; it's like saying that you believe that Christmas Day comes in the last month of the year, but not in December. The very core of the Biblical teaching on atonement is that "without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins" (Hebrews 9:22) - where there is no just penalty exacted, there is no atonement.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

There was a man

There was a man who ...
  • Was glad to hear the word of God
  • Did many things in response to it
  • Had a conscience which was spoke to him clearly
  • Resisted sin and protected God's servants from evil
... and who was on the road to damnation. That man's name was Herod Antipas, the murderer of John the Baptist. His story is in Mark 6:14-29. We can do all the above, but it can fall far short of the repentance that God actually requires of us. Herod would not actually repent of the particular sin that was his and that John preached to him about. Because of this, everything else in him was useless. Spiritual interest is not spiritual life, and religion is not salvation.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Should Christians Embrace Evolution?

The new book has a very nice and comprehensive website. The publisher is obviously taking it very seriously, which I think is absolutely right. I had no idea there was a website until someone on a mailing list told me today. No need for me to say any more - it's all here:

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Is Penal Substitution Biblical?

The other thread, "Is Penal Substitution immoral?" spawned a different question in the discussion - is penal substitution Biblical? I've moved it up here to give it more visibility as it's another vital question to discuss.

My discussion partner identifies himself by nothing more than Nick. Let's hear him...

Let me highlight some specific points then, and I will be arguing along the lines of Scripture and leave the philosophical issues of morality aside for now:

1) You began by saying the phrase "Christ died for our sins" signifies Penal Substitution

Yes. I was referring to 1 Corinthians 15:3. Penal substitution contains two ideas:

1) Someone is punished for some wrongdoing, i.e. endures a penalty (it's penal!)

2) That punishment is endured on behalf of another (it's substitutionary).

When Paul says "Christ died for our sins", it fulfills both criteria:

1) His death was specifically for sins - i.e. it was penal

2) His death was not for his own sins, but for ours - i.e. it was substitutionary

So there it is. But if I was making a full case, I'd go to many other even more direct Scriptures such as 1 Peter 3:18, "For Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust" or 2 Peter 2:24, "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed" or Galatians 3:13, "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us". If those verses don't contain the very definition of a penal substitution, then I think words have no definite meaning.

, but note what 1 John 3:16 says:

"Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers."
Notice the parallelism here, if "lay down life for" means a PSub framework, the second half wouldn't make sense; it would be calling Christians to be Penal Substitutes for other Christians.Thus, saying "Christ died for our sins" and other such phraseology does not indicate Psub but instead put the burden on oneself to correct a problem, in a similar sense the way a father takes the burden of providing for his family on his shoulders (1 Tim 5:8).

This is multiple misunderstanding.

1) It is a grammatical error - you imply that "for" (Greek, huper) must carry a single meaning in all contexts. (Which you say, because it can't be "on account of" in 1 John 3:16, must therefore be "in order to help correct the problem of" because that meaning fits there). This is a lexical novelty and you won't find it taught in any Greek language resource.
"For" does not carry a unique meaning in English either. Prepositions simply don't work like this in any language I know. "I played for England", "I died for lack of water" and "I took a bullet for Fred" are three different meanings. To insist that "for" must mean the same in each sentence is gratuitous.

2) Secondly, I never intended to imply that penal substitution was implied simply by the word "for". As explained above, its the context that fixes the meaning. The word "for" in this context carries the meaning of "because of, on account of". But in the context of Scriptural theology, the only way that someone dies on account of sin is because death is a punishment for sin - the wages of sin is death. Hence later in the same chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 (verse 17) Paul states that if Christ did not do this, then you are still in your sins and (verse 18) will perish. Why do people perish because of sins? Only one reason: they are being punished for them. Moreover, the alternatives are absurd. Yours doesn't work - you make "for our sins" to mean "for us, to help us with our sins", changing the object of "for" from an impersonal entity (sins) into a person (us, who need help). This is rewriting the verse instead of learning from it.

2) You mentioned the scapegoat was an example of Penal Substitution, but the fact is the scapegoat was never killed, in fact it was set free (i.e. kept alive)!

You're confused here. If I'd said "the scapegoat is an example of a penal substitutionary death" then you'd have a point. But "penal substitution" simply means 1) penalty 2) substitution. The scapegoat was an example of these things, even though it did not die. Your thought here would ultimately rule out all teaching in advance by God to symbolically represent Christ's penal substitution, because the only thing that would exactly match all the details is the event itself!

3) You stated that hell was the primary punishment for sin, but using Penal Substitution means Jesus had to undergo hellfire in your place. The Bible simply nowhere teaches this, nor does it fit Trinitarian orthodoxy.

This is an arbitrary and unjustified assertion. Penal substitution does not mean that the suffered must experience precisely the same experience; it simply means that they must suffer a penalty of equivalent value. When the Kenyan government found my burglar guilty, they didn't sentence him to having the precise same items stolen from his own house - that would be impossible. Instead, they sentenced him to what they considered an equivalent punishment (ended up being 8 weeks in jail, since you ask).

4) Nowhere in the Bible is there a model for transferring punishment either in the Mosaic Law or in other cases of the atonement.

Well, we've been discussing one - the scapegoat. If there was no (symbolic, typical) transfer of guilt onto the scapegoat, then these verses have no meaning:

Leviticus 16:21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: 22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

Hands are laid on the goat, symbolising transfer of sin. He is then said to go away outside the camp (into the wilderness), bearing the iniquities. If that's not transfer, then there must be no such thing as  transfer.

