Thursday, June 01, 2017

Rebuilding the house

I find I must borrow yet another parable from George MacDonald. Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.

The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.

From Mere Christianity by C S Lewis

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Reality never repeats

I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the lovemaking, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace. On any view whatever, to say, ‘H. is dead,’ is to say, ‘All that is gone.’ It is a part of the past. And the past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death, and Heaven itself is a state where ‘the former things have passed away.’ 

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand. 

Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back. How well the spiritualists bait their hook! ‘Things on this side are not so different after all.’ There are cigars in Heaven. For that is what we should all like. The happy past restored. 

And that, just that, is what I cry out for, with mad, midnight endearments and entreaties spoken into the empty air. 

From A Grief Observed by C S Lewis

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Complaining to God

Nor is Joshua's complaint in [chapter 7] verse 7 out of line. 'Alas, Lord Yahweh, why have you brought this people over the Jordan to give us into the hand of the Amorites to destroy us? Oh, that we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan!' This complaint is different from Israel's unbelieving complaints during the wilderness wanderings (Num. 14:1-3; Deut. 1:27ff). These are words of despair, not unbelief. Joshua complains to God in prayer; complaining to God is not the same as complaining about God (Israel's wilderness practice).

In his perplexity Joshua makes one basic appeal in his prayer (v. 9). His argument involves the peril of Israel and the honour of Yahweh. Israel's foes, Joshua prays, will cut off 'our name' and then what will you do for 'your great name'? If Israel perishes it will reflect on Yahweh's reputation. So-called refined Christians sometimes cringe at the thought of using such arguments in prayer. It seems so crass, they say. (Or does it merely seem too unsophisticated and childlike?) In any case, Matthew Henry is right: 'We cannot urge a better plea than this, Lord, "what wilt thou do for thy great name?" Let God in all be glorified, and then welcome his whole will.' There are times when the people of God today stand in solidarity with Joshua's Israel; that is, there are periods in which confusion strikes and we haven't any idea what God is about. We have no recourse but Joshua's - anguished prayer to a mystifying God, pleading both our danger and his honour.

From Dale Ralph Evan's 'No Falling Words' - expositions on the Book of Joshua, page 61

General and particular

"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all."  Isaiah 53:6

Here a confession of sin common to all the elect people of God. They have all fallen, and therefore, in common chorus, they all say, from the first who entered heaven to the last who shall enter there, "All we like sheep have gone astray." The confession, while thus unanimous, is also special and particular: "We have turned every one to his own way." There is a peculiar sinfulness about every one of the individuals; all are sinful, but each one with some special aggravation not found in his fellow.
It is the mark of genuine repentance that while it naturally associates itself with other penitents, it also takes up a position of loneliness. "We have turned every one to his own way," is a confession that each man had sinned against light peculiar to himself, or sinned with an aggravation which he could not perceive in others. This confession is unreserved; there is not a word to detract from its force, nor a syllable by way of excuse.

The confession is a giving up of all pleas of self-righteousness. It is the declaration of men who are consciously guilty - guilty with aggravations, guilty without excuse: they stand with their weapons of rebellion broken in pieces, and cry, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way."

Yet we hear no dolorous wailings attending this confession of sin; for the next sentence makes it almost a song. "The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." It is the most grievous sentence of the three, but it overflows with comfort. Strange is it that where misery was concentrated mercy reigned; where sorrow reached her climax weary souls find rest. The Saviour bruised is the healing of bruised hearts. See how the lowliest penitence gives place to assured confidence through simply gazing at Christ on the cross!

From Charles Spurgeon's Morning and Evening Devotions - for April the 3rd, Evening.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Pride

If you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?’ The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree.

Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature— while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.

Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone. That is why I say that Pride is essentially competitive in a way the other vices are not. . . . . Greed may drive men into competition if there is not enough to go round; but the proud man, even when he has got more than he can possibly want, will try to get still more just to assert his power. Nearly all those evils in the world which people put down to greed or selfishness are really far more the result of Pride.

From Mere Christianity by C S Lewis

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A poor man in your house

Love poverty. Desire neediness. If you have both for your portion, you have an inheritance on high.
Do not despise the voice of the poor man, and do not give him reason to curse you. For if the man whose palate is bitter curses you, the Lord will hear his petitions. If his clothes are filthy, wash them in water, which costs you nothing.
Has a poor man entered your house? God has entered your house. God dwells in your home. The man whom you have thus delivered from his troubles will deliver you from your troubles.
Have you washed the feet of the stranger? You have washed away your sins.
Have you prepared a table before him? Look! God is eating there, and Christ is drinking, and the Holy Spirit resting.
Is the poor man satisfied at your table and refreshed? You have satisfied Christ your Lord. He is ready to reward you. In the presence of angels and men he will proclaim that you fed his hunger. He will give thanks to you that you gave him drink and quenched his thirst.
St. Ephrem the Syrian, Homily on Admonition and Repentance, 12

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Out in the desert

I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, ‘I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!’

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper.

But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together.

In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.


