Monday, 17 February 2020

False Prophets and Christian Discipleship: A Sermon on Matthew 7:13-27

The church where I worship is going through Matthew’s Gospel at the moment (though not quite in line with the lectionary), and I preached yesterday. As is my custom, I thought I’d reproduce it here for your amusement. Interestingly (perhaps), while preparing the sermon, I came across two things that could be filed under ‘weird Christian beliefs’: grave sucking and the Kansas City Chiefs revival prophecy. So even though I’m far from convinced my sermon constitutes a landmark moment in homiletical insight, at least part of the message I tried to convey surely remains valid.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 7:13-27

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. (Deut 30:19)

These words come towards the end of Moses’s long speech to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land. Moses has just reminded them of everything that had happened since the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt. Moses has also outlined the various decrees and laws the Lord has given them to live by. By living according to these decrees and laws, the Israelites would mark themselves out as the Lord’s people. All the nearby nations would see how the Israelites lived and know that the Lord lived with them. It wouldn’t be easy to live according to the Lord’s decrees and laws, of course, but neither would it be impossible. What the people of Israel needed to know and believe and accept was that loving the Lord and obeying the Lord’s commandments meant life. ‘Choose life,’ said Moses. ‘Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.’

Fifteen hundred years or so later, we see in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is doing pretty much the same thing as Moses. Jesus has been speaking to his disciples and the crowds, teaching them the meaning of the law and the prophets, and raising the bar for life as God’s people. In our reading from Matthew today, we join Jesus as he wraps up his talk. ‘Enter through the narrow gate,’ he says. Hear the echo: ‘Choose life,’ says Moses; ‘Enter,’ says Jesus; ‘enter through the narrow gate, the gate that leads to life.’

This isn’t quite what Jesus had in mind . . .
Yes, enter. Most of us are here today because we have entered through the narrow gate. And having entered, we are now all at different stages along the road that leads to life. But it really isn’t an easy road to travel on. The road goes up and down, round and round, on and on, bump after bump after bump. Sometimes the road feels so smooth and hazard-free that we’ll take our hands off the wheel and crash over the edge. Sometimes the road is covered in fog so thick we can’t see where we’re going and feel it safest to pull over and wait until things clear. Sometimes we forget where we’re going, or even why we’re going, and lose confidence in the compass or the maps or the satnavs we’re using. And sometimes we even wonder why we bothered to head out in the first place!

Nonetheless, the journey is worth it. We have entered through the narrow gate, and we are on the road, because by God’s Holy Spirit we know and believe and accept that this is the way, the only way, to find the life God has promised—the life of the age to come, the kingdom of heaven.

But why is the road to life so hard? The obvious thing to say here is that this road is simply not as accessible or as well travelled as the other road, the wider road that leads to destruction. However, Jesus also warns us of roadblocks or dead ends along the way that may prevent us from ever reaching the destination: false prophets. Verse fifteen: ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’

What is a false prophet? Jesus doesn’t tell us; and if he has anyone in mind, he certainly isn’t naming names. But when Jesus refers to false prophets again later in Matthew’s Gospel, he suggests that these are people who somehow mislead and deceive God’s people, causing us to lose our way. False prophets mislead God’s people, telling us what we want to hear rather than what we need to hear. False prophets tell us that there are shortcuts on the road to life, that the road is actually not all that difficult to drive on, that we can improve our performance and streak ahead. False prophets tell us that the road should be smooth and the journey plain sailing, and that any potholes we hit is due to our own dangerous or careless driving. False prophets tell us that getting to the destination isn’t that important—what really matters is the journey itself.

But Jesus says the destination is important and the road hard.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell us to go hunting for false prophets but just to look out for them. They can be recognised by their fruits. Notice, too, that Jesus doesn’t tell us to judge them or condemn them. Verses twenty-one to twenty-three say that the judgement of false prophets is Jesus’s responsibility. We are to look out for false prophets by discerning their bad fruits, but only the Lord can make that final judgement where he says to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

So what are we to make of all this?

First of all, we need to look out for anyone who wants to push us off the road to life through deception and half-truths. But the way to discern when someone is nudging or shoving us off the road is to know how the road is marked out and where the road finishes—and as clich├ęd as it sounds, we know this through reading the Bible, through meeting together, and through understanding what is central to the Christian faith. When we don’t know what the Bible says or how to read it well, or when we don’t know what the Christian faith teaches or why some of its more technical ideas matter, we will be open to all kinds of deception and half-truths that could block us on the road to life, or even knock us off it for good.