Consider the sin offering in Leviticus, note especially 5:11 where an animal could not be provided for the sin offering so a sack of flour was used instead. That is impossible if Psub were the framework, for you cannot kill a bag of flour. Further, the sin offerings were made for sins which did not require the death penalty, thus a 'life for life' model would not make sense.

Here you're attacking a strawman. Nobody claimed that every sacrifice in the Bible was penal and substitutionary.

As for turning away God's wrath and making atonement, the Bible gives many solid examples of where a hero turns away God's wrath and makes atonement without recourse to Psub (i.e. the hero getting punished in their place), consider:
-Num 25:1-13 (Ps 106:30-31);
-Deut9:16-21 (Ex 32:30,Psalm 106:19-23);
-Numbers 16:42-49
-Proverbs 16:6 says: “Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for,” and 16:14 says, “A king's wrath is a messenger of death, but a wise man will appease it.”

All such examples are in principal moot. Read Romans 3:25-26, which explains that all the forgiveness given under the Old Testament era was predicated upon the future death of Christ, by which God could then be just. Without a death, it seemed (according to Romans 3:25-26) that God had passed over sin and left it unpunished.

But in any case, none of these sections establish your point. In Numbers 25 Phinehas slays the sinner. Likewise in Exodus 32 at the golden calf, the Levites go out to slay the evildoers. In Numbers 16, lots of people die in a plague - and it is stopped using implements from the tabernacle which are typical of the work of Christ; thus none of these prove that no penalty need be inflicted. Surely you're not seriously suggesting that Proverbs 16:6 and 14 are intended by the author as statements about the wiping away of a man's sin before God? That's torturing verses, not reading them.

What I've learnt from this Nick is that you don't like the idea of penal substitution. Of course you don't; nobody does. It implies that we're so sinful in God's sight that we can't save ourselves - the only remedy is as drastic as the Messiah suffering in our place. That's the humiliating truth of the gospel, and why you need to be born again - to accept God's verdict against you, and then to receive penal substitution not as a humiliation to be fought against, but as a saving truth in which we receive the love of God for all eternity.

A rationalist replies

Over at Simon Hutton's blog, an atheist replied to yesterday's post on penal substitution. Here's his reply:
Simon I’ve read his piece and am even less impressed by his logic than some of your musings. Again he fails to acknowledge facts outside of theology. He seems to think because his sacred book can be interpreted by him in a certain way, then it must be true. For example, he seems to be woefully ignorant of the historical premise of scapegoating. Look up Pharmakos (Meaning magic man) such an individual would be a scapegoat, who symbolically took on the sins of a people and was expelled from a city or put to death. Osiris/Dionysis was a sacred Pharmakos, who supposedly like Jesus, died to atone for the worlds sins. The fate of the Pharmakos, was to be insulted, beaten and put to death. These rituals predate christianity and are predated by sheep, goats and lambs suffering the same fate for the sins of a tribe. Now I could just as easily ask you to enter into the framework of these more ancient religions in order to figure out wether Osiris or Dionysis or Attis are in fact moral when being sacrificed for the sins of others? And if there’s an internal logic, would that mean Attis is god? He preceded jesus performing similar feats, healing, turning water into wine, raising on the third day after being executed for the sins of the world, being called the lamb of god. The most salient question posed by a historical evaluation of Jesus’ supposed sacrifice is, why is he plagerising (I’ve used the word correctly) moral frameworks and feats from other religions? Surely he’s god, couldn’t he think of a more original way of forgiving sin?
The gist of Mahmut's reply is that ancient Greek scape-goating concepts pre-date the New Testament, and therefore it is reasonable (or perhaps necessary) to believe that the New Testament authors lifted ("were plagerising [sic]") the concept from ancient Greek religion.

 Apart from committing the chronological fallacy ("X comes earlier, therefore X is the source"), this argument is totally insane. It can be demolished with 3 simple and uncontroversial facts which seem to have bypassed Mahmut:
  • The concept of the transfer of guilt (a scape-goat, if you like), is taught repeatedly in the Hebrew Scriptures, in particular the laws of Moses (the Pentateuch) which I referred to.

  • The New Testament writers everywhere self-consciously and repeatedly claim that when writing about Jesus they are writing the fulfilment of the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. They nowhere point to ancient Greece as an inspiration for their ideas.

  • The Pentateuch pre-dates the existence not just of ancient Greek mythology but ancient Greece itself by several centuries.
In other words, the New Testament says "here's where we got our ideas from", the ideas can indeed be found in the place they claim to have got them from, and those ideas come way, way, way before there even was an ancient Greece. Game, set and match.

It might be reasonable from here to start investigating whether any elements of the ancient Greek concepts of substitution were derived from the Hebrews; but to flatly assert the opposite is totally bonkers - you're out by several centuries. I blogged on this issue in regard to Philip Pullman arguing similarly here. Is Mahmut simply uncritically parroting something he heard from a fellow atheist? Certainly nobody with even a thumbnail idea of what century any given culture existed in could make such a gargantuan blunder - which makes Mahmut's confident declaration that I must be ignorant of anything outside of the field of theology all the more silly. I challenge Mahmut to study the Old Testament Scriptures and acknowledge that they teach the same concept of penal substitution that the New Testament writers took up, and then to abandon his absurd theory.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Eldoret on the BBC

Eldoret featured on the BBC today. There was a radio clip someone e-mailed me - I don't know where to find it. The website has a story with some overlap here.

