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Blessed Assurance (Charles Bridges)

Psalm 103.13

The “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine” of which Frances Alstyne wrote, and of which Christians can sing of so joyfully, speaks of that unshakable confidence that in Christ a believer’s standing with God is absolutely secure and cannot be lost. Assurance of salvation is the norm for a Christian believer. Yet, this blessed assurance stands on a knife edge. Not a knife edge of whether it is a true or false doctrine of the faith once revealed to the saints. It is! Assurance is the crowning glory of a believer’s faith in Jesus. Nor is it whether assurance belongs only to a certain type of Christin. No! Assurance is a foundational birth-right of every single Christian. The knife edge of assurance is in Christian experience. It rests on the distinction between assurance being a fruit of faith but not being of the essence of faith. A Christian can possess a true saving faith without the comforting experimental reality of assurance. A genuine regenerated faith can exist without a confidence of one being secure in Christ. The knife edge, then, is that between the objective truth set forth in scripture and the subjective reality in a believer’s experience; between the norm for faith in Christ to be accompanied by assurance, but its absence to be a possibility.

Dealing pastorally with such a delicate knife edge issue calls for one to possess biblical wisdom, spiritual sensitivity and discernment. Such a person was Charles Bridges. In 1827 Bridges put pen to paper to write on Psalm 119 and what he produced was a devotional classic. He wrote with rich pastoral insights that flowed from a deep biblical understanding, which combine throughout, to engage the reader in a thoughtful, yet sensitive, challenge of what it means to live by faith. It is a mark of the depths of Bridges’ work that in a lengthy footnote on verse 166 “Lord, I have hoped for your salvation and done your commandments,” he penned an exceptional piece on assurance.

(*) All subsequent quotes in bold and italics are taken from Bridges’ footnote on Psalm 119.166.

Being and well being

Let’s begin at the end of Bridges’ footnote to put this vital matter into its broadest context. He wrote of how many Puritan divines made the distinction, “That assurance is necessary to the Christian for his well being, not for his being; for his consolation and establishment, not for his salvation.” (*) Those words lay this knife edge of truth and experience open. Whilst assurance is essential for the saint’s well being and comfort, it is not necessary for it to be present for one to be a saint and know salvation!

In referencing the Puritans, Bridges is doing two things. First, he is setting this matter in the context of church history. The Puritan era that followed the Reformation was a time of unparalleled rich gospel ministry in the English speaking world. Theological perspicuity, combined with a rich doctrinal understanding and a commitment to faithful practical exposition of scripture were the hallmarks of Puritan ministry. Yet, it was a period in which a great deal of ink was spent and an enormous amount of time was invested in wrestling with the pastoral implications of the relationship between faith and assurance. Many Christian believers found themselves struggling with a disconnect between their personal faith in Christ and an inner assurance of a clear interest in Christ. Second, Bridges is highlighting that struggles with assurance are not uncommon amongst the followers of Jesus. 

The grounds of assurance

However, to return to the footnote’s beginning, Bridges commences by laying down the foundation that assurance is not just possible but should be the norm in the life of faith. Our gracious God is not so perverse as to call people to faith and then have them live with doubts throughout their life of faith here on earth! He writes, “That a full sense of acceptance with God grounded upon the divine testimonies is attainable, there can be no doubt.” Faith, and the assurance of faith, is built upon God’s covenant. A covenant that is ordered and certain (2 Samuel 23.5). The promises it contains are full, free, many and belong to every Christian, who is to enjoy the “full assurance of hope until the end” (Hebrews 6.11).

Christ’s person and work is the ground on which God’s covenant is certain and secure. Jesus’ righteousness alone is the solid foundation of the believers’ perfection before God, purging their conscience from dead works (Hebrews 9.9; 10.14). This is why the experience of the Saints, in both the Old and New Testament, is one of assurance. Their faith could confess those sublime, sweet, simple words “I know” (Job 19.25; 2 Timothy 1.12). This conviction is the right of every believer to confess (Romans 8.35, 38, 39). In a most penetrating and perceptive comment Bridges goes on to clarify, “It is built, not on the work of grace in us, but on the work of Christ for us.” And followed this up by saying, “the fullness of Christ and the promises of God in him are the only basis of a full assurance of salvation.” In other words, “In Christ Alone” the Christian’s hope of assurance is found. He writes in his exposition of verse 166, “The fullness of Christ and the promises of God in him, are the only basis of a full assurance of salvation … Hence the most assured believers will be the most devoted servants of their Master.”

Bridges points out that if assurance was not the prerogative of faith in Christ why are Christians challenged (2 Corinthians 13.5) and encouraged to examine themselves? A call not given to throw the believer into turmoil but rather to ground them on faith’s assurance in Christ. This is also why Christians are encouraged to press on to pursue assurance (Hebrews 6 .11; 2 Peter 1 .10). Bridges writes,“It is evidently our Father’s will, that his children’s complete acceptance should not be with them a matter of present uncertainty. For the Father intends that “not only his children should reach heaven at last, but that heaven should commence on earth in a state of conscious security and peace.” Christians are meant to “know that they have eternal life” (1 John 5.13). “The gospel, instead of forbidding this privilege, warrants, produces and establishes it.”

Faith without assurance

Assurance then is a true companion to faith in Christ. Yet, in a believer’s experience it is possible that assurance may not be present. Bridges highlights this in a telling way when he writes, “We must not so identify assurance with faith, as to conclude all that are destitute of it (assurance) to be unbelievers.” How vital to draw that distinction! An absence of assurance does not mean that one is an unbeliever. Assurance does indeed grow from the root of faith, and the want of assurance is in fact a want of faith. Yet, we have to separate “between the principle and the conscious interest in the objects of faith.” This separation between “principle” and “conscious interest” is Bridges’ way of saying that assurance belongs to faith but faith may be present where assurance is not. “We cannot absolutely identify faith and assurance. Adoption into the family of God by faith (Galatians 3.26) does not depend upon, nor is it in all cases connected with, consciousness of this relation.” A young baby may have no consciousness of their true family relationship, yet they can cry to their parents and be comforted by their parents’ loving embrace.

Believing and knowing

In order to validate this Bridges gives instances in the gospels of those who clearly exercised a faith in Jesus but had doubts about his willingness or power to heal? (Matthew 8.2, 3; Mark 9.22). Dependence on Christ did not always amount to certainty! Yet, “The assurance of faith (dependency) … is indeed the essential principle of the Christian life.” Why then may assurance be lacking? Bridges lists amongst others matters a Christian being negligent in their walk of faith; spiritual sloth; self righteousness; an indistinct perception of faith, and the power of unbelief.

He helpfully goes on to explain that an indistinct perception of faith (let’s call it an inadequate appreciation of God’s gift of faith) will often mean a Christian fails to enjoy the fullness of what faith in Christ brings. Yet, this does not preclude them being inheritors of faith’s blessings in Jesus. Just as an heir’s inheritance is not dependent upon their conscious awareness of their title, but rather upon the legitimacy of their being a family member; so too with the child of God. This is why Peter exhorts to assurance those who have “precious faith” (2 Peter 1.1-10). This is why John distinguishes between “believing and knowing” (1 John 5.13). This is why Paul writes of faith coming by hearing preceding the sealing of the Spirit (Ephesians 1.13); and the distinction between the things freely given to us by God and our perception of them being necessary by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2.12). The Christian’s experience rests on a knife edge of believing and knowing.

Assurance, humility and godly fear

Pursuing this vital matter further, Bridges deals with the opposite extreme and puts to the sword a pseudo-spirituality surrounding the Christian’s personal assurance. It is the notion that it is the utmost presumption to speak of possessing assurance at all. Here, one begins to enter the dark cave of Roman Catholic dogma, from which the where assurance is not to be known and a person is dependent on the church. In contrast, Bridges writes that the true assurance of faith rather than “savouring of presumption … is the very principle of humility.” The biblical doctrine of assurance is meant to be for the Christian “the life of present privilege and the spring of practical devotedness.” Indeed, it is not only the ground of humility but also of a godly fear, for “the assured hope of the gospel is the principle, not the hindrance, of godly fear” (Hebrews 12.28). This godly fear leads to a “vigorous and healthy habit of faith” that galvanises the Christian’s daily walk with Jesus.

Feelings and assurance

Another aspect of pseudo-spirituality, one that has brought much harm to the serenity of many believers, is that which insists that assurance is the prerogative or right of only mature Christians. Yet, John writes of “little children who know their sins are forgiven” (1 John 2.12). Bridges comments, “It is undoubtedly the equal and common right of every member of the family – the youngest as well as the oldest – according to the terms of the covenant of grace.”

Bridges also raises the issue of mistaking feelings for assurance. “The glow of the affections is the choicest joy of life. But a religion grounded upon feelings is a religion of delusion.” Assurance is not to be identified with warm and sensible excitement or feelings, for “the assurance of feeling, is not the assurance of faith.” Christians assurance is, “I know, – not what I feel or what I’ve felt but – whom I have believed” (2 Timothy 1.12). Assurance is grounded, “not upon spiritual sensation but on the person, work and office of the Saviour” (Hebrews 10.19-22). The Christian must keep a clear demarcation between assurance and feelings in order that their faith does not morph into “a spirit of evangelical self-righteousness,” that will see their salvation resting upon “some feeling or sensation of our mind,” rather than on Christ.

Assurance and weakness

Finally, Bridges helpfully goes on to point out that personal assurance can, and does, live with both a personal sense of trust in Christ and a personal sense of our own weakness and liability to fall. (Compare 2 Timothy 1. 12 to 1 Corinthians 9. 27). Many a dear child of God will experience crying out to their Father in heaven without any real consciousness that they are his child! Or what of those dear believers, like the renowned poet William Cowper, whose faith was battered by mental illness. Bridges, with great sensitivity, speaks of such folks who struggle in this manner as possessing “obscureed spiritual optics.” Such a dear believer is in a state of a “swoon, not of a corpse.”

This is why it is such a comforting truth when we hold together that as much as assurance belongs to faith, it is not of the essence of faith. It is the norm but it is not abnormal for it to be absent. Genuine faith can genuinely lack assurance. On the contrary, however, if we mistakenly believe that assurance is of the essences of faith; if one lives by the dogma that where faith is there must always be assurance, then faith can never be considered as imperfect! For a perfect faith cannot possibly lose its assurance! Now, if faith can never be imperfect; if there is no room for Christian weakness or failure, what hope has any believer!

Yet, if the imperfections of faith can go hand in hand with assurance, what comfort. And if the weakness of an imperfect faith can exist with assurance what hope believers have in drawing near to God “with a true heart and full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10.22). “Blessed indeed is that helplessness, that makes us lie in the bosom of our Saviour, supported and cherished … so that our insufficiency and all-sufficiency are visible at one glance: and when we are weak we are most strong (2 Corinthians 12.10).” (1)

Let Bridges have the final word. “Let not the trembling believer conclude too hastily against himself from the want of assurance. Diligence and dependence will ensure the blessing. Let him remember, when he prays for stronger faith, to ACT IN THE FAITH THAT IS GIVEN, AND EXPECT THE STRENGTH TO BE VOUCHSAFED” (certainly given).

(1) Bridges’ comment on Psalm 119.173

Charles Bridges was an evangelical Anglican (1794-1869) who served parishes near Stowmarket, Suffolk and Weymouth, Dorset. His work on Psalm 119 came forth from his pen at 33 years of age! The footnote can be found in the Banner of Truth edition of Psalm 119. It is taken from verse 166 (page 444 ff.)

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Nepal: Light on a two way street

Gateway to Thamel District, Kathmandu

I would be less than honest if I did not say that as much as I am thankful to God for being able to serve in Nepal, I am even more thankful to be returning home. Returning, though, leads one to reflect on both the ministry undertaken and the progress of Christianity in Nepal. This is of course a very personal assessment from the confines of one’s own experience. Who can effectively evaluate the eternal worth of ministry, the message of which seems so foolish (1 Corinthians 1.18). And certainly the progress of the gospel here in Nepal is far wider than my few encounters. But here are a few closing thoughts.

When my flight landed in Kathmandu a couple of weeks ago it did so after dark. Walking down the steps of the plane one is greeted by that unmistakable Kathmandu smell and confronted with a familiar Nepal site. It’s the smell of the city. A combination of rotten garbage, waste, open sewers all mixed with dust. (It’s why Nepalis call it “dust-mandu!”). It’s the sight of numerous airport workers milling around the aircraft seemingly with nothing to do. There is no shortage of Human Resources in Nepal, and it seems Nepalis find comfort in having people just being there; especially if they are wearing some type of uniform. The great bonus of this is that many ordinary Nepalis can work and earn a living. They are a proud people and will do the most menial of work with a zeal and dignity that puts the Western work culture to shame.

Thamel

It’s a strange experience driving across Kathmandu at night, for street lighting is either non-existent or very intermittent. So as one drives through the city there is a constant contrast between the bright blaring lights put up mainly by shops, clubs, cafes and the dark recesses which lay between them, where municipal lighting has not been provided. One place that is certainly well lit up is Thamel, which is the tourist district of Kathmandu. This is where our hotel is and my arrival on Friday night, coincides with club night. Even with so few tourists, Post-covid, there are still plenty of young Nepalis out wanting to have a good time.

Thamel on Friday night is one place where you can see the tensions that arise from the incongruity of lifestyle choices this nation is facing in the 21st century. This could be any city in the Western world, but it is not. It is Thamel, Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. And the clubbing night life is not Nepali! Quite simply because for the vast majority of Nepalis life is about the daily struggle to survive poverty! Clubbing represents the growing wealth chasm between the haves and have nots in Nepali society. It is then another aspect of the challenges that this deeply traditional nation faces, as it continues to modernise. Will modernisation keep Nepal Nepali or will it become a Western sidekick? I would not wish upon these lovely people an unfiltered Westernisation. Yet, the unstoppable charge being led by internet, iPhone, FaceBook, Tik Tok et el, which is sweeping along the younger generation, seems to suggests only one outcome!

“Going up!”

Let me share one brief incident that highlights this. We were taken to lunch after church on Saturday. (Yes, Saturday is the only weekly holiday, so Christians meet then). The restaurant was in one of the growing number of buildings in Kathmandu that are several storeys high. We had then to get into a lift to go up to the restaurant. In our party was a first year university student studying engineering. A lovely intelligent young lady. She said as we got in the lift, “I have never been in a lift before! Please excuse me if I take a photograph for my parents.” Out came the iPhone! (Please understand that the financial outlay for mobiles here is not the exorbitant racket it is in the West and so far more accessible). Here are a people, even the younger generation, who are learning to live in the modern world from a background that is far from modern.

But Thamel on Friday nights also reveals a far deeper tension than that between modernisation and tradition. The district may well be lit up with neon signs but in the darker recesses where the light is dimmer there’s plenty of “darkness” to be seen! You don’t have to walk down it’s streets for long before being solicited to go into this club, or buy “good hashish, weed” or offered other things! This observation is not made as a moralising comment but rather as a sad reflection on the lifestyle choices we so easily succumb to. The apostle Paul speaks of “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5.11). And Jesus spoke of human propensity to make poor life choices when he said, “if the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness” (Matthew 6.23). And let’s be clear. The lifestyle choices of some in Thamel on Friday nights is put into the shade by the hedonistic abandonment in life choices of many in the West.

The mixing bowl

The question though is what role does the Christian Church in Nepal have to play in this national mixing bowl of traditional culture, modernisation and lifestyle choice? In answering that question the Christian church in the West has something to learn too. Reflecting further on my arrival I couldn’t help but think that the nature of how Kathmandu is illuminated at night is an analogy for the progress of Christianity in Nepal today. For along with the drive for modernisation and westernisation, the growing impact of Christianity in this beautiful country cannot be ignored. When Paul wrote to the Christians at Ephesus, a city and culture that was so alien to their new found Christian faith, he told them they were no longer darkness but light in the Lord and they were to live as children of light (Ephesians 5.8). In so doing he was not condemning Ephesian culture per se but was rather calling for lives to be lived, by faith in Jesus, that reflect the uniquely distinctive lifestyle that belongs to the followers of Jesus. A lifestyle so different from the world around them. A contrast so potently elaborated by Jesus as he describes the Christian character in his Beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-13).

This beautiful country, which for so many centuries had not heard of the love of Jesus Christ; the Jesus who said he was the light of the world (John 8.12). Has in the last 70 years seen growing numbers of Nepalis becoming followers of Jesus, learning to walk in the light with Jesus and by so doing knowing fellowship together; as they trust in Jesus atoning work (1 John 1.7). They have found new life in him who is the light of all (John 1.4); who gives light to the world (John 1.9). As they embrace Jesus love Christians here possess a great desire to share the light of his love with their fellow Nepalis. They are doing so in a society that is increasingly losing its traditional moorings and finding itself floundering in the modern world. Yet, their small lights are burning bright and being increasingly noticed.

Cultural insensitivity

Now before anyone jumps on their high horse and accuses me of being an arrogant Christian, who is culturally insensitive. First, I freely acknowledge that their have been those times in history when in the name of Christianity terrible things have been perpetrated; often as an excuse to subjugate a First Nation peoples. However, in all honesty, neither can one ignore the proof of history that wherever true Christianity, the gospel of peace and love of Jesus, has gone; it has not only fitted into a country’s culture, for it is the gospel of the God (Romans 1.1) of all cultures. It has also always embraced the good of any culture, transforming a society, as it raises its culture to a deeper level. What credible social historian would deny the profound impact on U.K. society of “The Great Awakening” of the 18th century under the likes of the Wesley’s, Whitfield, Howell Harris and Daniel Rowlands.

A two way street

Driving in Nepal can be chaotic. Two way streets can often become one way highways! There is a two way street that the churches in the West and Nepal are having to negotiate. Now although Nepal follows the U.K. and drives on the left side of the road, culturally we are on different sides of the road. But Christians in both Nepal and the U.K. are having to negotiate how they can continue to be lights for Jesus in their generation.

The sad truth for Western Christians is that the light of Christianity in Nepal at present, maybe sporadic, but it shines far brighter than it does in the darkness of Western societies. The reason for that cannot be entirely explained by Christians being few in number in the West, but rather because they too often hide their lights away! (Matthew 5.14-16). Is this not one reason why so many Western societies at present believe they have outgrown the usefulness of the long centuries of the blessing of having Christianity embedded in their lives and cultures! Theirs is a brave new world released from the shackles of an antiquated Christianity. They walk happily in the light of scientific philosophies. Trusting that education alone (and the Christian Church has always been in the forefront of valuing and advancing mass education) is the great hope for the future. Really!

Here’s the rub! The struggles the church in Nepal faces in seeking to be light bearers, as their society is being loosed from its ancient moorings under intense modernisation, is in essence no different from the struggles that are challenging Western societies at present. How are Christians to be effective light bearers in their society? The church in Nepal and the West may well find themselves culturally travelling on different sides of the road. But the truth is they are both called to be light bearers to their respective generations. And to do that they need to learn from one another! As much as the young Christian Church in Nepal desires to understand more about their biblical faith from the older church in the West. The older church in the West needs to be humble enough to acknowledge that it has much to learn from the younger church in Nepal, concerning their zeal to be light bearers in bringing Jesus to their own people.

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A week in Pokhara

Pokhara is one of the jewels in the crown of Nepali tourism. It is a town built around a beautiful lake and on the hillside sits one of the sacred temples of Hinduism. It has a temperature that is always a few degrees lower than other parts of Nepal, and has the magnificent Annapurna as a backdrop. Is it any wonder that over the centuries Nepali royalty have valued it, Hindus from India love to visit it, and now the great tourist money machine has become the source of its continuing prosperity.

It is this tourist demand to get to Pokhara that has led to the project of developing the national airport into an international one. This has been in process over the seven years I have been coming here. A runway fit to land international flights has been built. An international terminal has been raised. So where are the international flights? Well, somehow it was overlooked in the planning that at one end of the runway is the town garbage dump! A haven for birds; whose presence is hardly conducive to safe air travel! There is however another “larger” obstacle to allowing international flights to land. Someone neglected to point out that there is a small hillock at one end of the new runway that would prevent large aircrafts from landing! The answer? To take down the hillock! I kid you not! They are gradually bringing down this small mountain, so that aeroplanes can land safely! It is just another “obstacle” that this nation has to overcome as it seeks to enter the 21st century.

New international runway and mountain obstacle!

The coach journey to Pokhara

We took the overnight coach from Dharan to get to Pokhara. A journey that should have taken 14 hours, but did in fact take 23 hours! It was a coach journey one can only describe as trying to walk through treacle backwards in the dark! When things in Nepal don’t work, they really do not work! Progress was slow on road surfaces being renewed; the seats were challenging! The AC was erratic. And the stoppages for traffic jams were long. Some of the scenery was beautiful: fast flowing rivers, deep ravines and high mountain tops. Yet, to be stuck for long periods on a narrow two lane road on the side of a mountain was interesting! It didn’t help that with impunity many Nepali drivers try to overtake in traffic jams! Just blow your horn and go for it! Never mind that your on the wrong side of the road and eventually you will block on-coming traffic on their side of the road! Yet, no one seems to loose their cool and everyone takes it in their stride. What a relief to finally climb out at Pokhara!

The Christian life can seem like walking in treacle backwards in the dark. Progress is laborious, with many obstacles, set-backs and long days in the doldrums. The traffic jams of sin and the world’s allurements (1 John 2.15-17) makes for faltering progress; the pace of change in our being conformed to Jesus likeness knows many hold-ups (Romans 12.1, 2), and our walking by faith makes so little progress. But it is in enduring to the end that the blessing of salvation is assured (Matthew 10.22).

The crook in the lock

Thomas Boston wrote his book The Crook in the Lock in 1737. It was subtitled, the sovereignty and wisdom of God in afflictions. Boston showed how a sovereign God, in mercy, has good intentions in the most unexpected and severest of troubles that come to his people. God too is sovereign in the smallest of adverse circumstances in the life of the Christian. Our late arrival meant a re-arranging of the conference. We lost a day, worked two longer days and found ourselves with an extra day spare. The urge to go home to family is always strong. Why this extra day free in Pokhara? The last morning I had the privilege of being a spectator as to why these things may well have been. The hotel manager spoke fairly good English and was interested to know what we were doing in Pokhara. It’s always refreshing in Asia to see how open people are to chat about religion. When he found out we were Christians he told us how a girl he was keen on would not consider going out with him because she was a Christian. “Why was that?” And his sister, like him a Hindu, had not long since become a Christian. He asked, “how could that happen?” My colleague simply shared with him how being a Christian is a personal decision one must make to follow Jesus by faith. Believing that Jesus died to take away our sins and bring us into God’s family. He ended by suggesting he ask his sister for a Hindu New Testament to read for himself.

Five stones

The conference took place under the auspice of the Pokhara Christian Society; a group of local churches that work together to further the growth of Christianity in and around the Pokhara region. The venue is their conference centre in one of the northern suburbs. The first day at teatime looking out a window I watched three boys, sitting in the rain, on top of a flat rock engrossed in playing Five Stones. Many reading this will have no idea what I am talking about when a mention the children’s game of Five Stones or Jacks. It’s a simple game played with five stones. One throws up a stone, and must pick up a stone on the ground and catch the stone you’ve thrown up without letting it drop to the floor; if successful you then repeating trying to pick up two stones, three etc. Like many others I spent many hours in the school playground playing this game. There is a simplicity of life that is still found in this nation. We speak of necessity being the mother of invention. So often in observing children’s play in Nepal ones witnesses the ingenuity of poverty finding ways to have fun from its paucity.

A view from the church

The pictures at the head of this article were also taken from the same window in the conference centre. It’s a picturesque panorama that looks out over a river as it meanders down a valley. The view is Nepal in panoramic scope for it encapsulate so much of this nation’s history. A land of mountains and fast flowing rivers. A people who have had to build their lives out of the starkness of their physical environment. They face no easy task in seeking to raise themselves up from the poverty of their history into the modern world. So many still live below the poverty line in the shanty shacks of corrugated iron, with roofs held down by the people stones, one can see. These people live life on the edge of safety. Like the man who Jesus said built his house on the shifting sands, so they literally build their homes and lives on the flood plains of one of Nepal’s flowing rivers.

Look carefully and tucked away in the corner of this panorama, unnoticed and rarely used, is a little cubed red and white building that houses a shrine. It’s there but today it plays very little part in the daily lives of many Nepalis, who have left their religious culture behind, finding it unfit for purpose in this modern world. Instead they are pursuing the god of mammon (materialism) as fast as they can. The rich houses that sit atop the rim of the valley, seemingly in relative safety, being what they aspire to. The truth is that the differences between a materialistic Western culture and Nepalis pursuit of material security is a matter of a compass point! Whilst one is far more in earnest as a matter of survival, relatively speaking, both chase the same elusive goal! A goal that rot, rust and thieves inevitably steal from us (Matthew 6.19-21).

The Prosperity Gospel

However, to a people fighting to keep their head above the waters of poverty the idea that faith can be used to guarantee you health and wealth is attractive. It has been a tragedy that the last seventy years has seen the growth of the so-called Prosperity Gospel; fuelled by a global television boom. Sadly, many peddle this perverse teaching in the name of Christianity. To do so is to be at best, disingenuous and at worse, to be downright dishonest with the fullness of the Bible’s teaching. The incessant call of these “teachers” (leeches) for financial support, especially from the poorest, has nothing to do with the Good News of the Carpenter of Nazareth. Jesus Christ is the God who gives and does not take from us. The God who was rich, yet chose to become poor to make many rich (2 Corinthians 8.9). Encouragingly, as we taught on the errors of such teaching, many Nepali Christians have already discerned the errors and inconsistencies of such teaching and are active in explaining why it is wrong.

The Church

It really shouldn’t have to be said, but the history of the Christian Church tells us that it has to be constantly said. Made clear too, to those folks who view Christianity from the outside. This building we are in, run by Christians, is not the church. The church of Jesus Christ is not a building, nor is the church the institution or institutionalism that may arise from its ministries. The church, always has, always will be, the people of God. Those men, women and children who God has called to himself in Christ from amongst the nations, throughout the generations. These people are the church, the ones pictured in Revelation 21; the Lamb’s wife, the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God. They have been made a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the praises of their God (1 Peter 2.4, 5, 9, 10). They are a people called to do good works, not to earn their salvation, but to show forth the love God has manifested in sending Jesus (Titus 3.1-8).

This is why the only true entrance into the church is by a personal repentance to God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Belonging to the church gives one an entirely different aspect on life. The Christian is no longer one who can think only of themselves but they are now part of the body of Jesus’s church. They have been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1.3, 4) and they now view everything from that exalted perspective. One aspect of which is to show compassion to those who live life around them.

It’s why the venue in which the conference took place, functions on behalf of the Christian church in this part of Nepal. Yet, it is not the church, just a building. But the Christians who minister from it, are the church. They have raised up this building here amongst this poor community because that’s what the church is called to do: to live amongst the world proclaiming Jesus and showing forth his love in their acts. What is so amazing here is to recall that the existence of such a building to serve the Christians in Nepal would have been unheard of, totally unthinkable, seventy years ago! No matter how long this building serves the Christian community, the reality is that it is a testimony to the fact that Jesus is alive and is still building his church.

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A week in Dharan

(Artocarpus heterophyllus) Jackfruit plant

Road to the Wild East!

Our first week in Nepal has seen us in Dharan. When I say that the city of Dharan, which at present is the sixth largest city in Nepal, is in the “wild east” I mean no more than that the process of modernisation is several years behind the capital Kathmandu. We flew from Kathmandu to Biratnagar, which is on the southern plains of Nepal, bordering India. A flight of some 45 minutes, instead of a car journey of over 10 hours. Then drove from Biratnagar to Dharan. The road has been in the process of being rebuilt over the last seven years I have been visiting. Parts of it now are a six lane highway that would not look out of place anywhere in the world. Except! You don’t have push bikes cutting across the fast lane! Or rickshaws competing with tut tuts, in the same lane as large lorries! However, there comes a point, several miles from Dharan, when one literally falls off this six line highway! It stops! Ends! Your vehicle falls onto one long construction site! One side of the road (a misnomer if there ever was one but that’s what it is!) has been flattened ready for a tarmac finish, whilst the other side is an uneven patchwork of potholes, dirt and rubble! Everything has to travel on the uneven dirt road; except those on motorbikes who are brave enough to ride on the flatten side of the road surface, being careful to negotiate the heaps of material waiting to be laid! Welcome to the wild east! A true reflection of the development of Nepali infrastructure.

When the boots on the other foot

It is an interesting experience walking around town here in Dharan. It’s one I’d describe as the boot being on the other foot! It’s a 25 minute or so walk through the centre of town back to our hotel from the church. Throughout our stroll so many of those we pass give us a second look! A look of intrigue! Novelty! A look that says, “what are you doing here?” You see, quite simply, folks in Dharan do not expect to see a videshi (foreigner) walking down their Main Street. It’s an interesting experience to be stared at as a stranger. An outsider. One who has a degree of novelty factor!

The Dawn Chorus

Everyone fortunate enough to have land in Nepal runs their own “small holding.” They have to in order to survive. It is a small step up from subsistence farming. Such pieces of land are cultivated to grow vegetables, and for those who can afford it, the keeping of animals. With houses and land in so close proximity in the city it makes for interesting listening from our hotel room! The list of domesticated animals we can hear consists of: cows, chickens, goats, pigs; the ever-present dogs, and not forgetting the good old cockerel! It’s a little novel for me to hear a dawn chorus that is more than the birds. I’ve occasionally heard a cockerel. But our dawn chorus consists of a battle royal between several cockerels who are all vying to be cock of the walk! It’s the one who’s lost its crow and produces a squealed croak that really wakes you up!

Jackfruit chicken!

Like all the peoples of Asia Nepalis show an incredible ingenuity in their cuisine. They use an amazing variety of vegetation from what God has provided in his creation. A conversation at lunch the other day illustrated this point. “This is certainly an interesting chicken dish, not too spicy for me,” I blithely said. My Nepali friends started to laugh! “No, pastor John, that’s jackfruit, not chicken.” For the uninitiated let me pass onto you the Google explanation: “Jackfruit is a tropical tree fruit grown in Asia, Africa and South America. Under its thick, bumpy rind is a stringy flesh that you can eat raw or cooked in a variety of dishes. Jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, weighing up to 40 pounds or more.” I am reliably informed that as part of the Durian family of plants it stinks! And consequently is not allowed to be carried on flights in Asia! It does make for a tasty piece of “chicken” though!

Life without an NHS!

We’re here extensively because we’ve been asked by the Nepali church to help train pastors and church workers, and over the years we’ve built up many ministerial friendships with pastors here. Our visit this time has allowed us a humbling insight into the work of pastoral visitation in Nepal. In what I am about to share no names are mentioned, but these are real people, in real places, knowing the reality of life’s struggles.

One of our pastor friends asked us if we would go with him to visit a lady who was sick. Our brother explained that the dear lady was a 45 years old Christian. She had a 12 year old son, and her husband serves in the Indian army. He had been granted compassionate leave to come home, because she was dying of stomach cancer, but he had to return to duty the next day. We were assured their home was a 20 minute journey away and we were to go on motorbikes. We should have realised that was Nepali time! An hour later we arrived at a small village, having ridden a good part of the journey on a dirt track through a forest. “Shaken but not stirred” on the bikes’ pillions we dismounted outside a humble rural Nepali home.

Can you contemplate living in a society where there is no NHS? Well here it was! No provision available for palliative care! One where even the most basic medicines are not available, and the prohibitive cost of purchasing them is beyond most; even a family with the financial support of the Indian Army behind them! Where even to have a phone consultation with a doctor would cost £150! Here, illness is a luxury none can afford, and serious illness is a lonely path without help. Laying on her bed, without AC, in the heat of the night, with only limited pain killers; no doctors to turn to; no McMillan nurse to visit, our dear sister in Christ suffered in silence.

In the nighttime, in the middle of the Nepali countryside, in a humble village home, one is face to face with the reality of suffering in the world. What do you do on being invited in? Many times as a pastor I have had the privilege of attending those who are seriously ill and dying. Always the same! Feeling totally inadequate and helpless. Yet, thanking God for the grace, hope and love found in Jesus Christ, he promises to give. What can you say? I am not sorry to say, that having spent the evening with the gathered family, we got down on our knees around this dear lady’s bed and prayed. We asked the Lord if it pleased him to bring healing. But as professing Christians, this dear lady and her husband have a “living hope” in the resurrected Jesus in heaven, and believe death is but the doorway into his wonderful presence. And so, amidst the pain, tears, the whys and our helplessness we committed her into the loving arms of her dear Saviour, Jesus.

Two days later the dear sister had deteriorated and been admitted to Dharan’s main hospital. The government does provide some assistance for the most serious cancer patience. The limit of this assistance is a move to a hospital where there are medically trained staff, who can offer nothing beyond basic medical care. The pastor asks us to go with him again. So, mounting the pillion again off we go to the hospital. Or so we thought! We in fact first stop at another members home to pray for a lady who was unwell. Then onto the hospital.

Please don’t get fooled by the picture! Think concrete, metal and 1950’s furnishings. To get into the ward one has to make their way through the many family members of those hospitalised who are camped out on the floors of the hallways! They are there to feed their relatives and go and purchase medication when requested! After all, the government here is providing limited help!

Pastoral patrol!