Second, if it’s fair to say that false prophets are those who mislead God’s people into thinking that the road to life is smooth and scenic, then it is also fair to say that we have a tendency to mislead ourselves into thinking that the road to life is smooth and scenic. We can trick ourselves into thinking that Christianity is little more than a moral framework or a system of ethics, no better and no worse than any other way of living a good life. But if we treat Christianity in this sort of way, rather than as a faith commitment to the risen Jesus, who is Lord over all, then it is possible that we have become the false prophets Jesus warned us about.

Let me be clear: Jesus isn’t warning us about false prophets to show us how gullible or how prone to self-deception we can be. Nor is Jesus intending for us to worry that he will deny knowing us on the day of judgement and toss us away. Remember Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans: ‘There is . . . no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:1). No, Jesus’s point, as verses twenty-four to twenty-seven show us, is to encourage us—to encourage us to hear his words and to act on them; and in doing so, we will withstand the coming storm of judgement.

And so this is what it all comes down to: hearing what Jesus says and obeying his commands. The way not to be deceived by false prophets is to hear what Jesus says and obey his commands. The way not to deceive ourselves is to hear what Jesus says and obey his commands.

Is it all really this simple? Yes . . . and no! The message is simple, but its outworking difficult. Jesus says the road to life is hard; life as a Christian is hard; Christian discipleship is hard. Anyone who tries to tell us otherwise is, frankly, misguided or even deluded. But as hard as the Christian life can be, remember: this is the road that leads to the life of the age to come—and one day, driven by God’s Spirit, we will arrive at the destination that God in Christ has secured for us, if we are brave enough and faithful enough to act on Jesus’s words.

So if you have entered through the narrow gate, if you are travelling on this hardest of roads, then you have chosen well, for you have chosen life!

Monday, 3 February 2020

Book Notice: Providence: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Account

Mark Elliott has already published two books dealing with providence, and a third is due to be published by Baker Academic in April 2020. Here’s the blurb:

This book by a leading scholar of Christian theology and exegesis is a capstone of years of research on the history and theology of the doctrine of providence. Addressing a topic of perennial interest in Christian theology, Mark Elliott offers a constructive account of the doctrine of providence and shows that, contrary to received opinion, the Bible has a lot to say about providence as a distinct doctrine within the wider scope of God’s acts of salvation.

Elliott explains that providence operates outside the range of knowledge and full comprehensibility, eluding faith and transcending revelation. Therefore, readers must look for traces of God’s action in the stories and philosophies of the biblical authors, which appear in the biblical corpus in such themes as the hand of God, the face of God, the kingdom, the plan of God, blessing, life, breath, enduring order, judgment, protection, and the hidden God. Elliott explores these themes in such a way that the entirety of the Bible across both Testaments bears witness to the theme of providence. He concludes by showing how the findings of his analysis speak to the concerns of systematic and practical theologians.

1. Is Providence Topical or Even Biblical?
2. Alternative Themes to Providence in the Bible
3. Providence and Divine Action, Viewed Biblically
4. Finding Providence across the Old Testament Genres
5. Providence as Set Forth in the New Testament
6. Systematic Considerations in the Light of Biblical Theology

I had mixed thoughts about The Heart of Biblical Theology and Providence Perceived, but Providence: ABHTA looks to be a more constructive piece. I shall look forward to getting this in due course.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Book Notice: What is Jesus Doing?

Here’s a newly published book that promises much, especially if you want to know what Jesus is up to these days: What is Jesus Doing? God’s Activity in the Life and Work of the Church, edited by Edwin Chr. van Driel. The blurb:

Jesus is present here and now, Christians have always affirmed. But how are we to understand his present activity in a challenging, post-Christian context? In what ways is he at work in our congregational worship, pastoral care, preaching—and even our board meetings?
At a time when many feel uncertain about the future of the church, What Is Jesus Doing? brings together leading thinkers in pastoral theology, homiletics, liturgical theology, and missiology in a compelling resource for pastors and theologians. Emphasizing the reality of Jesus both as the resurrected, ascended Christ and as present and active today, the contributors consider how to recognize the divine presence and join in what God is already doing in all areas of church ministry.
So why do I say this promises much? Speaking very generally, books on divine action and providence tend to overlook what God is doing in the churches, including in pastoral care and the like. So I think this book has the potential to correct the course, even if only by a degree or two.