Very interesting. Street children are part of life in the town - interesting to hear an outsider's perspective having moved ourselves from being outsiders to insiders. He accurately describes some problems and others (in my perception) reflect his own provenance from a materialistic Mammon-worshipping society. I certainly don't share his liberal sympathy for the seller of the illegal brew ("one way of raising a few coins to buy food") - these people are dealers in human misery. The coins raised by selling it are the coins that an addicted husband stole from his own wife and family for their food. The sellers make the choice to support themselves at the cost of the misery of others. Eldoret has 250,000 people, and only a few of them are sellers of illegal brew, so I don't buy the reporter's suggestion that it's a necessity.

In our church we had a member who lived in the Kipkaren estate where the interviewed seller lives. He would not shake the habit of drinking illegal brew with the money that his own family needed for food, and after much loving admonition and practical assistance from the church, was eventually excommunicated. Perhaps he bought some from the guy interviewed! On the other hand, we have people in the church who are equally poor as the illegal brew seller, but who choose to love Jesus, trust God and make hard decisions of honesty and soberness, declining immediate gain or cheap pleasure. And these people have joy in the Lord. What the BBC will never tell you is where the real answer to these kinds of problem lie...

Is penal substitution immoral?

This is inspired by something I read on Simon Hutton's blog.

Is penal substitution immoral? This is a stock charge made by liberal theologians and by atheists against the Christian gospel ("Christ died for our sins"). Here's atheist Christopher Hitchens explaining the objection (sorry for the lack of a reference - copied this from Simon's blog):
“Is it moral to believe that your sins – yours and mine, ladies and gentlemen – can be forgiven by the punishment of another person? Is it ethical to believe that? I would submit that the doctrine of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice is utterly immoral. I might if I wished … say, “look, you’re in debt, I’ve just made a lot of money out of a God-bashing book, I’ll pay your debts for you” … I could say, if I really loved someone who’d been sentenced to prison, “if I could find a way of serving your sentence, I’d do it” … I could do what Sydney Carton does in A Tale of Two Cities … “I’ll take your place on the scaffold,” but I can’t take away your responsibilities, I can’t forgive what you did, I can’t say you didn’t do it, I can’t make you washed clean. The name for that in primitive Middle Eastern society was scapegoating. You pile the sins of the tribe on a goat and you drive that goat into the desert to die of thirst and hunger; and you think you’ve taken away the sins of the tribe: a positively immoral doctrine that abolishes the concept of personal responsibility upon which all ethics and all morality must depend.”
Now, if I was responding directly to Hitchens my first move would be to take him to task for making dogmatic pronouncements about what ethics and morality "must" depend on. Such assertions make sense in a Christian context where there is an all-supreme God who lays down the law for his creatures. But for an atheist to just bandy those ideas around as if they came down from heaven and whose obviousness was written upon our very human nature is for the atheist to jump up and down crying out "There is a God! There is a God!". Hitchens also abombinably misrepresents the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 - which the Bible everywhere teaches was symbolic; the idea that it was believed that the goat itself took away people's sins is a pure invention out of Hitchen's brain with no support from the book itself. But I digress. Let's take the point about penal substitution. Is its very nature immoral? Here's my two-part answer.
  1. Let's grant that it's immoral. Then we're all damned. If I must bear the responsibility for all my sins because of this alleged immutable principle, then I must bear the responsibility for all my sins. According to the the law-giver (God), the wages of sin is death - eternal death, the unending punishment of hell. It's pointless for Hitchens to start arguing about whether God's standards of justice are wrong and that eternal hell isn't deserved. Everybody knows that condemned criminals who are found guilty of the most appalling crimes (in this case, rebellion against our God and Creator), make the very worst judges of what their crimes deserve. They're incompetent, because they're totally biased.

    So if nobody can pay the penalty except the sinner, then that's very bad news indeed. God, though, spent many centuries teaching mankind that substitution was possible, using such means as for example the symbolism of the scape-goat. Hence nobody should make this mistake!

  2. Hitchens does not understand the cross of Jesus because he misses out a vital part of the Bible's teaching. He argues using three analogies, but fails to understand why they fail in this case. Jesus was not punished for the sins of his people despite a lack of any real connection between Jesus and his people. On the contrary, he had a unique relationship to us, which does not exist in other cases. The missing element is the doctrine of the "covenant", and the ensuing idea of a "federal headship". Here, "federal" means "representative". Christ was, by a covenant, appointed to be the head of his people. He agreed to take upon himself their responsibilities and to perform what was required of them.

    Now, this idea of federal representation, far from being the end of all morality, is the very basis for a great deal of the transactions in the world. The government (in the US, the "federal government") acts on the behalf of its people. For them, it negotiates treaties, passes laws and goes to war. One soldier shoots another soldier, but isn't arrested for murder as Hitchen's ideas require - because both were acting on behalf of a people. Hitchens is actually propounding a hyper-individualism. His assertion is only logically consistent with total anarchy, in which every individual acts only for themselves, and nobody can ever act on your behalf. No employee can act for his boss; no father can take a decision on behalf of his infant child and no government can act for its people. If they did, according to Hitchens, it would end all morality. Hitchens is a modern Westerner, and promotes the individual above all other federations to such a level as to completely destroy them - but it's a bit rich for him to do this in the same breath as committing the chronological fallacy and sneering at the foolish beliefs of those in the ancient east.

