Tuesday, 7 June 2016

What Evangelical Denominations can Learn from the United Church of Canada's Atheist Pastor


Demolition of the "Shared Church" in Fort St. John, BC
Demolishing Church


I was getting groceries one day a couple of years ago as the demolition of the church building which was shared by the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada congregations of Fort St. John was happening across the street.  It seemed a fitting physical picture of a spiritual reality that has been playing out over the last 80+ years in these denominations and the local congregations that make them up.  These two congregations got too small to afford up-keep on the building they shared.  But the reason these congregations shrunk so small was that the denominations of which they are a part have been on a doctrinally and morally compromising, culturally accommodating trajectory for so long, the vast majority of faithful Christians went somewhere else, somewhere that still believes in and practices what Scripture teaches.  God has vacated the official denominational leadership and most of the local church bodies because the denomination kicked out the Holy Spirit in favour of the spirit of the age.

I've written about certain aspects of the secularization and compromise of United Church of Canada before here.

Now comes this story about an atheist pastor.  If this weren't so tragic, it would be funny.  The best satirist couldn't make this up.  I recommend reading the linked article first, then following up with some further thoughts below. 

Deconstructing God


Well, if you've read the article I linked above, now you see what I mean.  If this is reality, how can a satirist compete?  Below are some quotes from the article, interspersed with some of my own commentary.....I tried not to be too sarcastic....honest.  It's really hard not to be a bit sarcastic, however, when you are writing about a pastor who doesn't believe in God and who wants everyone in the church to quit believing in God too. 
Vosper was ordained in 1993, during which she was asked if she believed in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. She said yes, speaking metaphorically. 
So, was she speaking metaphorically when she told the ordination committee that she believed in God or did she add the metaphorical qualification to the interviewer who wrote the present article?  If the former, shame on them.  If the latter, shame on her.  While most of the ordination committee likely also rejected the bulk of traditional Christian confessional truth (based on how long she has been ministering and the state of the denomination by that point), both they and Vosper had to know that at that point there were still a good number of people in the pews who actually believed God exists, you know, like really, not just metaphorically.  This "confession" of belief in the triune God was dishonest at best, but very possibly out-right deceitful.