Later on in the week our pastor friend asks us to do another visit with him. We set off on four motor bikes: two deacons, two ladies church workers, the pastor and us. It feels like pastoral patrol! As with all of Nepal there is poverty and there is poverty in Dharan. Our pastor friend is a faithful man of God who cares for his people and we set off for a family who attend his church that live in a poorer part of town. Their house is built of green corrugated iron sheets, with a large gap between the roof and internal walls for ventilation. The family in this house consists of: an older sister (a 92 year old, who a few weeks ago accepted Jesus as her Saviour); her younger brother (70 years old), with his wife; their married son’s wife and two children (the son is away working); plus their eldest son. We are visiting because this eldest son is leaving for Korea tomorrow to work. The visit is to say farewell to him; pray for him, and give him a parting financial gift. It is also to make arrangements to help care for the three elderly folks who will be left on their own.

Is there slave labour in the 21st century! Listen to this man’s pathway to Korea, and tell there is not! He is an electrician. It has taken him three years to process all the relevant paperwork for Korea. He will be paid way below the going rate in Korea because he is a Nepali. In order to secure this job opportunity he will being paying an agent, for at least two years, the majority of his wages for the “privilege” of getting him the job! He will also send money home to the family. He is leaving behind the girl he hoped to marry because his money has been used to get to Korea, rather than provide the necessary dowry for her! If that is not financial exploitation I really don’t know what is! Yet, Nepal is being bled dry of its workforce as people seek better opportunities overseas.

Where’s mum!

As we are leaving this dear home the pastor receives a phone call from another church family asking if he will come and pray for their one year old son who is sick. And if we had been in a poor part of town, we now travel to an even poorer part of town! A much smaller building of cheaper corrugated iron and wood. There are in fact four families in the little complex of huts we visit, and many a run down garage or garden shed you’d see in the U.K. would be a far superior structure. The Pastor leads in prayer for the little baby and dad, who is a manual labourer, earning some 500-700 rupees (£4-5) a day. His two elder children are present. Where is mum? Mum has left to get work and has flown to Dubai to work as a housemaid! Yes! Leaving a one year old behind; plus two other children. And she will have paid the ubiquitous agents fees as well to get the job. Who knows what she will have to face over the next two years before she can return to her family.

Now before you say, “how could a mother do that?” Here is the pain and desperation of poverty! Even for those who profess faith in Jesus. And to such dear people, in such unimaginable situations, the love of Jesus is being brought. Nepali Christians know far better than any outsider what their fellow Nepalis are going through. And silver and gold they may not have, but they give what they have: the love of Jesus Christ (Acts 3.6).

The motivation of all this pastoral visitation is prayer. Yes, the pastor reads scripture. The brethren who come will always sing a song of praise. But it is the power of prayer that Nepali Christians rely upon. What other help can they hope for! It is hard to explain to Christians in the West not only the impact this ministry of prayer for the sick has played in the life of the church in Nepal, but also the vital role its ministry still does play. In a country with no medical provision freely available it has been foundational to the growth of the church here. It has been the means of bringing many to faith in Jesus.

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A Tale of Two Counties

Qatar’s Hamad International Airport was voted airport of the year in 2021. It is a sumptuous complex where there appears to be more workers, cleaners, trolly collectors and toilet attendants than any other airport on earth! One marvels at the shuttle trains that run to and fro overhead inside the terminal building, seemingly without any passengers on them. Hamad is a important hub but there are times when it’s vast shell of a building is quiet and ghost-like.

Qatar’s wealth derives from it being the country that holds the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves and oil reserves. It is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita. It probably does not come as a surprise then that poverty among Qataris is believed to be virtually non-existent. Yet, there are concerns over poverty amongst the many, many foreigners who work in Qatar’s economy.

This is the second time I have transferred through Hamad on my way to Nepal. The contrast between the two countries is pretty stark! In 2019, 17.4 percent of Nepalis were reckoned to be multidimensionally poor, being deprived in housing materials, clean cooking fuel, years of schooling, assets, and nutrition (UNICEF report 2021). Nepal’s poverty is due to political instability and corruption, a lack of industry, and its dependence on agriculture. Despite being rich in natural resources, Nepal has not utilized and capitalized on its resources by exporting them to other countries (World Population Review 2022).

It will come as no surprise then that amongst the young people who are desperate to flee poverty stricken Nepal to work in countries where they can earn, that Qatar is considered one of the golden gooses! Even as I sit and write this one of the many officious airport workers comes and purposely checks the tickets of some Nepalis sitting across from me. They dutifully, acceptingly, show their tickets and he wanders away. I wait! He doesn’t even look at me or ask for my ticket but just moves on! A few minutes later another official comes along and tells them to move on! To where? A less conspicuous place to sit than the main concourse! Draw your own conclusions!

As I sit and wait for my Kathmandu flight I wonder what changes have taken place in Nepal since I was last there, pre-covid, three years ago. Will the cities still be as hectic? Kathmandu is like a bee hive in the height of summer! With no tourist income for nearly three years what will life have been like for the many Nepalis who are reliant on tourism to earn a living? Will the slower than snail pace of infrastructure work have moved any more quickly? I doubt it. I am sure that what will not have changed will be that resolute, indomitable and stoic Nepali spirit that makes them such an attractive people.

And what of the young, growing Christian church in Nepal? I wait expectantly to see and share news with you! I expect it will be a story of the good, the bad and the ugly. But it will be one too of grace, birth-pangs, growth, over-coming and ventures of faith for King Jesus.

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There are Two Sides to Every Story

Delighted to share this Easter Poem, written by my daughter Mrs Hannah Card.

Hatred roars like the crowd’s incantation,

all men adding their vicious citation:  

“Away with you, I wanted a sign,

not a silent man, whispers of divine.”

“Away with you, I wanted no part;

I and me first, no justice to impart.”

“Away with you, we’re the majority;

we refuse to accept your authority.”


Grace thunders aloud with each heavy thud;

written through ages: the price is blood. 

The sentence is fit, yet it’s not his own; 

he stands in our place, he dies to atone.

Wrath is poured out for rebellious ones,

the Son bears it all to make God more sons;

cruel nails aren’t the bind that keeps him there, 

but love inconceivable, beyond compare. 


Ignorance jangles like the casting of dice,

no one discerning the real sacrifice. 

“Just following orders, doing my job,

deal with the prisoner, control the mob.”

“Just undecided, not really too sure,

a prophet perhaps, I’d like to see more.”

“Just observing, don’t honestly care,

doubtless a vile sinner hanging up there.”


Mercy streams as he is lifted up high,

by weak men condemned, sentenced to die;

the pure Lamb of God, heckled and scorned,

only with mockery is he adorned. 

The cross has been chosen, arms open wide,

bared to bridge the cataclysmic divide;

the watchers, dumbfounded, as the sun fails,

his beautiful life weighed in God’s scales.


Sarcasm drips like sour wine down the reed,

from those passing by as the three men bleed.  

“Some conquering Messiah is this one, 

dying in weakness, his time is all done.”

“Some display of kingly might and power 

he’s totally helpless in his last hour.”

“Some way to release this hostage nation 

from its oppressive subjugation.”


Forgiveness floods down from heaven above,

showering man from the God who is love. 

“It is finished!”: the victorious cry,

the Saviour, Jesus, bows his head to die.  

The earth, astounded, shakes to its core,

releases the dead to breathe once more;

the curtain bursts open, the invite is clear:

the way to God has been won for you here.  

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The fullness of time – A Christian view of history

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Galatians 4:4-7

Living in an age that is busy consigning the work of Dionysius Exiguus* to the dustbin of history, as it continues to marginalise the centrality of Jesus Christ from the narrative of mankind’s story; Christians need to consider the richness of Paul’s potent phrase, “the fullness of time.” Paul uses these words to not only describe Jesus advent but also to annunciate a Christian philosophy of history, which brings encouragement to the followers of Jesus.

It is full of hope and certainly, for it tells them that the God who sent forth his Son at the exact moment he had chosen is the God whose control over the flow of time made it possible. If the secular mindset views history as jumbled threads of chances, a mass of unconnected strands, the Christian sees it as a beautiful work in which the divine weaver is drawing all its threads together to make a magnificent tapestry. One that places Christ at the centre of the universe’s story, as he brings grace and glory to humanity.

An exact time

Paul would not have Christians consider history as a lava flow that meanders without purpose or direction, being entirely at the whim of the gravity of circumstances and the terrain of human choices over which it flows. For the Apostle Paul Jesus’ advent occurred at a very precise and exact time in history. It was neither too soon nor too late.

God had prepared this time and brought it about according to a timetable that was more exact in its schedule than the Swiss railway! History is not an aimless lava flow, nor a series of unfortunate events but it is rather a crafted piece of divine ingenuity, fashioned and shaped by The Master Craftsman!

We rightly marvel at the genius of MichelAngelo crafting a David from a flawed piece of marble, we should worship in awe and wonder at the God who shapes from the rubble of human failure and sin, the work of bringing forth his Son into the world.

The Christian is to understand that history has not only been guided by the wise hand of God but its future course has a definite direction. Faith sees every human action as set within the confines of a God whose sovereignty encompasses all human choices, without ever infringing on human liberty or removing human responsibility. This fullness of time had taken into account every possible connotation of human decisions and events and channelled them to accomplish the exact moment when the Father chose to send forth his Son. It was not an afterthought, nor a hasty response to unforeseen events but rather that which God had been shaping before the creation of the universe. The old adage is still true, history is “His (God’s) Story.”

A time prepared  

This fullness of time was an epoch which was prepared to maximise the potential of Jesus advent. Think of it this way, quite simply the rapid spread of Christianity was a wonderful demonstration of the Spirit’s outpouring in power, but it was accomplished at the conjunction of an unparalleled period of history. The expansive empires of the Greece, and more significantly that of Rome, (a period revealed by God so long ago to Daniel) had brought a cohesion unknown to the ancient world. From political unity under the Pax Romana to a transport infrastructure of roads crisscrossing the Empire making movement, commerce and communication easier; From the influence of Greek and Roman civilisations to the growing influence of a universal language; the world into which Jesus was born was ripe for the spread of the gospel.

The dispersion of the Jewish people all over the Empire meant that there were staging posts ready to receive the gospel message across the Roman world. Whilst the tired and bankrupt philosophy of paganism had left a gentile world crying out for the abundant life Jesus brought.

A precious time

As God had gone into the minutest detail to ensure this period was ready for Jesus advent, so not a nano-second of this fullness of time was wasted or insignificant. The gospels reveal a Jesus who lived according to a predetermined timetable. The growing awareness in his boyhood years that he was “about his Father’s business.” The consciousness displayed throughout his public ministry of his “hour,” his appointment with the cross. He knew when his hour would come and therefore when his “hour” had not come. He deliberately withdrew from peoples’ acclamation until that hour. Not only that, when it was time, he clearly set his face to meet that hour. The “hour” which Jesus viewed with trepidation as he knew it would mean a depth of conflict unknown to no other and unbearable to no other human soul. One which, on it’s eve, after the most intense and earnest struggle in prayer he rose from his knees to meet.

The richest of time

Jesus made this fullness of time the greatest period of accomplishment in human history. Many books and programmes have been produced purporting to tell of the most significant acts, or events, or key figures in history. None of these hold a match to the light lit by Jesus advent and the thirty-three years of life on earth, which altered the course of history.

Who but Jesus accomplished so much in his short lifetime! He lived a life of perfection, without mistake or mishap. His was a life lived under the demands and in complete harmony with God’s law, thereby fulfilling its purpose, a task unobtainable by any other person. His was a life that achieved all that Adam and his posterity has failed to do. A life so rich was crowned by his sufferings as one innocent, whose death and resurrection brought to fruition the profoundest consequences for the human race. Such a life and death shapes the eternal destiny not only of the universe but of every single human being that will ever know existence under the sun.

The riches of this fullness of time was when Jesus the man in whom “the fullness of the Godhead bodily” dwelt, walked the earth accomplishing the Father will. Paul speaks of Christ coming as when the grace of God appeared (Titus 2.11). The LORD of history, the initiator of time, invaded the time-space continuum and restored from a broken and fallen humanity a people to be God’s praise.

The fulfilment of days

Finally, this fullness of time opened the door to the “last days.” The bible has a very straight forward view of time, which the writer to the Hebrews sums up thus, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)

It sees these last days as commencing with Jesus advent and ending with his return. (which is why old Dionysius spoke of BC and AD). The greatest events of history were fulfilled in this fullness of time: Incarnation, crucifixion, Atonement, propitiation, resurrection, ascension, heavenly reign, intercession, outpouring of the Spirit; and now we wait for the last days to be brought to an end when Jesus returns.

James Boice speaks of three key moments in the life of Jesus by which history is to be understood and judged: The incarnation, by which God established his rule over all history; The Crucifixion, by which God unites all of human history in bringing to an end their alienation from God; The Resurrection, by which Christ declares his divinity and power and has changed the course of history forever.

The resurrection of Jesus commenced the period of time that would begin the bringing of humanity to its intended potential, for as the ascended Christ outpoured the Spirit, the work of transforming people to the likeness of Christ had begun.

*A 6th century abbot who introduced dividing time between BC / AD from the birth of Christ. The current trend is to replace AD (year of our Lord) with CE (Common era) and BC (before Christ) with BCE (before common era).

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Merry Christmas! Bah Humbug!

Poor old Scrooge has a bad press when it comes to this time of year. He is forever type-cast as the epitome of the original Christmas killjoy. Even Michael Caine and the Muppets could not improve his image! The man who had the audacity to question our enthusiasm for the Christmas celebration! The one who dared to suggest that there was too much effort put into Christmas for too little return. Listen to him,

“Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough. .. What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older & not an hour richer?”

A probing question prompted by Christmas

You have to admit hidden under his cloak of penny-pinching and money-grabbing duplicity there is a probing question, “What right have you to be merry?” As we engage in another Christmas holiday celebration at break-neck speed and it passes us by in a blur of activity as we try to compress as much into the holiday period as we possibly can, will it make us merry? Shopping, consuming, sharing, sipping, slurring & sleeping. In a desperate attempt to squeeze everything in we only end up desperately exhausted and unsatisfied yet we return again next year for another round; howbeit with a little less enthusiasm!

There is an old saying that goes, “you cannot put a quart into a pint pot!” (For those who are imperially illiterate a pint is just over half a litre and a quart is equal to two pints). You cannot put two pints of liquid into a one pint pot. It is an old idiom meaning it is impossible to cram TOO much into TOO small a space, or it is not possible to try and fit too much into too little time. We cannot make the impossible possible.

I expect for many of us this time of year is like trying to put a quart of activity into a pint pot of time and ending up with a pint of dissatisfaction after putting in a quart of effort and aspirations! And how tragic if Christmas is just an exacerbated reflection of how we live life! Cramming as much in as we can into too short space of time and never finding lasting satisfaction. No wonder the teacher wrote, “Meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless.”

A profound mistake made at Christmas

But Scrooge’s morose take on Christmas was fatally flawed. Why? Like so many folk today he left God out of the picture and the moment you do that you restrict life’s potential as you remove the impossible from life’s agenda. Thank God that Christmas is about rejoicing in what God has done and he is the God who is able to do the impossible. The Christian faith has written all over it, “Mission Impossible” and no where is that more evidently seen than in the birth of Jesus Christ. 

With a profound simplicity the bible records the announcement made to Mary concerning the nature of the child who would be born to her, the angel said, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore that holy one who is to be born will be called the Son of God.” On hearing the news the young Mary genuinely asked, “How can this happen, I have not even know a man?” The reply of the angelic messenger was, with God nothing is impossible (Luke 1.35, 37).

The cute nativity scenes that so many are fond of speaks of the power of the God who made the impossible possible when Jesus Christ was born in the stable at Bethlehem. Here was the most incredible act the world would ever see. We say, with the upmost reverence, here God was putting a quart into a pint pot! A “quart” of infinite deity was placed into a “pint pot” of humanity. Here, through the supernatural activity of God the Holy Spirit, was poured into finite humanity all the fullness of deity; emptied into the frailness of a human frame was all the goodness of divinity; now forever encased within one body, made in time, the infinite majesty of eternal deity.

The person lost sight of at Christmas

The problem with people like poor old Scrooge is that they have lost sight of the person Christmas is all about. Paul wrote about Jesus Christ that, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” Col 2.9 (ESV). The marvel of what occurred at Bethlehem was that now in one unique human being resided all the fullness of the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ.

How helpless the child in the manger! Why he would cry out like any other child! See his complete dependence on the mother who bore and fed him! How necessary was Joseph’s protective care, his earthly father, who fled with him into Egypt. He would know what it was to be hungry and thirsty. He knew what it was to be weary. He was homeless. He knew times when he slept from sheer exhaustion. He would taste death for every human being (Heb 2.9). Yes, how human he was! But how do we account for the power with which he healed the sick, fed the hungry and calmed the storm? How do we explain the winsome words of authority with which he spoke, which still hold power after 2000 years? Listen to him pronounce, as only God could do, without fear or hesitation, “your sins are forgiven you.” How could he rise again from the grave? Why does he still have power to change lives forever? Yes, how he is very God of very God.

Here was the God-man about whom the church has had to confess, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man .. begotten before all ages .. born of the Virgin Mary .. one and the same Christ. Son, Lord .. to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably …”

Missing God’s purpose at Christmas

By failing to see the person who Jesus was people like Scrooge entirely miss the purpose God had in sending his Son into the world. Scrooge reduced Christmas, all of life’s activity, to pounds & pence. Life for him was to be found in the acquisition and accumulation of material assets alone. He would have listened incredulous to the words of the Bethlehem child who grew-up and taught, “lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth .. but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

For all his guile poor old Scrooge fell for the oldest trick in the book. He thought life was all about the “abundance of things he possessed.” He failed to see that by sending his Son into the world God was enriching our lives beyond our wildest imagination. By impoverishing himself into our humanity Jesus would enrich us with all the riches he would accrue through his perfect life, his atoning death on Calvary and glorious resurrection.

For you know the grace of out Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich. ( 2 Cor 8.9)

No human being should have taken refuge in such a place as that stable at Bethlehem, much less should a baby have been born there! Yet the wonder was that God gave his Son to be born there! Born the helpless child of a poor Hebrew woman, whose family did not have enough to ensure that he could be born into a nicer place, yet this poverty was for our enrichment. And Jesus did this for a reason that Scrooge could never understand in a million years; he did it because he loves. God, in love, gave Jesus who would enrich our lives by purchasing the forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross and procuring everlasting fellowship with God through his life. Free, abundant life, bought by Jesus, who now freely offers to eradicate our spiritual poverty and fill the pint pots of our humanity with all the fullness of God. All Scrooge’s money couldn’t buy what Jesus offers but it can be yours as a free gift when you receive it by faith. 

Don’t be a Scrooge this Christmas!

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When the absurd becomes a sweet certainty – A glimpse of the Trinity

Augustine, a man for our times – (14)

I once had a conversation on my doorstep with a lady who was a Jehovah Witness. At one point our discussion turned towards the doctrine of the Trinity, and with an utter conviction, that was meant to silence me and win the day, the dear lady said, “I can assure you I have made an extensive study and the doctrine of the Trinity is an impossibility!”

Unitarians, Muslin friends, Jehovah Witnesses are just a few in a longline of religious folks who see the Christian teaching on the Trinity as an absurd human construction and cling to a rigid monotheism. They reject the central bedrock of Christianity, the sweet sum of its revelation, as an impossibility: One God who exists in three persons, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit! Herman Bavinck wrote,“ … the article of the Trinity is the heart and core of our confession, the differentiating earmark of our religion, and the praise and comfort of all true believers.” (1) Why does the Christian believer come to accept, love and treasure the unique and distinctive Christian doctrine of God?

Magnus Opus

One person who’d made an “extensive study” of the Trinity and would disagree with the dear lady who was so emphatic on my doorstep was Augustine. There are few pastor theologians who have added more to the church’s understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity than Augustine. One of the five works that comprise his Magnus Opus is entitled On The Trinity. And in his Confessions he describes a glimpse of the Trinity he sees in the Bible’s account of creation. “… Here, then, is the Trinity, my God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator of all creation …” (13.5).

Augustine is credited with shaping much of the western church’s understanding of the Trinity. His thinking and writing honed the church’s belief in the full equality of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; each member sharing the one divine essence. “… O God, who are Trinity in unity, unity in Trinity …” (12.7).Three in one, one in three, who move, act and think as one, and each person in their own right possessing the entire essence of God. The Holy Spirit having a direct relationship the with both the Father and the Son; as he eternally proceeds from both Father and the Son.

The hammer and anvil

Augustine’s writings belong to that flow of history, in which the Christian Church was compelled to forge her understanding of the Trinity on what it believed scripture disclosed. The Councils of Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381) were the high water marks in the church hammering out of its thinking on the anvil of scripture, in coming to hold the belief of one God in three persons.

The essential compulsion for hammering out a credible understanding of the Trinity was the church’s need to respond to the coming of its LORD, Jesus Christ. Christian faith is built upon the finished work of Jesus of Nazareth as being both truly God and truly the man. If God was on earth in Jesus, how could God be in heaven too? Who was this “Father” Jesus spoke so intimately to whilst on earth and clearly subjected himself to? Augustine confesses he “… searched for the this truth in the sacred words of scripture and found it …” (13.5).

The Confessions

The final three books of Confessions (Ch.11-13) deal with an exposition of Genesis one. At one juncture in the last chapter Augustine turns to a reflection on the Trinity. What is intriguing is that this arises from a consideration of God’s creative activity. There are two important markers here that should not be missed: By grounding his thinking on scripture Augustine is highlighting the Christian’s only authority, the only legitimate source, from which their belief in the Trinity is to be drawn. God’s revelation of himself as found in the Bible. Second, a Trinity that was active in creation clearly assumes the existence of the Trinity before creation in eternity. When the Father’s faithfulness, covenanted with the Son (1 Peter 1.20) that he would be slain (Revelation 8.8) for his people, whom the Spirit would sanctify (1 Peter 1.2; Ephesians 1.4).

A strange approach!

Augustine’s approach in book thirteen is an allegorical exposition of the days of creation as found in Genesis one. His handling of the Genesis text may surprise many contemporary Christians. For he moves quickly from the account of the physical creation, to a spiritual application of it in the work of redemption. Hence, he writes that the light is the spiritual creation; the firmament is a figure of scripture; the sea is the human race; the planets and stars are wisdom and knowledge given to humanity, and so forth.

Now it’s a brave person who’d question such a renowned teacher! Who’d dare say that the great Augustine was not right on the nose? Yet, to 21st century Christians, who are rightly concerned to defend the integrity of the literal account of the physical universe against the onslaught of evolutionary thinking; may well find Augustine spiritualisation of creation as strange and obtuse. Our purpose is not to investigate the spiritual allegorical approach but to consider how rich is the flavour of God one savours throughout his writing.

The God who calls

Augustine begins by praising God for his mercy in calling him to himself. “… I call upon you, O God, my mercy, Who made me and did not forget me when I forgot you. I call you to come into my soul, for by inspiring it too long for you you prepare it to receive you … For you came to my aid even before I called upon you. In all sorts of ways, over and over again, when I was far from you, you coaxed me to listen to your voice, to turn my back on you no more … All the time you were calling to me yourself …” (13.1).

Augustine knows he has been called by the great God of heaven, the Almighty Creator, who brought him into existence. “… For before I was, you were: I was nothing, that you should give me being. Yet now I am; and this is because out of your goodness you provided for all that you have made me and from all which you have made me. You had no need of me … My Lord and my God … I can only serve you and worship you so that good may come to me from you, and but for you no good could come to me, for I should not even exist to receive it …” (13.1).

The Creator God possessed all life in himself and had no need of anyone or anything outside of himself. “… Only you can never change, because you alone are absolute simplicity, for whom to live is the same as to live in blessed happiness, since you are your own beatitude …” (13.3). Augustine could never get over the fact that God did not create of necessity but out of his own goodness and for his own glory “… You created, not because you had need, but out of the abundance of your own goodness. You moulded your creation and gave it form …” (13.4).

A feint glimpse

As Augustine considers a comparison between Genesis 1.1 “In the beginning God,” and 1.2 “the Spirit of God hovered over the waters,” he sees a glimpse of the persons of the Godhead. “… When I read that your Spirit moved over the waters, I catch a faint glimpse of the Trinity which you are, my God. For it was you, the Father, who created heaven and earth in the Beginning of our Wisdom – which is your Wisdom, born of you, equal to you and Co-eternal with you – that is, in your Son … Here, then, is the Trinity, my God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator of all creation …“ (13.5). It should be noted that when Augustine wrote, “… a faint glimpse of the Trinity …” he did not consider this as an explicit proof text for the Trinity but rather an instance of where the cumulative evidence of scripture leads one to observed in its description the Trinity in action.

Some may accuse Augustine of engaging in circular reasoning when he says that because he believed that his God was a Trinity he “… searched for the this truth in the sacred words of scripture and found it …” (13.5) in Genesis 1.2. Then he leaps to seeing the Son, the Wisdom of God too! Is this a chicken and egg thing? Does evidence lead to faith, or does faith find the evidence?

When Augustine recognises the Trinity (which he freely acknowledges it is but a glimpse) in Genesis 1.2 he is bringing to bear upon it the entire compendium of biblical revelation, and is comparing and interpreting scripture with scripture. If it is circular reasoning it is one in which the work of God’s Spirit has broken in and brought the light of faith to bear on Augustine’s understanding of the biblical revelation. Augustine, with the gentle boldness of faith, asks God why in scripture the Spirit is mention in verse two of Genesis one rather than in verse one, after heaven and earth are spoken of? (13.6). He concludes that it is because the Spirit, as God, “… surpassed all else, from the very beginning …” (13.7).

A spiritual analogy

Moving to an analogy, he relates this physical occurrence to Romans 5.5 and the Spirit being poured into the heart of the Christian. Augustine says, “… this is how the love of God raises us up through your Spirit, who moved over the waters …” It is the Spirit who raises us up from the “.. depths to which we sink … our passions, our lives, the unclean learnings of our own spirits, which drag us downward in our love of the world and it’s cares …” In divine contrast to this trajectory the grace of God in Christ by the “… holiness of your Spirit raises us aloft, so that we may lift our hearts to you …” (13.7).

Seeing the depth of sin into which he, along with all humanity, has fallen, Augustine pleads, “… Give yourself to me, my God; restore yourself to me … All that I know is this, that unless you are with me, and not only beside me, but in my very self, for me there is nothing but evil, and whatever riches I have, unless they are my God, they are only poverty …” (13.8)

God’s gift

Augustine is no modalist. He knows that if the Spirit moved over the waters the Father and Son moved over the waters too. Although in the strict sense of body movement God cannot move, for “… divinity, changeless and supreme …” is over “… all that is mutable …” (13.9). Why then is only the Spirit mentioned? It is because it is the work of the Spirit, as God’s gift to us, to lift us up. This is the sweet drawing that has its source in God’s love, for “… By your gift, the Holy Spirit, we are set aflame and born aloft, and the fire within us carries us upwards …” This journey leads us upwards to the “… Peace of the heavenly Jerusalem …” (13.9).

What joy and happiness belongs to the creature on such a journey; one that is only possible by God’s “… gift …” (13.10). This means that the Christian is as certain of reaching their journeys end, as the natural light that came into being when God called it forth in creation. Natural light came forth immediately. And although our journey to God may take longer! It is just as certain, for God’s “… gift …” has called us forth to himself (13.10). This gift of God is one that all people may ask for “… they must ask you for the gift of understanding and not appeal to me as if it were I who “enlightened every soul born into the world” (John 1.9) …” (13.10). This gift of “raising up” is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, in bringing one to faith, that leads to a confession of God as Triune.

Faith’s vision

The reason why it has to be the Spirit’s gift, received by faith, that opens the door for one embracing God as a Triune being, is because it is beyond even the greatest human minds to comprehend. “… Who can understand the omnipotent Trinity? … Rarely does a soul know what it is saying when it speaks of the Trinity. Men wrangle and dispute about it, But it is a vision that is given to none unless they are at peace …” (13.11).

When Augustine writes of “… vision …” and “… peace …” he is saying the Trinity cannot be fathomed by intellect alone, it has to be revealed to one through the eyes of faith. This is not faith without reason but faith that reasons from what is revealed; or as one described it as, “faith in search of reason.” (2) It is that faith that brings peace with God through Christ (Romans 5.1), and rests at peace with God’s revelation of himself as existing in three persons. Faith leads reason to understand and believe the revealed doctrine of the Trinity.

A reflection

Although God is incomprehensible to human understanding without faith, it does not stop Augustine endeavouring to explain the Trinity by finding shadows or reflections of the Trinity in created things. In the Confessions he writes of seeing such a reflection in the human soul. “… there are three things, all found in man himself, which I should like men to consider. They are far different from the Trinity, but I suggest … as a mental exercise … we can see … how great the difference is. The three things are existence, knowledge and will …” which Augustine defines as “ … I am, I know, and I will. I am a being which knows and wills; I know both that I am and that I will; and I will both be and to know …” (13.11).

Augustine goes onto to say these three in a human being form “… one inseparable life, one life, one mind, one essence … although they are distinct from one another, the distinctions does not separate them …” (13.11). Human beings are not three split persons! They are one being who knows a life; a life of mind, a life of will. But possess one life.

This illustration helps us to see that the Trinity of persons, immutably, possess one life, one mind, one will. “… God is Trinity because all these three – immutable being, immutable knowledge and immutable will – are all together in him …” Does this mean that each person of the Trinity possess one of these or are they “… together in each person of the Trinity, so each is threefold …”?

With a breath-taking glimpse of faith-led understanding Augustine summarises “… whether both these suppositions are true and in some wonderful way, in which the simple and the multiple are one, though God is infinite he is yet an end to himself and in himself, so that the Trinity is in itself, and is known to itself, and suffices to itself, the supreme being, one alone immutably, in the vastness of its unity …” (13.11).

Now that needs a second, and a third, careful reading! He himself writes, “… this is a mystery that none can explain, and which of us would presume to assert that he can? … (13.11). Who can explain how each of the three persons in the Trinity all possess being, knowledge and will, and yet they possess them as one being! The Father cannot will differently from the Son, the Spirit cannot know a different mind from the Father, for the life of the Father is the life of the Son and Spirit.

Incomparable

Augustine cautions that understanding the illustration one “… must not think he has discovered that which is above them all and is unchangeable …” (13.11). No illustration can adequately explain the incomparable mystery to the Trinity. How wise then, how Christian in spirit, are his next words “… beyond this let my faith speak for me …” (13.12). A Christian cannot adequately explain but their faith confesses what God has revealed. So, Augustine in faith would speak to his Lord as, “… holy, holy, holy, Lord, my God, it is in your name that we are baptised …” (13.12). And then recites the Christian faith’s baptismal declaration of being in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into which a Christian is baptised and in whose names Christians baptise those who come to faith. This is an amazing declaration for any to make for the Christian, like all people, were “… veiled in the darkness of ignorance … But because your Spirit moved over the waters, your mercy did not abandon us in our misery …” (13.12).

This light of the Spirit is the light of faith, but even faith cannot embrace fully the mystery of the persons in the divine being. “… But as yet we are light with faith only, not with a clear view (2 Corinthians 5.7) …”(13.13). Reason had taken Augustine’s understanding so far, faith and mind has led understanding further, “… My faith the lantern which you have lighted to guide my feet in the dark …” (13.14). But faith was yet to lead to that day when it gave place to sight!

A fragrance of the Trinity

In the meantime this faith does not leave the Christian scratching at a formula of words, or chewing on theological sawdust! Augustine describes his faith experience of the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit thus “… While I draw a breath of your fragrance when my soul melts within me and I cry out in joy, confessing your glory, like a man exultant at a feast (Ps 42.4) …” (13.14).

Augustine is describing what C. S. Lewis calls practical theology: “the whole purpose for which we exist is to be thus taken into the life of God.” You see the glory of knowing and confessing the Trinity is not in learning a formula that holds its truths in necessary tension but is in enjoying the deep unending pleasure of fellowship with the unchanging Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As the Puritan John Owen wrote: it is a fellowship with the Father in love, with the Son in grace and with the Holy Spirit in consolation. This fellowship is when the absurd becomes a sweet certainty!

(1) Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith p145 (2) Anselm of Canterbury, Why did God become Man? (Quoted in Foundations of the Christian Faith, James Boice p289)

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In the vale of bereavement

Augustine: A man for our times (13)

The duality of Christ’s natures as both truly God and fully man, in one unique person, can be observed in a poignant and powerful way as he stood beside a grave, weeping, where his friend Lazarus was buried (John 11.35). It is a sweet moment when the genuineness of Jesus humanity is laid bare, as we see his emotional outpouring at death’s destructive sway. And yet it leads to a wonderful demonstration of the power and authority of Jesus as Lord of all things, the eternal God, the Creator, Lord of life and death (11.43, 44), as he calls Lazarus forth from the grave.

It’s no joke!

It was whilst living in Thagaste that Augustine recounts the passing of a close friend. He relates how he sat at a friend’s bedside who had recovered from being gravely ill and joked about his friend’s close shave with leaving the world. His friend, however, was in no state of mind to make light of such things and rebuked an astonished Augustine. A few days later this friend relapsed and passed away. Augustine was bereft and acknowledged “… My heart grew sombre with grief, and wherever I looked I saw only death … I had become a puzzle to myself, asking my soul again and again “why are you downcast? Why do you distress me? But my soul had no answer to give …” (4.4).