    Jesus took the punishment for his people justly, because he was joined with them in a divine covenant. This is the same reason why Adam's sins can be imputed to us - he was appointed the federal head of humanity, given authority to act on their behalf. Will Hitchens dare to tell God that he is not allowed to make such appointments? That he must run every covenant or other arrangement he wishes to make past Hitchens first, to get his approval? He's forbidden to appoint anyone to a representative role without the atheist's agreement first? Hitchens seems not to understand who is the potter, and who is the clay in this setup.

    At this point Hitchens might argue that personal responsibility cannot be taken by a substitute without an individual's prior and personal consent. Again, this would make him a radical individual anarchist. Will the government of Kenya or the UK agree to exempt me from its laws and taxes if I simply declare that I no longer consent to them being my government? I withdraw permission, therefore I am now a law unto myself? If an infant Hitchens suddenly announces to his daddy that said daddy no longer has permission to represent or act for him in anything, will Hitchens senior immediately agree?

    But again, let's grant him this point. If Hitchens decides to use this granted authority to positively forbid Christ to have anything to do with him in representing him, or atoning for his sins, or pleading before God on his behalf, then so be it. What is the outcome? Hardly joyful, is it? Insisting on the rights of one's own individuality to claim one's very own share in damnation isn't really a great use of that right, don't you think? OK, let him - if Hitchens wishes to have no part in Christ's saving work, then God shall accept his choice; but that really won't turn out well for him. We can, though, admire the righteousness of God's justice: he gives the Christ-rejecter nothing more than they themselves demand.
It would be immoral for my crimes against the government to be heaped upon another innocent victim who had no interest or part in my case. That's why Sydney Carton could not go to the gallows for another. But in another case, if a contract has been taken out such that someone had agreed that whatever debts I ran up in the course of my trading, he agreed to take them all, then it would be perfectly moral. Such contracts are routine. What Hitchens has to do to establish his case is to prove that the transaction recorded in Scripture in which Christ became the covenant head of his people definitely belongs to the former category and not to the latter. He hasn't done this - he hasn't even seemed to appreciate the need for it. He can't, because in fact God is at liberty to constitute whatever relationships between his own creatures that he pleases to constitute, consistent with his own holiness and justice. He simply assumes that we must and can all be related only on a hyper-individualistic basis and leaves out the authority of God. Of course he does - he's an atheist. But that's ultimately nothing more than arguing in a circle.

Christ can die in our place, and that is the good news of the Christian gospel. Jesus can die in our place because God appointed him to it. Where is Hitchen's good news? The doctrine that our sins are our own and we must be punished for them is horrible. To proclaim it as gladly as he does is a kind of madness which only sinners in determined rebellion against their Creator are capable of.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

More missionary musings

2 years is almost nothing in a foreign culture - we're still scratching the surface of understanding people and beginning to fathom their mysterious way of life. 2 years is hardly enough to understand a different part of the UK, let alone a different continent. It ought to have been enough to learn far more Swahili than I have, but that's another story!

If we can't say much that's deep about the people we're with yet, we can at least try to understand ourselves. So here's another observation.

Being a missionary is spiritually dangerous - really dangerous. These factors may vary depending on the type of missionary and situation, but what I mean is this. Many missionaries I know, like myself, are on their own. We might meet up to fellowship with others from time to time - but here in Eldoret, I've not met a single British citizen living here who's still in the country (we met one couple who've since gone to Hong Kong). Neither do I know any other local-church based missionaries. And being from the West, I'm the richest man in the church - this bit wasn't hard. You would be too, and I don't need to ask your income to know that - I just need to know you have a computer to read this! (A typical church member in Grace Baptist, Eldoret will pay about £10 rent for a single room in which the whole family lives). The missionary will often be vastly more educated and be in the highest social class of the church. Add to that, he's the teacher. He might also be the gateway to Western funds for this or that project, and pay the salaries of a few or many people. (Well, he may not pay them - but he sources the money, and that's all the same to the person receiving the salary).

In short, if things follow their natural, fleshly course, then the missionary can soon be being looked up to as a superior being and because he has so few peers, starts to imagine that he is. Others are servants, needy people and those needing teaching and advice. Soon the missionary can stop seeing himself as a servant of the local church, and more like some sort of semi-divine being who descends from on high to dispense his wisdom, favours and cash to the grateful locals. With no-one around to put the brakes on by telling him that he's becoming a self-centred jerk, you can see how it could easily spiral. Instead of being the lowest in the church, he starts to see himself as set apart - and how privileged the locals are to have him around! Any visitors from his homeland or mission organisation won't necessarily identify the problem, because the missionary may be the visitor's only key to local goings on - they have no independent standpoint to evaluate him by. The problem can be compounded on home visits. Home-land churches may have read too much 19th century missionary hagiography, and also treat him like some semi-deity who has descended from a higher plane and be in awe of all of his reports of his great deeds in a far-off place. Christians will naturally offer him loving hospitality and treat him like royalty especially if he's from a third world country and they want him to enjoy some rest during his visit. But if the man's soul is going the wrong way, this can all re-inforce the sense of entitlement as a superior being.

I was genuinely shocked a few months after arriving in Eldoret when I spoke to someone other than my co-elder who was self-confident and articulate. (This was a leader of the law school Christian Union. Of course there are oodles of people wealthier and higher up the social scale than myself in Eldoret - they're just not in our church). I was pulled up short - I'd forgotten what it was like to relate to such people! A conversation as equals - this is a blast from the past! Nothing particularly remarkable in the conversation - the kind of interaction I might have with anyone back in the UK. But I realised I hadn't had such a conversation in person except with one individual for a long time. And so if when I'm next in the UK you feel like I'm talking or preaching to you as if you're an idiot, do be patient with me...