A pastor's vocation is to call people away from sin and idols and toward God.  A metaphorical God can't save real people from their real sins.  But Vosper doesn't believe that sin is the problem with humanity.  She believes that archaic notions of God and related old-fashioned ideas like people's need for salvation, and an ancient book containing wisdom and God-inspired revelation still relevant for today are the problems people in the church need to be rescued from.  Vosper seems to have been looking for a platform to voice her own opinions against the very truths this church (at least once) held to.  Now, pastoring is attractive to some folks....you won't get calluses, and you can be part of a big labour union (I'm not kidding - see first link above).  However, I'm guessing that in the beginning, no one in her congregation knew they were getting a minister who didn't even believe that God exists.
Some eight years later, vexed by the archaic language, imagery and stories of the Bible, she delivered an off-the-cuff sermon in which she deconstructed the idea of God. “Our hymns and our prayers and the way that we did things, they all reinforced this idea of a supernatural divine being who intervened in human affairs,” she says. “I just took it apart – I was not willing to continue to let (my congregation) think that I believed in that kind of God.”
It must have been really hard for her to put up with all the "archaic language, imagery and stories of the Bible" for eight years, especially after not having to put up with it in whatever post secondary institutions the United Church pulls ordinands from these days.  How backwards of people to believe in a supernatural divine being who intervenes in human affairs.  I mean, what do these people think this is, a church?  And can you imagine that the prayers and hymns and liturgy all reinforced such ideas?  What kind of unenlightened, backward, superstitious people believe stuff like this?  Good for her to take a stand and make sure her congregation knew she didn't believe that kind of stuff.  I can't believe she ever let those people force her to become their pastor in the first place.  Oh, wait.  They didn't force her.  She purposefully pursued the role of pastor in a (at least to some remaining degree) Christian church.  Well, I almost want to ask her what she expected to find in a Christian church besides notions like God, the Bible, sin, salvation, prayer, hymns, the cross and resurrection, etc.  This is like a nudist submitting a job application to be a clothing model without telling anyone she's a nudist, then being irate when she is expected to try clothes on and pose for pictures.  Or a vegetarian applying to work in a butcher shop.  Or a teetotaler applying to be a sommelier.  Or...well, you get the idea.  I like to think I am not the only one who sees the ridiculousness of this situation.  But seriously, it seems Vosper doesn't believe in sin, except for the sin of believing in concepts like sin.    
She braced herself for a negative reaction (from coming out as an atheist). To her surprise, church leaders said they were intrigued by the direction she was heading and encouraged her to push forward.
No kidding.  Well, those same church leaders had hired all the seminary professors, ordained all the ministers and oversaw the decades-old demise of the United Church up to that point.  Why should the church leaders all of a sudden step out of character and demand that their pastors believe in a literal God who intervenes in human affairs, and other outmoded notions like that?
What followed was years of Vosper and her congregation retooling the service at West Hill. References to God and Jesus became talk of love and compassion and prayer was replaced with community sharing time. The removal of the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 proved to be a critical test, sending attendance plunging from 120 people to 40 and leaving the church’s financial strength in tatters. “The Lord’s Prayer was the last thing in the service that still held them to previous generations of church,” says Vosper. “So it became the lightning rod for all of that loss.”
When Vosper finally got rid of the last thing that held this congregation to "previous generations of church," what she actually did was to finally get rid of the last, (by this time) hollow vestige of the liturgy and therefore, the last remaining tatters of the worship of a Christian church.  The content and substance was already long gone.  She was just chucking the empty wrapper.  When everything that holds a congregation to the "previous generations of church" is gone, it is not a church anymore.  Every other statement from the Apostle's Creed had already been deconstructed, disavowed, dismembered and discarded, some of it through the denomination's long history of self-destruction, and the rest of it since Vosper took over this local congregation.  The historic "communion of saints" with previous generations of the church (2000 years of it) in the praying of the Lord's Prayer is just a leftover, difficult to extract only due to the inertia of tradition and the comfort of familiarity. 

My main question is why so many people stayed on so long in light of the fact that God himself had already been chased from the congregation.  They had already run the Lord out.  Why did they lose so many people when his prayer finally followed?
Throughout this time Vosper couched her strong beliefs in linguistic gymnastics, describing herself as a non-theist and, later, a theological non-realist. In 2013, moved by the case of Bangladeshi bloggers facing persecution over their reportedly atheist views, Vosper began calling herself an atheist. “I felt it was an act of solidarity,” she says, likening it to the use of the word feminist to in the 1970s. “If I shelter myself by not using that term, that’s unfair to everyone who is being maligned by the use of that term.”
Couple things.  There's a technical term for couching your "strong beliefs in linguistic gymnastics": its called lying.  This "minister" ought to have told her congregation from the start that she denied even the existence of God (not to mention every other point of orthodox Christian doctrine).  And shame on a wayward denominational leadership that would place someone who denied everything resembling orthodoxy in a position of leading a local congregation that still did hold some semblance of traditional Christian belief.  Secondly, any "pastor" (and I use the term about as lightly as it may be used) who cares more about solidarity with atheist bloggers on the other side of the world who are being persecuted for their anti-God blog posts than for the eternal destination of her own flock is a hireling and worse, a wolf in sheep's clothing.  On the other hand, its good to know she has a standard. 

After complaints from other United Church ministers (far too little, way too late, but nice gesture folks) and others, Vosper is going to face a review.  Her opinion:
She sees the review as a betrayal, as the path she has forged is a logical one in a church that has always prioritized moral teachings over doctrinal beliefs. “I’m a product of the United church. It taught me to critique the Bible as a human construction … This means everything that it says is up for grabs, including God.”
First of all, when the United Church quit prioritizing doctrinal beliefs, it didn't start prioritizing moral teachings but immoral ones.  It will always trend this way.  You cannot abandon Christian doctrine and keep Christian morality any more than you can remove a foundation and hope the roof stays up.  But let's be honest.  The reason the United Church has been on the trajectory of removing biblical Christian doctrine is precisely because the powers that be don't really want biblical Christian morality either.  It would have been more accurate to say that the United Church has always prioritized cultural trends and societal values over biblical doctrine and morality. 