Bereavement is the deepest of all tragedies known to those who inhabit the world. It brings home how fragile our lives are, how abruptly existence can cease, and how shallow living life for the here and now alone is. The widow of PC Andrew Harper, who was killed whilst on duty, is quoted as saying, “I am lost and in an endless world of numb despair.” (1) Augustine commented, “… we mourn … are drenched in tears and life becomes a living death because a friend is lost …” (4.9). There is a void that opens up in our lives that nothing and no one can fill, when those whom we love (friend, spouse, child, parent) leave us behind in the world without them.

Bereavement’s dark valley

There is a common two-fold response to finding consolation when we enter the vale of bereavement. On the one hand we comfort ourselves with the belief that time heals. Augustine admits that time did indeed bring a degree of refuge in the shock of losing his friend, “… Time never stand still, nor does it idly pass without effect upon our feelings or fail to work its wonders on the mind … Little by little it pieced me together again by means of the old pleasures I once enjoyed. My sorrow gave way to them …” (4.8). He picked up his old lifestyle of pursuing his ambitions of wealth, pleasures and fame. Time saw the drift back to the pleasures he enjoyed. But time alone was inadequate to heal the wound of loss. The trouble was that these things that were once pleasures were now tainted because experience had shown him they “… held the germ of sorrows still to come …” (4.8). On the other hand Augustine writes that his “… comfort and relief was in the solace of other friends who shared my love of the huge fable which I loved instead of you, my God, the long-drawn lie which our minds were always itching to hear …” (4.8). What a boon friendship is at such times. But there was an elephant in the room of these shared friendships! Augustine was ill at ease with the lifestyle they shared, which he describes as the “… huge fable …” and the “… long-drawn lie …”

In the valley of bereavement the cold chill of loss does not subside easily. No amount of “celebrating” the life of the departed warms the hurt enough to stop chilling the bones. Even if we are blessed with a new spouse, child or friend; who bring us joy, they cannot replace the loved one we’ve lost. We may not be able to voice it but this cold chill we feel is an awareness that in spite of its universal sway death is not a natural phenomenon. We feel cheated at its presence. We shudder at its unwelcome intrusion into a universe that did not come into being from a struggle between life and death, but was made perfect and good.

Sticky plasters

In bereavement time and friends are a welcome relief but at best they are sticky plasters to patch over the deep wound of loss but are unable to heal it. Neither dealt with the torment and anguish that bereavement brought to Augustine. “… My soul was a burden, bruised and bleeding … but I found no place to set it down to rest. Neither in … countryside … no peace in song or laughter, none in company of friends … or in the pleasures of love, none even in books or poetry … Where could my heart find refuge from itself? Where could I go to leave myself behind? … I knew, Lord, that I ought to offer it up to you, for you would heal. But this I would not do, nor could I, especially as I did not think of you as anything real or substantial … I lived in a fever, convulsed in tears and and sighs that allowed me neither rest nor peace of mind. My soul was burdened, bruised and bleeding. It was tired … the god I worshiped was my own delusion …” (4.7).

However, as he wandered in the valley of bereavement, Augustine did reach a clarity of integrity concerning friendship that few ever reach when he admits, “… My own wretched life was dearer to me then the friend I had lost … I doubt whether I would have been willing to give my life for my friend …” (4.6). Is it possible for one to find a friend who loved them so much that they would lay down their life for them? Yes! Laying at the very heart of the Christian’s relationship to Jesus is one who fulfilled such a promise. Jesus loved his friends so much he was ready to die for them! (John 15.13).

God or delusion?

Augustine’s honest description of his trauma speaks of how in the end bereavement is a personal and intense solo journey. It is an experience that one can only process in their own time and in their own way. It is one of the greatest subjective challenges that any human being has to face. Augustine did not deny the bitterness of loss in life. To adapt a phrase from Shakespeare’s Shylock, life cut him and he did indeed bleed in mourning and tears. Yet, where was he to “… rest …? He does intimate (“… I knew …”) that in taking this solo walk he did not have to travel it alone without hope!

Yet, this knowledge became the grounds of Augustine admitting to a struggle between what he knew and what he did. He knew no answer in himself, “… My soul had no answer to give …” and was initially unwilling to call upon God “… If I said “wait for God’s help,” my soul did not obey …” (4.4). Augustine asked the question, where was God in all this? And found himself admitting, “… I knew Lord, that I ought to offer it up to you, for you would heal … this I would not do, nor could I, especially as I did not think of you as anything real or substantial …” (4.7).

He was a person who knew he needed a help that was beyond human empathy and endeavour. He needed to know a comfort that was outside of himself and the world. He needed the assurance only God could give. Yet, he tells us, instead he exhausted himself in holding onto the gods of his own delusion! It was at this point that Augustine tells us in desperation he left Thagaste and went to Carthage (4.7).

Where is rest?

Now many may have great sympathy with Augustine’s response. Bereavement has a way of driving us away from what we know. Our grief makes us look for something or someone to blame for our loss.. “… Where could my heart find refuge from itself? Where could I go to leave myself behind?” (4.7). If God is everywhere; if God knows everything; if God can do all things, why did he not stop his friend from dying? Why could he not heal Augustine’s pain?

The answer lies not in blaming God, or turning ones back on God, but rather bringing to God one’s pain and despair. Anaesthetising one’s thinking and emotions and cutting God off may well put us to sleep but it does not remove the reality we are in. For in the vale of bereavement it is not God who is our enemy but death itself! (1 Corinthians 15.54-57).

Sweet hope

In subsequent reflection Augustine realised that if time and friendship could not fill the aching void he knew; neither was healing, comfort and hope to be found in the pain of endlessly questioning why his friend had died. The healing of bereavement’s wound was to be found in calling out and listening to his God. “… Let me listen to you, who are the Truth … You who are present everywhere, can you thrust aside our troubles? You are steadfast, constant in yourself … and if we could not sob our troubles in your ear, what hope should we have left to us? How then can it be that there is sweetness in the fruit we pluck from the bitter crop of life, in the mourning and the tears? … Does their sweetness spring from hope, the hope that you will hear them?” (4.5). How did Augustine learn to pluck sweetness from life’s bitter crop of bereavement?

Christian faith teaches that the answer to life’s greatest loss in the world is to be found in the hope given by the God, in the comfort that flows from God’s abiding presence. Christians do not deny they feel the painful reality of loss but in faith they take it and lay it at the feet of the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1.3). The God who made the world, who encompasses it and yet is transcendent from it; the God who promises to dwell with the humble and contrite in heart (Isaiah 57.15). The God who brings “… sweetness …” from the bitter crop of life we sometimes pick, a sweetness that “… spring from hope, the hope that you will hear them?” For “… if we could not sob our troubles in your ear, what hope should we have left to us?..” (4.5). Here is the Christian’s hope in death’s dark vale, “Even though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23.4).

A Saviour’s example

What a beautiful picture! To cry one’s troubles in God’s ears! Augustine is describing faith’s experience in which it learns to “cast your burdens on the Lord and he shall sustain you” (Psalm 55.22). This is more than the venting of one’s feelings. It is the Christian’s faith wrestling to rest in God in order to find the strength they need to continue; it is their relying on God’s grace to deal with the daily aching void; it is their seeking of solace found in communion with God alone. It is that “drawing near with a true heart in full assurance of faith … the holding fast the confession of our hope …” (Hebrews 10.22, 23). Read how he pours out his heart to his God in hope, “… My heart lies before you, O my God. Look deep within. See these memories of mine, for you are my hope. You cleanse me when my unclean humours such as these possess me, by drawing my eyes to yourself and saving me (Psalm 25.15) …” (4.6).

Let this not be mistaken as pietistic, mystical gobble-de-gook that has no daily relevance. In drawing near to God the Christian is following the example of their Saviour who poured out his heart to God in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14.33-36). Jesus gained strength, encouragement and comfort from his Father to take the cup of suffering on behalf of sinners. And what of Paul? Who too found that in crying out to God concerning his thorn in the flesh God’s grace was sufficient for him to carry it (2 Corinthians 12.9). “… Blessed are those who love you, O God, and love their friends in you and their enemies for your sake. They alone never lose those who are dear to them, for they love them in one who is never lost … no one can lose you, my God …” (4.9).

Augustine would later write “… It is in your gift that we find our rest. It is in him that we enjoy you. The place where we find rest is the rightful one for us. To it we are raised by love. To it your Spirit lifts us up … By your gift, the Holy Spirit, we are set aflame and born aloft, and the fire within us carries us upward …” (13.9). He was writing of the ministry of comfort that the Comforter, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, brings into the hearts of those he dwells in.

Hope in life; comfort in the valley of the shadow of death; healing in bereavement’s dark vale, are all the gifts of Jesus Christ, the one who demonstrated his love for his friends in laying down his life for them (John 15.13), the one who promised the Spirit’s ministry to those who trust in him (John 14.26; 15.26; 16.7, 13-16).

(1) Quoted in a BBC news app report 24.11.21

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When the World is not Enough

Augustine: a man for our times (12)

When Jesus said that his “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36), and spoke of his followers as being “not of the world, just as I am (Jesus) not of the world” (John 17.16); by implication Jesus was saying there is something more, something greater than the world we inhabit. Christianity has always been other-worldly. Augustine’s pre-Christian lifestyle, his conversion and subsequent life meant he gave a great deal of thought to this.

“… Let me know you, for you are the God who knows me, let me recognise you as you have recognised me (1 Corinthians 13.12). You are the power of my soul; come into it and make it fit for yourself … As for the other things in life the more we weep for them, the less they merit our tears and the fewer tears we shed for them, the more we ought to weep for them …” (10.1).

Living between two worlds

The Christian is called to live between two worlds. The material world that now is and the spiritual world of heaven that is viewed by faith alone in the here and now (Hebrews 11.1), and is yet to be seen in all the fullness of its glory and wonder. The Christian life is a spiritual journey that crosses the divide between “rendering to Caesar what is his and rendering to God what is his” (Matthew 22.21). And this is the great work of the dynamic of faith.

The world is not enough

Jumping forward to the 20th century. The cinema franchise of the indomitable 007, “Bond, James Bond,” includes a film entitled, The World is not enough. The suave and sophisticated James, single-handedly, yet again, saves the world from the megalomaniac intent on gaining wealth, power and domination of the world through control of oil.

The premise of the film is built upon the unpalatable truth of our experience in the real world, a truth which we hide away in the deepest cellar of the darkest cupboard of our consciousness. No matter how much of the world we have it is never enough. This is not a failure of the world but rather one of misplaced affections on our part. We were not made for the world but for God and God made the world as a fitting dwelling place for us to enjoy fellowship with him. When we replace love for God with love for the world we indulge the world in the paucity of what it offers to satisfy us to our detriment; we pursue its riches that time makes poorer to us without us realising it; we crave its pleasures even as they become more tasteless to our God-given palate, and we yearn for its times of happiness, which fly away quicker than a startled sparrow. The world was not made to be enough for us. What, then, do you do when the world is not enough?

Spiritual journey

The Christian answer to the world not being enough is the spiritual journey of faith, which leaves the world behind and sets one’s life to live for the God of the world to come. It is undertaken in answer to the call to follow the Lord of the “world to come.” And its goal is the “city whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 2.5; 11.10). Augustine’s Confessions tell the story of his spiritual journey, by faith, from this world to the world to come.

The yuppie and the drunk

This spiritual journey often begins with a restlessness, a growing dissatisfaction with the world we inhabit. This is not the same as discontentment with not possessing enough of what the world has to offer, but it is a seeing through the emptiness of worldly things to fulfil us. In Augustine’s case it would be a mistake to think that because of the frugal and simplistic manner of his later life that he did not know what it was to be successful in the world and strive for happiness. The young Augustine would have fitted well into the yuppie culture of the 1980’s! He was an ambitious, self-made young man, full of self-confidence and had built a successful career as a teacher in the art of public speaking. “… I was eager for fame and wealth and marriage … For all my laborious contriving and intricate manoeuvres I was hoping to win the joy of worldly happiness …” (Bk 6.6).

As is common for Christians, Augustine had a woke moment on his spiritual journey! It was a wake up call, a “coming to his senses,” (Luke 15.17). As he walked the streets of Milan, “ … feverishly busy…” preparing a speech in praise of the Emperor, for which he hoped to be richly rewarded. He witnessed a drunken beggar in the streets “… laughing and joking …” (6.6) and Augustine realised that in spite of all his own striving the beggar had reached the goal of “… peaceful happiness …” in the world before him. And he had no guarantee of reaching such happiness anyway! It was a tragic moment of realisation on the inadequacy of living for this world alone. How many know their best moments as being out of their head, boozed up to the eyeballs, losing all sense of reason!

Delusion

This encounter did not occur in isolation. Augustine was already evaluating the nature of the life he was living. He describes his experience and that of his companions in their chosen lifestyle as being “… alike deceivers and deceived in all our different aims and ambitions … When we expounded our so called liberal ideas … In public we were cocksure, in private superstitious, and everywhere void and empty … we were under the same delusion …” (4.1). (Consider 2 Thessalonians 2.11)

Augustine puts flesh on his conclusion that life was a “… delusion …” when he summaries as follows, the “… Love of money had gained the better of me and for it I sold to others the means of coming off better in a debate …” (4.2). He readily employed any means to gain advancement in the world, even consulting “… those imposters, the astrologers …” (4.3).

Playing with toys

Who doesn’t love the festive baubles and trinkets of Christmas decorations. But who would keep their decorations up all year round! A disillusioned Augustine found a growing disenchantment with the trinkets and baubles of life in this world. The ubiquitous phrase, “whoever dies with the most toys wins,” seeks to define life’s purpose as being built upon a dedication to the pursuit of wealth and the acquisition of material things, in order to find self- satisfaction. The problem is one grows tired of toys and wants the real thing! One observes of Augustine that “… when, having tested everything the old world had to offer and found it wanting, he gave himself at last to Catholic Christianity, without reserve.” (1)

The fable

Recalling his time as a non-Christian Augustine writes of, “… My greatest comfort and relief was in the solace of other friends who shared my love of the huge fable which I loved instead of you, my God, the long-drawn lie which our minds were always itching to hear …” (4.8). If life in the world was a delusion, then it was a “fable” people shared together.

The vast majority of human beings seek for happiness in the things of this world alone and spend life believing that what the world has to offer is enough. Augustine describes such a belief as a “fable,” because quite simply the world is never enough! A song from a very popular contemporary show puts this truth succinctly, “ … These hands could hold the world but it’ll never be enough, never be enough, for me …” (2). Augustine bursts the fable wide open when he concludes, “… My ambition had placed a load of misery on my shoulders and the further I carried it the heavier became …” (6.6).

Like all fables to be kept alive demands a work of the collective human psyche. “Ah! But I am only doing what everyone else around me is. We can’t all be wrong!” A communal commitment to believe what we wish to be true. Augustine came to see that the comfort found in shared companionship of the fable was a “ long-drawn lie.” We believe the fable not because it’s true but because so many others do too. The many must be right! Jesus described such thinking as being on the “Broad Road” on which “many walk” (Matthew 7.13, 14).

Jesus expresses the same truth another way when he asks, “what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and yet lose his soul” (Matthew 16.26). One can choose to ridicule these words of Jesus and go through life never fully grasping that the world is not enough, for those created in God’s image and made for God; one may choose to ignore Jesus words and bring the tragedy into our lives of being taken up with the fruitless search to find meaning in the world; one can reject Jesus words and carry on pretending, living out the travesty of trying to convince yourself the fable is real! But none can escape the gnawing anguish we carry when we believe the world is enough; we are endless searchers in trying to find enough to satisfy, and are committed to return to the pain of disappointment.

Searching and struggling

Growing increasingly disenchanted with the world’s fable to satisfy his deepest longings, Augustine found his spiritual journey confronted him with a life-challenging dilemma. He realised that only God could give him the joy that he longed for, but he tells God “… I began to search for a means of gaining the strength to enjoy you, but I could not find the means …” (7.18). Was this spiritual journey a cosmic joke, leading one to the conclusion life is a meaningless prank? Are we bound to a pointless meander through our brief existence, while God looks serenely on! Is the journey to end with one hanging on the horns of the dilemma: the world is never enough; only God can satisfy but we cannot reach him?

Come

One word that sums up the gospel of God tells us that this is not the case. The invitation Jesus Christ gave shouts loud, long and clear that this is not so too. That one word: “COME.” “Come unto to me,” Jesus said (Matthew 11.28-30). “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” (Isaiah 55.1) is God’s offer. It is estimated that 71% of the earth is water and it is essential to human existence. Jesus spoke of more then the properties of H2O, when he said, whoever drinks of this water shall thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst” (John 4.13, 14). The things of this world will always leave us unsatisfied and thirsting. But those who come by faith to Jesus, know a life-long quenching of their spiritual thirst, as they drink deeply of forgiveness of sin Jesus has purchased; as they sup sweetly on reconciliation with God, and as they find fulfilment, meaning and purpose in the Holy Spirit’s indwelling.

Seeking and finding

Jesus said he came to bring “life abundantly” to all who ask him for it (John 10.10). Augustine found this abundant life when he humbled himself under the mighty hand of God and trusted in the humble Jesus Christ. “… until I embraced the mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, who is a man, like them, and also rules as God overall things, blessed forever (Romans 9.5) … I was not humble enough to conceive of the humble Jesus Christ as my God, nor had I learnt what lesson his human weakness was meant to teach …” your Word (Jesus) … Raises up to himself all who subject themselves to him …” (7.18).

Jesus Christ is the pearl of greatest price, who when found makes one willing to give up all they have to possess the greatest treasure (Matthew 13.44-46). The world is never enough but in seeking “first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” one finds that “all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6.33).

Holes in our boat

Later, reflecting on his spiritual journey to faith in Christ, Augustine would write to God, “… Now that I had been redeemed by you … You had pierced our hearts with the arrows of your love … so we turned no more to worldly things … I had lost the ambition to make money, which had always helped me to bear the strain of teaching …” (9.2). Ultimately, it is only being overwhelmed with God’s love, as it is poured into their hearts (Romans 5.5), that Christians are willing and able to leave the love of the world behind to pursue the love of God.

Amazingly, reflecting on his spiritual journey, Augustine could thank God for his love to him in humbling his pride by punching holes in the boat of his worldly ambitions “… but you only derided these ambitions … the less you allowed me to find pleasure in anything that was not yourself, the greater, I know, was your goodness to me …” (6.6). It is only in casting oneself utterly upon Jesus that pride is subdued and “… at last, from weariness, they would cast themselves down upon his (Jesus) humanity, and when it rose they too would rise …” (7.18).

Who can sound the depths of God’s love that prises us away from the lesser good we worship to the one who is the greatest good! What mercy to punch holes in our worldly ambitions so we may find satisfaction in the Supreme Satisfier! What grace to turn our eyes from all that glitters in the world to the one who alone is the light of the world, Jesus.

“… Christ Jesus, my Helper and my Redeemer. How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light yet are hidden deeper than any secret of our hearts, you who surpass all honour though not in the eyes of men who see all honour in themselves … At last my mind was free from the gnawing anxieties of ambition and gain, from wallowing in filth and scratching the itching sore of lust. I began to talk to you freely, O Lord my God, my light, my wealth, my salvation …” (9.1)

(1) Works of B. Warfield, Vol 4, p119 on Augustine. (2) Never Enough, from the Greatest Showman

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When three wise monkeys are not enough

Augustine and the origin of evil (11)

According to Japanese mythology the three wise monkeys saw no evil, heard no evil and spoke no evil. Legend has it there was a fourth wise monkey, who did no evil, but it appears to have been lost to the group. Unfortunately, even a superficial view of the history of the human race tells us that three, even four, wise monkeys have not been enough to stem the flow of evil in our world!

The ubiquitous Wikipedia describes evil as being “defined by what it is not – the opposite or the absence of good.” Augustine penned a similar definition long before Wikipedia was a twinkle in its founder’s eye! “… I did not know that evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains …” (3.7). As a young man he was on a quest for truth. He had not yet come to faith in Jesus Christ, but was asking big questions: what was life’s purpose; what was the nature of God; Did God have a material body, and what was the origin of evil. He admits he was being moved from pillar to post in this search as he was “… Induced to give in to the sly arguments of fools who asked me what was the origin of evil …” and speaking of the contemporary understanding of many he wrote, “… I did not know that God is Spirit, a being without bulk and without limbs …” (3.7).

A caveat

As we look through another window into Augustine’s Confessions on the origin of evil, we do so with an important caveat. The Confessions are not an exhaustive theological study but are a narrative of how one man came to faith in Jesus Christ. A faith which grew and matured throughout his life, and so his thoughts in the Confessions are a snapshot of the journey in the development of his thinking.

Gordian’s Knot

The problem of evil, specifically its origin, has always been the Gordian knot in human understanding. Christian thinkers, and Augustine was one of the greatest of these, unlike atheists, face a real difficulty in approaching this matter. First, in accepting the existence of a divine being who is goodness itself, is incapable of sin and created all things good; they soon come face to face with the perplexing question of where did evil come from? “The reconciliation of the existence of evil with the goodness and holiness of a God infinite in his wisdom and power is one of the great problems of theism.” Brewster Porcella, Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Zondervan

Second, the Christian’s only trusted guide in this matter is the Bible. Yet, in its pages the mystery is deepened as scripture tells them that the most evil act in the history of the universe (the crucifixion of God’s Son) came about according to God’s predestined purpose, yet the blame for this act is placed firmly in the hands of those who carried it out (Acts 2.23; 4.27, 28). Christians do not then possess a silver sword to cut through the knotty problem of evil’s origin.

The fact is biblical Christianity, whilst recognising the existence of evil as a reality in the world, and proclaiming the only remedy for it, never reveals an explanation of its origin. Genesis 3 relates how it was brought into God’s perfect world when a fallen angel (Satan), contrived the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden. This is an account of how evil entered the world but is not an explanation of its origin!

The Manichees

On his journey to faith Augustine had to wrestle with this Gordian theological knot. For him the origin of evil was intricately bound with the nature of God. In book 7 of his Confessions he writes of his struggle to understand the true nature (he prefers to use the term substance) of God “… I tried to think of you as the supreme God, the only God, the true God. With all my heart I believed that you could never suffer decay or hurt or change …” (7.1) “… and believed you were free from corruption or mutation or any degree of change …” (7.3). It was the incorruptible and unchangeable nature of God that guarded Augustine’s thinking into evil’s origin.

This journey forced Augustine to find a credible answer to the Manichees, (*) whose teaching he once followed. They believed in a force which was in conflict with God. Along with others Augustine reasoned that if God was subject to corruption, this opposing force could do harm to who God is; but if God is unchangeably incorruptible it could not harm God and so was inconsequential to him (7.2). Augustine acknowledged that he “… firmly believed …” God was incorruptible and could not find any “… clear explanation of the cause of evil …” but could not accept “… any theory that would oblige me to believe that the immutable God was mutable. If I believed this, I should myself become a cause for evil, the very thing I was trying to discover …” (7.3).

Some said, “… We do evil because we choose to do so of our own free will …” (7.3). Was evil’s origin then to be found in the choices human beings make? Human choices can be evil but the original nature of human beings meant it was impossible for them to be the origin of evil. They are created beings whom God has brought into existence, and if that is true, it leads to an unanswerable conundrum: how can a God who is good create a creature capable of evil? “… Who made me? Surely it was my God, who is not only good but goodness itself. How then do I come to possesses a will to choose wrong and refuses to do good, thereby providing a just reason why I should be punished? Who put this will into me? Who sowed the seeds of bitterness in me when I was made by my God, who is sweetness itself?” (7.3)

Similarly Augustine could not accept the origin of evil being found in the existence of an evil being. “… If it was the devil who put it there, who made the devil? … how did he come to possess the wicked will … when the Creator, who is entirely good, made him a good Angel and nothing else? (Bk 7.3). The Evil One, and the spiritual hosts of wickedness who follow him (Ephesians 6.12), are not eternal beings but God’s created creatures, and were created good too. Evil’s origin cannot be attributed to the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2.2).

Beginning at the beginning

For Augustine the only place to commence an inquiry into evil’s origin was the substance of the incorruptible God. “… the starting point of my inquiry into the origin of evil, that is the origin of corruption, by which your substance could not be violated …” for “God and what he wills is good and he is himself the same good: whereas to be corrupted is not good. And you are never compelled, my God, to do or suffer anything against your will, because your will is not greater than your power … for the will and power of God are God himself … the substance which is God cannot be corruptible, since if it were, it could not be God …” (7.4).

Beginning here Augustine concluded that the comprehensive goodness that is God, who made all things good, means that no substance can be evil, “… for all that you have made is good, and there are no substances whatsoever that are not made by you ….” (7.12). Therefore, evil cannot be a substance and he goes on to boldly state “… For you (God) evil does not exist, and not only for you but for whole creation as well …” (7.13). In this he is not denying original sin, or the consequences of The Fall but speaking of God’s original intention.

An unexpected turn

Augustine now records an unexpected turn in his search, “… I was trying to find the origin of evil, But I was quite blind to the evil in my own method of research …” (7.5). Here is the humble confession of the Christian who has begun to approach evil’s origin in the light of who God is, and here is where a chink of light breaks into their understanding. Their faith teaches them that evil is not just out there in the world but evil is present in their own hearts and lives. The former is unexplainable but the latter can be seen, understood and is all too evident in the story of every single human being.

Here is where David could fall no further (Psalm 51.4, 5); here is where the apostle Paul’s religiosity died (Romans 7.9); here is where Peter fell before Jesus and asked him to leave (Luke 5.8); here is where the tax collector cried out “God be merciful to me a Sinner” (Luke 18.13). It’s that moment when we realise that three, even four, wise monkeys are not enough for us! It is sadly true of everyone of us that our propensity to evil is found in that we can observe evil unflinchingly, even in our own life; we can listen to evil and laugh at it; the bitterness of evil comes forth readily from our lips (James 3.5-12), and doing evil comes too naturally to us.

Christians do not dismiss the perplexing question of evil’s origin, but because the consequences of its reality are seen in their own evil hearts (Jeremiah 17.9; Mark 7.21), there is a far more relevant and urgent concern. This inquiry cannot be made without it getting up close and personal. It is not just objective but deeply subjective and personal for all of us. As Augustine went forward he did so with the growing realisation that his faculties and ability to sift and evaluate the evidence of evil’s origin were inadequate for the task, because he was tainted with evil.

Augustine was compelled to ask again, “… Where then is evil? What is its origin? How did it steal into the world? What is the root or seed from which it grew?” (7.5). The dilemma he faced, indeed the dilemma all face, who have known an Isaiah-like revelation (Isaiah 6) of God’s impregnable purity and holiness; is that if the universe which God created is a closed system, enveloped in God’s sovereignty, surrounded by God’s goodness, the glaring question for every human being is not so much scratching around for an answer to the mystery of evil’s origin, but how can we sinners stand before a holy God?

Viable options!

At this juncture Augustine considered a number of options: Perhaps there really is no such thing as evil, yet “… If so, why do we fear and guard against that which is not there?” Is evil to be explained as a lesser good that the good God made? Was there evil in the matter from which the world was made by God? “… These were then thoughts which I turned over and over in my unhappy mind, and my anxiety was all the more galling for the fear that death might come before I had found the truth …” (7.5).

Theodicy

Augustine’s willingness to face the personal implications of this issue in seeing he was unfit to objectively investigate it; and confront the far more urgent matter of being a sinner before a holy God, is a beautiful example of humble Christian reasoning. He acknowledges the perplexity this brought to him but affirms, “… my heart clung firmly to the faith in Christ your Son, our Lord and Saviour …” (Bk 7.5).

Evil’s origin possess a challenge to the Christian’s faith, yet their faith remains the bedrock from which they view the mystery of its origin. This is not sweeping under the carpet the complexity of evil’s reality or engaging in theodicy. It is rather seeking to build an understanding, which is compatible with God’s nature as revealed in his word, and acknowledging that the evil of their own hearts makes them central to this inquiry; but there is hope for all who trust Christ as their Saviour and Lord.

Humble faith

In faith Augustine confessed, “… I could find no solution to the problem … my ideas were always changing … but you never allowed them to sweep me away from the faith by which I believed you were, that your substance was unchangeable … I believed too that it was in Christ your Son, our Lord, and the holy scriptures … that you laid the path of my salvation … these beliefs remained intact and firmly rooted in my mind but was still burning with anxiety to find the source from which evil comes …” (7.7). Such a faith in Jesus is the light at the end of the tunnel in seeking to come to terms with the origin of evil, not in providing a competent answer but in one resting in God. “My heart is not lifted up … I do not occupy myself with things too great … but I have calmed and quietened my soul, like a weaned child with its mother” (Psalm 131).

The evil of pride

Some may see this as personal religious paranoia displacing intellectual rigour. Why should Augustine, or any Christian, put themselves in the centre of this inquiry? The answer is found in his description of the “… evil in my own method …” (7.5). Augustine was confronting his own pride. There is no greater evil than for one of God’s creatures, whose very existence is utterly dependent on God’s goodness, to allow pride to questioning God’s ways! Like every human being Augustine’s inquiry was hindered by his pride, which drove him to search for the unsearchable, rather than rest in the limits of what God has chosen to make known. His search was both driven and hindered by his pride.

The tragedy of sinful human beings who seek to find an answer to evil’s origin is that the very pride that drives them to believe they can find an answer, that tells them they have a right to an answer, is the pride that keeps them from seeing the evil of their own heart. Commentating of James 5.10 Calvin writes, “Augustine well observes somewhere, As a tree must strike deep roots downwards, that it may grow upwards, so every one who has not his soul fixed deep in humility, exalts himself to his own ruin.”

Augustine admits it was pride that kept him from seeing Jesus for who he was. “… I was not humble enough to conceive of the humble Jesus Christ as my God, nor had I learnt what lesson his human weakness was meant to teach us …” (7.18). Whilst initially helped by Platonist teaching Augustine eventually moved away from it due to their erroneous understanding on the incarnation of Jesus, as God’’s divine Son (7.19). Why? It was because the greatest act of evil in human history, was brought about by the greatest act of humility. Jesus willingness to humble himself to a death on a cross destroyed evil forever (Philippians 2.5-11). And it is the embracing by faith of Jesus marvellous act of condescension that can alone humble the evil of pride found in human beings. “… what a great act of mercy it was to show mankind the way of humility when the “Word was made flesh and came to dwell (John 1.14) among the men of this world …” (7.9).

In a beautiful passage writes of how the humble Jesus “… Raises up to himself all who subject themselves to him. From the clay of which we are made he built for himself a lonely house in this world below …” And to those who “… abandon themselves and come over to his side. He would cure them of the pride that swelled up in their hearts and would nurture love in its place, so that they should no longer stride ahead confident in themselves, but might realise their own weakness when at their feet they saw God himself, enfeebled by sharing this garment of our mortality. And at last, from weariness. They would cast themselves down upon his humanity, and when it rose they too would rise.” (7.18). It is the meek and humble Jesus who invites all to rest in him (Matthew 11.28-30).

Faith’s terminus!

If Augustine could not fathom the answer to evil’s origin he could see that wickedness is a perversion of our wills in turning away from the good God and his good will. “… When I asked myself what wickedness was, I saw that it was not a substance but perversion of the will when it turns aside from you, O God …” (7.16). For Augustine man’s evil was the misuse of his free will in deliberately turning away from God in his pride. In Augustine’s case this perversion of his will, was demonstrated in why he loved God but “… did not persist in the enjoyment of God. Your beauty drew me to you but soon I was dragged away from you by my own weight and in dismay I plunged into the habits of the world. The weight I carried was the habit of the flesh …” (7.17). Where could the weak Augustine find the means of gaining the strength he needed to keep enjoying God as he knew he should? “… I could not find the means until I embraced the Mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, who is a man, like them, and also rules as God over all things (1 Timothy 2.5; Romans 9.5) …” (7.18).

(*) The Manichees founder, Manes or Mani, saw himself as the Paraclete! He taught there were inconsistencies in the scriptures and it had a corrupt text; he denied the virgin birth and Jesus crucifixion. The flesh was tainted with evil and any association with it was unworthy of God. He taught there were two independent principles in the universe, described as good and evil. Adapted from R. S. Pine-Coffin, Confessions of Saint Augustine, Introduction.

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Is there a Back to the Future?

Augustine, a man for our times (10) – The mysterious dimension

Ok! I am happy to admit that the Back to the Future trilogy of films are amongst my favourites. Who doesn’t love the idea of time travel, but lets be careful not to interfere with the “space-time continuum!”

Time. We speak glibly about how it flies but never consider how we, like every human being, is caught up in its continuous flow! As the hymn writer so eloquently put it, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten as a dream dies at an opening day.Issac Watts 1674-1748

TIME OR TIME!

We give the impression we have little concern about time, living with the illusion that it will always be available to us, as Louis Armstrong sang, “We have all the time in the world …” We fool ourselves into thinking that we control it, yet in fact it surrounds our entire existence and our life is lived by its dictates. We are capable of recording time so accurately, but most never give it a second thought. One’s life is measured by time and we can never have enough of it, yet what we have we spend like there is no tomorrow, and once spent no one can ever get it back.

Time is the last great unexplored dimension, an unexplained mystery that humanity cannot fathom. Perhaps that is why people choose to make this mysterious dimension the void from which they develop their theories of life; trying to conjure answers to their questions from its fathomless depths. Others place their forlorn hopes in its deceptive hands, with a, “Don’t worry, time will tell!” Whilst many choose to make it the black hole of their understanding for the origins of the universe. The truth is that time is the great unknown, yet the ever present master of our lives.