The answer to all this is quite simple. If the missionary believes the Bible, he'll see that God describes him (and every other minister of the Word) as a servant of servants. Christians are servants, and ministers are their servants. To lord it over the flock is the way of the world - the world which is under God's wrath.  Does the missionary believe what God spoke, or not? If that question is remembered and by the Lord's gracious help answered properly, that'll go almost all the way. To visit some dirty little shack that someone causes home and drink tea with them (that might turn your belly out before the day's done), in the name and service of Christ, is a far more immense privilege than to be the new President of Europe. Do you believe that? By God's continuing kindness, I do. Van Whats-his-face and Baroness Ashton may be getting all the newspaper headlines today, but that's because the world in sin is ignorant. Thousands of servants of Christ do far more important work every day - and it's not the work of being the (self-deluded) "Great Leader". It's the work of getting themselves out of the way and ministering the word in the name of Jesus to those who are willing to receive it.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Two years ago today

First - the new creation/evolution book is published today. Read more about it here. (I blogged about it first here).

Two years ago today I and my family arrived in Kenya. What an interesting time it has been! I've certainly not had any problems with feeling bored since. God has been very good. Almost nothing has turned out as expected, but God's ways are better.

Today I'm a member and elder in Grace Baptist Church, Eldoret (in the Rift Valley - Kenya's 5th largest city/town) and a teacher in a nearby Bible college.

One big lesson is how little we knew about or understood missionaries before we became one. Too much of our thinking about missionaries came out of biographies of bygone years. I already knew that missionaries sin as much as anyone and that the hagiography was wrong. But I hadn't realised just how much else was off the mark too.

It's not the 19th century any more. You can telephone my mobile for 4 pence per minute from the UK, or even (since earlier this year when Kenya got a nice big Internet pipe) video Skype us. As it happens, basically nobody does contact us this way outside of our immediate family circle (or from the mission organisation). This was despite many newsletters mentioning how much my wife would appreciate calls from friends to encourage her, especially as we found our way about. We've spent 2 years wondering why nobody calls. Is it because missionaries are supposed to be isolated, people who've disappeared from the face of the earth, gone on some six-month boat-ride that they'll never return from? To appear on their computer screens would lessen the romanticism of it all and reduce the brownie-points they earn for enduring such things? Just not something missionaries are meant to do? Keep 'em humble? Beats me - answers on a postcard!

Another thing. When in the UK I used to hear about the poverty and financial needs of foreign churches. And what most UK churches then do is try to raise some money to help - of course they do. I never knew what kinds of incredible and chronic problems free money has caused and is causing to Kenya and to Kenyan churches. Are these problems worse that the problems there'd be without that money? No, they're not. Please keep sending money to worthy causes of course.... but do you actually have any idea how to evaluate what a worthy cause is in an African church, and do you know what'll happen when you send money to causes which would be better funded another way (or not at all)? I didn't. Shudder.

Here's another. I've come to see a lot of missionary newsletters as works of fiction. Apologies to any fellow missionaries reading my blog and all that. I probably don't mean yours! :-) I include many of my own newsletters in this. "I did this, we did that, X number of people came" - sounds fantastic; so much being done, quite unlike the slow scene in the UK. Ha! Now I read them more critically. Activity is one thing. Progress in building an indigenous, national-led church can be something totally, utterly, completely different. All the reports of activity can very well disguise a dearth of real progress. Propaganda for supporters, whose funding and encouragement keeps us going. Easy to do because it's natural in newsletters, of course, to say what you've actually done. The long-term and wider picture is harder to summarise quite so succinctly... so we don't.

And another. The holiday visitor's impressions of African Christianity are not worth the paper they're written on. They're evaluating it from a Westerner's point of view, against the backdrop of the problems of the Western church. Because you don't see those problems, you conclude that all is well. The church in Kenya is immeasurably, immeasurably weaker than the UK conservative evangelical church. Your average well-taught teenager in a conservative Christian family is far ahead in Biblical understanding of the typical pastor in a Kenyan church. If someone visits here for a summer and tells you that the Kenyan Christianity they saw is about to save the secular West, they're talking through their hat. Really. Africa's not called "The Dark Continent" for nothing.

I've seen too more evidence that many Christians in the UK have a false sacred/secular divide. I can think of several cases (so this isn't about any person or instance in particular) where I know of people who really, deeply support our work here - but if asked to do some boring, practical job that would help, think it's too much trouble and don't feel inclined to assist. They don't see it as part of the chain of necessity in the mission work, because it's not the exciting, glamorous preaching to untouched savages that they think counts as mission.

This perhaps sounds negative - it's not meant to; it's part of my own learning experience, which is positive. Perhaps I'll post more again later

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Missing something important

Justin Taylor asked Gerald Bray three questions to help us understand the genealogies e.g. of 1 Chronicles 1, here.

The answers were helpful but missed out the most important bit. The genealogies were given to lead up to their great climax in Christ, Luke 3 and Matthew 1. They are emphasising the flesh-and-blood historical character of the redemption we have received. They prepare for and teach the coming of the Son of God in authentic human nature, as a real man to die in the place of real men. They are part of the story of redemption - a redemption that is not worked out in some ethereal, intangible, private spiritual realm that fits in with modern secular mores. Rather, it is a redemption that took place in the very same earthy dimensions that we live, breathe, vomit and all other things in. This world belongs to the Lord - not some private thought world, whilst the real world belongs to man. He created it, he redeemed it - every part of it, seen and unseen; it was not just a redemption touching our "personal value choices" or somesuch. Jesus really did come as one of us, to save us.