Back to the question of the review Vosper is facing.  She sees it as a betrayal, and honestly, she is exactly right.  She really is being consistent with the direction the United Church has been going for decades.  Its been decades since the United Church as a whole believed the Bible was the inspired and authoritative Word of God.  They long ago began viewing it as a merely human work, and one full of bigotry, racism, sexism, classism, and a dozen other nasty isms.  She is only carrying the trajectory of the United Church further toward its logical conclusion.  Her problem is that she skipped a couple steps of gradation.  Most of this denomination and its leaders and ministers expelled God and orthodoxy a long time ago.  As far as I can tell, the real issue with Vosper is not that she went too far but that she went too fast. 

What Can Evangelicals Learn from an Atheist Pastor in a Decimated Denomination?


I think the article speaks for itself and ably demonstrates where a church will ultimately go when they abandon the authority, sufficiency and centrality of the Word of God, exchanging it for every wind of secularist cultural doctrine that wafts along.  It is important to remember, however, that the United Church didn't make one big drastic change overnight.  Rather, this change came over decades of denominational dialoguing, special task forces formed to study the surrounding society rather than the scriptures, standing committees struck to examine an issue, asking how much traditional Christian content can be dropped without the majority of the people leaving for other churches, etc.  Each supposedly small compromise was like poking a little hole in a dam.  The compromises were each a seemingly little accommodation to the cultural and intellectual breezes blowing in their day, and each one was on a subject that the church leaders, each on their particular watch, did not consider to be something essential to the core of the Christian faith. 

There were the questions of big "L" liberal theology (about miracles, deity of Christ, virgin birth, literal creation ex nihilo, inspiration of Scripture, uniqueness of Christianity, inter-faith dialogue, nature of the atonement, bodily resurrection of Jesus, etc.) and there were the questions of the cultural pressures and trends of the day (regarding ordination of men unqualified to minister, then ordination of women, then sexuality, marriage, family order, moral standards, etc.).  But both sets of questions are inseparably linked.  You can't hope to poke holes in biblical doctrine without biblical morality leaking out all over.  Ultimately, all those questions were entertained by a church leadership who had quit caring what God thought and worried only about what man thought.  The leadership didn't worry about God's evaluation of them, but only about what the surrounding culture thought of them.  Their concerns were not over truth, but over intellectually respectability and cultural relevance.  Paul's words to the Galatians (Gal. 1:6-10) comes to mind: 
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
For am I now seeking the favour of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.
The reason denomination leaders, pastors or anyone else doesn't just get to edit or change the gospel message the church is called to proclaim is in the very next verses (Gal. 1:11, 12):
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
But each compromise poked another little hole in the authority of Scripture.  As all this happens over time, the people who poked the first hole in the dam would likely never have imagined the block of mushy Swiss cheese currently spewing water through a thousand hippo-sized holes.  But there it is.  There is nothing left of the United Church of Canada overall but the memory that this was once a Christian denomination (again, I know there are still some faithful individuals and congregations in the United Church of Canada - I was invited to preach in one once - but I am speaking of the overwhelming trends in this denomination as a whole).  Each change was small and incremental.  Each early change was considered to be on a non-essential point of the faith and by the time the later changes came, no one was concerned with essentials of the faith anymore.  And each change was made for the purpose of cultural relevancy and to bring non-churched people in.  But this is not how the church works.  The church is God's creation and it must by run in God's way.  Denominational leaders on special standing committees are never wiser than God and their cultural surveys are never truer than God's Word. 

People can't be helped if truth is not the main ingredient in the medicine.  People might still go to the United Church, new people may even occasionally show up, but these people aren't being called to repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ.  Those showing up in the pews of the United Church today are typically going to have their preconceived and culturally informed notions affirmed rather than challenged.  This is like showing up for a chemotherapy session for your lung cancer and having the doctor pass you a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Most people sitting through a sermon in the United Church of Canada today may just as well stay home and watch Oprah, or listen to a Rob Bell sermon.