The renowned English physicist Stephen Hawking wrote a book in 1988 that became a worldwide best seller entitled, A Brief History of Time; in which he investigated theoretical cosmology. He was neither the first, nor will he be the last, to consider the mystery of time. Over 1500 years before Augustine wrote,“… Time never stands still, nor does it idly pass without effect upon our feelings or fail to work its wonders on the mind …” (4.8)

One could say Augustine was the master of the under-statement in respect to time in his Confessions when he wrote, “… There are many things which I do not set down in this book, since I am pressed for time …” (9.8). One wonders how far would his thoughts have roamed if he had more leisure! But he did take “TIME” to consider the matter of time!

As a Christian who believed it was possible to inherit never-ending life in time, in contrast to Stephen Hawking , who concluded that we can view the universe without God, Augustine wrote his God was “… the only eternal being, (who) did not begin to work after countless ages of time had elapsed, because no age of time, past or still to come, could either come or go if it were not that you abide forever and cause time to come and go …” (7.15).

TIME LORD

The fictional character Dr Who may well be called the Time Lord but Augustine saw God as the Lord of Time, the sovereign Creator and ruler of time. God was “… outside of time in eternity …” (11.1) and therefore “ … No moment of time passes except by your will. Grant me some part of it for meditation on the secrets of your law …” (11.2).

As much as Stephen Hawking’s theory of time is impersonal, cold, and without hope. As with a whimper, lost in the vast universe, it cries out, “I am master of my own fate: I am the captain of my own soul.” In contrast Augustine’s Christian understating of time is full of hope, warmth, comfort and is immensely personal in its relational foundation. It does not see time as our own but rather considers us as stewards of the gift of time God created and gave to us. A gift given for us to know God and to prepare to be with God in eternity. Hence, the Bible’s appeal to the young in the light of their impending old age, “remember your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12.1)

IN THE BEGINNING

Book 11 of the Confessions begins a consideration of Genesis 1.1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Augustine takes up the premise that as the Creator of all things God created time from his eternity. Indeed he begins by pointing out the error of those who ask what God was doing before he created heaven and earth? He sees this question as superfluous because the eternal God who made everything created time “… you are the Maker of all time … for time could not elapse before you made it …” (11.13). It is true to say that, “… when you had not made anything, there was no time, because time itself was of your making. And no time is co-eternal with you because you never change …” (10.14).

Eternity, which is an “ … ever-ending present …” (Psalm 102.27) means that God is before and after all time, and God’s “… today is eternity …” for God’s “… years are one day, yet your day does not come daily but is always today, because your today does not give place to any tomorrow nor take the place of any yesterday …” In considering the relationship of time to God its Creator, Augustine marvels at the wonder of the incarnation. When the Son of God, Jesus Christ, eternally begotten by the Father, was born into time (Psalm 2.7). The second person of the Trinity, co-eternal with God, knew a moment in time when he was born into that which he had created (11.13).

In his book Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis sought to explain God’s eternity to time by speaking of a short straight line drawn on a blank sheet of paper. God is “the whole page on which the line is drawn.” As creatures we can only come to parts of the line one step at a time, for we must leave one point before we get to another point. In contrast God is outside, above, around and contains the whole line of time. P 144

Before one dismisses Augustine, or Lewis’ example, as that belonging to religious simpletons, who were anti-science; burying their heads in the sand, which is God, in refusing to explore the potential of time. It is worth noting that such men were not brushing aside scientific facts but were reasoning as to what the facts that we possess should lead us to conclude. They were interested about how the nuts and bolts of the universe fitted together and worked, but profoundly believed these nuts and bolts had a purpose too.

Augustine gave ample thought to exploring time. He asks, “… What then is time?” A question to which there can be “… no quick and easy answer, for it is no simple matter to understand what it is, let alone find out words to explain it … ” And surely with a touch of irony he further says, “… I know well enough what it is, providing nobody ask me … if I try to explain, I am baffled …” (11.14). Yet, in common with other Christian thinkers, Augustine sought to understand time in the light of the God who had revealed himself in the scriptures. He saw the Bible as a framework, a scaffolding of the Creator’s making, from which one should begin to understand and explore the universe.

PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE

We human beings speak readily of time, referring to past, present and future time. Augustine reasons that one can only explain time by its state of not being! “… if nothing passed, there would be no past time; if nothing were going to happen, there would be no future time; and if nothing were, there would be no present time …” (11.14).

Admitting that human beings are aware of periods of time and can compare one to another, yet they can only be sure of the measure of time while it is passing. Augustine is led to ask the questions, How long is time? How long is past time? A long time ago or a long time in occurring? Is our present century a long time? Or our present year? Or the hour, minute, second we live in? He concludes, “… In fact the only time that can be called present is an instant …” (11.15).

FUTURE & PAST

Augustine is brave enough to admit that “… these are tentative theories, Father, not downright assertions …” (11.17). Yet, if we only see time as the present, how are we to understand future and past time? One can speak of future time from what is already present, for one can predict the sun rising by watching the dawning of a new day. But how is it in the Bible “… the prophets see the future, if there is not yet a future to be seen?” And as for the past how can people describe it if they are not aware of it! (11.17).

In exploring past and future time further he asks that God will not allow him to become confused (11.18). How do we then understand future and past time? He concludes that they only are by being present! On the one hand regarding future time for Christians the Bible’s prophetic foundation is explained by the eternity of its divine author. As the “… Ruler of all that you have created …” God can reveal the future to the prophets but Augustine cannot understand how God does this, except God, who is the “… sweet Light of my soul …” grant “… grace to see …” (11.19). The evidence of the fulfilment of prophecy in history is one of the foundational arguments to the authenticity of the Bible’s inspiration. And what a challenge it is to non-Christians to refute it! That future events can be accurately foretold, what does that say about the relationship of time to God! On the other hand concerning past time he believes it exists because “… our memory are pictures of those facts …” (11.18). We know past time by what we remember or by what others have recorded for us to remember, and so it stays “alive” in the pictures of our memory.

MEASURING TIME

Augustine goes to great lengths to show that whilst he is happy to speak of past, present and future time, yet in reality past and future do not exist, only the present (11.20). “… We measure time as it passes …” (11.21), but where does it come from? It comes out of “… what does not yet exist, passing through what has no duration, moving onto what no longer exists …” Yet, we need some measure by which time can be measured!

This is a problem! One ‘… so familiar but yet so mysterious …” Whilst acknowledging that time is related to the movement of the planets, quoting Joshua 10.13 he deduces that time is more than the movement of the planets (11.23, 24). He knows the answer is to be searched for in scriptures that reveal God and so he pleads. “through Christ I beseech you … let your mercy give me light …” (11.22). This is the Jesus who confounded his contemporaries by claiming, “before Abraham was I AM” (John 8.58). The carpenter from Nazareth, who was no more than 32 years old, claimed he was before Abraham, who lived nearly two millennia before him! In fact he’s hearers would have pondered at his saying “I AM.” A play on the Hebrew word for the divine name, Yahweh (Jehovah).

Throughout his search Augustine is asking questions which cannot be fully answered. In order to tackle such imponderables he is constantly bringing his thinking back to who God is and what God has done. He is coming back to the scaffolding, the framework of God’s revelation, from which he can explore the mysteries of the universe and begin to find answers to some of them. This is not resting in ignorance but is rather seeking to explore the universe in the light of its Maker. It is the humble confession of this man, who possessed a towering intellect, that there was a limit to his understanding and he was dependent upon God’s revealed wisdom.

TIME’S MYSTERY

The final step in his wrestling with understanding the mystery of time was a consideration of how long it takes sound to travel. Having considered measuring time by reciting a phrase and then by reading a psalm, he concludes that they are measured in the mind, which performs three functions: “… expectation, attention and memory. The future which it expects, passes through the present, to which it attends, into the past, which it remembers …” (11.27, 28). In other words creatures who are made in time, to live in time, are able to understand, to a degree, the measure of time, only in as far as their finite minds allow them to. The mystery of time will always remain beyond them. This is both a gift of God’s grace and an act of God’s mercy, to those who embrace it. Whilst our time is a gift of God’s grace, it is a mercy of God that we do not have to lose our way in searching for an answer to the mystery of time that God has created for us to dwell in.

ETERNITY IN TIME

Augustine’s concern was to explore the relation of time and eternity in light of the beginning of creation. Yet, he cannot approach this matter, or any other, without “… the person of Christ my Lord … Mediator …” (11.29). This is because as a Christian Augustine believed there is no place in the history of time where faith marvels at the mystery of eternity and time being brought together by the wisdom of God, as what occurred at Calvary. At a definite time and in a certain place, he who was outside of time, the eternal Son of God, the Lord of time, suffered for a measure of time on an accursed Roman gibbet; which we count as six hours of time. How does one equate a quarter of a day with eternity! Yet, in the wisdom of God, the eternal purpose of the Triune God was brought to fruition in time, and there eternal suffering, punishment and atonement in time was accomplished. Swallowed up in time was the eternal wrath of God against sin, and eternal salvation sprang forth in time to the everlasting praise of the Triune God, as the eternal Son, Jesus Christ, suffered on a cross. He did so for there was no other way for sin to be expiated and God’s wrath propitiated.

C. S. Lewis addressed the illusion of time, sin and Christ’s atonement in The Problem of Pain. “We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. I have heard others, and I have heard myself, recounting cruelties and falsehoods committed in childhood as if they were no concern of the present speaker’s, and even with laughter. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Christ.” C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

CONCLUSION

It is with great integrity and honesty that Augustine admits he has not found adequate answers. In the mercy of God he draws his exploration to a close, for he will not waste further time in his life on “… distractions …” (11.29), by chasing the illusion of an answer to the mystery of time. He does not wish to hear that gentle rebuke of God to one who sought to find answers to the nature of suffering in the world: “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge …” (Job 38.2).

Augustine chooses rather to rest in the sweet joy of God’s love (Psalm 63.3). This is not by way of defeatist despair, or failure of intellectual courage. No! Finding himself at that juncture of where faith and reason have brought him, it is faith that goes forward to where intellect can begin to understand but not truly grasp. In doing so he leaves behind the limits of his own reasoning and rests in the infinite knowledge and wisdom of God.

God’s understanding knows and fore knows all that has occurred, all that is occurring, and all that shall yet occur. Such a mind cannot be compared to a person’s ability to know and recite a psalm (11.28). God is “… eternally without change, the true Creator of minds … you are supreme above all, yet your dwelling is in the humble of heart …” (11.31). It was with a humble faith in Christ that Augustine bowed before the wonder of “Christ in him, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1.27).

Let Augustines own words relate his conclusions: “… You, my Father, are eternal. But I am divided between time gone by and time to come, and its course is a mystery to me …” (11.29). Let men see and understand that there “… cannot possibly be time without creation … that before all time began you are the eternal Creator of all time, and that no time or created thing is co-eternal with you, even if any created thing is outside of time …” (11.30).

Let us hear the end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

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If the hat fits wear it!

Augustine, a man for times (9) A heart for Christian ministry

There are many hats that could be hung on Augustine’s peg: writer, theologian, thinker, but the one that fits him best is that of Christian pastor. He saw himself first and foremost as an under-shepherd to the flock of Jesus. This fact is evident in the opening paragraphs of book 11 of his Confessions. (All quotes below are from Bk 11.1, 2, unless stated)

The last three books of the Confessions (Ch. 11-13) move from an autobiographical account to an exploration of Genesis 1. There has been much speculation as to why Augustine chose to turn from his personal testimony of God’s dealings with him to biblical exposition. Whatever the reason may have been, it is apparent that he begins these last three books with a deep burden concerning his responsibility as a Christian minister (2 Corinthians 11.28).

The opening two sections of book 11 are a plea to God for help in understanding scripture, so that he may fulfil this role. In doing so Augustine gives a brief glimpse into the heart of the pastor he was and how he perceives the Christian ministry. They are not extensive comments but the spirit in which they are written is an exquisite snapshot into his priorities as a Christian minister.

COMMUNION

Augustine commences by reminding God that his treatise was written in response to the sovereign initiative of God in bringing him into “the fellowship of his Son” (1 Corinthians 1.9)“… I have laid this long account to you, because you first willed that I should confess to you, O Lord my God, for you are gracious, and your mercy endures forever.” Communion with God, which he frequently describes as “sweetness,” was the heartbeat of his life. The pleasure and delight he had in serving his God in ministry was only surpassed by the joy of knowing God (Jeremiah 9.23, 24). Fellowship with God was the fountainhead from which Augustine’s ministry flowed. For any Christian minister this is a vital starting point. It is a pertinent reminder that no man in ministry is ever useful beyond the depth of his own personal walk and fellowship with his God. Neither is ministry sustainable without a man having his heart open to his God day by day.

It is a communion that reflected an open heartedness and intimacy in Augustine’s relationship with his God. How comfortable and at home he is in telling his sovereign God what he knows his omniscient God already knows! This familiarity and confidence in being open with his God and Father was the reservoir from which his ministry was supplied. Ministerial stewardship is ultimately more than fulfilling a task faithfully, and the nature of a man’s stewardship is determined by the relationship he keeps and enjoys with his Master.

A MINISTRY OF MERCY

The foundation of this communion was woven together by Augustine’s deep sense of God’s mercy in his salvation. A mercy made all the more sweeter by the recognition that salvation was undeserved and the sole province of God’s grace. It had overcome his sinful heart, enabling him to draw near to God and he had found that, “… by confessing our own miserable state and acknowledging your mercy toward us we open our hearts to you …” Mercy had brought him to faith and repentance; he had a growing appreciation of it breadth and depths in his life, and was increasingly aware he had a continual need to be reliant upon it. Christians are those who in faith and live by the mantra, “salvation is of the Lord and it is the Lord’s mercy that we are not daily consumed” (Jonah 2.9; Lamentations 3.22). For as one has observed salvation is “the whole gift of the mercy of God.” (C. Bridges Psalm 119.42)

This deep, personal experience of God’s mercy led Augustine to firmly believe that fruitful, Christ-like ministry sprung from the same source. This was not pietistic lip service but a profound commitment, arising from a Spirit induced conviction, of the need to be ever dependent on drawing near to God in faith (Hebrews 4.12; 10.22). If, as a Christian, Augustine lived in and by God’s mercy (Psalm 51.1). It had brought salvation to him; continued mercy ensured his sanctification; and mercy alone, therefore, had to be relied upon to enable him to fulfil a Christ-like ministry.

This can be seen from Augustine’s confidence in pleading with God in prayer. God’s mercy was vouchsafed in Jesus Christ as a just God and Saviour, and it endures forever (Isaiah 45.21; Psalm 118.1). He would pray, “… O Lord. Have mercy on me … listen to my soul as it cries out to you …” And as a pastor he prayed that God would make his ministrations a conduit by which God’s mercy would be a blessing to others (Psalm 51.12, 13). “… O Lord, listen to my prayer. In your mercy, grant what I desire, for it is not for myself alone that I so ardently desire it: I wish also that it may serve the love I bear to others …”

PREPARATION FOR MINISTRY

In considering his ministerial story Augustine tells God he would not be able to put down on paper, “… all the means you used to make of me a preacher of your word and minister of your sacrament to your people. When shall I be able to tell you how you urged me, how you filled me with fear, how you consoled and guided me?” One cannot but note Augustine’s clear conviction that God had procured, “… all the means …” in preparing him for ministry.

It becomes evident as one reads the Confessions that he was increasingly aware of the excruciatingly detailed and delicate work of God’s Spirit in a panoramic work of providence, that developed his character and gifts through his experience in life. As the ascended Christ gives the gifts of pastors and teachers to his church (Ephesians 4.8-11), so he is committed to equipping them. This does not exclude the role of the church in seeking and preparing men for ministry (2 Timothy 2.2), but is rather to be understood as part and parcel of that process.

IF THE HAT FITS

It is fascinating to consider that as with John Calvin and John Knox, Augustine was very reticent to enter into ministerial life. But in 391 AD it was “thrust upon him against his will …” Warfield, Works Vol 4 p230 Augustine was convinced that a calling into Christian ministry is no light matter.It is neither trite or insignificant as a maxim to say that “Only God can make a minister of the gospel.” Such men are not only called in their ministries to a life-long learning curve in walking with God, but God has been shaping their life for that task. Ministry should not be a man’s whim, fancy or hobby. Neither is the making of a minister an overnight matter! It is a bigger job than the proverbial Rome not built in a day! As right and essential as it is, three years (or more) in seminary does not make a minister of the gospel. It does not begin with an individual’s longing, although that is necessary. And, although desirable, there is more involved than a group of believers recognising a man has gifts for the work of ministry. But if the hat fits a man must be ready to wear it (1 Timothy 3.1)! Augustine grew to understand that God had fitted him to wear the hat of pastor amongst the flock, becoming aware too of the debt to God’s grace that all who are called to ministry owe. “To me who am the least of all the saints, this grace given, that I should preach amongst the gentles the unsearchable riches of Christ …” (Ephesians 3.8).

MINISTRY & TIME

One aspect of his conviction of God’s sovereign oversight in leading him into ministry that Augustine was conscious of was the significance of time. It’s right use lay heavy upon him. “… Every particle of sand in the glass of time is precious to me …” He saw time of inestimable value, a gift God allotted to him, “… I do not wish to allow my time to slip away by undertaking any other task when I am free of the necessity of caring for my bodily needs …”

The time allotted to everyone of God’s creatures is a precious commodity and Christians are called upon to not waste it but rather to buy it back (Ephesians 5.16). The prospect of eternity is meant to bring their time here on earth into sharp focus! And if Christians are called to redeem the time, the work of ministry especially requires a buying back of time. That is a call to prioritising one’s life through disciplining one’s daily activities. It is an ever-present challenge in the walk of faith to keep before one the lateness of the hour, the urgency of the moment and the shortness of time given to us.

Augustine daily took up the challenge of prioritising his life in order to utilise his gift of time. This did not exclude the necessity of other matters, “… of caring for my bodily needs…” but he understood the prime concern of the minister’s calling was to use God’s gift of time to engage with the scriptures, “… No moment of time passes except by your will. Grant me some part of it for meditation on the secrets of your law …”

MEDITATION

For Augustine this prioritising led to a simple equation for his daily living: time redeemed was an opportunity to meditate upon God’s word, the fruit of which was to be used in ministry. In a beautiful analogy he writes of the Christian as a deer, munching upon the forest, that is God’s word, “… the hidden mysteries … written down … nor is this forest without its deer, which repair to it and there refresh themselves, roaming at will and browsing on its pastures and lying there to chew the cud …” (Psalm 29.9). O Lord, perfect your work in me. Open to me the pages of your book … let me drink you in and contemplate of your law (Ps. 119.18) …”

This was the minister’s main calling (Acts 6.4; 1 Timothy 4.12-16). One may admire, even envy, Augustine’s towering intellect, but to see it as the source of his great usefulness in ministry, would be a mistake. Rather it was the outflowing of his mediation of God in his word that brought fruitfulness to the church.

However, Augustine understood mediation alone was not sufficient. He was all too aware that his contemplations needed a spark of life that had to come from outside of his own faculties, for without the aid of God’s Spirit and prayer they would come to an unproductive end. This is why in sincerity of heart Augustine asked God to give him understanding of his word, “… O Lord, have mercy on me and grant what I desire … I stand before your mercy, that I should find grace in your sight, so that the hidden meaning of your words may be revealed to me. Open your door to my knocking …” And he built this plea upon the all-prevailing name of his Son, Jesus. This I beg through Jesus Christ, your Son, the man of your right hand, the Son of Man, the mediator between yourself and us. He is the one whom you sent to find us when we were not looking for you, and you sent him to find us so that we should look for you …”

WHAT’S AMISS!

This desire to learn from God’s word led Augustine to experience a strange dilemma, “… I have long been burning with a desire to contemplate your law (Ps 119.18) …” But immediately goes on to write, “… and confess to you both what I know of it and where my knowledge fails; how Far the first gleams of your light have illuminated me and how dense my darkness still remains and must remain, until my weakness is swallowed up in your strength …”

Augustine, as with all believers, found that once the Spirit has begun to open the Word to him there was an alluring, seeming frustrating experience. Illuminated by the Spirit, his understanding of scripture grew, but so too did a deepening realisation of how imperfect his understanding of it was! To use an analogy, he saw “people as trees walking !” (Mark 8.24). This is akin to what Jesus spoke of concerning those who hunger and thirst after righteousness being satisfied (Matthew 5.6, 7). The longing is always accompanied by a satisfaction unfulfilled, and yet, a longing for more.

Think about this! The man who is considered one the the greatest minds in the history of Western thinking, one of the great teachers in the church, feels his sense of inadequacy in his knowledge of God! “… the first gleams of your light have illuminated me and how dense my darkness still remains and must remain, until my weakness is swallowed up in your strength …” The depths of Augustine’s spirituality is seen in that he knows what he lacks! An absolute essential for ministry is a sense of one’s inadequacy for the task. An inadequacy that is especially linked to one’s knowledge of the God one serves.

Conviction of calling goes hand in hand with this conviction of inadequacy. They are vital partners in a pastor’s calling, for there is a paradigm that determines the usefulness of a man’s ministry. It consists of him knowing the confines of what he has already attained to in the knowledge of Christ; joined to his appreciation of what he lacks in his growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus; and a humble belief that, in spite of this, in fact because of this! God is at work in him and through his ministry (1 Corinthians 8.2, 3; Philippians 3.7-9; 2 Peter 3.18). For all ministers have “this treasure in jars of clay, that the excellence of the power may be of God” (2 Corinthians 4.7).

LOVE FOR THE SHEEP

I had the immense privilege of being trained for ministry by dear men who would have come out of a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist background. One of them when dealing with pastoral theology and the need for the pastor to love the flock was fond of saying, “the sheep do not expect the shepherd to bite!” “… O Lord, listen to my prayer. In your mercy, grant what I desire, for it is not for myself alone that I so ardently desire it: I wish also that it may serve the love I bear to others …” Augustine requests the Spirit’s insight into his authorship of the bible in order to bring God’s truth to his church. He understood that the privilege he had of spending time in the scriptures was to be turned into a ministry of love in serving God’s sheep. With all sincerity of heart Augustine could tell his God that he, his servant, wanted his merciful Heavenly Father to open his word to him so that he could feed his people.

In humble assurance of God’s knowledge of his motives and under the glare of his omniscience Augustine wrote, “… You see in my heart that this is true … this longing of mine does not come from a desire for earthly things, for gold and silver … worldly honours … sensual powers …” (Matthew 6.33).

Such honesty flows from one who rests confident in God’s grace alone. Absurd as it may be to many, yet the Christian, and especially should a pastor, know that whatever they can give to the Lord in service is only that which the Lord has first given to them! In this is human pride humbled and God’s grace exalted! “… Let me offer you in sacrifice the service of my thoughts and my tongue, but first give me what I may offer to you. For I a needy and poor but you care for us, yet are free from care for yourself …”

GIFT OF TONGUE

Assured of his need of mercy, committed to redeem the time to mediate on the word, love for the flock, led Augustine to a plea for an essential tool for fruitful ministry. It was for the gift of utterance. The bridge between what a man may know and his being able to communicate it to others is not spanned effectively by intellectual prowess alone! A man has to have the gift of being able to be in tune with his hearers wave lengths. Paul knew that and asked people to pray earnestly for him to have it (Ephesians 6.19). Augustine followed his example. “… Circumcise the lips of my mind and my mouth. Purify them of all rash speech and falsehood. Let your scriptures be my chaste delight. Let me not deceive myself in them nor deceive others about them … have mercy on me O Lord …”

And so turning to Genesis and its human author Moses, whom Augustine cannot now ask questions of, he asks for grace to understand Moses words as God granted Moses the grace to speak them. And so his study of Genesis 1.1 begins! “… Let me hear and understand the meaning of your words: “In the beginning you made heaven and earth” (Genesis 1.1) …” (11.3)

 

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“My cup runs over”

Augustine a man for our times – The inexhaustible treasure of God’s mercy (8)

They say that we are all either a half empty or half full glass type of person? A lot depends on our personality of course but it does have an affect on how we view things in life. In contemplating the life of faith in God that David led he wrote, “My cup runs over.” When it came to God and his dealings with him in his life David was more than a half full sort of guy. His life cup overflowed with the experience of his relationship with God: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life …” (Psalm 23.6).

Another Christian who knew his cup overrun with God’s goodness was Augustine. In his Confessions he described his faith communion with God in Christ as “… sweetness …” (see article (2) on the sweetness of God) There is a compatriot heart-warming thread that runs through the Confessions with delightful frequency concerning his faith communion, and that is his testimony to God’s “mercy.”

These two themes explain why Augustine saw his Confessions as a love letter written in response to the love of God that had captured his heart; “ … O love ever burning, never quenched. O love, my God, set me on fire with your love!” (10.29). “… I write this book for love of your love …” (11.1). The experience of God’s love shed abroad in his heart (Romans 5.5), led to a sweet communion with God, that was entirely dependent on God’s grace, and to a fellowship with God that opened Augustine’s understanding to the quintessential experience the Christian knows of God’s abundant merciful dealings with them.

MERCY

Mercy is hardly a word in everyday parlance. We speak of love, kindness and even forgiveness, but mercy is a far less common term. As a humanitarian trait it may be described as leniency, clemency or compassion. But it is mercy as a divine attribute and prerogative that captured Augustines understanding, for he believed God was “… utmost in goodness, mightiest and all-powerful, most merciful and most just …” (1.4). And he came to keenly feel his need of God’s mercy, “… dust and ashes that I am, let me appeal to your pity, since it is to you in your mercy that I speak …” (1.6).

MERCY MISUNDERSTOOD

What led Augustine to write, “… our only hope, our only confidence, the only firm promise that we have is your mercy …” (10.32)? There is no truth about God in which humans – sinners and even saints! – can be so wrong in their thinking about God’s mercy and how he dispenses it. The idea, so dear to our hearts, that we can bargain with God over his mercy, or we can earn God’s mercy, is more antithetical to who God is, than light is to darkness. Thank God that his thoughts are so contrary to ours regarding the manner in which he distributes his mercy (Isaiah 55.8, 9).

The sinful recipients of God’s mercy can choose to challenge or deny the reality of it; question the consistency of it and fail to acknowledge God’s mercies as the source of their very existence (Lamentations 3.22, 23). Yet, in the pages of scripture God is revealed as merciful and sovereign in the exercise of his mercy (Exodus 20.6; 33.19). As one modern writer put it, “… God is the Father of a variety of mercies. There is no sin or misery but God has a mercy for it. He has a multitude of mercies of every kind.” (D. Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly p 131)

Christians are called to “glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:9) because they enjoy the experience of God’s mercy in their life. The question is how did Augustine, come to that, how does any Christian, come to embrace God’s mercy as overflowing in their life?

GLORY OF MERCY

First, God reveals himself as merciful. The foundation and framework of the created universe are a declaration of God’s mercy. God proclaims the glory of his mercy. When Moses asked God to show him his glory (Exodus 33.18) in an act of divine condescension God hides Moses in the cleft of a rock and passes by in all his glory. What does God reveal about his glory? “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abounding in goodness and truth” (Exodus 34.7). God’s being is glorious but if one may say so, to those in sin’s darkness, grace and mercy shine brightest in the array of God’s glorious attributes!

There is, therefore, no true knowledge of God that does not understand that mercy is a principle attribute of his being; he is a merciful God (Exodus 20.6). In being merciful God is being who he is: God. And in showering his mercy upon us God is glorifying himself. Christianity teaches that God’s mercy is over all his works, to all his creatures without discrimination, and endures forever (Psalm 145.9; Ps 136). Yet, it is the special blessing of God’s people in Christ to know the experience of this mercy.

PROMISE OF MERCY

It would be a sad and tragic mistake, therefore, to assume that as a Christian Augustine was simply theoretically crossing theological “T’s” and dotting “I’s” in peppering his reflections of God’s dealings with him in mercy. No! In revealing himself as merciful God promises to show mercy.

The Christian is one who has not only begun to appreciate God is merciful but have had the eyes of their understanding opened to the Bible’s revelation that God promises mercy to those who seek him. This is why Augustine celebrates his hope in divine mercy. “ … There is no hope for me except in your mercy …” (10.29). This hope in God’s mercy is built upon faith in God’s promises. A Christian is one who having embraced God’s promises in Christ by faith experiences the reality of mercy that springs forth from the unfathomable depths of God’s love, which led Augustine to confess, “… My only hope is in your boundless mercy …” (10.35).

GRACE & MERCY

Benjamin Warfield, opens up how Augustine understood Christians embrace the promises of God’s mercy in his essay on Augustine (Works Vol 4 p113). He wrote “ … The great contribution which Augustine has made to the world’s life and thought is embodied in the theology of grace which he has presented …” (Works Vol 4 p 128). For Augustine God’s grace formed the foundation of his understanding of biblical Christianity. He came to see that in contrast to the flakey hope in human merit as a foundation for approaching God, grace and mercy combine in producing “a mood of assured trust in the mercy of a gracious God and is substituted as the spring of Christian life … recalling man from all dependence on his own powers or merits, casting him decisively on the grace of God alone for his salvation …” (Vol 4 works p128). “Assured trust …” comes from believing and embracing God’s promises.

In the New Testament grace and mercy are often mentioned together in opening salutations (1 Tim 1.2; 2 Tim 1.1; Titus 1.4), for God’s mercy, joined with God’s grace, reach their fullest potential in a person’s life when they trust in Christ. Authentic Christianity is then more than a curt nod to tradition. It is a belief and an experience of God’s mercy (Luke 18.13, 14), built upon God’s promises, that flows from God’s grace alone. Augustine’s persistent references to God’s merciful dealings with him was a joyful experimental reality of a life built upon God’s grace. “… You are merciful: I have need of your mercy …” (10.28).

FATHER OF MERCIES

Paul described the Christian’s intimate relationship with God in mercy as knowing God as the “Father of all mercies” (2 Corinthians 1.3). For the apostle it was a fundamental truth that God is the living source of every mercy, given with a loving familiarity that only a perfect Heavenly Father can possess. As with all his attributes God is perfect in mercy, for just as a father is reflected in his child – “Oh, he does look like his dad!” – so God’s mercies are a reflection of him being a loving Father.

As one of his moral attributes, mercy is a particular manifestation of God’s love and goodness expressed to his creation in general but to his people in Christ in particular. As the Father of all people by creation, of his own free will and disposition, he showers mercies on all without favouritism (Mathew 5.45). This is why as a communicable attribute of God, human beings made in God’s image are capable, howbeit imperfectly and inconsistently, of reflecting the mercy of God (Micah 6.8). Yet, Jesus taught his people particularly that as the recipients of God’s special mercy in Christ they are to be merciful because their Father is merciful (Matthew 5.6, 7).

GOD’S GREATEST MERCY

For Augustine God’s supreme mercy to humanity; a mercy that vouchsafed his patience in continuing to show mercy to humankind, was in sending forth his Son into the world as the Saviour. “… What a great act of your mercy it was to show mankind the way of humility when the “Word was made flesh (John 1.14) and came to dwell among men in the world …” (7.9).

“But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NIV).

Paul describes the Christian’s experience of God in Christ as one which is “rich in mercy”  (Ephesians 2.4). These riches flow from God, who in mercy dealt with the eternal tension that lies at the very heart of God’s relationship with humanity in the universe he created for them. It is the tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy. How can God be both just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus (Romans 3.26)? The crucifixion of Jesus is the central point of human history where God’s justice was satisfied and God’s mercy was poured out, when the Son whom the Father sent died on the cross.

It was this “… great act of mercy …” (7.9) that Augustine was captured by. A deep, satisfying experience of trusting in God’s loving mercy in Jesus that having known, one cannot live without! Summed up so beautiful in “I greet thee who my sure Redeemer art.”

Thou are the King of mercy and of grace, reigning omnipotent in every place … Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness, no harshness hast thou, and no bitterness; O grant to us the grace we find in thee … Strasbourg Psalter 1545

What tragedy befalls sinful human beings in their pride, arrogance and rebellion, when they turn their backs on the God who is “rich in mercy!”

What astounded Augustine about God’s love for the world in sending forth his Son was that he was sent in response to those who had deliberately shut their ears to the cries of creation to worship God. “… if it were not for your mercy, heaven and earth would cry your praises to deaf ears …” (10.6).

GOD’S MERCY CHANGES

There is no place where grace and mercy shine brighter than in Christian conversion (Ephesians 2.8-10), which is a personal and radical experience of change. Augustine understood that the sweetness of God’s mercy in conversion was “… that you are merciful I know, for you have begun to change me …” (10.36). This was a Spirit-wrought change he described as being “… cured of the desire to assert my claims of liberty … cured my pride … and tamed my neck to your yoke …” (10.36).

The yoke Augustine refers to is the one Jesus calls his followers to take up and wear (Mathew 11.28-30). Taking up this yoke is to know change through an exchange. The weary and heavy laden exchange their burdens as they give them to Jesus, and just as King Jesus promised, in exchange he gives the change of rest to their souls, for his yoke is “light” to bear.

The true depths of God’s grace and mercy is seen in that none can come by faith to take up the easy yoke of the meek and humble Jesus unless first their sinful pride is subdued. “… It pleased you to transform all that was misshapen in me … giving me no peace until the eye of my soul could discern you without mistake … under the secret touch of your healing hand my swelling pride subsided …” (7.8).