Dr. Bray's answers all had something of a timeless nature about them - truths that apply in all generations. There was nothing wrong about those truths in themselves - but if we only have that bit and not the climax of it all in Christ, then it's the road to Gnosticism. Christian redemption is grounded in history - a history running from Adam down to Christ, carefully documented by the Bible writers so that we are without any excuse if we neglect it. In these days of new Gnosticising doctrines such as theistic evolution which try to have a de-historicised redemption, this needs underlining all the more.

I've expounded upon this at length and in a more rigourous fashion in my chapter of the new IVP book, released tomorrow, £7.49 including delivery from Amazon...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Back - again!

Back on January 3rd I wrote, "Today I ran 10 miles in under 80 minutes... the first time since October 2007. A good feeling - this is the level at which I'm getting a bit fitter, more in control of the running so that huffing, puffing and chugging increasingly become a thing of the past (except on the really long ones!)".

Well, today is a day I've waited some time for. Today I ran 10 miles in under 80 minutes (79:48) for the first time since March this year. In the meantime, a few things intervened. Mainly a metatarsal stress fracture, but also runner's knee, burglary and illness. God is good - those 8 months since March have seemed long! (My record, set in 2007, is 73:01, so there's still some way until I'm really back to my best!).

The Bible tells us that "the righteous man stumbles seven times, and rises up again" (Proverbs 24:16). Life in a fallen world is full of setbacks. I was motivated to go through them one by one by one by one until today - but that was just in some ordinary, temporal thing. Of course, the Bible verse is speaking of higher things. There are setbacks in the Christian life and in ministry. No question about that. The question is if we have the will and the trust in God's goodness to keep pressing forward even to reach the point we were at or hoped to be at yonks ago. It's either that or falling and staying there. "The righteous man never stumbles" is not in the Bible; "the righteous man stumbles seven times, and rises up again" is. If we can do this in lower things, why not in the things that are eternal too? How are you doing?

Friday, 30 October 2009

"Islam: at war within itself"

Very informative piece from the Barnabas Fund, here.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Freedom to smack

This nugget was in a friend's prayer letter. He's also a missionary in Kenya...
A final snippet from <son's name, aged 9>. We were talking at the dinner table the other night, and he came out with: “It’s much better growing up in Kenya”.  “Why’s that?”,  I asked, thinking it might be because of the weather, the wildlife, or some such thing. “Because parents can smack their kids here without any fear of getting in trouble”.  Just to check I’d understood properly I said, “Are you saying it was good that when you were little we could smack you?” “Yes, of course, much better”… Obviously he’s been seriously traumatised by the whole thing….

Friday, 23 October 2009

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

I've been reading volume 1 of Iain Murray's biography of Martyn
Lloyd-Jones, covering the first 40 years of his life. The biggest
challenge I've found in it is something that comes across quite clearly
- the inner fire in Lloyd-Jones' soul. The account is of a man of
conviction and focus. He preached as a man who believed in preaching -
or rather, in the God who commanded preaching. He comes across as a man
gripped by the gospel and the weight of responsibility and privilege he
had in declaring it. Would that God would make us who preach, and send
more preachers who are utterly gripped in this way.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The right to have no rights

My last post was an example of a regular feature of government in the secular West. In the name of individual rights, individuals lose their rights - and the government gains them. Paradoxical - but real.

When the government declares that a right exists, and puts it into legislation, it hasn't merely handed you a new supposed right. It's also handed itself the right to control and enforce that right. The government gains new rights to be involved in areas of life that it wasn't before.

It's actually one thing to have some supposed right, and quite another for it to be decided that the government is the best entity to police that right. But in the secular West, there is no God allowed, and the government has to take its place as the supreme being in every area of life. If there is a right to police, government is the only entity we can think of to be involved in overseeing it - church, parents, family, clan and community must ultimately bow before its omnicompetence.

When the government awards itself these new rights, it's always at the expense of others' rights. A new right to interfere into other spheres is a new loss of freedom in those spheres. When the government can barge its way into family or church where it couldn't before, liberty in those spheres is lost. Rights are not a license to print free currency for health, wealth and happiness - you can't magically gain them in one place all the time without losing them elsewhere. That's why previous and wiser generation didn't fixate upon rights the way our society does, but about responsibilities instead. Responsibilities promote true freedom - rights erode them.

The idea of "children's rights" has been the most pernicious and potent tool for the government to withdraw all kinds of rights from families. After declaring a mixture of rights, good and bad, for children, governments have then arbitrarily appointed themselves the guardians and providers of these rights - at the expense of parents. To say that Johnny has the right to X is one thing. To say that the government has the right to barge its way into your front room to ensure that X is provided on precisely the terms and in the exact way that the Minister in Whitehall deems correct is something else entirely.

The net result is that everyone is gradually having their rights eroded, and the government is little by little accumulating all the rights. The final step is the right to have no rights at all. This is when every individual has such a comprehensive and all-embracing set of rights that government eventually has the right to regulate absolutely everything in order to enforce these rights. It won't be called that, of course. But it's coming. Ministers openly discuss ideas like overweight children being removed from their families to protect their right to good health, and such drivel - in the broad daylight, as if it were vaguely sane. And a hundred over such petty intrusions and extensions of the government's remit fill the news week after week. You can't start rolling down the slope and pressing the gas without arriving at the bottom eventually. "The right to have no rights" - something to look forward to, is it not?