The reason most people have now abandon these churches either for conservative Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches, or for the local branch of the Rotary Club, is because a church that will sacrifice any of its little convictions and beliefs until all their big ones are gone too can't possibly minister to people's "little" day-to-day needs.  And if you can't help them walk through the little day-to-day things, you will never help them walk through the big things of life in a truthful and wise way either, things like vocation, marriage, children, death, etc.  The world is full of sin, and so are people.  People need to be told the truth about sin and the cross of Christ.  They don't need the church to change to become just like them - sheep without a shepherd.  They need light, they need truth, they need a shepherd, they need a saviour.  And they need churches to faithfully proclaim that Saviour and to help them follow that Shepherd. 

The truly sad thing is there are many evangelical churches and denominations today that are making the very same small compromises to the culture that the United Church has made over the years and they are doing it for many of the same reasons.  "Is this really an essential point of doctrine?"  "Isn't traditional Christian morality on this point just a bit harsh considering our unchurched and post-Christian culture?"  Many of the questions that evangelicals are asking today are just another way of asking, "has God really said.....?"  Today formerly biblically faithful denominations and individual churches are compromising on the clear biblical standards for pastoral ordination, on whether Adam and Eve were historical people created by God out of nothing, on the biblical definition of marriage and context for sexual relations, and on many other clear teachings of historic Christianity.  Each issue seems to be its own debate, but in reality all of these issues are really one, foundational debate - is the Bible God's authoritative Word for all of life and doctrine for all people for all time or is it not?  Those who are trying to morph the church into something else completely (like Vosper) recognize this is the real issue.  Hopefully more evangelicals will come to recognize this also, and soon.

Deconstructing Scripture

Now Vosper is working on something she calls revisioning Scripture.  Basically, she is taking her favourite passages of Scripture and removing all the stuff she doesn't like....you know, like God, for example.  Good thing the Bible isn't copy written. 

Unfortunately for her, the Bible actually is copy written:  "...if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city..." (Rev. 22:19; see also Deut. 4:2; 12:32).  And no, I don't take that to apply only to the words of Revelation but also to the whole canon of Scripture which Revelation closes.  "If anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy...."  How much worse if the person taking away words from Scripture is a minister in the Church; how much worse if the first word that minister takes away is "God"?

There is, however, more than one way to deconstruct Scripture.  It can be done by removing all the pesky words we don't like, like Vosper.  But it can also be done even when we retain all those words.  It can be done simply through reinterpreting all those pesky words so that they don't mean what they have always meant or what God inspired them to mean.  This is the Inigo Montoya (from the Princess Bride) school of hermeneutics:

"This word you keep using...I do not think it means what you think it means."

This is often where evangelicals begin eroding the authority of Scripture.  Usually evangelical churches and denominations don't start snipping words out of the pages of Scripture, like a bunch of Thomas Jeffersons.  They usually begin by questioning the plain meaning of those words and suggesting perhaps the church has always misunderstood what certain passages mean.  Perhaps we've not taken into account some key context or we've missed some nuance.  I'm not saying these types of questions can't be asked of the text of Scripture legitimately, but usually compromising evangelical churches find all the nuance in the areas of biblical teaching that the unbelieving culture is pushing hardest against.  And soon enough the stuff that embarrasses us or that makes us sound harsh when we simply take the Bible at its word is redefined, relegated to a historical context which is no longer applicable, or some such thing.  Pretty soon, some key area of Scripture has been redefined to the point where the truth it used to communicate can be abandoned.

But God's Word is made up of words, words that God himself inspired.  The church may not simply abandon those words or the concepts they describe without jettisoning some of the very language God has used to make the church what it in fact is:  a people formed by God's own self-revelation through the gospel of Jesus Christ as communicated by the words of Scripture and applied to the church by the Holy Spirit.  We are what we read, in a sense.  And if we effectively rewrite the Scriptures, we remake ourselves in an image God never intended for us....much like the United Church of Canada.






