Category Archives: the gospel

A message for the ages – Mark Ashton preaching Isaiah 1

I’ve spent the past couple of days reading through Isaiah chapter 1 as part of my second year of training on the Associate Scheme at St Helen’s.

It’s a brilliant chapter, made more brilliant for me by the memory I have of Mark Ashton, my vicar at university, preaching it five years ago. So I managed to dig out the recording of the sermon from the St Andrew the Great archives, and listened to it again this evening.

It really is a gem of a sermon, and I encourage everyone to listen to it. If you want to hear a modern British preacher at the top of his game, this is a great place to start. And more than that, as Mark says, this is a message for “all men, and all women, through all ages.”

I don’t know how many times over the past five years I’ve remembered Mark’s voice reading those well-known words of God – “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD”. But when I think about where I was as a Christian at that time, I’m sure that under God these 30 minutes of evangelistic, heart-felt, majestic proclamation of God’s Word have been instrumental in me still being a Christian today.

So I praise God for this message, and encourage you, with all my heart, to listen to it.


The Bruised Reed, chapter 1

Tim Challies is starting another round of his book club ‘Reading Classics Together‘. The book he’s chosen next is the Bruised Reed, by Richard Sibbes. I’ve never joined in before, but I’m on a bit of a Puritan drive at the moment, and the chapters seem pretty short, so I thought I’d give this one a crack.

The Bruised Reed, published by the Banner of Truth

The book starts off by discussing Christ’s ministry to the ‘bruised reeds’ of Isaiah 42:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.

According to Sibbes, a bruised reed is “a man that for the most part is in some misery, as those were that came to Christ for help, and by misery he is brought to see sin as the cause of it, for, whatever pretences sin makes, they come to an end when we are bruised and broken.”

Sibbes emphasises that this bruising is a grace that causes us to know ourselves truely, and to set “a high price on Christ”.

What I particularly liked about this chapter was the way he applies the doctrine that bruising is a gracious act of God:

Hence we learn that we must not pass too harsh judgment upon ourselves or others when God exercises us with bruising upon bruising. There must be a conformity to our head, Christ, who `was bruised for us’ (Isa. 53:5) that we may know how much we are bound unto him.

I’d be interested to know what others think of this quote. If I’ve understood him correctly, Sibbes is saying that we shouldn’t judge our own or others’ brokenness through sin, because in a way this identifies us with Christ’s suffering for sin. I don’t want to push it too far but I think this will definately change the way I think about someone who’s going through a hard time struggling with something. This is God bruising them, so that they be bound more closely to the one who was ‘pierced for our transgressions.’

If you can’t get hold of a paper copy, you can read the Bruised Reed online. Let me know what you think!

How to look good naked

Verse 1
God gave me the sunshine,
Then showed me my lifeline
I was told it was all mine,
Then I got laid on a ley line
What a day, what a day,
And your Jesus really died for me
Then Jesus really tried for me

Verse 2
UK and entropy,
I feel like its ****in’ (beeped out) me
Wanna feed off the energy,
Love living like a deity
What a day, one day,
And your Jesus really died for me
I guess Jesus really tried for me

Bodies in the Bodhi tree,
Bodies making chemistry
Bodies on my family,
Bodies in the way of me
Bodies in the cemetery,
And that’s the way it’s gonna be

All we’ve ever wanted
Is to look good naked
Hope that someone can take it
God save me rejection
From my reflection,
I want perfection

Verse 3:
Praying for the rapture,
‘Cause it’s stranger getting stranger
And everything’s contagious
It’s the modern middle ages
All day every day
And if Jesus really died for me
Then Jesus really tried for me

Jesus didn’t die for you, what do you want?
(I want perfection)
Jesus didn’t die for you, what are you on?
Oh Lord
(Jesus really died for you) Ohh
(Jesus really died for you)
(Jesus really died for you) Ohh

Above are the lyrics to Robbie Williams’ new single, Bodies. I have to confess I was a keen Robbie Williams fan back in the day. Anyway I thought this was an interesting song – it seems to show a serious head-on collision between 21st century British celeb culture and Christianity.

Perhaps the most striking thing is that Robbie is singing ‘Jesus really died for me.’ But in the second verse it’s ‘if Jesus died for me’. The song ends with the question, ‘Jesus didn’t die for you, what do you want?’.

What’s going on? Is Robbie a born again Christian now or is he singing about a flirtation with Jesus that he ultimately rejects?