SEEKING AND FINDING

The macro nature of grace and the micro nature of mercy is seen in that people come to embrace God’s promises by faith in Christ in a diversity of ways. Some seem to fall into the discovery of Christianity, whilst not seeking it; others, like Augustine, were desperately searching (Matthew 13.44, 45). He had a deep longing for “truth,” as he looked for meaning in life. He sought it in the teaching of the Manichees, before coming to faith in Christ. Reflecting on this after his conversion he discerned the mercy of God in not leaving him satisfied with a Manichees worldview but led him to the one who is the “truth” (John 14.6). “… My God you are truth … these stages of my pitiful fall into the depths of hell, as I struggled and strained for lack of truth. My God, you had mercy on me even before I confessed to you …” (3.6).

He knew his desire to know more of his God was dependent on God revealing himself and so pleaded, “… O Lord in your mercy give me light …” (8.9). And as grace strengthened his belief in his God, he confessed,“… Who am I? What kind of man am I? What evil have I not done … or spoken of? But you O Lord are good. You are merciful …” (9.1).

PAST MERCIES

“His love in times past, forbids me to think, he’ll leave me at last in trouble to sink.”

It was in seeking God by faith in Jesus and realising that God’s mercy wrought a radical change in him, that led Augustine to a growing appreciation of God’s patience with him in his rebellious life before conversion. “… I call upon you, O God, my mercy, who made me and did not forget me when I forgot you …” (13.1)

Reflecting on his pre-conversion life in Carthage he recalls, “… I muddied the stream of friendship with the filth of lewdness and clouded its clear waters with hell’s black river of lust …” Yet, further records, “… my God, my God of mercy, how good you were to me, for you mixed much bitterness in the cup of my pleasures …” (3.1) “ … your mercy hovered faithfully about me. I exhausted myself in depravity … how infinite is your mercy, my God …” (3.3).

Such an appreciation is not natural to us but is one of the deep profound ministries of God’s Spirit in the work of sanctification in a believer’s life. God’s grace opens their mind to become captivated by the magnificent patience of God’s mercy towards them. It leads to an ever deeper personal cherishing of the depths of God’s mercy, which is why Augustine wrote,“… O most merciful Lord, did you not forgive me this sin and remit my guilt, as well as all my other horrible and deadly sins …” (9.2).

PRESENT MERCIES

Augustine did not just reflect on God’s past mercies in his Confessions. The book is a joyful celebration of God’s present mercies. They say “confession is good for the soul.” A saying as much maligned and misunderstood, as it is misappropriated. Yet, the Christian’s faith is strengthened, deepened and matured by genuine Christ-centred confession. “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1.9). This is not a morbid self-introspection in picking over the carcass of our failings but an exercise in joyful liberation as the believer’s faith in Jesus sees their sins removed as “far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103.12); freeing them from guilt’s heavy load and relieving the burdened conscience.

AN ODYSSEY!

In C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the mouse Reepicheep is the one who volunteers to row his coracle further and further into the unending horizons of Aslan’s land. A lovely allegory for the unending exploration of God. When grace leads us to believe the promises of God and dip into the ocean of God’s mercy one finds, like Reepicheep, the further one goes into its vast expanse the greater the assurance of God’s comfort in healing our brokenness. For Augustine, then, his Confessions is not a fruitless exercise, but a duty of love! In “… acknowledging your mercy toward us we open our hearts to you …” (11.1).

The cynic may say, “ if God knows everything why then bother to tell him anything?” Augustine asks a similar question, if God knows all why tell him what he knows already? His response is quite simple, that “… by setting them down I fire my own heart and the hearts of my readers with love for you…” (11.1). The wisdom of confessing to the omniscient God, that which he already knows, is built upon that wisdom with which Christians are taught to engage in prayer to a sovereign God. Why do we pray if our Father knows what we need (Matthew 6.8)? It is because the Father delights to hear his children pray, but also our faith is strengthened as our appreciation of the depths of God’s mercy grows.

The taste of God’s mercy is sweetly addictive (Psalm 34.8), and the more one learns to lean solely upon God’s goodness and his enduring mercy (Psalm 118.1, 2), so hope and confidence move towards perfection. “… I grieve for my deficiencies, trusting that you will perfect your mercies in me until I reach the fullness of peace …” (10.30).

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

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Augustine a man for our times (7) – faith’s communion

Michelangelo

The beating heart of the Christian faith is a living communion with God through Jesus Christ.

“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” John 17:3

The faith that brings the believer into union with Jesus and his church, brings them into a sweet faith communion with him too. Jesus taught this union and communion, by the necessity of the oneness of God’s being, is with the Father and Spirit too (John 14.23). Or more specifically, as John Owen explores in his volume Communion with God, it is distinctively a communion with the Father in love, with the Son in grace and with the Spirit in consolation.

Faith’s union having given one “access into grace” (Romans 5.2) can never be broken (John 10.28, 29). Faith’s communion, however, will fluctuate throughout one’s daily walk with Jesus in the world. This is not due to a God who is unavailable but to the believer’s indifference in seeking the kingdom of God; to a negligence of not seeking to walk in the Spirit. It is impeded too by how much they allow the inordinate attraction for the world in distracting them from pursuing fellowship with God.

J. C. Ryle writes, “There can be no communion with the Lord Jesus without union first; but unhappily there maybe union with the Lord Jesus and afterwards little communion at all … for communion is the privilege of those who are continually striving to grow in grace, faith and knowledge.” (1)

Augustine and faith’s communion

Augustine’s Confessions is the story of how he came to a faith union with God in Christ. It is a narrative too of the joys and struggles of his faith’s communion with his God. If one were to ask Augustine for one word that summed up his communion with God it would surely be “sweetness.” For to know God is to know “sweetness, the sweetness that does not deceive but brings real joy and never fails” (Bk 2.1), for God is the “food of the soul” (Bk 3.1). He agreed with the psalmist who called upon us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34.8).

Yet, the Confessions tell the story of how this sweet fellowship with God was interrupted. Why was that so? When he wrote, “… I have learned to love you late …” (10.27) it was a reference to his coming to faith in Jesus Christ as a mature adult at around 30 years of age. Up to that time he had led a life of dissipation in the world and it was the pull of his old way of life that he found sought to drag him away from a desired communion with his God.

Augustine acknowledges this struggle when he writes, “… my former habits still linger on …” (10.30). Like all Christians, Augustine experienced the struggle of faith in clinging to a meaningful, daily communion with God, amidst the distractions of the world. There is a perplexing dilemma in this struggle. Augustine had a clear conviction that communion would secure true joy and happiness, “… When at last I cling to you with all my being …” knowing he would be “… alive with true life, for my life will be wholly filled with you …” Yet, he knew such diffidence and indifference in pursuing its pleasure. He pleads, “ … Have pity on me O Lord, in my misery! My sorrows are evil and they are at strife with joys that are good, and I cannot tell which will gain the victory …” (10.28).

These words echo Paul’s experience in Romans 7, and like Paul, rather than despair in this tussle Augustine’s account echoes too the spirit of the apostle’s victory cry, “thanks be to God, who, delivers me through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 7.25). Interruptions and obstacles to his desire for communion with God did not fill him with despair but led him to rely more fully on the one in whom unending hope is found, for God alone is the “… physician …” the one who is “… merciful …” to those who are in “… need of your mercy …” (10.28).

Far from losing heart that his “former habits lingered” Augustine analysed what it was that hindered him from a pure love for God’s fellowship. He did so in the light of scripture, contemplating John’s words as to what it meant to love the world.

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” 1 John 2.15, 16

Taking John’s triple diagnosis of what attracted one to love the world: “the desire of the flesh (10.31-33); “the desire of the eyes” (10.34), and the “pride of life” (10.35), which Augustine describes as “… three different forms of which temptation may take …” (10.41). He analyses his weakness in succumbing to these temptations but also finds hope in the wonderful provisions of God that enables faith to overcome them. One may broadly identify these provisions as the bounty of God’s grace; the depths of Gods mercy; and above all Jesus as God’s true Mediator.

Desire of the flesh and abundant grace

It is undoubtedly true that for Augustine a primary challenge to his faith under the “desires of the flesh” was the way he pursued his sexual appetite in his old way of life. The very words of scripture used in his conversion spoke of this (Romans 13.13, 14). In coming to faith in Christ he was convinced of God’s desire for sexual purity (A purity that calls for the sexual pleasure God created for men and women to be enjoyed within the confines of matrimony). He wrote of the need for “ …Continence …” and personally came to believe that a life of celibacy was the way for him to achieve this and admits “… you did not forbid me to marry, you counselled me to take a better course …” (10.30).

He goes on to acknowledge though that it was not the enforced abstinence of God’s gift of sex that subdued his sensuality but “… the power of your hand, O God Almighty, is indeed great enough to cure all the diseases of my soul. By granting me more abundant grace you can quench the fire of sensuality which provokes me in my sleep …” (10.30). It was God’s “… abundant grace …”  which gave Augustine hope in his struggles and the power to subdue the sensual allurements of his fleshly nature.

Abundant grace is practical

God’s grace is abundant in its practicality. It gives the aid individual Christians require in their daily struggle of their new natures over their old desires. Covetous Zacchaeus was given grace to become benevolent; doubting Thomas was shown grace to believe, and grace quenched the fires of Augustine’s sensuality; for sanctifying grace not only subdues our old fleshly nature but invigorates life in our new nature.

The wonderful truth is that to “the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1.6) Christians are people who are saved by the grace of God alone (Ephesians 2.8-10). It is a grace that keeps them, equips them for Christian living, and relentlessly pursues them throughout their life, enabling them to gain the victory in faith’s struggles, as it empowers change within them.

Abundant grace is holistic

God’s grace is freely given but it is abundant in being holistic too, forming not only the foundation of every part of the believer’s relationship with God, but infusing every part of their being for this fellowship too. God commands obedience to his law. God’s commands are pure, good and holy (1 Timothy 1.8). But we are not able to keep the pure and good God rightly and justly commands of us, unless God supplies the grace we need to be obedient to his commands. This is not a get out of jail free card for us to be negligent and blame God when we falter. It is rather a call to embrace the grace to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his  good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).

Three times in these sections Augustine writes of what one may call his mantra of grace, “… Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will…” (10.29 x2; 10.31).

Abundant daily grace

Augustine wrote, “… I struggle daily against greed for food and drink …” (10.31), as he further considered the attractions of the world that comes to the Christian through their senses, as they engage the world, (10.32 smell; 10.33 sound) in their pursuit of pleasure through food, drink and the good things of life. Without a daily provision of grace to mollify our senses as they are tantalised by the world’s pleasures our communion with God would be drowned in the pursuit of them! Augustine tells us that God’s grace had taught him to “… look upon food as medicine …” (10.31). The abundance of God’s grace promised to believers daily sanctifies their senses, honing and teaching them how to live. Yet Christians need to remember that, “daily progress in the heavenly walk is not maintained by yesterday’s grace.” (2)

Desire of the eyes and great mercy  

Augustine next considers the “desire of the eyes.” God’s precious gift of sight allows us to take in and enjoy the beautiful world we have inherited from our Creator, as our “… eyes delight in beautiful shapes of different sorts and bright and attractive colours …” (10.34). But there is a deceptive power laying potent in our sense of sight. Our vision is our window on the world and therefore possesses a power, which left unchecked, will allure us to embrace the world and forget our souls (consider Mark 8.36, 37).

Having already acknowledged that “… there can be no hope for me except in your (God’s) great mercy …” (10.29) Augustine confesses he grieved “… for my deficiencies, trusting that you will perfect your mercies in me until I reach the fullness of peace …” (10.30). He found the answer to the allurements that constantly drew him back into the world, away from communion with God, was found in God’s mercy. “…You will free me, O Lord … for I ever keep your mercies in mind (Psalm 26.3). I am caught and need your mercy, and by your mercy you will save me from the snare …” (10.34).

Christian hope springs from “… God’s great mercy …” And just as the bird that Noah sent out found nowhere of safety to rest and so returned (Genesis 8.9, 10), so hope always returns to rest in God’s mercy. God’s mercy is, because of who God is! It is a mercy that restores us, even when we allow our eyes to wander from the sweet, life-giving communion with our God.

God promises an everlasting mercy, which keeps his people (Psalm 89.1, 28). The relationship between union, communion and God’s mercy are beautifully conjoined in Hebrews 4.14-16. Our union with Jesus (we have a great high priest …), leads to our communion (come boldly to the throne of grace …), so we may find God’s mercy (that we may obtain mercy …). It is an awesome thought, a delightful comfort, to consider, as the Puritan Thomas Goodwin does, that Christ’s , “own joy, comfort, happiness and glory are increased and enlarged by his (Jesus) showing grace and mercy, in pardoning, relieving and comforting his members on earth.” (3)

The pride of life and God’s true Mediator

As Augustine begins to consider “the pride of life,” he acknowledges that it is “… more dangerous … because it is more complicated …” He describes his own experience in being drawn to the pride of life as being for, “… the satisfaction of its own inquisitiveness. This futile curiosity masquerades under the name of science and learning …” (10.35).

This is not a rejection of learning per se, but is a reference to idle curiosity for curiosity sake and ”… the desire to be feared or loved by other human beings, simply for the pleasure it gives …” He goes on to describe such a life as, “… misery and despicable vain glory. It is for this reason, more than any other that people neither love you nor fear you in purity of heart …” (10.36). Augustine is astute enough to understand that the temptation to be loved by others even rears its ugly head as he serves his God in the “little flock” of the church. The love of the praise of men is a potent poison that all ingest too easily!

Augustine summarises, as he close book 10, by saying, “… I surveyed the world about me and explored both the life which my body has from me and the senses themselves … I scrutinised all these things … and found that none of them was you …” In other words, the world was never enough to replace communion with his God, who had “… walked everywhere at my side, O Truth, teaching what to seek and what to avoid …” (10.40). And yet in seeking to pursue this communion by turning his back on loving the world he had found, “… my heavy burden of distress drags me down again to earth. Again I become a prey to my habits, which holds me fast …” (10.40).

How could he overcome being dragged away from communion with God? How could he be sure that God would allow him to return when he wandered? Or as Augustine asks, “… Whom could I find to reconcile me to you? … You, O Lord, … are immortal and without sin. But a mediator between God and man must have something in common with God and something in common with man …” (10.42).

For Augustine grace and mercy were never impersonal religious concepts, but flowed from the person of the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, into the lives of individuals who are in union with Jesus and so enjoy communion with God. And it is Jesus, as God’s true Mediator, who brings grace and mercy. Jesus is the one whom God in his “… secret mercy …” has shown to humanity.

“For through him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.” (Ephesians 2:18)

Jesus was sent so that all peoples “… by his example might learn humility. He is the Mediator between God and men … (1 Timothy 2.5) … we are saved through faith in his passion he suffered long ago. For as man, he is our Mediator … equal with God, and God with God, and together with him one God …” And as Mediator Jesus was both “… victor and victim … priest and sacrifice …” And because he was a faithful Mediator in “… being your Son, yet serving you, he freed us from servitude and made us your children. Rightly do I place in him my firm hope that you will cure all my ills …” (10.43).

(1) J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion p 16 (2) C. Bridges, Psalm 119.10 (3) Thomas Goodwin, The Heart of Christ p107

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For the love of God – Augustine, a man for our times (6)

“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love … whoever abides in love abides in God and God abides in him” (1 John 4.8, 16).

In the many tragedies that have befallen humanity history of its relationship with its Creator, one of the most poignant is that the deeper a person or society goes into spiritual darkness, the more they question the truth that God is love (1 John 4.8). This may range from the dismissive “God cannot be love for God does not exist;” to the desperate cry of “how can a God of love allow that.” And if God does not love why should anyone love God!

Love is more than emotions

One man who came to a deep conviction that God is love and rightly deserved our deepest affections was Augustine of Hippo, whose Confessions were written as a love letter to his God. In Book 10 writing of his love for God he asserts, “… My love for you O Lord is not some vague feeling: it is positive and certain …” (10.6).

By “vague feeling” Augustine is not questioning his emotional attachment to God. No one who wrote so frequently of God as “… sweetness …” (10.17) can hardly be accused of being devoid of emotions in his relationship with God! It was rather about stating the “positive and certain.” True love for God embraces so much more than a stirring of emotions.

Augustine saw that the command to love God, one that every created being is obligated to fulfil, was given in response to God’s great love for his creatures for, “… All about me, heaven and earth and all they contain proclaim that I should love you, and their message never ceases to sound in the ears of all mankind, so there is no excuse for any not to love you …” (10.6). To love God is incumbent on every creature and it is a love that must go beyond a “vague feeling,” for they fluctuate like the tide’s ebb and flow. True love for God calls for an engagement of the mind, will, actions, as well as feelings. And it is in learning to live a life of loving God, which springs from his love for us, that brings tangible relevance to one’s being, self-worth and existence.

Love to God and the material world

In order to state this “positive and certain” Augustine continues by asking, “… what do I love when I love my God?” He begins his answer by exploring what it is to love God in, by and through, the material world God has made.

For those who have become new creatures in Christ, in which all things are new (2 Corinthians 5.17), they see God’s love in the created world, for it is “no longer the same cold, orphaned universe” (1) it was before they came to Christ. Now, for the Christian, “something lives in every hue Christ-less have never seen …” (2) They love creation for it is God’s masterpiece, but they love God for who he is.

Christianity has a unique view on the physical universe we inhabit. The material world reflects the God who created it, and we are those who “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28 ) in the God who brought it into existence. Yet, the material creation is not God! Christianity is not pantheism!

Listen to the beautiful, yet discerning way, Augustine describes our love of the things God gives, which is not wrong in itself, but should not be mistaken as love for God. It is “… Not the material beauty or beauty of temporal order; not the brilliance of earthly light, so welcome to our eyes; not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes and spices; not mana or honey; … it is not these that I love when I love my God …

Material metaphors

Yet, as a creature of who lived in time, Augustine could only describe fellowship with God through his experiences as a created being who has only ever dwelt in a material world. So he described his love of God in creational metaphors, for the reality of the Christian’s experience of loving God can be defined and explained within the context of their own human acquaintance of God’s love for the world (John 3.16) he has made. So Augustine writes, “… When I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind … a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; but they are the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is never severed by fulfilment or desire. This is what I love when I love my God …” (10.6)

What is my God?

In taking the enquiry further Augustine asks “… what is my God?” And reminiscent of Job’s profound enquiry in Ch. 28.12-28he asks the creation that surrounds him the question and discovers that the “… earth … sea … creatures of the deep … wind … sky, sun, moon and the stars …” all answer, “we are not God,” for “… God is he who made us …” This is not just a vivid imagination for he writes “… I asked these questions simply by gazing at these things, and their beauty was all the answer they gave …” (10.6).

This is straight forward Pauline theology as found in Romans 1.20. God’s creation proclaims his invisible attributes, “his eternal power and Godhead.” But such a revelation is inadequate to call forth from sinful human beings a love for God that is worthy of him, for to truly love God requires one to understand the being of the God he is to love.

Creatures designed to love God

It is that “… better part of him …” his soul, the best part of him, which is able to discern God’s being. He is however careful to note the shortcomings of the soul in this matter and asks why “… it does not give the same message to us all?” The answer is found in how much one is “… in love with material things!” Here is both the blessing of the material world God made good and its curse for a depraved and fallen humanity!

Augustine then considers that the answer to what is my God is to be found much closer to home. He asks himself “… who are you?” He is a man who possess both body and soul. But which of these two are most suited to help him answer the question, “what is my God?” Well, his body has asked the universe around him and it had not been able to answer him (By this we are to understand that he speaks of the way his senses investigated the world around him and relayed their answers to his inner being).

An exploration of the soul’s memory

It is because for Augustine God is “… the Life of the life of my soul …” (10.6) he explores the question “… what do I love when I love my God?” (10.7), through the medium of the soul. At the outset he acknowledges the conundrum that God is a being “ … who is so far above my soul ..” but if he is to know God and God’s love, in order to love God, it “… must be through my soul!”

In his exploration he considers the faculties that comprise the soul, particularly that of memory, in knowing God. Memory is “… A great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds …” (10.8). This storehouse of memory contains facts, principles, feelings of desire, joy, fear and sorrow and forgetfulness. He concludes that “… The power of memory is great, O Lord. It is awe-inspiring in its profound and incalculable complexity …” But one needs to “… go beyond this force which we call memory, so that I may come to you, my true God, my sure sweetness. But how am I to find you, if I have no memory of you? (10.17)

It is because to love God is greater than a memory Augustine asks, “… How then do I look for you O Lord? For when I look for you, who are my God, I am looking for a life of blessed happiness. I shall look for you, so that my soul may live. For it is my soul that gives life to my body and it is you who gives life to my soul …” (10.20).

It is in the essential matter of “happiness” that the inadequacy of memory is displayed! All desire to be happy and all possess the knowledge of happiness. Some have a hope of happiness, whilst others achieve some state of happiness. The question is whether this knowledge of happiness come from within our memory?

It is here that Augustine turns to the bible’s story when he asks, were we not all happy in Adam? But we all died in him and “… we all descended into a heritage of misery …” (10.20). So now happiness is a memory that is inadequate to satisfy us, for “ … even though we have a knowledge of happiness, and love it for that reason, we continue to wish to achieve it, so that we maybe happy …” (10.21).

Joy

Augustine next considers if happiness in memory in the same as joy? The problem here for Augustine is that he acknowledges he found joy in both the good things God gave and using those things in a bad way that God forbids! This is why true joy cannot be the same thing, ultimately, as happiness (10.21).

It is only those who love God for his own sake who find true joy. This is because only in God is true happiness to be known, for “… happiness is to rejoice in you and for you and because of you …” And many do not desire true happiness because they “… do not look for joy in you …” for to “… rejoice in you is the only true happiness …” (10.22).

For those who think of this as a religiously restricted view of happiness Augustine goes onto acknowledge “… It maybe that men do desire to be happy but because the impulses of nature and the spirit are at war with each other, they cannot do all that their will approves (Galatians 5.17) …” And the reason that such folks do not rejoice in the truth is that they do not “… rejoice in you O God, who are the Truth …” because they love something more than God and “… pretend to themselves that what they love is the truth, and because they hate to be proved wrong they will not allow themselves to be convinced that they deceive themselves …’ (10.23)

Truth

It is because God alone is truth itself that we find truth in seeking and knowing God, for “… you are truth, and you are everywhere present where all seek counsel of you …” (10.26). How then is one to find God, so he can learn the truth that God is love and learn how to love God? God gives a clear answer but not all hear the answer distinctly, for often it is not the answer that they wish to hear! It is “… The man who serves you best is the one who is less content on hearing from you what he wills to hear than on shaping his will according to what he hears of you …” (10.26). It is in taking up Jesus yoke (Matthew 11.28-30) that we learn to rest in his love.

In what are some of the most memorable words of the Confessions Augustine relays his own experience with a simple, heart-warming honesty when he confesses “… I have learnt to love you late, beauty at once so ancient and so new: late have I loved you. You were within me and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside of myself, and disfigured as I was, I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours …” (10.27).

How then did Augustine hear God’s “loud cry?” How did he see God’s “radiant splendour?” How did he find “God’s peace?” It was in seeing God’s love for the world in sending his Son (John 3.16). If Augustine learned to love God “late” it was because he learnt to love Christ late! “… How great was your love for us good Father, for you did not even spare your own Son, but gave him up to save sinners (Romans 8.32) …” (10.43). With Paul he was irresistibly drawn to love God by the experience of faith that could say of Jesus Christ, “… the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me …” (Galatians 2.20).

To know God in Christ is to know love, for God is love, and one learns to love God. An old Puritan divine wrote, Help me to discern between true and false love, the one consisting of supreme love to you, the other not, the former uniting your (God’s) glory and man’s happiness that they may become one common interest … that such a love is a pleasing passion affording joy to the mind … and to rest in you who is all love. (3)

We human beings only learn to express our full humanity when we know God’s love through a faith relationship with Jesus. A loving relationship which is built upon God’s truth, which is why the the greatest commandment God gave and Jesus reiterated is …

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6.5).

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22.37 ).

(1) J. W. Alexander, God is love p23 (2) From the hymn, Loved with everlasting love, G. Wade Robinson (3)Valley of Vision p333

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It is finished!

The Pont d’Avignon is a renowned world heritage site. The bridge is a beautiful piece of architecture, visited by thousands, yet Its remaining four arches fail to span the river Rhone, standing as an incomplete work. What a graphic illustration of humanity’s failure to find God of themselves!

In contrast Jesus three words on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19.30) stand as a wonderful invitation at Easter 2021 to any and all to put their trust in Jesus completed work of bridging the gap between themselves and God.

Three words!

The indisputable facts of history tells us Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontus Pilate and during six hours on the cross uttered seven sayings. The penultimate of which consisted of just three words! Twelve letters in the English alphabet! One word in the Greek text! But why is it true that, “these are the greatest and most momentous words ever spoken … since the beginning of world?” (1)

The life we could never live

They are not words from “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” tale! Rather Jesus was  announcing the completion of his mission on behalf of sinful human beings, as his exemplary life came to an end, having lived the life we could never live.

Unique

A life begun, like any other, with Jesus birth. One which was as natural as any other human being but his conception was supernatural, for Mary was told by the angel, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you …” (Luke 1.35). The eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, took to himself a human nature, and was born of a woman into the world.

Unparalleled

A life unparalleled in human history, in which Jesus knowing the full orb of human experience: birth, childhood, adulthood and calloused hands through hard manual work; being thirsty, hungry, weary, weeping and rejoicing; living in humility and poverty, without privilege or advantage: had lived in perfect obedience to his Father’s will, without fault or failure.

Unprecedented

Under the ever present ministry of the Holy Spirit, Jesus grew into a life of unprecedented self-conscious awareness, that he came from God to fulfil God’s predetermined purpose. Growing to understand that the exact contours of his person, life and sufferings had been foretold by the Old Testament prophets, being God’s promised Servant Messiah, in whom all the Mosaic sacrifices and types found their fulfilment.  

Beautiful

A beautiful life, driven by the purest of motives, love. A love that found its supreme expression in delighting to do his Father’s will (Psalm 40.8). Even in the moment of his greatest weakness and fear in Gethsemane’s garden Jesus would say to his Father, “not my will but yours be done!”

In a nutshell Jesus having lived the flawless life we could never live, became the righteousness of God for us. God is love (1 John 4.8) and Jesus Christ is the living embodiment of divine love given for us. 

A death we deserve to die

As his perfect life expired in the slow suffocation of crucifixion, Jesus was dying the death we deserved to die. Paul writes that it was the “… appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who has abolished death …” (2 Timothy 1.10). A death, the details of which, were explicitly foretold long before Jesus birth (Isaiah 53); a death Jesus predicted would occur (Mark 8.31; 9.31; 10.33); a death like none other as Jesus life was not snatched from him but rather Jesus “gave up his spirit” (John 19.30), choosing to lay down his life that he might take it up again (John 10.17, 18)!

It was in a voluntary laying down of his innocent life on behalf of others that Jesus broke death’s strangle hold over humanity. Jesus died to “deliver those who fear of death were all their life subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2.14, 15). Jesus, “… appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin … The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” (1 John‬ 3:5, 8‬ NIV‬‬)‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

God is not willing that any should perish and so in love he sent forth his Son to die the death we all deserve because of our sin. A death in the place of others paying the wages of sin’s debt, they could never pay, because he “by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2.9). It is was the “Death of death in the death of Christ.”(2) “It was the “Son (who) killed the grave for you!” (3) A perfect death proclaimed when Jesus rose victorious from the grave!

A sacrifice we could not make

In laying down his perfect life in death for others, Jesus offered up to God the perfect sacrifice we could never offer, for “he (Jesus) appeared once for all at the end of this age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself’ (Hebrews 9.26). Jesus spoke of his death as a “life given as a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45). A sacrifice, offered once only, to God to atone, to cover, the sins of all who would trust him.

In the hours of darkness that surrounded Jesus on the cross, as the sun’s light was extinguished (Mark 15.33), in the physical darkness, Jesus endured an intolerable spiritual darkness. One so terrible that Jesus cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A cry that conveyed the deepest of all mysteries. Jesus, the eternal Son of God was separated from the Father, as he propitiated God’s wrath on behalf of sinners. The wrath of an offended God was being expunged, as he laid it upon his Son! The darkness of the day hid the divine incongruity of the eternal Son being forsaken by his Father, as he bore sin.

“How great the pain of searing loss, the Father turns his face away …” (4)

Jesus descended into the depths of a hell-like experience, bearing sin’s hideous burden, as he brought the enmity between God and humanity to an end. What love is this that God should send “His own Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4.10)!

A victory we can share

Jesus words were a victory cry to share. Exemplified even as Jesus hung on the cross, as a pathetic and pitiable thief dying beside Jesus asks to be remembered! Poor deluded soul! How could a dying Jesus help him? Jesus reply was, “Assuredly I say to today you will be with me in paradise.”

A hopeless, helpless, vagabond of a man puts his faith in Jesus, hanging in agony upon the cross, and receives the promise of salvation! Jesus words flung wide open the the gates of God’s paradise for all who believe, as he finished the work of bridging the gap between God and humanity. Christianity offers salvation to all, built upon God’s promises, that are offered to all by faith in Christ, “For all the promises of God are yes and Amen! In him (Jesus) to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 1.20).

Is it finished for you?

A life we cannot live, a death we deserve to die, a sacrifice that appeases God’s wrath and secures salvation. Friend, at Easter 2021, is it finished for you? Are you still trying to build your own Pont d’ Avignon to God? Come by faith, close with Christ who said, “It is finished!”

(1) The Suffering Saviour, F. W. Krummmacher. (2) “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,” is the title of a treatise by John Owen (3) Words from the Casting Crowns song, “Even when you’re running,” from the Only Jesus Album. (4) Stuart Townend, How Deep the Father’s love for us

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Augustine a man for our times (5) – under a fig tree

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord (Psalm 95)

Augustine’s Confessions reach their climax in Book VIII. This is the central hub of the narrative where its themes meet, as he relates the events of his conversion. Augustine, like every other member of the human race, was not born a Christian and for the first thirty years of his life he chose not to live as one. Although brought up under the influence of his Christian mother Monica, he resisted the faith she held. Yet, as a mature adult, he underwent a conversion experience and confessed faith in Jesus Christ. Writing of this in Book VIII he tells how under a fig tree in a garden he:

Oh come, let us worship and bow down (Psalm 95)

“…  I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to tears … weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the sing-song voice of a child in a nearby house … again and again it repeated the refrain “Take it and read, take it and read.” (8.12)

He thought initially the words he heard, “take and read!l were children playing a game; one he’d not heard before. But he eventually took the words as a “… divine command to open my book of scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall … I read the first passage on which my eyes did fell …”

The words he read were from Romans 13.13, 14, although in his Confessions Augustine only quotes part of these verses.

“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

“ … I had no wish to read any more and no need to do so. In an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled …  you converted me to yourself … I stood firmly on the rule of faith …” (8.12).

… do not harden your hearts …. (Psalm 95)

Augustine’s account of what happened in the garden describes a moment in time, when he knew the reality of an experience of change. But this change was the culmination of a long journey! (He speaks of it as a twelve year long journey of ignoring, thinking, resisting and seeking!) It was no sudden emotional response but rather the culmination of a long struggle: intellectually, morally and with much procrastination. It was also a journey in which he was initially a reluctant participant but found himself compelled to travel!

Christian conversion is a personal journey, where one makes their own personal choices, without any external pressure or duress. No one, absolutely no one, can make another person a Christian, for it is a personal journey one must make on their own.

Dissatisfaction

In Augustine’s journey there was a growing dissatisfaction with seeking to find purpose and pleasure in the world without God. He had sought fulfilment in the pursuit of sexual pleasure and it had not lasted; he had tried to find satisfaction in the world of philosophy, seeking for “truth” by following the Manichees, and they failed him. He writes, “… l exhausted myself in depravity, in the pursuit of an unholy curiosity …” (3.3) …  I lived in misery, like every man whose soul is tethered by the love of things that cannot last, and then is agonised to love them … (4.6) … I did not know that evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains …” (3.7).

Confusion

It was a journey which begun amidst confusion about trying to find purpose in life and moved to seeing that any purpose pursued in the world in comparison to knowing God, and without God, was a dead-end! “… But in my worldly life all was confusion … my own life in the world was unhappy … there was no attraction for me in comparison to your sweetness” (Bk 8.1).

Liberation

For Augustine it was a journey too that led from bondage to freedom, as he began to appreciate that what he believed was the pleasure of his sexual freedom, did in fact create a life of bondage! The freedom he believed that was to be found in pursuing his sexual preference, did in fact make him a slave to his sexual desires. Desires which he ultimately recognised were driven by lust. “ … For my will was perverse and lust had grown from it, and when I gave into lust habit was born and when I did not resist the habit it became a necessity” (8.5).

Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! (Psalm 95)

Augustine speaks of the “… chaste beauty of continence …” (8.11) that he could not find because he could not, would not, change and leave behind his sexual desires, even though he knew God, the Creator of sex, called for sexual purity. He spoke of heterosexual gratification when he wrote, “… Bodily desire, like a morass, and adolescent sex welling up within me … obscured my heart …  I could not distinguish the light of true love from the murk of lust … floundering in the boiling sea of my fornication … (2.1, 2).

He goes on to write that as a sixteen year old, “… the frenzy gripped me and I surrendered myself entirely to lusts, which your (God’s) law forbids but human hearts are not ashamed to sanction … (2.2) … the brambles of lust grew high above my head … (Bk 2.3).