Friday, 3 June 2016

Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain...

Keep reading to see why this photo is relevant
Ligonier has a good article on what it means to take the Lord's name in vain.

I remember doing a corporate confession meditation several years ago which focused on this broader aspect of keeping the third commandment and what it means to take the Lord's name in vain.  Some illustrations might be helpful when thinking through the fuller sense of what it means to take God's name in vain - it is more than just using God's name as a cuss or frivolously speaking of God, though it certainly includes those things.  I encourage you to read the article linked above, then read my illustrations below.

Marriage

In marriage, traditionally a bride takes her groom's name.  She is then known by the last name of her husband.  That bride may be a faithful wife, keeping her marriage vows in both letter and spirit, never wavering in her faithfulness.  In this way she would be rightly taking her husband's name.  But, the wife may also take her husband's name in vain.  She has really taken his name upon her in the marriage vows of the wedding ceremony, covenanting to be his "lawful wedded wife", but if she then lives a life of infidelity to her husband (even despite his faithfulness to her) she has taken his name in vain.  This does not mean that her wedding vows meant nothing - they were and still are a binding covenant - but it means that she has vowed them in vain, for she is not living up to the vows she made or the new name she received by covenant.  It is like this for God's people.

The church corporately is the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9), promised to one husband (2 Cor. 11:2), the Lamb (Rev. 19:7; 21:2), and we are wed to Christ by covenant.  As such, we have taken his name.  We are Christians, "Christ-ones", after all.  So if we have been baptized into the Triune name of God, if we have put on Christ in baptism and are united to him by covenant, yet live in such a way that the watching world sees no discernible difference between the church and the unbelieving world around us, we have taken Christ's name in vain.  Therefore, as people bearing the triune name of God upon us, we ought to live in a manner worthy of the one to whom we are wed.

Children

As well as being described as the bride or wife of Christ, God's people are also described as his children (Rom. 8:16; John 1:12; 1 John 3:1).  God is our Father, and when God places the family name, the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, upon us in baptism, we are pronounced to be sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father.  As such, we are now charged with the high calling of being imitators of our Father (Eph. 5:1), to bear the family resemblance and to obey the will of our Father.  This obedience to God our Father is a major aspect of our gospel witness in the world (Phil. 2:15; 1 John 3:10; 5:2). 

Now, we've all seen children who were a disgrace to their parents...perhaps we can recall a time when we ourselves were a disgrace to our parents...at least in an isolated episode.  We can look at the life of David, who, along with some good sons, had some real stinkers.  We look at David who, although not perfect himself, is described by God as being a man after God's own heart.  Then we look at some of his immoral and ungodly sons.  They were the type of men that bore their family name in vain.  They should have acted like sons of David, the God-praising, fearless warrior, wise ruler, etc.  Instead, these sons of David were disgraces to him, some even seeking to kill him.  They bore their family name in vain; they were not a blessing to their father but a curse to their parents (Prov. 10:1).  Like a child reflects either negatively or positively on his or her parents, so the church may either bear our family name as a positive witness or a disgraceful and inaccurate reflection of our Father.

Citizenship

I was on a backpacking trip to the big island of Hawaii once with a friend.  I had a Canadian flag sown onto my backpack and in my past travel experience, this has always given me a fairly warm reception in foreign countries (south America and Europe feel much more foreign than Hawaii did, mind you).  Well, one day my friend and I were sitting on a beach in Kona, resting after a lengthy multi-day hike to view some active volcanoes.  We heard a loud disturbance coming from across the water and looking up we noticed a Zodiac full of naval servicemen being taken back to their frigate anchored off shore.  We listened as the very obviously plastered soldiers cursed, swore, shouted and puked their was across the water to the waiting ship.  Looking out at the ship we noted that it proudly flew the flag of our own home and native land from the stern of the vessel.  I have to say that, along with the entire beach of tourists and locals watching this production, we judged these service men to be a pretty poor reflection upon the nation they represented.  In fact, for nearly the first time in my life (at least since the last time Canada lost to another nation in an international hockey tournament) I was embarrassed to be wearing the Canadian flag.  They were being very poor ambassadors of their nation in this foreign port.  My friend and I got some dirty looks from people who likely suspected we too belonged on that ship.

