Sanctification: The next big debate within the church?

exchange-of-ideas-222787_640For the first few hundred years of the church’s history the big debate within the church was the nature of Jesus Christ – who, exactly, was he in relation to God? This is where the doctrine of the Trinity came from – as theologians debated and discussed God’s revelation of himself in the Bible. Similar debates have happened through the years. Around 500 years ago, at the time of the Reformation, the debate was about justification: that is, whether justification was sola fide – by faith alone – or whether we co-operated with God in our salvation through good works.

I think we are entering into another debate within the church – this time in the area of sanctification. Sanctification is a theological word which basically means the process by which we become holy – becoming more and more the people who God wants us to be, setting aside sin and increasing our love for him and others.

So why do I think this is going to be the next big debate within the church? Allow me to explain with a particular example.

Earlier on today I watched a video by John Piper:

The video talks about how we should ‘flee youthful passions’ – we should do what we can to avoid things which are sinful, and even things which would cause us to sin. (I should add at this point, I have nothing against John Piper and have benefitted from his books and videos – I am using this video because I think it’s a good example of a wider issue in many churches). Many churches might preach a similar message. What’s the problem with that?

As I see it, there are a few problems:

  • It locates the source of the problem as external to us. This is a problem because we know that the source of the problem is our hearts, from which sin flows (e.g. Mark 7:15). If I see an attractive woman and look at her lustfully, the problem is not with the woman – it’s with me. The problem is our hearts need to be changed, not our circumstances.
  • It’s a self-centred way of looking at sin: it’s about fixing myself, rather than loving God and loving others. Of course, if we sin we will harm others – but I think the Bible calls us to more than avoiding harm!
  • Following on from that – it focusses on ‘stop it’ as a solution to sin – stop thinking the bad thing, stop feeling the bad thing, stop doing the bad thing. It doesn’t think about what we should do instead. So when Paul talks about ‘fleeing’ evil desires – what should we flee to?

All of this has come home to me as I’ve been thinking about my other Friend Zone project. Recently I reviewed Aimee Byrd’s book Why Can’t We Be Friends?, which is subtitled Avoidance is not Purity. As I read that book, and as I’ve been thinking about the issue of friendship between men and women, it has struck me how our understanding of sanctification has become deficient.

Too often I think Christians are so fearful of sin they don’t want to do anything! I was born and raised in evangelical churches, from a Christian home, and yet I think I spent many years of my life scared of sin – scared of just the kind of thing that John Piper talks about in the video. It’s only come home to me in the last few years that we are not to avoid doing what is right out of fear! I think Christians should have more confidence in God, who “has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3).

I believe that our understanding of sanctification is what lies behind much of the debate in the church at the moment around sexuality and particularly same-sex attraction (e.g. the evangelical criticism of the Revoice conference – see a few thoughts I wrote, for example). I don’t want to offer any particular position on that here, other than I think there is an area which could do with further discussion and thinking about what the Bible does and does not say.

The root of the problem seems to be whether we think of sanctification as primarily about stopping doing / thinking / feeling wrong things, or whether we think of sanctification primarily about the transformation of our desires to orient them to love rightly.

You can hear my thoughts about sanctification in this sermon I preached from Galatians 5:13-26 (see below), but if you’d like a book recommendation to explore it further I can think of nothing better than Sinclair Ferguson’s book Devoted to God (as well as his previous book The Whole Christ, which is also well worth reading).

Debates in the church are not necessarily a bad thing: I think the Reformation was a good thing and led to much good fruit. I pray that any upcoming debates on sanctification in the church will lead to more light, and lead the church to grow in holiness and love for the Lord and his people.

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Why we should be grateful for Vicky Beeching

undividedI recently talked a little about Vicky Beeching’s book – Undivided – and why I think it is dangerous for the church. I stand by what I said there – but, at the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and I think there are reasons to be grateful to Vicky Beeching. In particular, I think the book exposes the truth in two ways:

1. It exposes the truth about people.

One of the things which has really come home to me over the last month is the lack of depth and theological understanding in the UK church. It is pitiably weak in certain quarters.

Vicky’s story is a powerful one, for sure – but in a church which knew the Scriptures and the gospel, it wouldn’t have made a dent. My heart weeps for the many faithful Christians who will read this book and be swayed by it. Why are they swayed? Because they do not know the Scriptures deeply enough. This has something which I have hitherto only suspected – but Vicky’s book has brought into painfully to light.

There’s an intriguing moment at the end of John 6:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.’