Augustine’s growing unease, his deepening conviction, with his pursuit of a sensual lifestyle was part of a much larger struggle. The Confessions reveal he was not seeking the resetting of his moral compass but rather his spiritual compass. He was not seeking a moral reformation but rather he came to see that his entire life, of which his pursuit of sexual pleasure was one aspect, was lived contrary to the pursuit of knowing God in Christ.

He wanted to realign his life with the God who had made him, for this is where his Confession begun “… You made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you … The thought of you stirs (us) so deeply that we cannot be content unless we praise you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you”(1.1).

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving (Psalm 95)

Augustine was no sour-faced aesthetic who hated the world and sought solace in the cloisters. He acknowledges a God-given pleasure in all that God has given humanity to enjoy in this world. “The life we live on earth has its own attractions … it has a certain beauty of its own in harmony with all the rest of this world’s beauty … The eye is attracted by beautiful objects … we find great pleasure in feeling something agreeable to touch … material things have various qualities to please our senses … The life we live on earth has its own attractions … these earthly things can give joy, though not such joy as my God, who made them all, can give” (Bk 2.5).

But Augustine saw too that it was the abuse and misuse of the good things God had given him that was so harmful to his happiness and destructive of his well-being. Human beings are not made for the selfish gratification of sensual pleasures alone. Lust is not love nor should it be recognised as desire, for lust is the selfish longing for one’s own gratification, whilst true love is the affection and desire to do good to another.

Let us make a joyful noise … with songs of praise (Psalm 95)

Augustine describes the rising crescendo of his struggle of procrastination that led to his conversion as follows, “… My inner self was a house divided against itself …” and change did not come without much mental and emotional grappling. He relates how listening to the story of Christian martyrs told by Ponticianus his “… conscience gnawed away at me … “ (8.7)

It was in this state of consternation that Augustine went into the garden of the house and describes how his inner frustration begun to manifest itself in his body “… I tore my hair and hammered my forehead with my fists; I locked my fingers and hugged my knees …” (8.8). As he delayed to make the change he knew was essential to turn to God; he dithered in obeying God’s call to seek him; he hesitated to leave his old way of life; stalling in leaving his old sins behind, he writes “… a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears … how long shall I go on saying “tomorrow, tomorrow?” Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?” (8.12)

Augustine’s analysis of his procrastination was that his mind was in conflict with his will. His mind knew what was right and gave a command but the command was not carried out because it was not carried out with the full will (8.9). This was not a matter of two minds or two natures within him, one good the other evil (8.10)! He knows the source of his procrastination are “… mere trifles, the most paltry inanities, all my old attachments …” (8.11) but there was no will to change.

Augustine knew to overcome the struggle of mind and will was something that he could not do. In a profoundly honest analysis he came to recognise that his will was perverse and lust had grown from it and the more he allowed this lust to blossom a habit was formed, and the habit metamorphosed into a necessity! “… For the rule of sin is the force of habit by which the mind is swept along and held fast even against its will” (Bk 8.5).

A darkening despair overtook him in this struggle as he realised that he was not able to arouse himself from sinking into the quagmire of powerlessness. Even when he sought to seek God he wrote “… My thoughts when I meditated upon you were like the efforts of a man who tries to wake but cannot and slips back into the depths of slumber” (Bk 8.5).For the Lord is a great God Psalm 95

Augustine was driven to ask the question how can a God who is good create a creature who “possesses a will to choose wrong and refuses to do good, thereby providing a just reason why I should be punished … Who put this will into me? Who sowed the seeds of bitterness in me when I was made by my God, who is sweetness itself?” Quite clearly such a perverse will could not come from a good God who is “…  the supreme, the perfect God …” (7.3).

The answer was that power to unite mind and will had to come from outside himself; from outside the society of men; from outside the known physical universe! It had to come from this good God alone. “… O Lord, my Helper and Redeemer, I shall now tell and confess to the glory of your name how you released me from the fetters of lust which held me so tightly shackled and from my slavery to the things of this world … “ (8.6)

Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us knee before the Lord our Maker! (Psalm 95)

Augustine came to see that to stand in his own strength in this struggle was a recipe for failure. Rather one is to “… cast yourself upon God and have no fear. He will not shrink away and let you fall. Cast yourself upon him without fear, for he will welcome you and cure you of your ills …” (8.11)

The power to unite mind and will, ultimately, can only be accomplished by a supernatural work of God. This was certainly how Augustine saw it himself, “… You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours …” (10.27).

Augustine later reflects “… I remember the kind of man I was, O Lord, and it is a sweet task to confess how you tamed me by prickling my heart with your goads … to submit to the name of your only-begotten Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ …” (9.4)

For the Lord is a … great King above all gods (Psalm 95)

The themes of divine grace and human destiny, therefore, thread their way through the discourse. One historian writes, “the central theme of the Confessions is the alienation of man from his true self. The soul that has lost God has lost its roots and therefore has lost itself.”  (2)

In his book Augustine of Hippo. A Life, Henry Chadwick writes of Augustine’s account of his conversion as “…Exquisite in the telling … The reader … is entitled to ask whether he is reading a purely factual narrative or a partly symbolist fiction. Of the fact it was a turning-point in Augustine’s personal quest there is no question but its form is not plain prose but a subtle blending of symbolic overtones …” (3) 

Chadwick goes on to write Augustine, “… sees his conversion as the culmination of a moral and intellectual struggle.” But yet one that did not take him immediately into the “ … arms of authority.” (4) However, the subsequent course of Augustine’s life being given to the study, preaching and his colossal apologetic writings defending Christianity, were all built upon the authority of scripture. Such a legacy makes it hard not to agree that Augustine’s conversion led him into the authoritative arms of the bible.

For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand (Psalm 95)

It is surely fitting to let the man himself have the last words! In what is one of the most beautiful testimonies to what it means to come to know God in Christ through many struggles and much procrastination Augustine wrote, “… I have learnt to love you late, beauty at once so ancient and so new: late have I loved you. You were within me and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside of myself, and disfigured as I was, I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all …” (10.27).

The Confessions, of which his conversion is the beating heart, are Augustine’s story of his journey back to God. He came to see that, “living well depended on the reordering of our loves.” (5) He left behind his love of the world to seek the God, whose love in Christ, had captured his heart and was all consuming! And how was it that Augustine finally escaped from his love of the things of this world to God’s love? “… You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours …” (10.27).

(1) Ian Hamilton, The Gospel-Shaped Life p143 (2) H.Chadwick, Augustine of Hippo. A Life p91. (3) Ibid p28. (4) Ibid p29. (5) Tim Keller, Prayer, experiencing awe and intimacy with God p11

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The counter-cultural nature of faith in Hebrews 11 & 12 (part two)

The early church father, Athanasius, under immense pressure to conform to the prevailing view of those around him in the Arian controversy is remembered for saying, “Athanasius contra mundum” (Athanasius against the world). For the sake of truth he stood against the prevailing view of the world he inhabited. He was saying, “I will believe in defiance of the world.In the same spirit the writer to the Hebrews is reminding his readers that Christian faith, that springs from truth, has always been countercultural to the way of life and attitude of the world around it.

In a previous article we have shown how the writer in Ch. 11 has laid down his working definition of faith and a fundamental proposition concerning faith, to establish its countercultural nature. He now leads his readers to view how such faith has a proven track record as he sets before them the portraits of faith’s heroes.

Hebrews 11 is a gallery that is opened for public viewing. As each room in an art gallery displays a different genre such as Impressionists, Cubists, et el, yet they are all individual pieces of art (well in some folks opinions!). So, the writer is showing us these different portraits of faith in action but they all display in their unique way its countercultural nature.

Faith’s gallery of countercultural heroes

Those on display in this gallery are called the “people” (V2). Those men and women whose history proves that faith as a countercultural phenomenon works (V4-40). These are the people who “by faith” (an oft repeated phrase in the chapter) testify to its success.

The writer begins by giving three examples of how such faith operated in the pre-diluvian world. Abel’s faith saw beyond the religious norms of his day (V4); whilst Enoch’s faith enabled him to choose to walk with God contrary to the rest of humanity in his day (V5); and Noah’s righteousness, accrued by faith, condemned the world of his day by being willing to build an ark whilst the world around considered him mad (V7)!

This is the type of faith that pleases God (V6). Why? Because faith in the invisible God leads one to pursue a promised reward that is not yet seen, by living a life now in Christ that has a guarantee and foretaste of the eternal life that shall be. It is by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit that faith looks back and accepts the truth of God’s creative activity and trusts the promises of his word for what he has said will yet be! It pleases God because it rests upon the bare promises of God’s word. A faith epitomised in the Roman Centurion who Jesus commended for not needing Jesus presence but believed his word was powerful enough (Luke 7.1-10).

Countercultural life choices

The writer then demonstrates to them the life choices such faith makes. Abraham and Sarah’s faith (V8-12, 17-19) enabled them to see the certainty of what Abraham would yet possess and Sarah would yet know. Their faith in the promise led them to chose to live as foreigners in a land they did not belong to and had no home in, looking beyond all that could be seen to the city that could not be perceived by the human mind, which God had prepared for them. In so doing Abraham became the father of an innumerable host of people. This same belief gave a solid foundation for the countercultural lives of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph who passed the promised blessing onto their posterity (V20-22).

Moses

Moses faith (V23-29) led him to make the most outrageous countercultural decision (V 25, 26). In faith he willingly gave up all that he possessed, in order to gain what he could not see but believed he would inherit. Only faith can do that! It weighs up the treasure of this world with the treasures of the world to come and says, “I choose that heavenly city.” In other words faith led Moses to grasp the reality that if you live for the present only and put all your eggs in that basket, then the present is all you will get!

Here the writer includes a vital element that kept Moses’ countercultural faith alive and real. He tells us Moses, “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than all the treasures of Egypt” (V26).  Moses looked to Jesus! From that great historical distance he saw the prophet whom the Holy Spirit told him of (Deuteronomy 18.15). He was so consumed with Jesus that he was ready to leave all the riches of Egypt behind.

These Old Testament saints set an example to new covenant believers, for of all these, “… the world was not worthy … And all these, though commended by faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11.38-40). They are saying, “we share one faith together with you but our faith remains unfinished as long as we wait for you to finish your walk of faith.”

Looking to Jesus in faith is countercultural

It was the testimonies of these heroes of faith (12.1) that leads the writer to pen that the Hebrew Christians are to run the race of faith,

Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12.2).

Genuine faith perseveres, for the value of countercultural faith is its consistency. Having begun by calling his readers to look to Jesus (Hebrews 2.9), he ends by reminding them, in the light of all the evidence of saints of old, to keep looking to Jesus.

God’s gift of faith is one that has always “looked” (a biblical analogy for faith) to Jesus! These Hebrews Christians had “looked” to the Jesus of history (2.9). A faith in Christ alone for salvation; a trust in the finished work of his atoning sacrifice; a faith that appropriates his perfect righteousness as ours. Such faith must continue to look to Jesus as not only the “founder” but also the “perfecter of our faith.” Keep “looking,” or keep trusting in God’s promises in Jesus, as those of old did. In the end perseverance is the true test of faith’s genuineness.

A crowd of witnesses

Why does the writer build this essential call of faith in looking to Jesus (12.2) from the “crowd of witnesses” (12.1) who are the Old Testament saints? At first glance this may seem irrelevant. How can such teaching help those who now walk by faith in that final revelation of God (Hebrews 1.1) as found in Jesus Christ! The relevance is that it is the same faith that looks to Jesus but from different historical viewpoints! As the Old Testament saints looked forward to Christ fulfilling all the promises that inaugurated the new covenant; so now the same faith of those under the new covenant, looks back on the old covenantal promises Jesus has fulfilled.

Further more, the writer would have these Christians, who were surrounded by far greater evidence of God’s plan and purpose, remember they were looking to Jesus to yet fulfil the promises he had made concerning his return to usher in his kingdom. That final “shaking” which is yet to occur that the writer speaks of in Hebrews 12.27. For those who hold that Jesus Christ is LORD are to live, “ by grace … serving God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Hebrews 12.28), knowing that to him every knee shall bow and “every” tongue confess his Lordship. They live awaiting his return (1 Thessalonians 1.0) from heaven. It is only as faith keeps “looking to Jesus” (12.2), will it withstand the “shaking” that is yet to be.

Faith and discipline

There is one other important ministry that countercultural faith performs for the Christian. It aids perseverance by revolutionising the way one considers the hardships that come in choosing to follow Jesus. The Christians to whom the letter was originally written had fallen into a classic misunderstanding. They were discouraged by the trials and the sufferings they were going through because they assumed they were signs of God’s displeasure.

It is the countercultural nature of faith to turn such thinking on its head. Notice, he does not tell them to ignore the reality of the difficulties they faced. He does, however, seek to put them into perspective, “you have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (Hebrews 12.4). And he does tell them they are not to be viewed as God’s displeasure but rather as signs of a Father’s loving discipline. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” (12.3-11).

Faith turns the negative into the positive, for as it rests in God the Creator, it is a faith that rests in the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The God whose supreme power, infinite wisdom and love works all things for the good of the faithful (Romans 8.28). The trials of faith then are in the hands of a kind and wise Father, mediated by a loving Son and overseen by God the Holy Spirit.

Can one get much more countercultural than that! To tell those struggling with the life of faith in the world that hardships are not meted out because God is capricious or because of  God’s displeasure, but as a loving Father he is tenderly disciplining and training them. How galvanising is that to persevere in following Christ! And such a testing of faith’s hope will make the reality of the reward so much sweeter!

Faith is a precious gift of God, and by grace a faith that has been tested and proven to be genuine by persevering through trials because of its countercultural nature, is a faith more precious than gold (1 Peter 1.7)!

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The counter-cultural nature of faith in Hebrews 11 & 12 (part one)

The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking in his final book, Brief Answers to Big Questions, postulated that in his understanding time began with the Big Bang, therefore, before that event “there is no time for God to make the universe in.”

The writer to the Hebrews could hardly have written a more counter-intuitive thought concerning the Christian faith when he wrote,

“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” (Hebrews 11.3)

Faith is countercultural

These words are from the writer’s closing exhortation to persevere in faith in Jesus Christ. Faith believes what God has spoken. Faith is trust. Faith is hope. Faith perseveres. And faith perseveres because it is countercultural. It is at variance with the world in which it is called to operate. The apostle John says of this countercultural faith, “this is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5.4). It is for this reason Peter calls Christians “Pilgrims” (strangers in the world – 1 Pet 1.1).

The key theme that resounds throughout Ch.11 is the victory of faith. A victory which highlights its counter-cultural nature and the counter-intuitive thinking it gives rise to. A dictionary defines counterculture as, “A way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm.” Whilst Wikipedia describes counterculture as, “A movement that expresses the ethos and aspirations of a specific population during a well-defined era.” All societies inevitably spawn countercultural movements. The hippy generation of the 60’s was one, contemporary street youth culture is another.

These Hebrews Christians were demoralised and considering turning their back on their Christian profession because of the opposition and persecution they were experiencing. Quite simply they were weary of swimming against the tide! The writer’s purpose is to set before them examples of persevering faith, in what is often described as faith’s portrait gallery, drawn from Old Testament saints. And in every portrait the countercultural nature of faith is there to be seen.

Christians must understand that faith has always been at variance with social norms in societies, because it calls for life to be lived that is radically different to the life of the world. In seeing the reality of the invisible, the spiritual realm, it calls one to live in this world as one who belongs to another. So, the writer shows how the belief of the Old Testament saints in God led them to think differently and make life choices contrary to the norm of their day and to persevere in doing so. They did not withdraw from the world in doing this, or turn their back on the general commerce of society, but walked contrary to the spirit of the world. Their spirit is summed up in the words of the psalmist, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Psalm 130.5).

However, before he leads them on a tour of the gallery of faith he gives a working definition of faith (V1) and lays down a fundamental proposition about faith (V3).

A working definition of faith

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

The first verse of Hebrews 11 is the nearest we get to a biblical definition of faith. It is however an incomplete definition, foremost because no object of faith is referred to.

The readers of this letter, however, would have been in no doubt who was the object of faith. From his grand opening salvo (1.1-3) on the Son as the express image of God; through the entire letter’s focus of Jesus as our High Priest and Apostle, to whom we must give attention (3.1); from his exposition of Jesus’ unique and completed priestly work of atonement, of whom all the Old Testament sacrifices were but shadows of (Ch. 7-9); to his final rallying call to consider Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (12.2). Faith’s object is Jesus Christ. He had written the “just shall live by faith” (10.38) and verse one is a working definition of how justifying faith operates, how it functions, which the rest of chapter then elaborates upon.

Assurance and conviction

The writer states two complimentary features of his working definition of faith. First, it gives “assurance” (substance), a foundation, a solid guarantee of things hoped for. Second, it is the “conviction” (evidence) of what is not yet seen.

For the Old Testament saints faith was the solid ground on which they built their lives. It supplied them with the evidence they required, to make life choices that enabled them to live in a radically different way. This evidence was not built upon an idiosyncratic notion of “my faith will get me through,” but firmly rested upon the promises God had given concerning Christ and upon his promises concerning the future nature of his Kingdom. So, they looked for a city God was building (V16). In the words of the Nicene Creed they looked, “ … for the life of the world to come.”

Faith gave them that confident conviction of possessing what God had promised. Even though it was not yet visible, they had a tangible expression of enjoying the promises God gave in their daily lives but were not yet fully known. Faith, “gives an existence to the intangible and an expectation of the invisible.”(1) It was the faculty by which they saw that “better possession” in heaven (10.34); that “heavenly country” (11.16).

This God-given gift of faith brought an extra dimension to their understanding and living. It was that additional faculty, effecting all others, which established the worldview by which they lived. It not only actively shaped and moulded their thinking, attitudes and life choices but it enabled the saints of old to continue doing so. And it will allow all who have this faith to persevere too. For faith gives a foretaste of what it cannot see, which is why Christians are called to, “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5.7). But like a muscle though, faith must be exercised and not allowed to become flabby.

A fundamental proposition of faith

“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”

If verse one presents a working definition of faith, then second, V3 lays down a fundamental proposition of how faith informs our understanding of origins and the world in which we live.

The vision of faith explained in V3 gives access to evidence from the “unknown God” who is the first cause of all things. In saying that evidence for the universe being an act of creation can only be accessed by faith, the writer is doing more than stating the obvious; that in respect to origins faith accepts what it cannot see.

No human was present at the beginning to prove or disprove God spoke all into existence. Granted, the Christian sees much evidence in creation that points to the universe being a created realm (Psalm 19.1): its order, design, beauty, seasons. Yet, an acceptance of the origins of the universe being a creative act of God, creation Ex nihilo, requires more than an intellectual committal. Faith, in taking us back to the creative command of God’s powerful word, allows us to not only access the only authentic, accurate and trustworthy account of creation, but constructs a framework from which the Christian views the world.

This belief in God’s creative activity sets the revolutionary tone for a philosophy of life that is transforming in the created sphere.In seeing beyond the visible, tangible, physical reality of what now is and looking to the unseen invisible God who brought this physical reality into being, it radicalises life’s choices. A few applications may help to explain this.

Science and faith

Belief in the universe not being an accident but a creative act of the will of God provides a platform from which the Christian approaches the world of science.

To the modern mind science is the great debunker of faith, for it has undone and overthrown faith in a created universe by explaining away the need for a Creator God. “These creationists deny the reality of science,” is the accusation! Such a view is a fallacy, for Christians love to explore and understand the world God has made.

However, the true realm of science is the contemporary physical universe we inhabit. Working by induction and demanding empirical evidence scientific theories about how our world works can be validated or disregarded; new discoveries unearthed and progress made. This means that the legitimate realm of science is the contemporary universe which surrounds us. It deals with what can be tested and proven, for any scientific theory propounded has to be evaluated, examined and shown to work or not to work. Now if that is true, then evidence for a created origin cannot be proved now by any contemporary empirical evidence of science. Similarly, though, any evolutionary theory of origins cannot be proven for the theory cannot be scientifically evaluated.

In fact evolution calls for an act of blind “faith” in accepting the propositions of what contemporary science postulates as a theory, but which has no way of analysing or proving its hypothesis. The proposition that at an unknown point, in an unknown place, an unknown something came out of nothing and somehow became something, cannot be put to an objective test. How scientific is it to draw from contemporary evidence and conjecturing backwards into an environment we cannot evaluate to make “proven scientific” pronouncements about a past we have no way of measuring!

To understand the world we live in from the platform of the creative act of God provides answers to questions about who we are, how we came to be and, vitally, about how we should live now. It provides an essential philosophical scaffolding for scientific exploration. In contrast the answers evolution suggests leads to a very different fluctuating prognosis of who we are, how we came to be and how we should live.

A personal Creator

Second, faith in a God of creation leads to a worldview that is shaped by the belief in a personal God. The intricacies of creation reveal a mind of infinite wisdom. The beauties of creation speak of one who loves aesthetics. The vastness of creation, shows forth the power of one who is Almighty.

The God of creation revealed in the Bible is a good, kind and faithful Creator (consider Luke 6.35, 36). More importantly, a personal God, a God who desires our relationship and can be sought and known (Jeremiah 9.23, 24).

This belief in a personal Creator gives meaning to our existence, a distinctive view of the physical world in which one lives and a unique understanding of material life. It is God’s world in which human kind are caretakers, stewards, of all that is his. The human race cannot with impunity pillage the world as they will, thinking they can alter it without realising the consequences of so doing. God’s design cannot be thwarted or improved upon. It also leads them to hold appropriately the material blessings God has provided in this world, teaching them to look beyond them to the invisible God. God is the ultimate reality of all existence and his material blessings call us to seek him (Romans 2.4).

What will yet be!

Next, such a belief not only looks back to the universe as it was created by God, seeing in its magnificent magnitude a minute precision of planning and purpose. But faith’s vision looks forward to the universe that will yet be (Cp. V3 to V16 “heavenly country”). God’s promise to create again the pristine beauty of a redeemed creation where no sin will be known. In other words the faithful join with creation in weeping over the fallenness of the created world around them; they know it groans as being in birth-pains but know too it has a hope of renewal that shall yet be (Romans 8.22, 23).

Truly human!

Finally, such a belief humanises those who possess it, as it gives them an insight into what it means to be a unique, individually, created being, made in the image of God. To know that they are such and are dependent upon a good Creator dignifies their view of humanity in a way that nothing else can. The sacredness of life is inviolable to them. For all human life is from God and unique.

(1) H. Jones, Let’s Study Hebrews

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When the Holy Spirit is unemployed! (John Calvin)

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” 2 Corinthians 13:14

The unique heart of the Christian revelation of God is that he is one being who exists in the three persons of, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the revelation of the relationship that exists between these three persons scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit takes a subservient role to the Father and the Son. This is in no way to suggest that he is lesser in nature, person, authority or power.

Christians must not allow their understanding of the Holy Spirit to be obscured because of the chosen arrangement between the persons of the Godhead of what we might call the “back-seat” role of the third person of the Trinity. The Spirit is no less God than Father and Son, neither is the Spirit a nice, optional extra in the Christian’s experience! There is an absolute vital necessity of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in creation and salvation. The Spirit who hovered over the face of the waters (Genesis 1.2) in the beginning, for God’s creative activity was not possible without him, hovers too over the administration of the work of salvation, which cannot be completed without him.

True knowledge

There is perhaps no theologian in the history of the church to whom so much is owed concerning the doctrine of the Holy Spirit than John Calvin. Concerning Calvin’s contribution to the collective Christian understanding of the Spirit one has written, “He did not invent it … but first gave it anything like systematic or adequate expression.” (1) This is borne out if one traces the flow of Calvin’s Institutes from the proposition with which he commences the work, that humanity’s true wisdom consists in knowing … the true knowledge of God and ourselves … ( Bk 1.1.1).

As book one explores the true knowledge of God revealed in scripture and glimpsed in creation, from which humanity has fallen; so, book two leads us into the knowledge of Christ the Redeemer. Book three is where the rubber of this knowledge of God hits the road of the believer’s experience as Calvin writes of how the benefits of Christ’s grace becomes the Christian’s. Whilst book four considers how this knowledge of Christ is kept in the world and matures in the believer through the Christian community (the church).

Book three, chapter one

Chapter one of book three is foundational to all that follows concerning the Christian’s salvation, which Christ has purchased. In it Calvin lays down the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. It is the Spirit’s sublime task to apply the finished work of Jesus to the personal experience of every individual recipient of salvation by his secret operation within.

Calvin would be the first to acknowledge that the secret workings of the Holy Spirit ministry in establishing and maintaining communion with God in the life of the Christian is one none can fathom (John 3.8). Yet, scripture teaches that it is a communion insolubly linked to the other persons of the Godhead, bringing fellowship with the Father and Son (John 14.17, 23). And the pleasure and enjoyment of this Trinitarian communion is one, which without the Spirit indwelling an individual, nothing, absolutely nothing, can be known.

The essential ministry of the Holy Spirit (3.1.1)

Calvin commences by insisting that the work of the Holy Spirit is absolute essential for any and all to become a Christian, by stating what an absence of the Spirit means. He wrote, “… So long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us.”  There would be no redemption if God the Father had not planned it; no redemption if God, the Son, had not purchase it; there can be no experience of redemption if God, the Holy Spirit, did not come to apply it in the life of the believer.

Ever since my first reading of the Institutes those words had made a deep impression on me. Is it not a startling thought that until one comes to faith in Christ his work is going wasted to us! Or as Calvin says, Christ is … unemployed! It is not just the incongruous thought that Jesus work could be of no benefit but the realisation of just how great was God’s grace! A grace overflowing not just in what God’s love in Christ had done but what the Spirit is committed to do for believers!

The chasm!

This ministry of the Holy Spirit is essential because of the enormity of the task involved in a sinner receiving Christ’s grace in salvation. A chasm has to be bridged between the grace Christ has purchased and the reception of that grace by the sinner in becoming a believer.

This gap between redemption accomplished by Christ and redemption applied, is not one which sinful human beings can traverse on their own! The hymn writer was right, “the mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary …” YES! But the gulf too between Jesus perfect work of atoning for sins, and the sinner receiving its benefits. It is the sovereign prerogative of the Holy Spirit to take the objective historic reality of Jesus finished work and bring its fruits into the subjective experience in the life of the Christian, and to bridge that chasm.

No storm in a tea cup!

It is worth noting that for Calvin this was no theological storm in a tea-cup! The thought that Jesus finished work should be wasted, go unused, strikes hardest in the heart of the person who has know a deep work of grace penetrating their own life. And it was his intimate experience of the Spirit’s ministry that gave Calvin a profound breadth of concern regarding Christ’s atoning work for all people. How is the … salvation of the human race … to be fulfilled? What is to become of humanity if Jesus Christ’s finished work is “… unemployed?”

There is here a window into this man’s heart for the lost. Calvin possessed a theological mind that had captured his heart! His understanding of the specific nature of Christ’s atoning work was one which grew into a deep commitment to God’s universal offer of redemption! (John 3.16; Titus 2.11) A free gospel was to be offered to all. But sin’s terrible incarceration of us demands more! It is why Calvin asks the vital question concerning this chasm, how is God to “… communicate to us the blessings which he (Jesus) received from the Father … and how is it possible that Jesus … must become ours and dwell in us” (Bk 3.1.1)?

The Spirit’s efficacy

Now the gospel offer is received by faith alone. But why is it that the offer of the gospel is taken up by some and not by others? It is not because in one the … secret efficacy of the Spirit, to which it is owing that we enjoy Christ and all his blessings   …  brings one to embrace the gospel, whilst another refuses them. The Spirit’s testimony in Christians is  engraved on hearts by way of a seal, and thus seals the cleansing and sacrifice of Christ … which is why Peter tells us Christians are “sanctified by the Spirit” (2 Peter 1.2).

For Calvin such is the intimacy of the tie between the Son and the Spirit in making Christ’s salvation the believer’s that he writes …if the shedding of his (Jesus) sacred blood is not in vain, our souls must be washed in it by the secret cleansing of the Holy Spirit … quoting 1 Corinthians 6.11 as proof. For … the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually binds us to himself … (Bk 3.1.1).

Culpable!

Such an understanding of the necessity of the Spirit’s ministry and his differentiation in dispensing it, does not make anyone less culpable in refusing it. Yes, the Spirit blows sovereignly where he wills but also it is to those who receive him (Jesus) that the right to be children of God belongs (John 3.8 Cp to John 1.12).

The Holy Spirit sent by the Father and Son (3.1.2)

If the Spirit’s work is essential to apply Christ’s salvation, and he is submissive to the others two persons in the Godhead, a reasonable question to ask is who sent the Spirit to do this work? That the Spirit was promised and sent forth at Pentecost the catholic Christian church confesses but who was responsible for the sending forth of the Spirit has been the cause of some controversy in the history of the church. (2) Is the Spirit sent forth by the Father or the Son? Calvin sees no inconsistency in attributing the Spirit’s sending forth to both Father and Son. Yes, the Father is the author but the Spirit has … been deposited … with the Son that he may … bestow … him on his people.

The Holy Spirit and the Son

It is because the Father has given the Spirit to his Son in all his fullness to dispense him to his people that he is called both the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son (Romans 8.9; 1 Peter 1.11). Such a dual designation speaks of the oneness of the three persons of the Godhead, but he is also spoken of as the Spirit of Christ because … in respect of his (Jesus) office as Mediator; because had he not been endured with the energy of the Spirit he had come to us in vain … Thus, Jesus not only knew a fullness of the Spirit to accomplish his Mediatorial office but he could also give his wonderful invitation in John 7.37 for all who are thirsty to come to him and receive the life-quenching Spirit.

It is no degradation to the person, office and work of our Lord Jesus that Calvin says Christ’s coming would have been in vain without the Spirit, but rather it exalts the majesty of Christ as the eternal Son and glorifies the persons of the Trinity in their union together in the work of salvation.

In order to accomplish salvation, then, Christ came armed for his work by the Spirit. And in  possessing the Spirit without measure (John 3.34) Jesus has the Spirit in abundance to give to his people, a giving which … might separate us from the world and unite us in the hope of an eternal inheritance … because he is the seed and root of heavenly life in us …

Calvin points out that it was for this reason that there is a rich vein of praise to the Holy Spirit running through the Old Testament prophets who foretold of Christ’s coming. They saw that one of the greatest benefits of Christ’s kingdom would be a … richer abundance … of the Spirit (Joel 2.28).

The Holy Spirit has a personal ministry (3.1.3)

Calvin goes on to drive home the vital relationship of the Spirit with God’s people in his role of bringing salvation into their lives, by showing that the sweet intimacy of the Spirit’s ministry in believers is revealed by the titles given to the him in this work: He is the … Spirit of adoption … the one who seals them, and brings to them the life of righteousness. With a sweet turn of phrase Calvin speaks of the Spirit as the one whose … secret irrigation makes us bud forth and produce the fruits of righteousness … ; which is why he is described as “water” (Ezekiel 36.25). The Spirit is also given the names of oil or unction. And as the one who is set forth as “fire” he destroys our vices and … inflames our hearts with the love of God and piety … The Spirit is the “fountain” from whom … all heavenly riches flow, … the “hand” … by which God exerts his power.

It is this ministry of the Spirit then that brings us into … union with Christ …, ensuring that our Saviour … has not come in vain … because we are brought into sacred marriage … (Ephesians 5.30) with Jesus, becoming his members. The mystical union that unites believers to Christ and each other is one the Spirit alone accomplishes (Ephesians 4.3).

A cold mortal!

There is a common view held of the Reformer John Calvin as a man with a towering intellect but one who was a cold unfeeling mortal, an impersonal man! Such a view is a half-baked one! A towering intellect? Yes! That he had no warmth of personality, and his Christianity was more cerebral than experimental. No! This is the man who wrote in his commentary on Ephesians 5.32, on the mystery of the union between Christ and the church, “Reason itself teaches us this: for whatever is supernatural is clearly beyond the grasp of our minds. Let us labour therefore more to feel (experience) Christ living in us, than to discover the nature of that communion.” There is perhaps no place where Calvin’s experimental Christianity is seen clearer than in the chapter that opens the third book of his Institutes. (3) 

Even with a cursory reading of chapter one the reader cannot help be struck by the sweep of Calvin’s knowledge of the scriptural teaching on the work of the Spirit. The biblical metaphors that flow forth from his pen are testimony to a writer who knew the intimacy of the Spirit’s sweet fellowship within his own heart!

It is surely inconceivable that anyone who could write of the personal experience of the Spirit in such a manner should be void of knowing that experience themselves! Calvin, a cold impersonal mortal? We think not! A man captured by the Spirit to live for the glory of God in Christ? Undoubtedly so.

An unemployed Spirit!

To speak of Christ being unemployed until the Spirit applies Jesus finished work to the believer is not to suggest that the Spirit is redundant, for as the life giving Spirit he is always continuously active. Calvin’s writes that his purpose in laying before us these scriptural metaphors is so that we might grasp … that until our minds are intent on the Spirit, Christ is in a manner unemployed … by believers and they therefore will … view him coldly … and at a distance from us … It is here that we see the root of much spiritual doldrums in Christian living!

The New Testament is replenished throughout with encouragements not to lose sight of communion with the Spirit: walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh; be renewed by the spirit of your mind; be filled with the Spirit; your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit; without me you can do nothing (Galatians 5.16; Ephesians 4.23; 5.18; 1 Corinthians 6.19; John 15.5). It is in failing to be filled with the Spirit that we “… view him (Jesus) coldly …” Do we gainfully and fully employ the ministry of the Spirit in our life?