Monday, 30 December 2019

My Review of William J. Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume 3: Systematic Theology

My review of William J. Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume 3: Systematic Theology is available via Journal of Theological Studies here. And should you wish to know what I thought to volumes one and two, go here. Have fun clicking and reading!

Monday, 2 December 2019

Book Review: Four Views on Divine Providence, ed. Dennis W. Jowers

Dennis W. Jowers (ed.), Four Views on Divine Providence (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011)

Zondervan’s Counterpoints is a book series in which proponents of particular views held by Evangelical Christians (interpret ‘Evangelical’ broadly) are invited to state their positions and then respond to those of the others—not entirely unlike an electoral hustings. Four Views on Divine Providence features essays by Paul Kjoss Helseth (‘God Causes All Things’), William Lane Craig (‘God Directs All Things’), Ron Highfield (‘God Controls by Liberating’), and Gregory A. Boyd (‘God Limits his Control’). These essays and responses are sandwiched between the editor’s introduction and conclusion.

None of the contributors offers any genuine surprises in what he outlines. Helseth’s essay is an effective statement of a traditional Reformed omnicausality, while Boyd’s is the same for an account of open theism. Craig’s chapter is essentially a case for Molinism. Highfield’s piece is perhaps the most distinctive of the four: he presumes divine omnicausality but recalls more explicitly the thrust of the whole biblical narrative by focussing on God’s freeing of humanity from the power of sin. Each position is capably argued and should be regarded as genuinely representative of at least part of the traditions they espouse.

The responses to each chapter are rather mixed. Critiques centre on disputed matters of freedom and theodicy; this is to be expected. However, it seems to me that some contributors play more fairly than others. For example, Helseth draws too freely from Boyd’s other writings rather than from what is actually presented in Four Views on Divine Providence; this seems disingenuous to me. Craig seems overconfident in Molinism’s coherence against the other views and its power to deliver on its claims. But other responses are more to the point: Highfield judges that Boyd’s approach to providence is not as christocentric as the latter claims, and Boyd offers an emotively insightful description of what is surely entailed by Helseth’s uncompromising account of divine omnicausality.

In summary, Four Views on Divine Providence is a decent addition to introductory and/or intermediate literature on the topic, but those who are already familiar with the views and the issues will find little new here other than some quotable passages. Of course, the spectacle of seeing four intelligent scholars entering the same field of play is always worth the price of admission. In that respect, I think Highfield is the player who emerges—narrowly—as the most persuasive.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Pray for the Kingdom: A Sermon on Isaiah 61:10–62:7 and Luke 18:1-8

Why do we pray? And what do we pray for? You will have all sorts of answers to these questions, answers both mundane and profound. But one of the things we need to pray for is that God’s kingdom will come. We need to pray that God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness and glory. We need to pray that Christ the King, God’s Anointed One, God’s Messiah, will return and establish once and for all God’s kingdom of justice and peace. This kingdom is already here in part: the risen Jesus sits at the right hand of his Father in heaven, praying for us, even while God’s Holy Spirit is present among us now as we go about our daily business as faithful Christians. But the kingdom is not totally present. There is more, much more, of the kingdom to come. And so we must pray that it will come in all its fullness.

But this isn’t an easy thing to do. When we see our leaders bickering with one another; when our cupboards and wallets and purses are empty; when our bodies and minds are fragile and broken; when we see or feel all these things, it’s easy to become disillusioned with life and forget that this is not all there is. There is an age to come: not life after death in the sense of our souls floating up to heaven as our bodies decay, but in the sense that God promises to transform this world into something entirely new: the kingdom of God. The kingship of the risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s presence among us are evidence that God’s kingdom is growing among us even now. The age to come, God’s kingdom, is already here in part—but there is still more to come. We need not doubt its eventual arrival. But Christ our King calls us to pray that it arrives soon so that God’s justice and peace transform everything.