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t dilute his teaching to make it easier for people to follow him. The words he speaks are “full of the Spirit and life”. If you want to follow him, you must follow it all – or it will be worth nothing. Vicky Beeching’s book – and the question of gay marriage in general – exposes people for who they really are: are they followers of Jesus, who take up their cross and follow, however hard it may be? Or will turn back and no longer follow him at this point?

Joshua said to the people of Israel as they entered into the Promised Land: “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Josh 24:15). We are at the point where the church has to choose whom it will serve – the gods of equality, sexual liberation and personal fulilment – or the God of the Bible. It cannot be both.

That said, if people do not know the Scriptures deeply enough, then they do not entirely have themselves to blame:

2. It exposes where the church has gone wrong.

If the church had been teaching the faith as it should have been, there would be no problem. I’ve been realising, however, that the church has not been teaching the faith – in particular, I think the church has failed in catechesis: teaching a basic systematic understanding of the faith. This is where I think many evangelical churches fall down – they preach the Bible week by week, which is vital, but neglect other things which are vital. I talked about this a little when I started my New City Catechism series.

In particular, I think the church has lost the understanding of sin that was so key at the Reformation: the idea that sin is pervasive and infects everything – our desires, our minds, our wills, everything. Too often people have a fairly weak view of sin as ‘bad things we do from time to time’. Children are often taught that kind of understanding to begin with, but sadly it seems that many adults never move beyond it. I know this from personal experience – I think for many years I saw sin as being something I did rather than something more fundamental, a matter of the heart. As Jesus said in Mark 7:21 “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come”. We’re not sinners because we sin – we sin because we are sinners. Because our hearts are wicked and corrupt, we bring forth the fruit of sin.

Recently in our church we’ve started using Order Two communion – the order in Common Worship (the standard CofE liturgy) based on the Book of Common Prayer. The confession has generated a bit of discussion, and it struck me that it’s the understanding of sin which is under question. (I should say that I minister in a conservative evangelical church which has had a strong Bible-preaching ministry for forty or more years!) I’m not saying this to criticise the church, but rather I think it illustrates that even among solid evangelical churches there has been a failure to adequately teach the faith which can leave believers exposed when error comes in. If people are rocked when they read Vicky Beeching’s book – or, more personally, when a close friend or family members ‘comes out’ – then it shows the church has not properly equipped them.

We as a church have often focussed so much on the ‘nice’ bits of the faith – worship and praise, the love of God, etc – that we’ve neglected the important doctrines of sin, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, hell, etc.

One of the things I’d like to see – as an Anglican – is a revival of the theology of the Book of Common Prayer. I honestly think the church wouldn’t be in half the mess it is if the prayer book had been retained as the staple diet of the church – or its theology, at least. Common Worship (released in 2000, which almost every church uses now) waters down so much of the gospel content that you can bend it to almost any theology. In our midweek communion service we’ve been using Order Two for nearly a year now – and it’s like balm to my bruised soul: I am free to be just exactly who I am before God – a sinner who is saved by grace, nothing more, nothing less. Hallelujah!

My wife had an interesting perspective on this – she grew up on Common Worship (or its precursor) – and didn’t really understand communion. She made the comment to me that the communion service suddenly became much clearer when using the Prayer Book style service. The BCP communion preaches the gospel in a way that Common Worship doesn’t.

What happens now?

I think there are reasons to be grateful, and reasons to be confident. Now that Vicky Beeching’s book – amongst other things – have exposed the truth, we can do something about it. I feel that for too long in this country we’ve been muddling along as a church, saying a few nice ‘Jesus’ things where appropriate but staying in the shallows, theologically speaking. That won’t work any more.

What this country needs is a revival, and a revival will not happen without people who are committed to living out Jesus’ teaching in every area. People who are willing to take up their cross and follow him. People who are willing to stand up and be counted.

This has been the case before in previous generations – as I mentioned when I talked about the hymn O Jesus I have promised. It can be so again. I think God often allows these things to happen to purify the church – to turn halfhearted people either out of the church, or move them to obey him in a more wholehearted way.

A wholehearted church can make a big difference – I was encouraged earlier today to read Ian Paul’s post on revival – Christianity eventually became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire by growing at around 3.42% per year. That’s not a huge amount – and yet it changed the course of history.