The Holy Spirit and faith (3.1.4)

Calvin closes the opening chapter of book three with the Spirit’s work in bringing faith, … for it is his principle work. There is no receiving of Christ’s benefits but by faith, and there is no true saving faith without the Spirit, for it is the Spirit alone who produces faith in the life of believers.

Calvin will deal with the works of faith in the rest of book three but his point here is that the comprehensive and multifaceted ministry of the Spirit, which brings faith, is the Spirit’s principle work to the extent that often scripture attributes the Spirit’s work to faith. All the passages of scripture that state faith is essential for one to inherit Christ’s blessings, imply the necessity of the Spirit. The supernatural work of the Spirit in the Christian is one that is accomplished through the vehicle of faith, for it is not a work that flesh and blood (John 1.13) by itself can accomplish.

It is because the Spirit is the Christian’s Comforter, their internal teacher, that their mind perceives and embraces by faith all the promises of salvation. As proof of this Calvin quotes Ephesians 1.13; 2 Thessalonians 2.13; 1 John 3.24 and John 14.17 and goes onto say, in yet another simple but powerful metaphor, that the Spirit is termed the … key by which the treasures of heavenly kingdom are unlocked, and his illumination the eye of the mind by which we are enabled to see … A key to the treasure of heaven! Oh my! How we Christians under-value, under-estimate, do not walk in step with, fail to cultivate, a fellowship with the Spirit, by faith, to our own detriment!

Calvin closes by reminding his readers that this work of the Spirit is the universal suffrage of every Christian, which is why in order to partake of all Christ’s blessings in salvation they are all … baptised with the Holy Spirit and fire … (Luke 3.16) and in so doing  … enlightening (them) us into the faith of the gospel and so regenerating (them) us … and … dedicates (them) us as a holy temple to the Lord …

All glory, honour and praise to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit!

(1) Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings 1.212, 213

(2) The churches of the Western Roman Empire, in contrast to the churches of the Eastern Roman Empire, in a desire to keep with the teaching of scripture (John 15.26) that the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son added the Latin “Filioque” clause to their creed: the Spirit proceeds from Father and “Son.” This was a primary cause of the split between Western and Eastern Orthodoxy.

(3) One writer calls book three the “devotional centre of Calvin’s thoughts.” Elsie McKee, quoted by D. Calhoun in Knowing God and Ourselves p143

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Augustine, a man for our times (4) A little bit of scrumping!

“There is probably no man of the ancient world, of whose outward and inward life alike we possess such full and instructive knowledge as of Augustine.” (1)

There is a recurring rhythm in Augustine’s Confessions as he shares his inner life that some find unsettlingly, even disturbing! It is the constant refrain of sin’s tragedy being heard as Augustine reveals his inner thoughts. He is a man who sees his character and actions in the darkest light. He writes with such frankness, unafraid to acknowledge that he is guilty of wrongdoing. He lives with a perpetual self-loathing of his unworthy thoughts and recognising the depravity of his actions in the sight of God. And yet he never writes without hope! Or wallows in despair. One fascinating place this is revealed is in Augustine’s recollection of a “little bit of scrumping” (2) as a teenager!

A little bit of scrumping!

Urban living and plentiful provision has consigned “scrumping” to the dustbin of what kids don’t do any more! Augustine relates an incident from his youth, when with a group of friends, they stole pears (scrumping) from an orchard (Bk 2.4). He makes clear the pears were neither good to look at or to eat, and they were taken not out of need but were thrown to pigs!

He begins by acknowledging that the act certainly “… brought me no happiness …” Yes, but he recognises there was some pleasure in finding “… partners in sin …” as he and his teenage friends enjoyed the “… prank they played, no one suspecting them …” Many will identify with Augustine’s assessment of his 16 year old self,  “… I used to pretended that I had done things because I was afraid that innocence would be taken as for cowardice and chastity for weakness …” (Bk 2.3) Teenage bravado indeed!

What’s wrong with scrumping!

What’s the big deal about teenage high jinx in scrumping pears? A mature Augustine came to acknowledge there was something deeper involved, it was the pleasure in the crime itself that attracted him to scrumping pears! (Bk 2.8) It was done for the “… pleasure of doing something forbidden.” And as he questions why they did so he confesses it was because he loved the evil he found in himself. In what he described as a “… parody of life …” (Bk 2.6) he tell us that he enjoyed doing wrong simply because it was wrong! Yes, he “… enjoyed ..” doing the wrong but in tragic hindsight realised he was like the “… prisoner who creates for himself the illusion of liberty by doing something wrong, when he has no fear of punishment , under a feeble hallucination of power …” (Bk 2.6)

Yes, there was something very trite in the act, for Augustine admits that the theft of the pears did not even possess “… the shadowy, deceptive beauty which makes vice attractive …” Yet, the very triteness pointed to a deeper malaise! He knows that there is a deceptive beauty which human beings find attractive in doing wrong and goes on to write of “… pride (the pretence of superiority), ambition, cruelty (the weapon of the powerful), sloth (posing as love of peace), extravagance (masquerades as fullness and abundance), covetousness and anger …” (Bk 2.6). These all possess a fatal attraction for us, but what attraction was there in stealing pears! For Augustine there was none, except the pleasure of doing wrong!  

Human depravity

For Augustine recognising his motive led him to see the depravity of his own heart. His analysis led him to see the deep problem humanity in sin is confronted with. Augustine had begun his Confession with the acknowledgment “ … I ask you O Lord, where or when was I, your servant, ever innocent?” (Bk 1.7) Such an assessment comes from one who cannot separate who they are and what they do from their relationship with the God they were made to know.

He realised the act was just another irrefutable evidence of his need to return to the God whom he had turned away from for, “… the soul defiles itself with unchaste love when it turns away from you and looks elsewhere for things which it cannot find pure and unsullied except by returning to you” (Bk 2.6). This love for the wrong was an inevitable consequence of our fallen natures. We have fallen short of the glory God made us for and are unable to extract ourselves from our propensity to follow our way and not God’s.

He would later write, “… I exhausted myself in depravity, in the pursuit of unholy curiosity … I sank to the depths of scepticism … (Bk 3.3) … I did not know that evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains.” (Bk 3.7) As one has written concerning Augustine’s analysis of himself he was, “not passing judgment on himself alone, but in himself on humanity at large in its state of sin … he wishes to make us realise with him, what man is in his sinful development on earth, that our eyes may be raised … to see what God is in his loving dealing with the children of men.” (3)

Exhausted in sin

One cannot hope to understand why Augustine writes in this way unless one keeps in mind that his Confessions were written to God. He was laying bare before his God, acknowledging, what an omniscient God knew anyway! His sinful actions found their root in his fallen nature. Throughout he is constantly retuning to the themes of his rebellion against God’s rule over his life; his rejection of God’s good and loving ways; his refusal to listen to God’s gentle call to seek him. He confesses, “… I Exhausted myself.” Such a bold assessment of our natures is one that springs from a meeting with God, as Isaiah 6 well illustrates!

It’s not just the weariness of the life of sin Augustine refers to here but the catastrophe of realising one does not have the power to escape it’s terrible clutches! In a parallel to the psalmist anatomy of sin’s downward spiral in Psalm 1 he writes, “ … For my own will was perverse and lust had grown from it and when I get into lust habit was born, and when I did not resist the habit became a necessity … For the rule of sin is the force of habit by which the mind is swept along and held fast even against its will” (Bk 8.5)

“Against you only …”

In what could be a paraphrase of the anatomy of sin that James describes (James 1.13-15) Augustine is writing as one who accepted the biblical teaching on the tragic consequences of original sin. (4) When David wrote,“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51.6), he was not only deeply conscious of his sin before God over the foul acts he committed, but was acknowledging his actions were a consequence of his condition as a sinner. He did not fall into sin and became a sinner, rather he sinned because he was a sinner! This is what led him to further write, “it is against you and against you only I have sinned” (Psalm 51.4). The rhythm of Augustine’s Confession echoed this truth.

Scepticism of Augustine’s account

The cynical and the sceptical ask why Augustine should project from such a childish incident of high spirits, as a bit of scrumping, that there is in human beings a native love of evil? They see it as the sort of hyperbole the apostle Paul used when he described himself as the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1.15). Is not Augustine’s analysis of his little bit of scrumping a religious induced paranoia! Some question if the incident is a genuine account! Could it not be a memory coloured by his theological views, as he looked back with repugnance on his former life; exaggerating its nature and misrepresenting the deed!

Sincerity

First, in answer to such cynicism, anyone who’s read the Confessions cannot doubt that every page exhibits Augustine’s sincerity. Indeed, part of the attraction of the Confessions is his openness. His first concern in writing is to address his God and to confessing before him the debt he owes to God’s grace. For at the heart of Augustine’s writings is his relationship with God, on whom by faith he was entirely dependent, and in this dependence he found fulfilment; in the forgiveness and redemption with God, which Jesus Christ brought.

Augustine once wrote, “believe in order that you may understand.” Faith is a work in progress, part of which is a deepening in one’s understanding of God and his ways. Like all Christians Augustine as a person, in heart, mind and life, was always a work in progress. He got things right, he got things wrong, for he was pursuing the truth that is found in Jesus. It was, however, as his understanding of Christianity grew that his appreciation of the true nature of his self grew too.

There is a vital corollary that runs parallel with Augustine’s view of original sin in the Confessions. It is the hope and joy in the merciful God of heaven, who in Christ had forgiven him. In confessing his sins and his sinfulness before God he would praise the greatness of his Saviour, Jesus, who has redeemed him from sin’s clutches. The reader who fails to see this has surely missed the mark Augustine was aiming for in his authorship!

Challenging questions

However, second, Augustine’s understanding of human nature raises significant challenging questions that such cynics need to find answers for. Why do intelligent, educated, well informed people often make wrong choices? How do we explain the things we regret doing and that in our saner moments we’d never do? Why is the history of the human race one of great heights of endeavour, achievement and good, but also one of great depths of greed, hatred and selfishness? Without trying to over-simplify these matters Augustine’s self analysis of the root of his own failings; owning responsibility for them through the choices he made; in short his extrapolation of his own human depravity stand in stark contrast to contemporary views that education is all that an essentially good human nature needs!

Salvation by grace

Third, the answers to the imponderable dilemmas such questions raise for Augustine lay in the mercy of God in salvation. A salvation he understood from the bible was totally due to the grace of God. “Salvation is of the Lord” (Jonah 2.9). He knew there was nothing he could do that would warrant God’s grace in Christ but God had freely granted forgiveness of his sins through Christ’s atoning work, and concurrent with such an understanding was an ever growing appreciation of the depths of sin in his nature.

The measure of the Christian’s understanding of the depths of God’s grace deepens the more they appreciate the ubiquitous grasp sin has over them! The wonder of salvation is that God’s grace can be known and experienced in a fallen world. The grace found in Christ delivers and rejuvenates; it is a grace that overcomes their inward evil, in spite of their initial reticence and outright resistance.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Augustine’s musings as a case of religious paranoia. Listen to his perspective on them in the full light of coming to forgiveness in Christ “… I retrace my wicked ways. The memory is bitter but it will help me to savour your sweetness, the sweetness that does not deceive but brings real joy and never fails.” (Bk 2.1) The experience of sin’s conviction, which turns one by faith and repentance to Jesus Christ, leads to the fruit of full joy in God’s forgiveness and fellowship. Augustine writes of sin’s tragedy as “… the intoxication which causes the world to forget you, it’s Creator, and to love the things you created instead of loving you …” (Bk 2.3)

The Spirit’s ministry

Ultimately Augustine’s understanding of his corrupt human nature is to be attributed to the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. The discernment of the true motives behind his scrumping escapade came from a Spirit taught perception. It was as he was led by the Holy Spirit that he came to acknowledged the full panoramic character of sin’s terrible effect on his nature and increasingly appreciated its strangle-hold over him. Augustine would recognise Jesus graphic description of the root of his sinful actions!

“For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man.” Mark 7:21-23

David’s words in Psalm 51 previously referred to came forth from his pen as a consequence of the Spirit’s work within. One which led him to see the heinous nature of his sin in the sight of God, consisting not only of the sinful acts he committed but also arising from his sinful nature. He confess the truth that he was “conceived in sin! In varying degrees David’s experience is one that every Christian who comes to faith in Christ, and is in-dwelt by the Spirit knows.

Let the words of a far more competent man close this article! “Augustine realised to the bottom of his soul that he was a sinner and what it is to be a sinner, and therefore sought at God’s hand not acceptance but salvation…” He understood that “… the heights of joy are scaled only by him who has first been miserable and that the highest happiness belongs only to him who has been the object of salvation … that the sole hope of the sinner lies in the free grace of a loving God …” Augustine’s experience, as is every Christian’s, is one of knowing an essential dichotomy of “… despairing of self and (yet) casts all (their) hope on God …” and in so casting themselves on God know the “ thoughts and feelings that strive together in the human heart when it is invaded by divine grace.” (5).

(1) Works of B. B. Warfield, essay on Augustine’s Confessions Vol 4 p229
(2) For the uninitiated scrumping is the taking of fruit from orchards that are not one’s own!
(3) Works of B. B. Warfield, Vol 4 p268
(4) The Pelagian controversy
As a Christian and pastor Augustine was fully immersed in the affairs of his day. He was therefore, particularly through his writings, very much at the forefront of discussions on the burning issues the relatively young church had to wrestle with. The church of Jesus Christ faced many theological struggles in its early centuries, as it sought to understand the biblical revelation. One such concerned the doctrine of original sin. Augustine took up his pen to defend the orthodox understanding of what it meant to be a sinner against the teaching of Pelagius. A British monk who held that all human beings were born into the world as sinless as Adam was when God first created him. Such teaching struck at the very heart of the biblical revelation that the entire human race fell into sin in Adam’s fall. A fall that affected every part of human nature; a fall from which we cannot redeem ourselves. Our natural propensity is to choose sin and not God’s righteousness.
(5) Works of B. B. Warfield p252, 253, 255

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John Calvin – when heaven becomes more than a fantasy

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Colossians 3:1-4 NIV

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” That’s heaven. Where Jesus is. The Celestial City. “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Jesus is coming again to take Christian believers to their Heavenly Father’s home. What prospects are theirs!

Wood and trees

Thinking about heaven should have a place in the daily thinking of Christian people. We’re not talking about “being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good!” But rather understanding the role that contemplating their heavenly home should hold for Christians in their daily life?

Well! There is the problem of losing the wood for the trees! To be so taken up with the details as to lose sight of the importance of the overall picture. In the hustle and bustle of the life of faith it is too easy for Christians to lose sight of the terminus of being united to Christ. Inheriting the divine nature, bearing Christ’s image, but also being with Christ. All the spiritual blessings (Ephesians 1.3) they enjoy now in Christ are yet to be consummated in all their fullness in the life of the world to come.

The Christian life

John Calvin understood the vital role the contemplation of heaven was to have in the life of believers. It was to be more than a fantasy. It was to be an essential reality. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, in chapters considering the Christian Life, he highlighted the important role the prospect of heaven is to play in the life of faith here on earth.

The Institutes went through several editions throughout Calvin’s life, so for instance the last chapter of the 1541 edition entitled “The Christian Life” had morphed into Chapters 6-10 of book three, by the final 1559 edition. In book three Calvin is dealing with the work of grace that flows from Christ and the benefits it brings to Christians, and he saw meditating on the future life as essential to believers.

A model for Christian living

Chapters  6-10 in the 1559 edition come after the Reformer had dealt with the work of faith and repentance in regeneration (Ch. 2-5) and before dealing with justification (Ch. 11 ff). For the … object of regeneration is to bring the life of believers into concord and harmony with the righteousness of God and so confirm the adoption by which they have been received as sons (3.6.1).

Calvin describes these chapters as a “model” or “method” for helping believers to live a “well ordered life.” He certainly did not see them as an extensive exposition of such a large topic. He considered the necessity of self denial (Ch. 7) in following Christ, then he looked at the role of living under the cross (Ch. 8) as an aspect of self denial; before moving on to consider the role of thinking about heaven (Ch. 9) in their daily lives.

The purpose of our crosses

Calvin sees the chief purpose of bearing the cross (Ch. 8) in following Jesus in this world for Christians as learning to long for heaven by holding the present life in contempt. By contempt he means Christians are to hold onto the things of this world lightly in comparison to heaven; to not put too greater store on this world’s values, things and experiences.

As always Calvin would have believers hold a sensible view of such “contempt,” or “despising.” It is not to produce in the Christian a hatred of this life, nor one of ingratitude towards God for life’s good things are … God’s blessings … who  … before he fully shows us our inheritance of eternal glory the Lord chooses to make himself known to us as Father in the lesser things … for this present life helps us understand something of God’s goodness … (from 1541 French edition p812).

The Future Life

Chapter 9 then deals with the important flip side of being able to bear the cross and not hold the world too close by meditating on the future life, as a positive aid in walking by faith in the world. This prospect of their inheritance in heaven should have a revolutionary affect on how the Christian views life on earth! God will make all things new, including the earth, but there is no such things as “heaven on earth” in this present age! Yes, in God’s mercy they get foretastes of it, but they are only but foretastes! Jesus yoke is easy to bear (Matthew 11.28-30) because of his gracious nature but also because of the sweet anticipation of the endless pleasure of communion with the Triune God in heaven.

A pause!

It is worthwhile pausing to consider why Calvin include a chapter on meditating on the future life. How much time does the average 21st century believer give to contemplating heaven! Yet, Christianity has always been “other worldly.” Whether it is Jesus speaking of preparing a place for his disciples and coming back to take them where he is (John 14.2, 3); or praying to the Father that as his disciples are “not of the world … they … may be with me where I am …  (John 17.14, 24); or Paul longing to inherit his eternal home (2 Corinthians 4.16-5.2 );  or the glorious hope of the appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2.13); or John describing the new heavens and earth (Revelation 21.1). Christianity’s focus is on the great terminus of the walk of faith: the life of the world to come. Could Paul put it more succinctly when he wrote, “If we have only hope in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable.”(1 Corinthians 15:19)

Training in righteousness

Calvin sets the reality of the believers inheritance in heaven as the backdrop for all their Christian living on earth, and so turns what they would see as a “negative” into a positive! He begins Ch.9 by stating that Christians do not consider enough that set-backs and troubles in life are given to us, because we need to be  … Trained to despise the present and thereby stimulated to aspire to the future life (3.9.1).

It is interesting that Calvin speaks of “training.” The inference being that this is a long term process, and one that will need constant attention throughout their life of faith. The reason for such training is because there is a reality about our life that we do not like to admit to: all Christians love this present world too much and their … minds are so dazzled by the glare of wealth, power and honours that we can see no farther. The heart … is weighed down and cannot rise above them (3.9.1). This is not a dour black-robed Protestant attitude to the world but rather an insightful spiritual analysis of the human spirit; even the sanctified human spirit!

God knows how the best Christians love this world too much and so to prevent them from clinging to it too tenaciously God uses the strongest means to draw them back from the world’s charms. With a sweet candour Calvin explains how in order to deal with this disease in their hearts the Lord makes them sensible of the vanities of this present life by providing proofs of its misery and fleetingness in their daily providences – their peace can be disturbed – their riches may be reduced – their marriages could fall into trouble – God’s purpose in all these is to show them how unstable and evanescent are all the advantages of the world. Whilst positively he writes … We truly benefit by the discipline of the cross when we learn that this life, estimated in itself, is restless, troubled … and in no respect happy (3.9.1).

What a wonderful way Calvin had of turning the trials of this world to the faithful on their head! What a precious riposte! If our greatest joy is in knowing God, why are we not focusing on that delight now! Is this not just an echo of what we are told of the patriarchs in Hebrews 12.14-16 who forsook the present pleasures because they desired a “heavenly country!”

Sanctification

Calvin is dealing with that facet of sanctification that draws Christians away from their infatuation with the world in order to become more infatuated with Christ. It is the sanctifying work of dying to the desires of the old man and embracing the Holy Spirit implanted longings of the new creature in Christ. It is what Paul speaks of in (Ephesians 4.22, 24) when he says Christians are to “put off the old” in order to “put on the new” person. One who is a new creature in Christ is to view differently the old things that are passing away and to cultivate the new life, which is that “fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4.14).

No comprise

Just as oil will not mix with water, so our Lord Jesus told us that we “cannot love God and mammon” (Matthew 6.24). Calvin writes that there is … no medium …  between the world and the future life. The world will either become growingly worthless to us or enslave us. Therefore, those who have any regard for eternity must  … carefully strive to disencumber ourselves of these fetters (3.9.2).

A good parent, knowing the long term negative affects of too much sugar, regulates their child’s consumption of sweets. So, a good God calls us from the world’s fetters and its fascinations. Whilst it is true that even the godless know that life is fleeting, but carry on regardless, yet sadly there is no fact that Christians ponder less carefully; which is why they need experience and not just words to teach them. Surely, if God … finds it necessary to train us, it must be our duty to listen to him when he calls … (3.9.2).

An essential balance

As always with Calvin there is a careful balance to be held here. If Christians are to train themselves to hold this present life lightly, they are not to hate it or have ingratitude to God for it. This is because they are to see the kindness of God in it (3.9.3). For it is through the daily blessings of life that they are not only called to thank God for them, but it is the contemplation of these gifts that they learn of the life to come. It is on earth that they begin to taste God’s goodness and long for a greater manifestation of it in the life hereafter.

Falling out of love

In paralleling John’s “love not the world” (1 John 2.15 ) Calvin writes of an “improper love,” which needs to be curbed, for … In proportion as this improper love diminishes, our desire of a better life should increase … (3.9.4) Another way to put this is surely to say that Christians are to fall out of love with the world, in order to love the world to come! It’s glitter and glow is to hold less attraction for them as they mature in their walk of faith, contemplating heaven more.

Falling out of love with the world does not call for Christians, as some unbelievers pessimistically do, to wish they had never been born or to end their life. Such an attitude does not belong to those who possess true faith. Christians on the other hand are to learn that … if heaven is our country what can the earth be but a place of exile … if it is the very summit of happiness to enjoy the presence of God, is it not miserable to want it? (3.9.4) For if we are home in the body we are absent from the Lord (2 Cor 5.6).

Again, this does not mean that life is to be despised, it is only being subject to sin that is to be loathed in this life (Consider Romans 6.13). Christians are to be ready to depart this life by seeing its emptiness. With a lovely little metaphor Calvin writes of one’s time in this world as like keeping a post which the Lord has assigned to us  … till he recalls us … and so …let us ardently long for death and meditate upon it … (3.9.4). Let Christians learn to be as the apostle Paul who was desirous to be with the Lord, but was ready to stay and serve the Lord’s people as long as God saw fit for him to do so (Philippians 1.20-24).

A challenge to faith

Longing for death is not escapism or a religious fantasy. Calvin is no bury your head in the sand Protestant but is honest enough to say that even Christians fear the prospect of death but it is this dwelling upon the future life that mitigates that fear, for in death … we are recalled from exile to inhabit our native country, a heavenly country, shall this give us no comfort? We are to look to our … future immortality … (3.9.5) just as Paul longed to be clothed with his immortality (2 Corinthians 5.2).

At this point Calvin puts forth a real challenge when he says that if animate and inanimate creation long for their redemption (Romans 8.19) and how can it be that those who possess … the light of intellect … enlightened by the Spirit of God … rise no higher than the corruption of this earth … not long for their final redemption! No one has … made progress in the school of Christ, who does not look forward with joy to the day of death and final resurrection (2 Tim 4.18; Titus 2.13). Even our Lord Jesus encouraged us to look up … for our redemption draws near … (Luke 21.28), for our Lord Jesus will come … as a Redeemer to deliver us from the immense abyss of evil and misery and lead us to the inheritance of his life and glory (3.9.5).

The blessed hope

This is why the whole body of Christians, whilst here on earth, are … like sheep led to the slaughter so as to be conformed to Christ their head … (Romans 8.36). It is a mercy of God that he gives this glorious prospect of the future bliss that is their heavenly home to lift the heads of believers above the affairs of this life, and remove from them the envy of the rich and prosperous of this world, whilst they look for that day when … the Lord will wipe away every tear from their eyes, clothe them in a robe of glory and joy, feed them with the ineffable sweetness of his pleasure, exalt them to share with him in his greatness … admit them to a participation in his happiness (3.9.6).

Calvin brings his consideration in this chapter to a conclusion by setting down two polar opposites to place our life here on earth in perspective. He refers to the daunting prospect of Paul’s teaching on the future misery of unbelievers (2 Thessalonians 1.6, 7), from which Christians have been delivered, and closes by saying … the cross of Christ then only triumphs in the breasts of believers over the devil, the flesh, sin and sinners, when their eyes are directed to the power of his resurrection (3.9.6).

There is no heaven on earth! But on earth, through faith, the prospect of inheriting heaven is to become a reality. Calvin’s purpose was surely to encourage Christians to make heaven more than a fantasy, a present reality, even whilst they may walk through the valley of shadows here on earth.

Unless stated all quotes are from the 1559 edition of Calvin’s Institutes, translated by Henry Beveridge

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A Christmas Reflection – In from the cold

“… It was on a starry night, when the stars shone bright, earth stood sleeping …”

Was it “a starry night?” Well stars are beautiful but man it was cold that unforgettable night! “Sleeping!” Well the earth may have been but us shepherds were wide awake! It was more than our lives were worth to sleep with so many sheep to care for. Chilled to the bone! Only those deranged or us shepherds were out on a open hillside on a night like this.

Dark lonely nights

The night mirrored our life experience. If it was cold, dark and lonely sitting on a Bethlehem hillside, it simply reflected the life we knew in this world that was so cold and unfriendly. Ostracised by so many in our society, because of our occupation, meant our daily life was a lonely one. Humans are not made to be alone, excluded, shunned and ignored. It crushes the human spirit. To be looked down upon and your word never trusted because you are a shepherd suffocates your sense of humanity.

Looking at the night sky I often wondered if the God of our fathers, who made the immense expanse of space, cared for us in our loneliness as we drifted in the darkness of a cold world. The vast impenetrable darkness of the sky, which only the brightest stars penetrated, was like our relationship to God, we saw his greatness in what he had made but knew him not all!

Oh, what a night!

There had been a few wolf noises that night but apart from that it had been a quiet evening until … Oh what an unforgettable night it suddenly became! The wonder of it is forever etched in my memory. What a marvel to be a first hand witness to an event of such significance that it would reverberate down the centuries and across the nations!

The night sky suddenly split open with an explosion of light that was beyond anything this world could produce. An angel appeared shining with an all consuming transcendent brightness that was lighter than light. We were frozen to the spot. Dead in our places. Gripped by a sense of dread and guilt, intuitively convinced of our mortality and worthlessness, crushed by the weight of his glorious appearance. We expected to sink without trace under its weight when we heard him say, “do not be afraid”

The voice of another world enveloped us with warmth, security and acceptance. Our fears evaporated as he commanded our total attention, not out of dread but as if it was the only natural, sane and good thing to do. We were hardly expecting to hear what he said next though! “ Good news! In Bethlehem today. A Saviour! … Born for all people.”

“Good news … a Saviour … born to YOU!” Us! To us shepherds! What! Who had ever given us anything! This must be a dream. But, no, this Saviour was in the “city of David.”Bethlehem! Had we misheard him! Was that a mistake! Surely he meant to say in Jerusalem? No! It was in little Bethlehem that this baby was to be found and he called him “Christ the Lord” who was “wrapped in strips of cloths and laying in a feeding trough!”

Shepherds have a rough lot in life but I had never heard of one of our offspring being born and placed in an animals feeding trough! This was utterly unheard of, making no sense. Whose idea was this! A special child, exalted beyond measure, yet in the place where animals lay!

Glory to God

Then the night sky burst open and louder, brighter, greater than anything we’d ever heard began as, oh I do not know how many, certainly too many to count. A vast company of heavenly beings sang the praise of the God of heaven,

“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill to men.”

The sky reverberated with the glorious sound of their voices and the night sky itself echoed their praise of God. The sweetest sound! Words full of healing. The richness of pure truth penetrated heart, soul and mind, as their song washed over us. Then, they were gone. The sky was again dark and empty.

A dream?

We stood like those stuck in a dream waiting to be woken up. I do not know who broke our stupor and said, “let’s go and see this for ourselves.” But it was the only sane thing to do, as if this was what we’d been waiting our whole life to hear. Consumed with an irresistible desire to go and find this child we left our flocks! Can you believe that!

What a journey! We hurried with excitement, anticipation, expectation; full of questions and wondering what would be. Who’d ever invited shepherds to the birth of a King? As we went the reality of the historical encounters I had read of concerning our forebears in our scriptures crashed in upon my mind. God speaking, angels appearing, messages from another world, that would change lives forever. How pertinent and relevant they now became.

The residence of The King!

What we found was just as we had been told. A stable. The smell of animals prevailed in the gloomy darkness. The baby was so ordinary! So human! He even cried! There was no beauty in his looks. (Isaiah 53.2) His parents were ordinary folks, just a carpenter from Nazareth and his young wife. Yet, we knew we were in the presence of one greater than greatness! This Christ-child’s innocence transcended the scene and we were irresistibly drawn to him yet at the same time one felt so unworthy to be near him. So different from us and yet he was one with us. Above us and yet with us. That was why he was called “EMMANUEL”

Divine continuity

History is best understood from a platform of reflective perspicuity. As I reflected the sacred history of my people begun to make sense. It was like a veil being lifted from my eyes (2 Corinthians 3.15, 16) and I begun to understand the seamless divine continuity of God’s revelation in making this birth in Bethlehem known to lowly shepherds.

There is something more profound and wonderful than the sight of the angels filling the night sky, concerning the divine continuity. It is when one realises the magnitude of what God has done in his grace in bringing you in from the cold. The dark, lifeless existence that is living without God. But what mercy shown to the undeserving, the unlikely, bringing them not just into God’s divine story as told in history but into communion with himself.

Micah 5.2

I’d often swung between deep wonder and incredulous bewilderment over the prophet’s promise made so long ago, “… But you Bethlehem … out of you shall come forth to me the one to be ruler …” (Micah 5.2) A great leader, an ancient one, coming from Bethlehem! Under this same sky our father Jacob had buried his wife Rachel; Ruth the Moabite, chose to come and live as she followed her God; and king David grew up here. (Genesis 35.19; Ruth 1.22) Now, in fulfilment of God’s divine plan, revealed in the Old Testament, God’s Christ was born. And we shepherds had been brought in from the cold to see him!

The Shepherd of Israel 

I understood why the history of my people is indelibly intwined with shepherds, after all our God is the “Shepherd of Israel” (Psalm 80.1), who gathers in his sheep. We shepherds followed in the footsteps of our fathers, the patriarchs and king David, who all tended flocks! And did not God call David, a shepherd, to “shepherd his people!” (Psalm 78.70-72) Now one greater than David was here! The Good Shepherd, the Great Shepherd, the “Shepherd King had been born.

Who will believe our report?

There was a tragedy attached to this marvellous story for me. We could not keep quiet about what we had seen and began to tell anyone who would listen. However, many refused to “believe our report!” (Isa. 53.1) We know what we saw; we know what we heard and we know whom we found when we entered the stable. The Saviour, Christ the Lord, the shepherds’ Saviour, who would become the sacrificial Lamb of God to pay the price of sins (Isaiah 53).

Jesus was born on a cold night to bring us in from the cold. He is the light of the world who shines in this world’s dark night. He was born in a borrowed stable as the King of Kings! He had come to end our helpless existence and isolation and give us abundant life. He was rich beyond splendour but chose to become poor; born in insignificance, ostracised by many in life. But it is through his poverty that many can become rich. (2 Corinthians 8.9)

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Augustine, a man for our times (3) the material world, “living the lie.”

The constant refrain of the account of creation in Genesis one is “God saw that it was good.” God created a beautiful material world for humanity to dwell in. An environment where they were to enjoy communion with God and work, explore and find pleasure in the material habitat God had made for them. The tragedy of Adam and Eve’s fall was that the beautiful material world was transformed from a home to a cage, and where a broken humanity begun the misappropriation of God’s good gifts in a futile attempt to replace a lost communion with God with materialism. A contemporary definition of which is,

a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values …  a belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications … that consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency.”

Writing over three thousand years ago the Preacher of Ecclesiastes spoke of the weight of seeking to replace God with materialism. After his relentless research of seeking to find meaning of life in wealth, prestige, position and power he concluded, “meaningless, meaningless … utterly meaningless everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1.2).

Jesus taught, that “life did not consist in the abundance of things we possess” (Luke 12.15). Writing some four hundred years later in his Confessions Augustine came to appreciate the weight of Jesus’ words and that the relentless search for satisfaction in material comforts is a fruitless one.

Augustine lived in a different age and culture but it would be a mistake to think that he was a novice in the enjoyment and exploration of materialism. Nor should we think that the man who turned his back on the world’s attractions in latter life did not know what is was to pursue their pleasures as a younger man. Even though we live in a day when material poverty sits side-by-side with crass materialism, Augustine’s musings on our relationship to God in the material habitat, whether we have not, or are drowning in materialism, are worth considering.