Monday, 19 October 2009

What's good for our children is for us to say

"What's good for our children is for us to say" - that's the title of an incisive article on the government's power-grabbing plans to intrude further into family life, from the Daily Telegraph:

In the name of the rights of the child (as ever), the government is again seeking to increase its own rights. Now: a new right for the officers of the local council to interview your child, in your home, without you present - to determine if they think you're educating your child in a way they approve of. As Johnson says, "Orwellian". This isn't just a big deal to home-schoolers. This new right, once established, has far-reaching implications, and every parent in the UK should be deeply concerned.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

What if officials did this to your child?

From the Christian Institute:
Video: what if officials did this to your child?      

The Government wants to give officials the power to enter a family home and question children about what their parents are teaching them – without their parents being present.

Please watch this short video (81 seconds) and act now to keep families free.

Kenyan church discipline

Just to follow up on the last post. I've been teaching through 1 Corinthians this term at college, and so we've dealt with church discipline a little whilst covering chapter 5. I asked the students about their experiences, and to evaluate if what they've seen is Biblical or not.

The most common answer is that they've seen their pastors simply announce church discipline on their own authority, to remove those they dislike from the church. In once case, a student said their pastor had announced the removal of seventy people in one go from the church!

In the West such a pastor would soon be known as a tyrant and people would avoid him. But in the African culture of the "big man" people sadly get used to it. (Of course the Western church has many of its own problems which my students are equally astonished by if I describe).

On the Kenyan church

Through talking with other missionaries and the mature Christians in my own churches in Kenya I've gained a picture of the Kenyan church at large. But more lately I've been able to gain a better understanding by asking the students I teach at theological college about their own churches. When we study some Bible passage I've been asking, "how is this done in your church? What is done rightly, what is done wrongly?" In fact this process has basically confirmed the picture that other third parties were giving me.

Typically, Kenyan churches are plagued by problems coming from the society at large, which is no surprise. Particular problems are:
  • The health, wealth and prosperity heresy
  • Authoritarian and hypocritical leadership, glorification of leaders at the expense of brotherhood
  • Rampant sexual immorality, greed, dishonesty, theft and corruption
  • Biblical illiteracy, with traditions and man-made rules taking the place of knowing and following Scripture
  • Services with very little Biblical content, instead filled with endless repetitive songs and personal testimonies
Biblical, serious and consistent Christianity is very rare indeed. There is a myth in the Western church that Christianity is spreading greatly in places like Kenya, and will be the salvation of world Christianity. This is an idle dream if we're talking about the church here today. Africa is desperate for money, and those bringing Christianity often bring money, and as a result "rice Christianity" is rampant. But as one fellow missionary said to me, he explains to people in the UK that an average well-taught teenager in a serious Christian family in the UK is likely to have more Biblical knowledge than most pastors here in Kenya. What we do have is a wide open door of opportunity and a great God. But there is an immensely long way to go.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Bound to correct us

Great quote from Arthur Pink on God's disciplining of his children:
Chastening is not only reconcilable with God’s lovingkindness, but it is the effect and expression of it. It would much quieten the minds of God’s people if they would remember that His covenant love binds Him to lay on them seasonable correction. Afflictions are necessary for us: "In their affliction they will seek Me early" (Hos. 5:15)
(The Attributes of God, Chapter 10 -

Respect people, not opinions

Good article here in the Times by Oliver Kamm. He nails the idea that free expression means that all ideas (especially religious ideas) must be treated with respect - an idea that is impossible, and that the people propagating don't carry out in practice. "The idea that people's beliefs, merely by being deeply held, merit respect is grotesque." Opinions should only be respected if they are well-grounded; they must earn respect - it is conditional. It is people who are to be given respect as people made in the image of God, not because they hold views.

Ultimately if all ideas are worthy of respect, then none are. When counterfeit gold can be passed off as the real thing, the real thing loses its value in the marketplace. If Islam's teaching that in a court of law the testimony of a woman is inherently worth half that of a man is an opinion which is equally worthy of respect as the Bible's teaching that men and women are equally made in the image of God, then ultimately we're just saying that neither opinion matters at all. You can't have it all ways.

Friday, 2 October 2009


Reading a book review in a mainstream Evangelical newspaper in the UK, this came at the end....
"But, by the book’s own admission, it is not dealing with things that are essential for salvation (p.65). Ah. This is why I’m not sure about it — £12.99 and a good couple of hours reading it and it’s not going to make a scrap of difference to eternity. Hmmm."
Have evangelicals in the UK really come to this? I'm glad that the fellow's focussed on "things that are essential for salvation". But what on earth is he saying? Is he serious?
  • Christians should never spend a couple of hours on a matter that is not essential for salvation? Do you think this fellow eats, sleeps, goes to work? Presumably he never rests, reads a newspaper, plays a game with his kids....

  • Or is it just books that have to pass this test? So we should never read a book unless it's about the way of salvation? Do radio programmes have to pass this test? Or how about sermons - must every sermon be evangelistic? Do we get to talk about other topics with our kids?

  • Or are all these things allowed as long as they don't reach "a couple of hours"? One hour OK? Or 15 minutes?

