To assume the Gospel is to lose the Gospel

To assume the Gospel is to lose the Gospel

“If you get to the place as an individual in a family or in leadership in a local maxresdefaultchurch, you get to the place where the Gospel is that which is assumed, but which you’re not particularly excited about, the next generation puts the Gospel to one side.  It assumes it too but doesn’t really care.  The generation after that loses the Gospel.

So when you come likewise to something like the Lord’s Supper, I would argue that one of the groups of churches that is most likely to lose the centrality of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, is precisely the Plymouth Brethren; precisely because it’s so central for [them].  That’s not an insult, it’s a perennial danger in every denomination:  that which is most understood to be central can accidentally become that which is merely assumed – and then is on the edge of being lost!”

D. A. Carson

“A perennial danger” maybe the perennial danger.  I have found that as wonderful as being involved in a church can be, the power of assumptions are quite something to behold.  We assume too much because what we assume is too little.  There is a cognitive displacement that takes place, as though the Gospel is a stepping stone to actual ministry, or actual church business:  The Gospel is actual ministry and it is actual church business.  I suppose it gives rise to the reason why Carson would also say “I cannot think of  why any thinking Christian would not want to study theology.”  

Any departure from the Gospel is, of course, a catastrophic mistake more serious than if the escaping Israelites had set up home in the middle of the parted waters as they escaped the despotic Pharoah.  Many churches have “set up home” in the place where they are still being redeemed, because they have assumed the Gospel, they have fallen for the perennial danger; they have cuddled the wolf thinking it is a lamb.  This leads inevitably to a fossilising of corporate church life and of personal devotional life.  That is how the theological wolves pacify the churches today.

Institutional monotony is as alive and well in decaying Catholic churches as well as so-called charismatic-evangelical churches.  Give us a baby in a manger any day but do not give us the Christ who walks on water or wakes the dead!”  The Gospel obviously gives both – and shows that the baby doesn’t stay in the manger because he likewise doesn’t stay in the boat….or the grave for that matter.  A water-walking, dead-rising Messiah is a Messiah we can’t control, and the moment we have controlled him…..it’s not Him but another sentimental Hymn of slogans (this is the point to say that a truly great hymn can be reduced to sentimental sloganeering no less than a soppy bad hymn – it is the culture in which it is sung that makes the difference).  If it is a culture of Gospelised content, then wonderful.  But if not, then it is noise and wind!

Let us not lose sight of the Gospel because we’ve been too busy or too lazy to see it.  In 1534 John Calvin wrote on the importance of the Gospel, the opening of which reads:

jean-calvin-028“Without the gospel
everything is useless and vain;
without the gospel
we are not Christians;
without the gospel
all riches is poverty,
all wisdom folly before God;
strength is weakness…”

I have quoted it in full here, and it is a brilliant reminder of the things that are of first importance.  Our cognitive displacement is, I think, part of our tendency to sloganeer words rather than live with their reality and depth.  In other words, actual biblical content has been displaced in favour of mere words that are biblical but function as religious slogans.  This happens in our worship, mission, evangelism and devotions.  Often, what we think is Christianity is a parody, a shadow a pale reflection.  The Gospel, and all its content and entailments is biblical Christianity.  An assumed Gospel is a sloganeered Gospel, empty of power, depth and meaning – and who wants that?  Not me!

And we say this because we love the church.  And we love the church because Jesus loves the church.  Dodman Cross

The Hermit and King

The Hermit and King

Three Questions

It once occurred to a certain king that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to anyone who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.

And learned men came to the king, but they all answered his questions differently.

KingIn reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance a table of days, months, and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time. Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action, but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the king might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a council of wise men who would help him to fix the proper time for everything.

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Without the Gospel

I came across this brilliant piece in Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology, an excellent tome in its own right, and one I have mentioned before on this blog, here, here and here.  Without the Gospel was penned by John Calvin as a preface to Pierre Robert Olivétan’s 1534 translation of the New Testament.  I’ve used it in communion services a couple of times, and I hope you can find a way to use it too, it is simply, simply brilliant.