The beauty of the material world

Let’s begin with a fundamental assertion. Augustine was no ascetic who despised the pleasurable things God had made for our enjoyment. He was well aware of the powerful pleasure of the material world. Our senses are finely tuned to find them agreeable. Life in this world can be a very attractive prospect and give great joy. “The life we live on earth has its own attractions … because it has a certain beauty of its own in harmony with all the rest of this world’s beauty” (Bk 2.5).

Soul satisfaction

However, Augustine had rediscovered that our material world was not there to be lost to God in, rather it was an environment where God deigned for us to enjoy communion with him. Augustine’s bottom line was that any and every earthly joy cannot be compared to the value and joy of knowing God. “The eye is attracted by beautiful objects … we find great pleasure in feeling something agreeable to touch … material things have various qualities to please our senses … as it is gratifying to be held in esteem by other people … to have power and mastery over them … The life we live on earth has its own attractions … it has its own beauty … these earthly things can give joy, though not such joy as my God, who made them all, can give” (Bk 2.5).

It was this comparison of enjoying the good things God gave to the greatest good (God) that led Augustine to conclude, “Material things that have no soul could not be true objects of my love” (Bk 3.1). It is a tragic dead-end for living to mistake the consumption of material things as that which can satisfy the soul. It is travesty of God-given life for one to live without ever experiencing that our real need is for “God, who is the food of the soul.”

We are created with a capacity to love. To love God, love others and love ourselves, but when love is poured into materialism alone it is spilled upon the ground and wasted! The love of material things “must not be like glue to bind my soul to them” (Bk 4.10), for in these material things there is no place for rest, “because they do not last … they are sufficient for the purposes for which they were made.”

Material loss

In book four Augustine relates how the sudden death of a friend turned him to consider not only the pain of loss in the material world but how quickly material things are lost to us. In a sober and honest reflection his assessment of his life was, “I lived in misery, like every man whose soul is tethered by the love of things that cannot last and then is agonised to lose them … I was sick and tired of living and yet afraid of dying” (Bk 4.6). In the words of a modern sporting celebrity icon, “… There’s so much attached to that lifestyle – clubbing, partying, drugs. That was me – but it’s not the real me … I’d been living the lie!” (1)

Augustine appreciated the beauty that was to be known in this world but saw the sad reality that, “wherever the soul turns, unless it turns to you, it only clasps sorrow to itself … even if we cling to beauty, if the beauty is outside of God … it only clings sorrow to itself” (Bk 4.10). He was not a kill-joy, who in self-righteous arrogance turned his back on life’s pleasures, rather he understood that, “things of beauty would not exist at all unless they came from you (God) … like the sun they rise and set” (Bk 4.10).

It is because the beauty, pleasure and joy of material things are gone in the blink of an eye that to know God in Christ is “Far better than all these things is he who made them all, God. He does not pass away because there is none to take his place” (Bk 4.11).

A fitting conclusion

Augustine’s understanding of our relationship to the material world stands at the heart of what Christianity teaches, “If the things of this world delight you, praise God for them but turn your love away from them and give it to their Maker, so that in the things that please you you may not displease him” (Bk 4.12). For one, “who has faith in you (God) owns all the wealth of the world, for it belongs to you, whom all things serve, though he has nothing he owns them all” (Bk 5.4).

Soul satisfaction, peace and rest in the material world is to be found in God and his “Word” (Jesus Christ, see John 1.1). Augustine writes of Jesus as he who by his “own abounding life and with thunder in his voice called us from the world to return to him in heaven … from heaven he came down to us, entering first the Virgin’s womb, where humanity, our moral flesh, was welded to him so that it might not be forever mortal.” Jesus calls us by “his words and deeds, by his life and death, by he descent into hell and his ascent into heaven … He departed but is still here with us” (Bk 4.12).

Augustine understood why the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12.13-21), a man with no name, is a tale of one who had everything but had nothing; whilst the poverty stricken Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31), who was known in heaven, was a tale of one who had nothing yet possessed all things!

(1) Nigel Benn, former world middleweight boxing champion (Daily Telegraph 21.11.20)

The reader will forgive the writer’s poor attempts at paddling in the shallows of the great depths of thought that is Augustine’s Confessions!

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Living under the cross (John Calvin)

Living under the cross

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

It is with absolute integrity and a complete lack of duplicity that Jesus Christ described the cost of being his disciple as taking up a cross and following him. Jesus succinct definition of what it is to live the Christian life is to imitate him in taking up the cross and following him.

It is hard for us today to conceive how horror struck Jesus first hearers would have been on hearing this description. We get a glimpse from the “saving … losing life’ but we cannot envisage the awful reality. Personal humiliation, physical degradation, intolerable suffering, ignominy and death were associated with carrying a cross. It’s hardly a PR winner!

The exercise of faith in choosing to live under the cross in following Jesus is costly. Living in the light in a world of spiritual darkness puts one’s head above the parapet; fleeing from living under the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2.2) makes one an open target; knowing the renewing work of the indwelling Spirit commences the conflict between the old and new nature (consider Romans 7.14-25). Faith’s choice brings joy and comfort but there is an inevitable price to be paid too.

Living under the cross

Living under the cross is not the only way the bible teaches believers to think of the Christian life. The scriptures provide a plethora of definitions of what it means to follow Jesus. It is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.17); it is keeping in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5.25 ); it is putting on the new man (Ephesians 4.24); it is being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12.2). But none of these are as difficult to assimilate in the life of faith as the notion of living life under the cross in “denying ourselves and taking” up our cross.

John Calvin

One believer who understood life under the cross was the Reformer John Calvin. He chose to bring the 1541 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion to a close by writing on the nature of the Christian life (Found in Bk 3 Ch 8 in the final 1559 edition). He describes its multifaceted nature under a number of headings. It is a call to holy living, which grows out of knowing Christ; a life that is no longer our own (what a joyful relief that is!); a life of seeking God’s will and glory; one of denying self and serving others; a life of love, generosity and grace. But he writes too of lifting ourminds still higher, to where Christ calls us,” when he writes about what it means to bear the cross in living the Christian life.

Why life under the cross?

Calvin commences by stating Christians must understand that it is their Heavenly Father’s “good pleasure” to test and train his servants in the pattern of living that was initiated in the life of his Son, whose “entire life was a kind of perpetual cross.” For those who have faith in Jesus Christ as God’s eternal Son it is staggering to be told that the Son learned obedience by the things he suffered (Hebrews 5.8). And even more staggering that Christ submitted to this life of cross-carrying on behalf of his people!

It is a remarkable source of comfort to the Christian to know that in their walk of faith “when suffering the misery of what we call adversity or misfortune we share in Christ’s cross.” They are not asked to do nothing that their Saviour has not done before them. In fact he was the trial blazer in whose footsteps they follow. Such an understanding Calvin says, “powerfully sweetens any bitterness which we might find in the cross.” Jesus chose the life of the cross in obedience to his Father. But, according to Calvin, there are necessary and wise reasons why the Father chooses the way of the cross for his children.

Pride and the cross

First, the cross subdues what is our greatest hindrance in living the Christian life: pride. It is a sad statement on our natures, even when being saved by grace through the work of the Spirit, that we do not appreciate how ingrained pride is in us and what a hindrance it is to living godly.

Pride insidiously creeps into the very best Christians and encourages the propensity to trust in self and believe that they have strength in themselves to live under the cross. “We are to ready to exalt ourselves and to claim sufficiency … and get inflated ideas of our own abilities.” Christians can develop a “supercilious attitude towards God.” The Apostle is quite clear though, “he that thinks he stands take heed less he fall” (1 Corinthians 10.12).

One who carries a cross has no room for pride! It is in carrying our cross that we discover our weakness to do so, and we are not only humbled to submit to its demands, but in so doing it brings the “discovery that God’s power is available” to us in our weakness. The Christian is able to do “all things through Christ” (Philippians 4.13) who strengthens them.

Patience through the cross

Second, a life lived under the cross teaches patience, from which a Christ-like character is built (Romans 5.3, 4). Patience gives the saints, “an experimental proof that God in reality furnishes the aid which he has promised whenever there is need” (Ch. 8.3 1559 edition). It teaches the Christian to rest in God and the victory through grace they experience gives them hope. The goal of salvation is to be conformed to the image of God’s Son and such a work demands that Christians endure patiently the work of God’s Spirit in shaping Christ in them.

Bearing the cross with patience does not mean “we become entirely senseless, feeling no pain.” Christianity is not stoicism. Calvin points out how our Lord Jesus groaned and wept out of sorrow. Did he not know dread (Matthew 26.37)? Did he not know the sorrow of death (Matthew 26.38)? He writes “For adversity will always makes us feel its sting and bite … when affected by illness we will groan, lament and long to get better; when hard pressed by poverty we will experience perplexity and worry … disgrace … will hang heaven on our hearts. When one of our family dies we will pay nature the debt of tears we owe. Always, however, we will be led to conclude: God has willed it so; let us follow his will … to train our hearts to bear joyfully the things that cause grief.”

The wisdom and gentle concern for Christians that Calvin opens up here dispels the caricature, so loved by many, of the dour and austere Reformer of Geneva, who lacked human warmth and empathy. These are not the words of an unfeeling religious sour-puss but rather as a compassionate pastor his aim was “to guard all good souls from the perils of despair, so that while experiencing natural feelings of pain, they may continue to practice patience.” Patience is not insensibility, nor are we a “block of wood,” but in their enduring the cross-shaped life Christians know the the joy of God’s comfort.

Obedience by the cross

Third, Calvin goes on to write that patience in living under the cross teaches the Christian obedience. Obedience to the cross not only tunes the Christian’s faith but subdues their old natures. Their faith, which is more precious than gold, is refined, in life’s  furnace (1 Peter 1.7). The reason God chooses this way is not because he takes some perverse pleasure in disciplining them but rather because they are so slow to appreciate his goodness towards them. And such is the wisdom of God that he knows which individual cross each of his children need to bear, for one believer’s cross will not necessary be the same as another’s.

Grace under the cross

Calvin is honest enough to speak of the pain of life’s hardships but he is wise enough to shine upon them the grace and mercy of God, which “works all things together for our good’ (Romans 8.28). “It is true that poverty … is wretched. So too is exile, contempt, disgrace and prison. And death is the extreme calamity. But when we enjoy the breath of God’s favour there is nothing in any of these things that does not contribute to our welfare and happiness.”    

The more we are afflicted with adversity the “surer we are of our fellowship with Christ … our communion with him … and it furthers our salvation” (Ch 8. 1 in the 1559 edition). It is in this way that Christians imitate their Saviour, Jesus, “Who for the joy set before him endured the cross …”  (Hebrews 12.2).

The Father’s love in the cross

Finally, the cross is a sign of our Father’s love for us. The life of the cross is in the hands of our loving heavenly Father, who desires nothing for us but good and is preparing us for his heavenly kingdom. What father does not want the best for his children and so seeks to train them in love in the way of life. Our Heavenly Father “afflicts us, not to ruin or destroy us, but to rescue us from the world’s condemnation,” for “whom the Lord loves he corrects, even as a father does the son whom he delights in” (Proverbs 3.11, 12; Hebrews 12.8).

Unless stated all quotes are from the 1541 French edition of Institutes, translated by Robert White (Banner of Truth 204)

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Augustine of Hippo: A man for our times (2) God’s sweetness

The reader will forgive the writer’s poor attempts at paddling in the shallows of the great depths of thought that is Augustine’s Confessions!

The premise of these series of articles is that Augustine’s Confessions make him a man for our times, for he wrote on issues that the “woke generation”need to hear. Consider the words below, which are perhaps his best known.

“You made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”

These words do in fact come from the opening paragraph of his Confessions. The full sentence of these deeply moving and comforting words is, “The thought of you stirs (us) so deeply that we cannot be content unless we praise you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you” (Bk 1.1).

The sweetness of knowing God

When Augustine wrote this powerful, provocative, statement concerning the reality of God’s existence and our relationship to him, it was written out of a deep experimental conviction. He enjoyed a personal and intimate faith communion with God, which Augustine often described as “sweetness.” For him God was not only a living reality but the reality in which all others things exist, and to know God by faith was the sweetest of all joys and comforts.

God is an unfathomable mystery but Augustine rejoiced in knowing the goodness and sweetness of God, “For in you our good abides and it has no blemish since it is yourself … our home is your eternity and it does not fall because we are away” (Bk 4.16). For to know God is to know “sweetness, the sweetness that does not deceive but brings real joy and never fails” (Bk 2.1), for God is the “food of the soul” (Bk 3.1). He agreed with the psalmist who called upon to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34.8).

Augustine’s life after his conversion to Christianity was one consumed with pursuing communion with God in Jesus Christ. This was not an arduous religious chore but a delight, for he affirmed the “blessed hope” (Titus 2.13) that is the Christian’s of the appearance of their “great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.” The centre and purpose of life, that for which we were made, is to know God. It is the constant refrain of the Confessions that we cannot escape the inner stirring for God we all innately possess; we cannot find contentment in anything of itself outside of God; we were made to praise God and find rest solely in him. What makes Augustine’s Confessions so relevant to the non-Christian is that he came to this faith relationship with God from the position of not believing in the God of the bible!

The God who is near but unknown

Faith brought Augustine to see that the God of the bible is the God who is everywhere present and therefore near everyone of us, but yet far removed from us. The God who may be known by us but is unknowable. This is why even to the greatest human minds there is a conundrum that is God, for “You are most hidden from us yet the most present amongst us … you are unchangeable and yet you change all things. You are never new, never old, and yet all things have new life from you … You are ever active, yet always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need … You grieve for wrong, but suffer no pain. You can be angry and yet serene. Your works are varied but your purpose is one and the same. You welcome all who come to you, though you never lost them” (Bk 1.4). Like Job he understood that whatever we may know of God is but the “edges of God’s ways” (Job 26.14).

It was the magnitude of God’s inexhaustible infinity that Augustine could never cease to be amazed at, for this great God fills all of creation but even then he does not “fill them with your whole self” (Bk 1.3). For, “You have no parts, some greater or smaller. You are everywhere and everywhere entire. No where are you limited by space. You have not the shape of a body like ours. Yet you made man in your own likeness …” (Bk 6.3).

The God for today

Augustine could not get over why he meant so much to this great God! It is because the infinite God knows no difference between living and being, he is always relevant to us because he is the God of “today!” “You are infinite and never change. In you “today” never comes to an end: yet our “today” does not come to an end in you, because time, as well as everything else, exists in you” (Bk 1. 6).

A liberating truth

Augustine had discovered a wonderfully liberating truth. A person does not have to live with the burdensome notion that we exist for ourself. One can stop pretending that the meaning of our existence has to be found in an experience, a person or even in a desired goal. All of which are so illusionary and changeable. God made many beautiful things for us to enjoy in this world but none were designed for us to find meaning and purpose in them. Nothing in the created realm can be compared to the sweetness of knowing God. To rest in anything created is like the child who prefers to play with the wrapping paper and ignore the gift it was wrapped in and be unthankful to the Giver!

Augustine’s definition of true existence is not the musing of the ancients who knew no better. No! This is the wisdom of the ages that says God is and he is the Creator and we are his creation. We are not independent beings, who exist in our own little vacuums, trying to find meaning and purpose for life. We are made in God’s image, for God’s purpose and God’s purpose is that we find our true happiness, meaning and rest in him.

The God who cannot be ignored

Augustine was honest enough to confess that he had spent many long years ignoring the reality of the God who was there, as he lived, “Without out God in the world” (Ephesians 2.12). He had pursued many things in the hope of finding contentment and satisfaction without realising it can only be found in knowing God (Jeremiah 9.23-25). He came to acknowledge that as created beings we cannot know total fulfilment outside of resting in God, and was brave enough to admit that it was his own sin that made him look for “pleasure, beauty and truth (not in God) but in himself” (Bk 1.20). He had made a deliberate choice to satisfy himself rather than find satisfaction in God.

Christian faith begins when we realise that we have made a deliberate choice to ignore God. It is not just the ardent atheist who denies God’s existence and chooses to flounder in the sea of their own limitations and perceptions, never finding a lasting peace. But the busy materialist too chooses to seek satisfaction in the things that are made rather the the God who made them, and finds no time to rest in God. Even the religious can choose misguided notions of God that leave the deep cry of the heart unanswered, for even Augustine came to see that “the god I worshipped was my own delusion.” (Bk 4.7) Whilst the nueva spiritual choose to grope around in the shallows of their own understanding looking to experience spirituality, but ignore the God who is Spirit.

Such choices to try and find life outside of God are like the recent report of those new water-saving flush toilets found in so many public places. Apparently because of misuse or lack of clear instructions in how to use them they are in fact using far more water than the standard flush toilet they replaced! How we waste our precious time and energy pursuing satisfaction in anything but the God who satisfies. Jesus spoke of himself as, “living water, the bread of life,” and that those who trust in him would “never hunger and never thirst” ( John 6.35; 7.37, 38).

The God we cannot escape

Augustine challenges the belief that God is an optional extra for living. Many people, probably the majority, choose to live life without God. God is a nice luxury but not a necessity. We can get by without God, politely tipping our hat to him occasionally. Augustine spent thirty years doing so! It’s why he wrote the Confessions. To acknowledge to God what God already knew: He had spent his life trying to ignore God’s existence but had come to see that, “I may hide you from myself but not myself from you.” (1)

Augustine honest assessment was he sought to avoid God by “hiding” God from himself. One can hide God by seeking to lose him in the daily round of life’s activities, by being too busy for God (Luke 10.40-42); or drown out his voice in a sea of materialism (Luke 12.13-21); or we can ignore his promptings by pursuing pleasures (Luke 15.13). To attempt to hide God from ourselves is a root cause of our unhappiness, but is also futile. How can one hide from the God whose invisible attributes are evident all around us, confronting us every day, in the world he has made (Romans 1.20)! Sadly, life for those outside of Christ is one long pursuit of seeking to avoid the God who is there.

Alternatively, Augustine came to appreciate that he could not hide from God! How can one think that they can hide from God! We laugh at the small child who covers their eyes with their hands and says, “you can’t see me!” But how can we honestly believe that we can hide from God! A God from whom we could hide would hardly be much of a deity! Are there really hidden corners of our life that God cannot access! The Christian confession of God is, “Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139.7)

The medicine of faith

Augustine acknowledges that his escape from this unhappy life game of avoidance was due to the unwarranted mercy of God who he attributes as “dispensing the medicine of faith” to him that finally led him to rest in God. He begun to see that the bible was a book that could be trusted. The scriptures spoke with an authority of many things he had not seen! Yet, it was not unreasonable for him to accept and trust the Bible’s teaching. Why should he doubt those things, for he accepted many facts of history, of unknown places as true, even though he had not seen them! He describes this experience of this medicine of faith as God having, “laid your most gentle, most merciful finger on my heart and set my thoughts in order” (Bk 6.5). And God did this through the Christ he read of in the bible, “who is the Way and Word of God” (Bk 5.3). Indeed it was the reading these words in the bible that led to his conversion, “clothe yourself in the Lord Jesus Christ and do not think to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13.13, 14)

It was in coming to rest in this peace with God, found through faith in Christ alone, that he found happiness, hope, meaning and satisfaction in life. A sweetness that surpassed everything else. And he wrote because he wished others to find that same peace with God in Christ, who is the Father’s “Word, who is God with you, one God with you, by whom you made all things” (Bk 8.1).

An invitation

Finally, Augustine wrote to invite others to rest in the sweetness of knowing God. His words wonderfully express the heart-throb of the bible’s revelation concerning God and our relationship to him. The God of the bible is a covenant making and covenant keeping God, who establishes a relationship with us that is built upon Jesus Christ, and the heart of this covenant is, “you shall be my people” and “I will be your God” (Genesis 17.8; Ezekiel 36.28; 37.23, 27; John 20.17). Here is the sweetness that is the heart of Christianity, an unbreakable covenant relationship with God established through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

This invitation to rest in God can be claimed by anyone who seeks Christ as Augustine did. He was not born a Christian; he chose to reject the early Christian teaching he heard; he sought to live in peace and with purpose outside of Christianity, but without success. When he finally chose to seek God in Christ he found him merciful and one ready to receive those who sought him.

What sane human being would try and live in this world and deny themselves the oxygen they need for existence! How tragically insane to live in this world whilst denying the DNA of our very existence! To do so leads one to conclude as the French philosopher Albert Camus did that our existence is meaningless for, “All of life is absurd.” In contrast Augustine in faith confessed, “O God, alone in majesty, high in the silence of heaven, unseen by man” (Bk 1.19). But faith finds rest in God’s sweetness; “Let us scent your fragrance and taste your sweetness” (Bk 8.4), who in the person of his Son, chose to join his deity to our humanity, in order to raise us up to deity in making us children of God (2 Peter 1.4).

(1) Quoted by William Gurnall in Daily Devotions from the Puritans (September 11th)

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Comfort in life and death and question one of the Heidelberg Catechism

The little family across the road from us painted a rainbow on their front window yesterday. This familiar symbol is particularly pertinent at present. It’s an emblem that finds its significance in the Bible’s account of early human history, representing comfort and hope to all humanity.

We humans have always known difficult days. Those periods when the security of our lives are shaken to the core: Personal tragedies; family upheavals; community calamites; national catastrophes. Covid-19 maybe new but sadly pandemics are not. When life is stretched to breaking point, normality hides its face and the foundations are shaken (Psalm 11.3), what is it we hold onto? What is our hope? Where is our comfort? In such times we need more than, “Keep calm and carry on!” The statement below is from the 16th century Heidelberg Catechism, written in another tumultuous period of history and gives a beautiful definition of Christian faith, hope and comfort.

What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I, with body & soul, both in life & death am not my own but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins & delivered me from all the power of the Devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation wherefore by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life & makes me heartily willing & ready henceforth to live unto him.

The gospel in a nutshell is how John 3.16 has been described. How is it possible in so few words (25 in the NKJ version) to explain the greatness of God’s purpose, the depth of his boundless love and his glory revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Yet, without undermining the eternal fullness of the Christian revelation of God in Christ John 3.16 is surely a beautiful encapsulation of the gospel (good news from God) in a nutshell!

The answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism could be described as the Christian faith in a nutshell, as it seeks to distill the essence of the riches of what faith in Christ embraces; which the rest of the catechism then unpacks. Like the better known succinct opening to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “what is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever,” it is a condensed statement of Christian faith. Neither are all that can be said but they do characterise the intrinsic nature of faith. It is not surprising, therefore, that Christians down the centuries have loved the beautiful, rich experimental confession of faith found in the opening answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. Some think it is unsurpassed in articulating what it means to live a life of faith.

The way is paved for the answer by the universally pertinent and fundamental first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Life and death are the two great bookends that are immovable for every human being. Have you been born? Then you have life! Have you life? Then you will have to die! No matter how much or how little is placed between these bookends of our existence, for good or for ill, these sentinels will never leave their posts! Male, female, rich, poor, old, young, all of our lives exist between these two immovable guardians of our existence. How comforting to know that the Christian’s Saviour, Jesus Christ, unlike every other, chose to take a human frame and chose to live within the bookends of this existence too!

Why did the framers of the Heidelberg catechism begin by asking what is our comfort in between the two bookends of life? Quite simply because every member of the human race needs comfort! Security. Safety. Refuge. Protection. Certainty. Whether it is the unarticulated cry of the new born baby in it’s mother’s arms. Or those last breaths, which we are all called to take alone! Comfort is essential to live a life of stability and happiness, for there is no satisfactory human experience without it.

The question acknowledges that we all search for a meaningful and enduring comfort. How tantalising life in this world is! We live in a beautiful world that is furnished with the good things God has provided for his creatures but our sinful dysfunctionality means we fail to use them aright! How easily are we hoodwinked by the “moth and rust” and cheated by the “thieves” (Matthew 6.19-21) of materialism! We too readily place our sole trust in comforts that we soon tire of; that take wings and fly away, or inevitably we have to part company from each other.

Why is comfort in life so elusive? Biblical Christianity teaches that it is because we are the descendants of Adam and Eve. In them we too lost the security our first parents knew in walking with God in Eden, enjoying God’s presence and living in God’s world in God’s way with God’s blessing upon them. Theirs is not an allegorical story but an historical act that sentenced them and their posterity to live in a world where comfort is like a desert mirage! We have inherited the tragic relationship that they established for us with our Creator God. How frightening did the world become when they chose to disobey God and become sinners separated from God and living under condemnation (John 3.36).

Yet, it is a loving Father’s benevolence and kindness that life in this world is still littered with comforts for all his creatures (Matthew 5.45), for God made the world “good.” Yet these comforts are designed to be temporary, are insufficient to give the enduring comfort that we need and are meant to lead us to the Giver of these gifts. In our search we are like the restless sea that is never still, and so the question is drawing our attention to that comfort that can only be found in God himself.

We were created to know the “God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1.3) and to live in dependence upon him. This is why the question asks, what is “your only” comfort for life and death? It is not denying that God provides many things in life that make it comfortable. Material wealth does bring momentary ease in life but what of death? You can’t take it with you! How many too late realise they have those tragic words written over their life, “you fool, this night your soul will be required …” (Luke 12.13-21). How many find out too late that the comforts of life, even the sweetest of them, are washed away as life peters to its inevitable end! Whilst all the while the world makes ceaseless war on our comforts by disease, disaster, despair, and man’s inhumanity to man bringing pain and misery. Add the ubiquitous call of an uneasy conscience, and we have a toxic mixture, which poisons our security. What is the answer to this haunting question, “what is your ONLY comfort ..?” The catechism answers:

That I, with body & soul, both in life & death am not my own but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins & delivered me from all the power of the Devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation wherefore by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing & ready henceforth to live unto him.

Is there a more beautiful summary gleaned from the teaching of scripture concerning the ever-sweet comfort found only in Jesus Christ! An answer that is enshrined with Christian hope. Comfort is inseparably linked to hope, for comfort arises from hope. For a hope that does not bring comfort is no hope at all; whilst a comfort that offers no real hope is shallow indeed. Such a comfort is not fit to weather the storms of life, much less hold together in death’s dark valley! What a comfort it is to know one has a hope to live for and a hope in death and beyond, for without hope we can neither live happily nor die in comfort! Christians have “one hope of your (their) calling” (Ephesians 4.4) and look for that “blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2.13). The Jesus who will appear again is he who was crucified, dead, buried and rose from the grave!

It is the Christian’s commitment of faith in the risen and retuning Jesus Christ that enables them to hand their life over to their “faithful Saviour.” Jesus is the reason for the “hope within them” (1 Peter 3.15). The solidity of this comfort and the certainty of this hope is built upon the undeniable facts of what Jesus has already done and what he has promised yet to do.

The fundamental life assertion of this Christian faith says, I’m not my own but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” These are two precious comforts to the Christian. “I’m not my own …” They are never alone! What a comfort it is in life to know that you are not on your own; to have the experience of knowing you will never be isolated or deserted, for Jesus said, ‘I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” Secondly, how beautiful to know the comfort of belonging, but belong to my faithful Saviour …” Jesus is the Saviour who said, “ … take my yoke upon you … and you will find rest to your souls” (Matthew 11.29). “In me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Belonging to Jesus, who is altogether lovely. All together faithful. All together trustworthy. He who is the incarnated fulfilment of “God so loved the world” (John 3.16). True comfort, then, is found in handing over one’s life to Jesus Christ.

This of course appears to many as the height of delusional folly to lose one’s life by handing it over to Jesus Christ. Paul was accused long ago of being out of his mind (Acts 26.24)! “Whoever desires to save his life let him lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16.25), has always seemed absurd to the world. But to those who have found the comforts of this world are broken cisterns, handing one’s life over to Jesus Christ is the only sane, safe and sensible thing to do. There is absolute security in doing so and they find that they “lose their life to find it” (Matthew 11.19). Gone too is the cold chill of the words, “… without Christ … having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2.12).

The catechism is picking up on the comfort and hope that arises from the exchange that lays at the heart of Christian faith. Paul spoke so eloquently of it when he wrote, “ … I am crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2.20). There is no comfort or hope without this exchange, which faith grasps hold of when it places its trust in Jesus Christ. The incredible nature of this exchange is not in what we think we have to give up in becoming a Christian but rather what Jesus Christ gave up for us (2 Corinthians 8.9)! It was a costly exchange to Jesus Christ for the catechism reminds us that it is vouchsafed by his “precious blood.” Front and centre to Christian hope and comfort in life and in death is the atoning work of Jesus Christ on Calvary. “My faithful Saviour,” has, and he will, deliver me from all things. It is through his sacrifice that salvation from all the powers of Satan has been accomplished.

This exchange of faith in which the Christian belongs to their Saviour Jesus means too that they know the loving care of a Heavenly Father. The Father who works so that all things are subservient to my salvation.” Two little words, “all things,” that hold the eternity of God’s love! That speak of the unsurpassable wisdom and power of God to work all things for the Christian’s good. A security in all the affairs of life: “… tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril …” (Romans 8.35). A comfort that is bound tight with an inward assurance through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In short, their comfort in life and in death is founded upon the work of the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit. It is this assurance in life and in death that makes the follower of Jesus heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him.”

Dedicated to Gareth & Helen Davies whose faith shines out the comfort and hope found only in Jesus.

A view from The Museum of Flight, Seattle

The Museum of Flight stands just south of Seattle. Conveniently built for easy access from the I 5 one can find it at the southern end of King County International Airport (Boeing Field) in the city of Tukwila. The museum pays homage to the history of flight, housing some of the most iconic aircraft in the journey of aviation.

The museum tells the story of the incredible evolution of the human race’s conquest of Air and Space that has taken place in just a little over a century! It is a story of human ingenuity, exploration and the spirit of adventure that propelled men and women to conquer flight, ever pushing back the boundaries of what was thought possible. The museum is brave enough not to hide those sacrifices many made in aviation’s story; the catastrophes of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles are included in its exhibits.

Today the museum in housed on a split site and one has to cross the footbridge over East Marginal Way South from the main campus to enter the Aviation Pavilion. A large canopy structure which houses some of the great iconic aircrafts in the history of flight. Here you will find, retried and resting together, amongst others: Concorde, a 747 prototype, a 787 Dreamliner, a B-17 Flying Fortress and even the Airforce One (Boeing VC) that President “Tricky Dickie” Nixon flew in.

The picture above was taken from a raised platform at the entrance of a 747. The panorama of the photo scans a number of the 20th century’s greatest aviation achievements, including Concorde, a Boeing WB-47E stratojet and Air Force One. Together they stand as edifices of achievement to the incredible ability humans possess to develop and explore their environment. These aircraft are the product of hours, years, of human planning. They represent the sweat of the brow put into their construction, testing, failures, retesting, redesigning, building and launching, by so many people. It’s really quite awe inspiring! The cost in terms of time, energy, resources, money, sacrifice and ingenuity that has been paid to develop and build these aircraft is staggering. It is clearly a story worth telling and one which the museum does so well.

Yet now these lovingly preserved aircrafts are exhibited for paying tourists to walk around and view! They are mere shells of what they once were and stand like supersized Airfix models you made as a kid. Once you had made them they stood on your book shelf or were hung from your ceiling and left to gather dust, until eventually thrown out when you grew tired on them! These aircraft are aviation’s dinosaurs. No longer fit for purpose, outdated, outstripped by the progress of technology. They tell the story of what has been but are now going the way of all things that are made in this world, that of age, rust and decay.

The choice of the campus for Seattle’s Flight Museum is not random but is linked to it being the area where a certain Mr William E. Boeing, in 1916, began manufacturing aircraft in a building that became known as the Red Barn. A building that has now been rehoused on the museum’s campus. Whilst Boeing aircraft still have a manufacturing presence a few miles away. Indeed, the Boeing family were one of the many donators to the project. The fascinating fact is that the land on which the museum stands and where Mr Boeing’s industrial endeavours took place, had been the stage on which a far longer human history had been played out.

Long before Seattle came to prominence as the industrial heart of Washington State in the Northwest the land south of the present city was called the Duwamish River. The waterway was named after Seattle’s first people, the Duwamish tribe. It was a fertile River Valley some five miles long. Here they lived, tilled the soil, fished, hunted, faced the trials of life and saw their love ones pass on. It was only the insatiable greed of industrial development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to this river being dredged and developed for industrial land.

The progress of civilisation! Yes! But does civilisation’s progress mean that we human beings are better people? We’ve learned to fly, to fly at speeds faster than sound, to launch into space and to land on the moon. Amazing achievements that the Wright brothers, Michelangelo et el, could only have dreamed of being possible! However, does technological progress mean that humanity has developed as a species? Can we honestly say, that as individual human beings, we are now better people than our forebears? Has our modern civilisation learned to eradicate human jealousy? Can we as individuals control the greed that so often lies at the heart of our motivations? As a species can we be proud of the avarice shown in swallowing up the rights of the first peoples of North America; taking their land from them in the name of progress! Has time subdued the self-centredness that governs so many of our life choices, rather than making the common good of all our primary concern?

Don’t get me wrong. This is not the rant of one who is a 21st century Luddite! Nor of one who’s a signed up member of Extinction Rebellion. Even less is it a finger-wagging exercise at others that doesn’t appreciate that in doing that one points three fingers back at themselves! But do you ever wonder at the incongruity that such a creative race, one that has been able to overcome such obstacles in the forward progress of aviation; yet cannot eradicate poverty! Why our tongues can so often say such bitter things! Why nations cannot find solutions to disagreements without reverting to military conflict!

The Seattle Museum of flight! A place to celebrate human technological achievement. Yes! Yet, a monument that reminds us human nature is far from perfect and is still very incomplete!