It’s difficult to say, but it’s clear that there’s some kind of struggle with Jesus. Initially things look good (V1 and 2), but in V3 the strangeness of Christianity becomes clear (the ‘rapture’ is the idea that some Christians hold that they’ll be ‘raptured’ up to heaven at some point, leaving what’s left of the world to everyone else). It’s true that in many ways being a conservative Christian is a bit like living in the modern middle ages. You think men should be leaders, capital punishment’s God-given, governments should be submitted to, not necessarily voted in, etc. That’s a shock to most modern people’s system.

There’s two ways of hearing the chorus. The first one is that Robbie is exemplifying the concerns of modern pop culture, which, believably, is all about wanting to ‘look good naked’. Robbie wants a perfect body, and he doesn’t have it, hence the struggle with Jesus, who offers his followers little in the way of physical perfection now (at least that’s the feedback I get when I ask the ladies!). Ultimately, Jesus can’t heal our narcissism.

The other way of seeing it – which I just thought of while writing the last para – is that Robbie’s referring to the effects of the Fall, which we happened to be looking at in our bible study group at church a couple of weeks ago. After Adam and Eve disobey God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge, they realise they are naked and hide when God comes:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

(Genesis 3)

On this view, the human condition is all about wanting to good naked, but realising that you don’t – that you can’t stand naked and unashamed in front of God. Even as you look at yourself in the mirror you know you’re not up to much, and that it would take perfection to sort you out. But that’s what Jesus provides: a hope of being able to stand before our Creator, knowing that because of Jesus we are perfect in him.

Adam and Eve

And in Christ, there is even the hope of having perfect bodies:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

(Philippians 3)

So maybe Robbie is telling us how Jesus deals with the central problem of pop culture. Rather than Jesus being defeated by our narcissism, as it fails it drives us to him.

I don’t know how honest this song is, and the ending is as ambiguous as the rest of it, with backing singers repeating ‘Jesus really died for you’. But I pray that Robbie, and his generation, would have the humility to recognise that we are not able to ‘look good naked’, and to trust in Christ, who will one day transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body.

That’s my effort at working out what he’s talking about – thoughts? I have no idea what the bridge is about…

Admitted into a participation of this grace – Calvin on Romans 6

Let us know, that the Apostle does not simply exhort us to imitate Christ, as though he had said that the death of Christ is a pattern which all Christians are to follow; for no doubt he ascends higher, as he announces a doctrine, with which he connects, as it is evident, an exhortation; and his doctrine is this — that the death of Christ is efficacious to destroy and demolish the depravity of our flesh, and his resurrection, to effect the renovation of a better nature, and that by baptism we are admitted into a participation of this grace.

This foundation being laid, Christians may very suitably be exhorted to strive to respond to their calling. Farther, it is not to the point to say, that this power is not apparent in all the baptized; for Paul, according to his usual manner, where he speaks of the faithful, connects the reality and the effect with the outward sign; for we know that whatever the Lord offers by the visible symbol is confirmed and ratified by their faith. In short, he teaches what is the real character of baptism when rightly received. So he testifies to the Galatians, that all who have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27.)

Thus indeed must we speak, as long as the institution of the Lord and the faith of the godly unite together; for we never have naked and empty symbols, except when our ingratitude and wickedness hinder the working of divine beneficence.

— John Calvin, Commentary on Romans

The final word

I’ve just finished my last day in the office at Reevoo, the best shopping website on the internet. Up now for me is 6 weeks of holiday, helping on kids’ camps, and getting prepared for the next step, which is joining the St. Helen’s Associate Scheme.

There’s definitely a measure of regret at leaving a great company with lots of great people, but at the same time I’m looking forward to getting on with what I hope will be the way I spend the majority of my working life: helping the people God brings me into contact with to get a better understanding of him by studying the Bible together.

It might seem crazy to think that even if there is a God, we could understand him in the pages of a book which has material ranging from 4 to 2 millenia ago, and which – let’s face it – has some things in it that people in our culture find pretty weird.

But honestly, I think that this collection of material contains the most powerful message on the planet. My experience has been one of skepticism that these particular stories about this particular nation (Israel) and person (Jesus) could really be what God would communicate to us.

But when I stop putting God a box that fits my preconceived notion of what God should be like, I find the amazing coherence of the Biblical theme of God’s plan to create a people for himself, first by choosing Israel but ultimately through Jesus. I see the authenticity of the accounts of Jesus’ life that force you to conclude that Jesus really is the Son of God, even as he voluntarily died an ugly death at the hands of a people that had rejected him.