So what practical difference should we make as a church? Many things, of course! But in practical terms, in broad brush stroke terms, what I’d like to see is:

  • Pastors and teachers who are trained properly and able to teach their congregations the faith. I only realised the value in theological training after spending three years at theological college – I’m so glad the CofE made me do it, otherwise I’d probably have said “I’ve got the Bible, I’ve got a commentary… now let me at it! No need for this academic stuff!” Any church serious about growth needs to invest in the quality of its theological education. Putting down deep roots into the Scriptures and theology are essential for surviving testing times – and only people who have those deep roots can help others to gain them.
  • A revival of catechesis – as I’ve already talked about.
  • A renewed commitment to church planting. I am heartened that so many churches seem to be talking about church planting at the moment. I was talking to someone recently who said that the best way of reaching people is by planting a church – if the church in the UK is serious about reaching the unreached, we need to be serious about planting new churches. I was taught at college “Growing churches are church planting churches” – and I think this is true. The UK needs more churches.

Above all, we should have confidence in the glorious truth of the gospel – that we have a God who saves sinners, and even today is still drawing men and women to himself. I was reading a book yesterday – Matt Lee Anderson’s book on questioning – and in the chapter I read last night he said that the purpose of questioning is to fasten our minds on the truth. There is an objective truth out there, and we are only deluding ourselves if we deviate from it. This is what our society is finding out the hard way is it tries very hard to write out the fact of God’s truth. We as Christians know God’s Word, his truth, and we should be confident in proclaiming it as we know it is the way that God transforms lives and societies.

I finish with the words of Paul to his protege, Timothy, his charge which I look to to describe my ministry and I think are appropriate here:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather round them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

A few years ago we preached through 2 Timothy, and it struck me then that it is one of the most prophetic books in the Bible – it describes our situation exactly in the church at the moment. And yet, the solution is the same: preach the gospel. Let’s have confidence in doing just that.

Vicky Beeching – Undivided: The power and danger of stories

I’ve mentioned Vicky Beeching a couple of times on this blog, most recently discussing whether it’s right to say ‘Change or Die’ about the church.

Yesterday she released her new book, ‘Undivided’, which is her story of how she’s ‘come out’ as gay and Christian, and learned to embrace her sexuality.

As I’ve started with the YouTubing now, I thought I’d do a little video about why I think we should be wary of making the jump from her story to changing what the church has always believed about marriage.

‘Change or Die’: is the church doomed?

A BibleA popular line of argument these days is that the church must either change or die. More specifically, the ‘change’ to happen must include being affirming of same-sex marriage. Vicky Beeching wrote this on Twitter a few days ago:

Today many predict that #LGBT inclusion will ‘split the Church of England’. Perhaps it will just follow the same #womenbishops trajectory. (Link)

One thing’s certain: the Church cannot afford to move as slow on #LGBT as it has on #womenbishops. Otherwise there’ll be no under 20’s left.

Young people see Church on the wrong side of moral justice when it’s against #LGBT inclusion. If we want them in the pews, change is needed.

It’s unfathomable to kids my niece & nephew’s age that the Church isn’t fully inclusive of #LGBT Christians. It’s not even a debate to them.

This is a fairly common argument – for example, at the end of 2014 there was an event called “What future for the Church of England?” From reading reports of the event afterwards, it seems like most of the speakers basically said the church needed to stop being so mean to LGBT folk or else it was going to die.

But does this line of argument stand up to scrutiny? I don’t think it does, for two main reasons.

1. It ignores God

This is my biggest problem with the argument. If God has created marriage as being between a man and a woman, then it doesn’t matter what society believes: this is God’s world (Ps 24:1 – “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof”), and the church must proclaim God’s words rather than whatever happens to be in vogue in society at the time.

I’m sure Vicky Beeching is correct in that there are many people in society at the moment who think it is bizarre that the church is not affirming of same-sex marriage. But then, there are many people in society at the moment who think it is bizarre that the church believes we are all sinners and need to repent and believe in the gospel. There are people who think the idea of God becoming man and dying on a cross is a contemptuous idea. We do not give up on these because society finds them strange, distasteful, or even immoral. “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29, NLT).

However, even if this particular teaching of the church is deeply unpopular within society, there is no reason to suppose that the church will die: those who come to the Lord will always find that with Him is “life to the full” (John 10:10). God’s will for our lives is the true vision of human flourishing. God is the one who calls people to Himself, and people will find that a life lived in obedience to Him will always be worth it – whatever the cost. If God has indeed said it, then if the church proclaims it – some will listen.