C S Lewis in Mere Christianity, chapter 23. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

All in Christ

As the perfect embodiment of the moral law of God, Jesus Christ bids us come to him and find rest (a term loaded with exodus echoes). He also bids us be united to him through faith in the power of the Spirit, so that as he places his yoke (of law) on our shoulders we hear him say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
So we are Ephesians 2: 15– 16 Christians: the ceremonial law is fulfilled.
We are Colossians 2: 14– 17 Christians: the civil law distinguishing Jew and Gentile is fulfilled.
And we are Romans 8: 3– 4 Christians: the moral law has also been fulfilled in Christ. But rather than being abrogated, that fulfillment is now repeated in us as we live in the power of the Spirit.
In Christ then, we truly see the telos of the law. And yet as Paul also says, “Do we abrogate the law by teaching faith in Christ? No. We strengthen it. For Christ did not come to abolish it but to fulfill it, so that it might in turn be fulfilled in us.” That is why in Romans 13: 8– 10, Ephesians 6: 1, and in other places the apostle takes for granted the abiding relevance of the law of God for the life of the believer.
The Old Testament saint knew that while condemned by the law he had breached, its ceremonial provisions pointed him to the way of forgiveness. He saw Christ as really (if opaquely) in the ceremonies as he did in the prophecies. He also knew as he watched the sacrifices being offered day after day and year after year that this repetition meant these sacrifices could not fully and finally take away sin— otherwise he would not need to return to the temple precincts. He was able to love the law as his rule of life because he knew that God made provision for its breach, pointed to redemption in its ceremonies, and gave him direction through its commandments.
It should not, therefore, surprise us or grieve us to think that the Christian sees Christ in the law. He or she also sees it as a rule of life; indeed, sees with Calvin that Christ is the life of the law because without Christ there is no life in the   law.
We appreciate the clarity of the law only when we gaze fully into Christ’s face. But when we do gaze there, we see the face of one who said, “Oh how I love your law; it is my meditation all the day” — and we want to be like   him.
This is not— as the antinomian feared— bondage. It is freedom. The Christian rejoices therefore in the law’s depth. He seeks the Spirit’s guidance for its application, because he can say with Paul that in Christ through the gospel he has become an “in-law.”
At the end of the day the antinomian who regards the moral law as no longer binding is forced into an uncomfortable position. He must hold that an Old Testament believer’s passionate devotion to the law (of which devotion, curiously, the majority of Christians feel they fall short) was essentially a form of legalism. But it is Jesus himself who shows an even deeper intensity in the law by expounding its deep meaning and penetration into the heart.
Neither the Old Testament believer nor the Savior severed the law of God from his gracious person. It was not legalism for Jesus to do everything his Father commanded him. Nor is it for   us.

Sinclair B Ferguson: The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (pp. 172-173)

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Prodigal and grace

The power of this perspective is, of course, already present in our Lord’s parable of the prodigal son. Even if the parable is read as having only one main point in view, that burden is expressed in several dimensions. In terms of our discussion we might call it, from one point of view, “The parable of the Free Grace Savior”; from another, “The parable of the En-Graced Antinomian”; and from yet another (and in context perhaps the most pointed), “The parable of the Dis-Graced Legalist.”

The prodigal contemplates returning home because he knows his needs can be supplied in his father’s home:
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!” 
But while there is the supply of his needs in the home of his father, he is— very naturally— still wrestling with the remnant of the Edenic poison, the God as He-whose-favor-is-to-be-earned lie. What else could the father be to such a sinful   son?
I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” 
As he approaches home his once-despised father breaks all social convention (the boy should have been received with a shaming ceremony). Instead he runs to greet him. The prodigal now stammers out his rehearsed words through the hugs and kisses of his father:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. 
But the final rehearsed words, “Treat me as one of your hired servants” are smothered by his father’s embrace! He will not have his son home only on condition that he “does penance” in order to work his way back into his father’s grace. He does not need to “repent enough” to be accepted.

Poignantly there is in the heart of the same father a deep burden for his elder son. He again leaves the house to find him. Luke’s introduction to Jesus’s narrative makes clear that it is this brother, not the prodigal, who forms the climax to the story: “The Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man [Jesus] receives sinners and eats with them.’” That grumbling is echoed in the complaint of the elder son: “He was angry.”

The tenor of the elder brother’s response is well captured in the New International Version:
Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 
To which the father responds in love:
Son, . .  . all that is mine is yours. 
What Jesus unmasks here is a legalistic heart, one that has imbibed the poison of Eden. Such a heart sees the Lord as a slave master and not a gracious Father, as restrictive rather than generous. Everything the Father has is available to him. But the elder son’s heart is closed, and as far as he is concerned nothing is his. He was at home, but he was in a more distant place than his younger brother. He thought he had to earn by right what he could only enjoy by grace.

What is particularly illuminating is that we are given the impression that only in the context of a lavish display of grace did the hidden poison of the elder brother’s legalistic disposition fully manifest itself. Perhaps the same was true of the Pharisees? And was it, correspondingly, the lavishness of grace in the Marrow teaching that also caused so much heart irritation?

This is thought to be Jesus’s best-loved parable, usually because our eyes are on the prodigal and his father. But as with jokes, so with parables: there is a principle in both of “end stress.” The “punch line” comes at the end. That being the case the alarming message here is that the spirit of the elder brother, the legalist, is more likely to be found near the father’s house than in the pig farm— or in concrete terms, in the congregation and among the faithful. And sometimes (only sometimes?), it appears in the pulpit and in the heart of the pastor.

Then it becomes dangerously infectious. But what causes it?

Reflection on the Marrow Controversy and the literature it spawned suggests that a legalistic spirit can usually be traced back to the same basic principles, no matter what mask it might wear.

From Ferguson, Sinclair B.. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, chapter 5