When you put those themes together and understand that by punishing Jesus for our sin God has provided a way of saving us to be his people, you find a story that is inexhaustible in its depth and beauty.

It’s this message that’s so powerful and so important that I am really keen to understand better myself and help others to understand. It’s the kind of message that it’s not really possible to remain neutral on. I’ve decided that the Bible does mean what it says, and for me that decision has lead to me quitting my job to spend more time learning from Jesus in the Bible. (Although it won’t be appropriate for most people to quit their jobs, even if they do believe what the Bible says!)

My question is, if this book is powerful enough to shape the life of one apparently-sane young man, isn’t it possible that you should give it some serious consideration?

Words of Life by Timothy Ward

As a footnote, while I’m away hoping to read Timothy Ward’s ‘Words of Life’ – a book all about defending the power and truth of the Bible as God’s Word to us. I’ll let you know what I think about it when I get back.

Checking our pulse

How much can you tell about our theology from our favourite Bible verses?

The Bible Gateway recently published a list of the top 100 most searched-for verses. I’ve rearranged the top 10 into a vaguely organised fashion, with the rank of the verse in brackets.

Gen 1:1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (5)
Rom 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (3)
Jer 29:11: For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (2)
John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (1)
Rom 12:2: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (8)
Prov 3:5: Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. (6)
Prov 3:6: in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. (7)
Phil 4:6: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (9)
Phil 4:13: I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (4)
Matt 28:19: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (10)

How accurate do you think this is as a guide to the functional theology of the wider evangelical church? (CT, the Shack)

Are there any go-to verses we should really have?

A kingdom without a King?

Nick Mitchell has highlighted this modified gospel presentation from Scot McKnight, which emphasises the importance of God’s new community, the church. Read it and see what you think:

God loves you and everyone else and has a plan for us: the kingdom community.

But you and everyone else have a sin problem that separates you and everyone else from God, from yourselves, from one another, and from the good world God made for you.

The good news is that Jesus lived for you, died for you, was raised for you, and sent the Spirit for you – so you all can live as the beloved community.

If you enter into Jesus’ story, by repentance and faith, you can be reconnected to God, to yourself, to others, and to this world.

Those who are reconnected like this will live now as God’s community and will find themselves eternally in union with God and communion with others.

Those who preach this gospel will not deconstruct the church. Instead, they will participate in what God is doing: constructing the kingdom community even now.

This gospel presentation appears on McKnight’s blog in the context of him working through the kingdom of God theme in Luke-Acts. So it’s possible that Scot wouldn’t use this as a gospel presentation away from that context.

But, Scot does give the above as the answer to the question, “If the kingdom is the solution, what was the problem?” The problem, says McKnight, is fractured community, with its solution in the kingdom community.

Concious or not, this feels like an over-reaction to individualised gospel presentations to me. Since McKnight’s presentation is being discussed out it’s original context, I think it’s worth showing how I feel it is unhelpful as a general gospel summary.

Firstly, community with God’s people is emphasised more than community with God, especially in the two key summary paragraphs.

Take a look at the definition of the gospel (the good news):

The good news is that Jesus lived for you, died for you, was raised for you, and sent the Spirit for you – so you all can live as the beloved community.

Community of what?? “beloved” is too weak to clearly show the centrality of God in Christ being the source of this community.

And the closing paragraph:

“those who preach this gospel will participate in what God is doing: constructing the kingdom community even now.

Obviously a correct understanding of the kingdom community implies God reconciling himself to us, being King of his community and all the rest of it, but in McKnight’s presentation this isn’t clear. So God’s purposes come to mean God’s creation of a giant social club.

wheres the king

Secondly, the key point of “reconnection to God” is buried in a list of benefits:

“you can be reconnected to God, to yourself, to others, and to this world.”

“Those who are reconnected like this will live now as God’s community and will find themselves eternally in union with God and communion with others.”

Thirdly, the problem of disconnection with God is not clearly given the root location it deserves. We have

a sin problem that separates you and everyone else from God, from yourselves, from one another, and from the good world God made for you.

Instead, it’s first among equals.

I would like to see more gospel presentations featuring the importance of community, but for my money this one is simply not clear enough about the Good News of what Christ has accomplished to make that community possible.

How about:

All of us have done wrong by rebelling against God and ignoring his commands, so instead of living harmoniously together with God as our king, we’ve been separated from God and divided from each other.

The good news is, Jesus took the consequences of God judging that rebellion, meaning those who are united to Christ by faith are reunited with God and united together in Christ.

HT: Rob Davis