As Christians, we are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20).  More than citizens only, we are also soldiers serving in the cause of the gospel (Phil. 2:25; 2 Tim. 2:3).  Even more than that, we are ambassadors for Christ in the cause of the gospel (2 Cor. 5:20).  God makes his appeal to lost people through the message we bring, the message of Jesus Christ crucified, risen and reigning.  But if those who are supposed to be ambassadors for Christ, his representatives in and to a lost world, are themselves poor pictures of what citizens of God's kingdom ought to live like, then we are bearing Christ's name in vain, taking God's name in vain.  We are like the disgraceful soldiers who gave a bad name to their country.  If people can't look at us and see a faithful (albeit imperfect) reflection of Jesus Christ, we bear his name in vain.

As the Bride of Christ, as children of our Heavenly Father, as Ambassadors of the Triune God ministering in the power of the Spirit, do not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.



Thursday, 26 May 2016

John Bainbridge Webster, 1955-2016

John Bainbridge Webster went to be with his Lord yesterday.  He was only 60 years old. 




I remember how I felt when John Stott died in the summer of 2011.  I felt sad that the church militant had lost a great warrior, that the pilgrim church had lost a great under-shepherd.  I felt that I personally had lost one of my literary mentors.  I feel that way again. 


I regret that I came to Webster's work only relatively recently, but I have been immensely blessed by his writing in that short time.  Webster's work is rigorously intellectual but serves a practical ministerial purpose: to magnify the glory of the triune God through exploring the gospel of Jesus Christ in God's written Word, given through the Holy Spirit for the people of God whom he indwells, the church. 


"Dogmatics is often caricatured as the unholy science that reduces the practices of piety to lifeless propositions. But far from it: dogmatics is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ. Set in the midst of the praise, repentance, witness and service of God's holy people, dogmatics - like all Christian theology - directs the Church's attention to the realities which the gospel declares and attempts responsibility to make those realities a matter of thought."
                                                                                            - Holiness, p. 8 


"The matter to which Christian theology is commanded to attend, and by which it is directed in all its operations, is the presence of the perfect God as it is announced in the gospel and confessed in the praises and testimonies of the communion of saints."
                                                                                            - Confessing God, p. 1


Here is an anecdote posted by Alan Jacobs.  This is my kind of theologian!  This account relates better than any explanation why Webster was just the sort of theologian to combat Liberal and unbelieving theology, something which he did without ever being shrill or alarmist.  He saw error for what it was and wasn't afraid of being looked down upon by ivory-tower types in the academy.  Webster was the right kind of theologian to combat error, not because he focused his efforts on fighting the errors but because he focused on expounding the truth in all its layered magnificence and power.  This he did in a winsomely articulate way, able to tailor his writing to the audience he was addressing.  And from the testimony of others and from my own experience of his writing (regrettably limited thus far), he did this from the ground of a deep, personal and humble faith.


What is our loss is Webster's gain. 


"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." 
                                                                                           - 1 Corinthians 13:12



Saturday, 14 May 2016

J.C. Ryle - General Reason #3 for Exhorting Young Men

(3)  For another thing, what young men will be, in all probability depends on what they are now, and they seem to forget this.

   Youth is the seed-time of full age, -- the moulding season in the little space of human life, -- the turning-point in the history of man's mind.

   By the shoot, we judge of the tree, -- by the blossoms we judge of the fruit, -- by the spring we judge of the harvest, -- by the morning we judge of the day, -- and by the character of the young man, we may generally judge what he will be when he grows up.

   Young men, be not deceived.  Think not you can, at will, serve lusts and pleasures in your beginning, and then go and serve God with east at your latter end.  Think not you can live with Esau, and then die with Jacob.  It is a mockery to deal with God and your souls in such a fashion.  It is an awful mockery to suppose you can give the flower of your strength to the world and the devil, and then put off the King of kings with the scraps and leavings of your hearts, -- the wreck and remnant of your powers.  It is an awful mockery, and you may find to your cost the thing cannot be done. 