 

Without the gospel
everything is useless and vain;
without the gospel
we are not Christians;
without the gospel
all riches is poverty,
all wisdom folly before God;
strength is weakness,
and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God.

But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made
children of God,
brothers of Jesus Christ,
fellow townsmen with the saints,
citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven,
heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom
the poor are made rich,
the weak strong,
the fools wise,
the sinner justified,
the desolate comforted,
the doubting sure,
and slaves free.

It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe.
It follows that every good thing we could think or desire is to be found in this same Jesus Christ alone.

For, he was
sold, to buy us back;
captive, to deliver us;
condemned, to absolve us;
he was
made a curse for our blessing,
[a] sin offering for our righteousness;
marred that we may be made fair;
he died for our life; so that by him
fury is made gentle,
wrath appeased,
darkness turned into light,
fear reassured,
despisal despised,
debt canceled,
labor lightened,
sadness made merry,
misfortune made fortunate,
difficulty easy,
disorder ordered,
division united,
ignominy ennobled,
rebellion subjected,
intimidation intimidated,
ambush uncovered,
assaults assailed,
force forced back,
combat combated,
war warred against,
vengeance avenged,
torment tormented,
damnation damned,
the abyss sunk into the abyss,
hell transfixed,
death dead,
mortality made immortal.

In short,
mercy has swallowed up all misery,
and goodness all misfortune.

For all these things which were to be the weapons of the devil in his battle against us, and the sting of death to pierce us, are turned for us into exercises which we can turn to our profit.
If we are able to boast with the apostle, saying, O hell, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? it is because by the Spirit of Christ promised to the elect, we live no longer, but Christ lives in us; and we are by the same Spirit seated among those who are in heaven, so that for us the world is no more, even while our conversation is in it; but we are content in all things, whether country, place, condition, clothing, meat, and all such things.

 

And we are
comforted in tribulation,
joyful in sorrow,
glorying under vituperation,
abounding in poverty,
warmed in our nakedness,
patient amongst evils,
living in death.

This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.

jean-calvin-028With thanks for this great painting capturing Calvin the Pastor to Kelly Rider over at Poesies & Rye

The Man Jesus

What follows is Playwright Matthew Hurt’s journey towards writing the play ‘The Man Jesus.’  It is still touring the UK and ends on 4th November in Oxford.  You can visit the website here to see where else it is playing.  The play itself was very good indeed, and I think Hurt’s own account below is very good, even though I will disagree with him that in finding the man Jesus, he does ignore both his deity and his salvific death to quite a considerable degree.  The play is still worth seeing, and Simon Callow as multiple eye-witnesses is pure class.

 

manJesus

“It was my grandmothers who first introduced me to the figure of Jesus.  Their Jesuses were as different as they were.  My French-Mauitian grand-mere’s Jesus was a figure I only ever saw at a distance; in churches full of oily mahogany and oriental incense, his skin painted porcelain, with pink bruises and maroon blood.  Always bleeding, always on a cross.  My other grandmother’s Jesus lived in the leaflets and Bibles that Jehovah’s Witnesses kept delivering to her front door.  He appeared as a watery acrylic cartoon, always smiling, standing in the Garden of Eden amongst docile lions and bored giraffe.

The Jesus that Dorah, the Zulu lady who worked for my family, seemed to know was different again.  Him, I never saw.  But I observed the demands he seemed to make on her and her friends.  Their prayers and singing would last for twenty-four hour stretches, conducted at meetings by the side of a busy road.  The traffic never distracted them; their Jesu took them into a trance.  The plastic doll wrapped in an embroidered pillow-slip in my nursery school’s Nativity play had no such effect on anyone.  A five-year old Mary looked down on that Jesus with impassive shyness.  Another Jesus:  the Born Again Christians I met as a teenager described something between a superhero and a benevolent phantom, hating terminal illness in a loved one or rescuing a man trapped in a car washed into a river during a flood.