Now I appreciate that some in the church (including Vicky Beeching) don’t think that God created marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. However, surely the important question is not what society thinks but what God thinks: we shouldn’t base our theology on what society thinks of it, but rather on what God thinks of it! No Christian church should ever do otherwise. Whether society finds a teaching of the church acceptable or not is really irrelevant to the question of whether the church should teach it: all that matters is whether God has said it.

2. It ignores all the evidence

My second problem with the “change or die” line of argument is that it ignores the evidence from a number of places:

Firstly, it ignores the historical evidence. The first-century Roman empire was a pretty diverse place in terms of sexuality. Not so different from today, really. The traditional Christian ethic of marriage would have sounded just as bizarre in that culture as it sounds today. And yet, Christianity grew and grew. Clearly, being out of step with culture wasn’t a problem for them.

Secondly, it ignores the evidence of churches today. If you look round at the church today, most of the churches that are growing are theologically conservative. In my limited experience, the churches I know which preach the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – and hold to the traditional teaching on marriage – are generally not dying out. In fact, the ones I’ve been part of often have good numbers of children and young people. If the traditional teaching on marriage really was a barrier, you would expect all of those churches to eventually die out. That is not happening as far as I can see.

Thirdly, it ignores the evidence of other countries. There are other churches in other countries who have approved same-sex marriage. For the purposes of the Church of England, the best comparison is probably the Episcopal Church in the USA. The ECUSA is currently “near collapse“. The church is shrinking (it lost a quarter of its attendance since 2003), and it has been embroiled in about $18m worth of litigation against former Episcopalian churches which have chosen to leave. Of course, the situation of the ECUSA is not the situation of the Church of England – but does what  happened in the USA give us any confidence that something similar won’t happen here?

Given all of this, I think the “change or die” argument is wrong and I hope that it soon disappears. For me, as someone who believe the Bible is clear about marriage, I think actually the reverse is true: if the church does change on marriage, it will be a disaster. The more the church begins to look like society, the less people will want to go: on the other hand, if people are meeting with the living God, nothing will be able to stop it.

Review: The Plausibility Problem

The Plausibility Problem by Ed ShawI’ve just finished reading The Plausibility Problem by Ed Shaw. The book is subtitled “The Church and Same-Sex Attraction”, and I can understand why that might immediately put people off: surely, we don’t need yet another book on the church’s view of sex? And this is exactly the reason I wanted to write this brief review: in my view this is one of the most important books to have been written on the subject – it is not what you think it is!

The real strength of the book for me is the fact that it doesn’t deal with traditional / revisionist Biblical arguments (although they are treated in two appendices), but rather seeks to outline how evangelical churches have made the church’s traditional teaching on sexuality implausible by a number of ‘missteps’ in the past few years. In other words, the problem which traditional Biblical churches face is not what they believe about sexuality – it’s how that teaching can be plausible in today’s society. Too often in today’s churches, the orthodox Biblical view of sexuality is seen as implausible because the church has lost focus on a number of other important teachings. These are what Ed Shaw labels ‘missteps’.

These missteps are:

  1. Your identity is your sexuality;
  2. A family is Mum, Dad and 2.4 children;
  3. If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay;
  4. If it makes you happy, it must be right!
  5. Sex is where true intimacy is found;
  6. Men and women are equal and interchangeable;
  7. Godliness is heterosexuality;
  8. Celibacy is bad for you;
  9. Suffering is to be avoided.

In all these areas, Shaw demonstrates how evangelical churches have often bought into cultural assumptions or perhaps not taught the full Biblical picture in a certain area. For example, I found his chapter on being “born gay” helpful: he argues that evangelical churches who argue that being gay is simply a ‘lifestyle choice’ are detrimental to the cause – it is in fact irrelevant whether same-sex attraction is chosen or not, and arguing that it is chosen will do nothing but alienate those for whom it is not a choice (or is experienced that way).

In my opinion, the area of sex and sexuality is shaping up to be the biggest area of contention between the church and the world and what Shaw outlines in this book is absolutely vital to enable people to make the move from the world to the church. It is no longer enough to simply teach what the Bible says about sex and sexuality – our church must regain its hold of teachings which have perhaps been under-emphasized in recent years.

I heartily commend this book to anyone who has an interest in the church – especially to anyone involved in church leadership in any capacity (including things like PCCs and so on). It is sorely needed, a real word in season for the church of today.

The Church’s Mission: What’s the point?

Is this how most people imagine missionaries?
Is this how most people imagine missionaries?

I was recently asked to contribute a piece to the “Mission Matters” magazine in our church, a magazine looking at mission in the local area as well as the wider world. This is what I came up with.