   I daresay you are reckoning on a late repentance.  You know not what you are doing.  You are reckoning without God.  Repentance and faith are the gifts of God, and gifts that he often withholds, when they have been long offered in vain.  I grant you true repentance is never too late, but I warn you at the same time, late repentance is seldom true.  I grant you, one penitent thief was converted in his last hours, that no man might despair; but I warn you, only one was converted, that no man might presume.  I grant you it is written, Jesus is 'able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him' (Heb. 7:25).  But I warn you, it is also written by the same Spirit, 'Because I have called, and ye refused, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh' (Prov. 1:224, 26).

   Believe me, you will find it no easy matter to turn to God just when you please.  It is a true saying of good Archbishop Leighton: 'The way of sin is down hill; a man cannot stop when he would.'  Holy desires and serious convictions are not like the servants of the centurion, ready to come and go at your desire (Matt. 8:5); rather are they like the unicorn in Job, -- they will not obey your voice, nor attend to your bidding (Job 39:9).  It was said of a famous general of old, when he could have taken the city he warred against, he would not, and by and by when he would, he could not.  Beware, lest the same kind of event befall you in the matter of eternal life.

   Why do I say all this?  I say it because of the force of habit.  I say it because experience tells me that people's hearts are seldom changed if they are not changed when young.  Seldom indeed are men converted when they are old.  Habits have long roots.  Sin once allowed to nestle in your bosom, will not be turned out at your bidding.  Custom becomes second nature, and its chains are threefold cords not easily broken.  Well says the prophet, 'Can an Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil' (Jer. 13:23).  Habits are like stones rolling down hill, -- the further they roll, the faster and more ungovernable is their course.  Habits, like trees, are strengthened by age.  A boy may bend an oak, when it is a sapling, -- a hundred men cannot root it up, when it is a full-grown tree.  A child can wade over the Thames at its fountain-head, -- the largest ship in the world can float in it when it gets near the sea.  So it is with habits: the older the stronger, -- the longer they have held possession, the harder they will be to cast out.  They grow with our growth, and strengthen with our strength.  Custom is the nurse of sin.  Every fresh act of sin lessens fear and remorse, hardens our hearts, blunts the edge of our conscience, and increases our evil inclination. 

   Young men, you may fancy I am laying too much stress on this point.  If you had seen old men, as I have done, on the brink of the grave, feelingless, seared, callous, dead, cold, hard as the nether mill-stone, -- you would not think so.  Believe me, you cannot stand still in the affairs of your souls.  Habits of good or evil are daily strengthening in your hearts.  Every day you are either getting nearer to God, or further off.  Every year that you continue impenitent, the wall of division between you and heaven becomes higher and thicker, and the gulf to be crossed deeper and broader.  Oh, dread the hardening effect of constant lingering in sin!  Now is the accepted time.  See that your flight be not in the winter of your days.  If you seek not the Lord when young, the strength of habit is such that your will probably never seek him at all. 

   I fear this, and therefore I exhort you.

                          - J.C. Ryle, Thoughts for Young Men, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 9-12

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Review: Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Adam J. Johnson

From my Amazon and goodreads review of Adam Johnson's Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, published by Bloomsbury.

You don't have to be perplexed to benefit from this very good discussion of the atonement.  In a nut shell, Adam Johnson advocates for a comprehensive view of the atonement which focuses on how each of the attributes of the Triune God are displayed and/or satisfied in the atonement. Johnson focuses not only on the traditionally anthropocentric aspects of the atonement (aspects directly affecting humanity's sinful and lost condition) but also draws the reader to look at the creation-wide purposes and effects of Christ's atoning work. He points not only to what God is saving humanity and the whole created realm from but also what he is saving it for, both the negative and positive aspects of God's atoning work in Christ (redeeming/rescuing as well as restoring). Johnson purposefully avoids favouring one theory of the atonement over another, seeing that as a tacit favouring of one (or some) of God's attributes over others, as if certain aspects of who God is could be more important than other aspects of who he is.