  • Did the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28-29) just expire? Since when?
I presume that this standard is just meant to apply to Christian books. I can't believe this comment got past the editor. Is a new hyper-piety abroad in the UK? Is there a new movement of anti-intellectualism at work amongst evangelicals in the UK? We refuse to read books unless they're on one subject and one subject only? I'd never seen something like this before in the circles I'm vaguely near to. I'm gob-smacked.

What problem of evil?

A very good (in the main points) post on the "problem of evil", and why it's impossible for an atheist to use it against Christianity, here:

The author says he does not know what the theological explanation for "natural evil" (natural disasters, etc.). The Bible's answer is the Fall and the ensuing curse.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Bringing out the begging bowl!

Want a free SIM card (UK) and £2 credit? From Three, who give you free on-network calls, free texts, free Internet and free Skype (even if you have no credit!) every time you top-up? (No? You can stop reading this post now!)

If so, order from this link here:

For this I get £5 for each SIM someone requests. You can read about Three's services at their website - But to get the free £2 of credit, and for me to get the £5, you have to use the link above to order. You'll need a 3G-capable phone to use this SIM.

I came across this because I was wanting a SIM card and Internet when I next visit the UK. This looks a good deal. I e-mailed them to ask if it was allowed for me to promote to my wife and vice-versa or if they considered that unethical. They said it was no problem at all - they can definitely be my friends!

(Sorry to bring out the begging bowl. A recent burglary cost us a four-figure sum (UK pounds) even after we'd recovered much of the stolen stuff, so that's my excuse....)

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The unrepenting repenter

Good brief article here on the difference between true and false repentance.

Are you in the will of God?

The Bible never, ever, encourages us to look at our circumstances to judge whether or not we're in the will of God.

By that, I don't mean you can't look round at your companions in the local den of drunkards or gossip club and work out that you should be somewhere else. What I mean is, unless your circumstance is one of sin, you cannot judge that God wishes you to be elsewhere simply from the events that happen to you. Bad stuff happening to you does not mean you're in the wrong place; things going well does not mean you're in the right place. These things are not revealed by God to you through events. Rather, you use the wisdom in the Bible, pray, and God will open and close doors according to his will. The reality will be revealed to you when it happens - not by secret signs beforehand.

How can we prove this? Easy. Job.

What happened to Job? Disaster. He lost his family, his home, his business and his health - everything except his life itself.

Why? Because he was wicked? Because he was outside the will of God and in the wrong place?

Nope. It all happened to him because he was the most righteous man on earth. Because he followed God with all his heart, he became a test case - to see if his faith was real, to prove to Satan that God's people love God not just for the earthly blessings, and ultimately to provide God's people through all succeeding ages with much deep teaching that hopefully we can learn without all having to face such extremities ourselves. It all happened to him because he was more within the will of God than anyone else on the planet.

Job ought to be the death-knell of all such secret-guidance theories whose proponents claim that you can read infallibly discern that you are in the right or wrong place through the events that come your way. Same lesson comes from the apostles (1 Corinthians 4). The Bible says that we must enter the kingdom through much tribulation (Acts 14:23). The untroubled, peaceful church is normally the Laodicean church of Revelation 3, not the church that found the heart of God's will. Or in large part the 21st century church of the Western world...

Monday, 28 September 2009

An infallible Bible

Protestants believe that the Bible is the sole highest and final authority in all matters of belief and practice.

Roman Catholic apologists reply with, "Ah - but you Protestants, with your Bible alone, don't agree with each other! You need something more!" That something more is the supposedly-infallible Roman Catholic church.

In a clear and concise post here, James Swan shows that this shift in reality achieves nothing. The same Roman Catholic apologists then disagree with each other on how to interpret the pronouncements of that supposedly-infallible church.

The fact that people disagree over the Bible's meaning shows nothing. People disagree over everything, and when those people are sinners handling a book that strikes right at the heart of sin, it's hardly surprising. There's no mileage in scoring apologetic points from that observation on its own.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Pilgrim talks with a child about the will of God

Child: Pilgrim, how can I know the will of God for me?

Pilgrim: To know the will of God, child, read the word of God.

Child: But Pilgrim, what about life's big issues? Who shall I marry, where shall I work?

Pilgrim: Did you hear me? Read the word of God, child!

Child: But the word of God does not tell me God's will for me.

Pilgrim: It does, and on every page. "For this is the will of God, even your sanctification". "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you".

Child: I know that, Pilgrim. But does not God have "one best life now" for me? How can I make sure I don't miss out?

Pilgrim: You know nothing yet as you ought to know it, child. God's "best life" is the life of his kingdom, not of the world, and so he tells you to seek it first. If you would be happy, you must be holy. If you are first holy, you will then understand all these other questions you ask.

Child: But I still have to know where to live and work?

Pilgrim: I already told you. You have to know how to live and work. When you know how and do his will, God will take care of the rest.

Does not the Holy Spirit lead us, then?

Pilgrim: Indeed he does, as I have told you. He leads us into holiness.

Child: And the will of God?

Pilgrim: Godliness.

Child: But what about the details of life? Will I not get into trouble if I miss God's best?

Pilgrim: You will get into trouble if you find God's best.

Child: What do you mean?

Pilgrim: What the word of God says. "We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God", and "no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto" and "Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator."

Child: But does not God want good things for his children?

Pilgrim: He does, and that is why we suffer.

Child: How can suffering be good?

Pilgrim: Because suffering is the narrow road to glory, my child. "That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ".

Child: But, Pilgrim, I think if we can find the way to know the will of God, we will never have cause to suffer.

Pilgrim: That is why you are still a child, child.