The cumulative effect of all these images of Jesus, layered one over the other, was to leave me with a bland figurine, in various cliched poses, of whom I had no sense whatsoever.  So when I was approached to write a play about JEsus, my initial thought was:  I have no idea who this man is.

But then the more I thought about it, the more I realised that something odd had happened.  For all my disconnection with the figure of Jesus Christ, the stories about him, and his words, lived very vividly in my imagination – and always had done.  I went back to the Bible and re-read the Gospels (emphasis mine).  The more I read, the more clearly a figure – a man – started to emerge.  He bore little resemblance to the Jesuses I’d previously envisaged.  He was much more radical, provocative, brilliant and contradictory.  Mainly, I was struck by how real he seemed.  Not a cartoon, not a doll or an ethereal presence, but a very human being.  An exceptional and strange human being, who, irrespective of questions of his divinity, merits being heard.

This play is not an attempt to reduce the figure of Jesus Christ to a mere man.  It’s an attempt to peel away the layers of assumptions and the residue of mythology so that we can look into the face of a man who once walked on a very specific part of the earth, at a specific moment in time, and who has had an impact on the history of mankind beyond all proportion to his riddling life.”

* * * * * *

Where I have emphasised Hurt’s account, is precisely the point that I found most interesting: To understand Jesus, he went back to the Gospels and read and re-read them. He wasn’t satisfied with the plethora of Jesuses from his childhood and previous experience, he wanted to get to the heart of the matter – and that led him to the Bible. In discussions with people who are opposed to the Christian faith, they will argue until the cows come home about Christ this, Christ that, but rarely has one actually done what Hurt has done, namely, actually read the Gospels.

What We Need

“It is not a new theology we need so much as a renovated theology, in which orthodoxy is deepened against itself, and not pared away.

It is a new touch with our mind and, conscience on the moral nerve of the old faith.  We have had many new theologies in the last hundred years.  Theological enterprise has been turning them out freely.  But the vein of liberalism, which thus followed on the old Orthodoxy, has been worked out for the preacher’s purpose.

It is now exhausted of religious ore.  The spring has given out (to change the image), and the stream runs thin, and whispers softly among little pebbles, though once it roared among great boulders now left behind in the hills.

It is not sermons we need, but a Gospel, which sermons are killing.

forsyth-preaching-redeemed

We need to go behind and beneath all our common thought and talk.  What we require is not a race of more powerful preachers, but that which makes their capital – a new Gospel which is yet the old, the old moralised, and replaced in the conscience, and in the public conscience, from which it has been removed.

We need that the Gospel we offer be moralised at the centre from the Cross, and not rationalised at the surface by thin science.

We need that more people should be asking, “What must I do to be saved?” rather than “What should I rationally believe?”

We need power more than truth.

We need a new sense of the living God as the God whose eternal Redemption is as relevant and needful to this age’s conscience as to the first.

It is not a ministry we need, but a Gospel, which makes both ministry and Church.  The Church will not furnish the ministers the age requires unless it provides them with a Gospel which they will never get from the age, but only from the Bible for the age.

But it is from a Bible searched by regenerates for a Gospel, and not exploited for sermons by preachers anxious to succeed with the public.  It may be best to preach to the sinners and to the saints and never mind at present the public, who feel neither.

If we do that well the public will respect us.  If we think of the world, let us think chiefly of the world as the arena of an eternal Redemption, and not of a professional success, or of a social revolution.”

P. T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacramentsp.20-21 (Lectures delivered in 1917)

Flower

The God Who is There

Slavoj Zizek, Slovinian philosopher and cultural critic, said that the only way to be a true atheist is to go through Christianity.  This series of videos will do just that!

D. A. Carson takes us through the whole Bible storyline in this excellent series designed for those who know nothing or very little about the Bible or the Gospel.  Enjoy.