Those who view penal substitutionary atonement as the one true understanding of the atonement over against all others will certainly dismay over this work. Those who view penal substitution as the commanding or central theory among many legitimate and biblical but lesser facets of the atoning work of Christ will have good reason to rethink the balance. [For example, Johnson argues that God's wrath is not an essential characteristic of God.  After all, there was a time, pre-creation and pre-sin, when this was not part of God's attributes and, as all things will one day be restored to perfection and peace, that time will come again. Wrath is a reaction of God's holiness to sin, not an actual attribute of God.]  Those who would like the church to abandon all thought of substitutionary atonement (with or without "penal") will also be dissatisfied with Johnson's treatment. He fully recognizes that Scripture speaks of Christ taking the place of sinners - substitution - and suffering the just penalty for sin. However, Johnson (if I recall correctly) prefers to steer clear of language of the Father pouring out his wrath upon or punishing Christ, favouring instead that the Father judged and punished sin in Christ while simultaneously magnifying the obedience and self-giving service of Christ.

Johnson argues ultimately that only a holistic view of the nature, character, purposes and works of God will give us a full view of what God has done in/is doing through the atonement. Toward this end, Johnson sees Christ's atoning work as not merely what he did on the cross, or even in the cross and resurrection, but what he did from incarnation to ascension and outpouring of the Spirit. This work is not that full-orbed view of the atonement that the author advocates for (its less than 200 pages of text). Indeed, such an expansive view of the atonement will continually grow as theologians expand their exploration of the eternal and inexhaustible glories of the person and works of the triune God. However, this work is a call to and a brief pattern of what the ever-expanding theological exploration into the atonement could look like.

I highly recommend this work. I hope to see more studies like this, exercises in theological maximalism, which seek not to prove one view or aspect of theology by arguing against all competitors but rather which examine the many aspects of a given point of theology from the various perspectives afforded when one considers the multifaceted nature, character, purposes and interactions of God with himself, with humanity, and with all creation.

Monday, 25 April 2016

N.D. Wilson on the virtues of scary stories for children

Monsters can give children nightmares.  Some parents will go out of their way to shield children from stories about scary things.  But children will have nightmares about monsters and goblins anyway.  Kids know, both inherently and from their (limited) experience, that there are nasty things in the world.  But the right kind of monster stories will set kids up with the tools to deal with those frightening things in the right way, and I'm not only talking about imaginary monsters, but the kind in the real world as well.  Good monster stories can give children courage and peace of mind; such stories can nurture their faith. 

Thanks to Justin Taylor for pointing out a very good article by N.D. Wilson on why the right kind of scary stories are good for children.

Here is Wilson's article in the Atlantic.

Some of our family's favourite "scary" Wilson stories are Leepike Ridge, Boys of Blur, the 100 Cupboards series, the Ashtown Burials series (still waiting for the rest to be published!), and his latest, Outlaws of Time: the Legend of Sam Miracle, is bound to be good too.

Wilson mentions some of the books that shaped him in his childhood reading, like C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  These stories have evil characters in them and frightening confrontations with darkness.  However, I agree whole-heartedly with kids reading these stories.  There are many other "dark" stories that some parents shy away from but which I think are good at imparting the very things Wilson speaks about in his article.  Some of our family's favourites are by Neil Gaiman: Coraline, and The Graveyard Book.  Certainly every parent should find out if their kids are ready for some of these darker-leaning books and I would suggest that parents should either read these tales to their children, or else read them along with their children, in order to be able to discuss the very themes Wilson talks about in his article (at least the first time the child experiences these stories).  But I most ardently advocate that these types of stories should be a regular part of a child's, and family's, reading diet. 

If you are unconvinced by Wilson's reasoning about why children should read scary or dark stories which teach them about virtue and courage and good ultimately triumphing over evil in the end, be sure to check out the blog post by Taylor mentioned above, which includes some quotes by authors arguing for the same thing.  Quotes like this one by G.K. Chesterton: 
Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
                                                                                                 - The Red Angel