One of the privileges and joys of training at Oak Hill was training alongside those who were leaving for the mission field in other countries. I have friends from college who are now in, or shortly to move to, countries which span the globe. They are ministering amongst a whole variety of cultures and religious beliefs – Islam, Buddhism, the Orthodox Church – all sorts of different contexts. So I thought this time for Mission Matters it might be worth going back to basics and asking: what is it that really motivates them to give up their lives here, leave friends and family, journey hundreds or thousands of miles, and invest many years into learning a different language and culture? What could motivate someone to plough years of their lives into a country with little return, even under active persecution? In most of the countries I mentioned, for example, even in countries which are not actively hostile to the gospel the number of Bible-believing Christians is a tiny fraction of the population. Why would anyone do such a thing?

The book of Acts is a great place to go to when thinking about the mission of the church. Let’s first turn to the story of how the early church got going after Jesus’ ascension.

In Acts 1, just before Jesus ascended, he said to his disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This is one of the most significant verses in Acts: Jesus said when the Holy Spirit came, the disciples would “receive power”. What would they receive power to do? “be my witnesses” – to proclaim boldly the message of salvation in Christ. And this message was not just for a small group of people in a small corner of the world, this is a message which was to go “to the ends of the earth.”

This is exactly what we see happening in the rest of Acts – the Word of God, the gospel, goes out into Judea and Samaria. Then, in Acts 10, we see the gospel being brought even to the Gentiles. The message spreads further and further from Jerusalem, further and further away from the Jewish context where it originated. This same process, of reaching those who have never heard of Jesus, continues today. It is the mission of the church, as received from Christ: to reach even to the ends of the earth with the good news of salvation.

Let’s look at one more passage from Acts, where the apostle Paul goes to one of the major cities of the time – Athens. In Acts 17:16, we read: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” In those days, the Greeks liked to have a god for every occasion – as Paul walked down the streets he would have seen statues of many different gods. The worship of idols there was pretty obvious! But have we changed all that much today? In Romans 1, Paul talks humanity in general and says that all of us have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” Paul here is not saying that all of us explicitly worship images – but rather, every single one of us has exchanged worshipping the Living God for worshipping a lie. The natural state of humanity is to worship the created rather than the Creator. Every single culture, every single person on the planet, is an idolater in some way. How that looks in practice will naturally vary in different times and places – in the ancient city of Athens the idolatry was obvious. In our modern Western culture, people are perhaps tempted to worship money, sex, or power – anything which is a substitute for God.

So how does Paul deal with this situation in Acts 17? Does Paul say, with much of our current culture, “let’s celebrate diversity! Let’s rejoice that these people are worshipping God in their own way!”? Absolutely not! He is “greatly distressed” that the city is full of idols and he says to them:

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)

The almighty and living God, the only God of heaven and earth, who does not dwell in temples made by human hands but gives each one of us life and breath, commands us to repent and believe in the good news. Each of us must turn from the idols we worship to worship Him, so we will receive a good verdict on the day when he will judge the world with justice by his risen Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This message of good news is not limited to a small group of people – it is for everyone, whatever their culture, creed, language or nation. It is a message for us here in the West, it is a message for all those countries my friends have gone to, it is a message for all those countries we support and remember in prayer. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1 ESV)

This is the message that motivates us as we look around the world. The same message that gets my friends out of bed in the morning also fires us: our God has good news for all people. Let’s pray that God would send workers out into his harvest field, both at home and abroad, and let’s pray that God would keep bringing people to him in repentance and faith.

Our loving heavenly Father, we thank you for your message of good news for all people. We thank you that your light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We thank you that you send out workers into your harvest field, and we pray that through them you may bear much fruit. Please bless all those we support at St John’s and St Mark’s, give them confidence in your glorious gospel, and may they always fix their eyes on you. Amen.

 

Thoughts on the Church from 2 Timothy

A BibleIn our evening services at church, we’ve been preaching through 2 Timothy. It’s an absolutely wonderful book and I do commend it to you – especially if, like me, you are involved in Christian ministry in some way. As we’ve been going through it, I’ve been reminded time and again how Paul predicts pretty much the exact state of the church in this age – and, really, in every age. I’ve come to believe that 2 Timothy is actually one of the most prophetic books of the Bible, to my mind Paul absolutely nails it.

As I’ve prepared to preach on various passages I’ve picked up a few insights which I thought might be worth sharing with you today.

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