Jesus knows this is hard to believe, which is why, in today’s Gospel reading from Luke, he encourages us always to pray for the kingdom to come and not to lose heart, or be discouraged, or think that all our prayers are just a waste of time. God is not like the judge in the parable. The judge had to give in to the widow lest she shame him; he was concerned with nothing but his own reputation and feelings. But God is not like this judge. We do not need to badger God or trick God into dishing out true justice. And why not? It’s because God has already resolved and promised to establish the kingdom in all its fullness.

But if God has resolved and promised to establish the kingdom in all its fullness; if the kingdom is guaranteed to come; then why do we still need to pray for it to come? This is where our reading from Isaiah can help us. The theme of persistence in prayer emerges towards the end of our reading, but there is also something of an explanation as to why we should pray in the earlier verses. Let’s look at them more closely.

First of all, let’s keep in mind that today’s passage relates to a time when God’s people had returned to what was left of Jerusalem after decades of exile in Babylon. Many of these people had probably been born after the deportations and so had only heard stories about Jerusalem’s greatness and glory. Many of them had never even seen Jerusalem, let alone Jerusalem at its peak. We can only guess at how disillusioned the people were: they’d heard the stories of Jerusalem’s greatness, but now they had to face a harsh reality that didn’t match what they’d been told. Would the city, could the city, ever again reach the same heights of splendour? Did the people really care one way or the other? Did the Lord himself even care . . . really?

Isaiah’s prophecy here is placed on the lips of God’s anointed one, God’s messiah. Clothed with salvation, covered with righteousness, God’s anointed one is ready to vindicate Jerusalem by transforming the city and its people into beacons of hope for the wider world. The entire world will see what the anointed one will achieve for Jerusalem: all the other countries, all the world’s kings, will see justice done, will see Jerusalem’s glory, will know the city by a new name that speaks of God’s delight in the place. The Lord’s just dealings with the world are concentrated first on Jerusalem. The extended metaphor in Isaiah 62:5 is that of a wedding followed by the bride and groom making love. The Lord consummates Jerusalem in a bridal suite prepared by God’s messiah. The waiting is over! All is right with the world!
“Really? That’s what that verse is about?”
But note that despite all this imagery, the wedding has not yet happened. Jerusalem is not yet restored or transformed—far from it. However, God’s anointed one says he will not keep silent or rest until Jerusalem is vindicated, until God’s justice reigns supreme:

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch (Isa. 62:1).

The promise of fulfilment and vindication is sure: the Lord God will cause righteousness to blossom like a garden, the nations shall see Jerusalem’s vindication, it shall no longer be labelled Forsaken, and the Lord shall rejoice over the city—but at the time Isaiah prophesied, all this was still to happen. Isaiah’s prophecy is a promise of Jerusalem’s completion and fulfilment given at a time when reasons for hope were limited and the dreams of the people were nothing but fantasies.

This is why there are sentinels or watchmen stationed on Jerusalem’s walls. God’s anointed one has posted them there to remind the Lord of his promises to Jerusalem, to remind the Lord that he has promised good things for the city. And the sentinels remind the Lord day and night; just like the anointed one himself, the sentinels are never silent or inactive, and they will remind the Lord of his promises always and always and always and always and not stop ‘until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth’ (Isa. 62:7). God’s promise is sure, but the sentinels’ reminders keep the promise alive in a world of discouragement, futility, and despair.

I hope you can already see where I’m going with this. In the same way that the anointed one in Isaiah posts sentinels to remind the Lord of his promises for Jerusalem, so too Jesus—God’s Anointed One, God’s Messiah, God’s King—calls us to pray for God’s kingdom to come in all its fullness and not to give up praying for this to happen. But this isn’t a case of us pestering God until God gives in to our demands. Rather, God in Christ through the Holy Spirit encourages us to remain faithful in prayer despite the uncertainties and injustices we see all around us and on the news.

Jesus’s parable of the widow and the judge isn’t designed to link God to the unjust judge, but to compare us with the persistent widow. And this challenges us. When Jesus returns—as undoubtedly he will do, one day—when Christ our King returns, will he find us faithful in prayer? Will Jesus find us on our literal or metaphorical knees praying for God’s kingdom to come regardless of whatever else is going on? Will Jesus find us praying for God’s justice to be done and perhaps through our prayers becoming agents of justice ourselves? These are tough and important questions each of us, and all of us, including me, must contend with. But we can do so with hope and assurance, for although God’s kingdom is not fully here, we know it is already here in part. What Christ our King calls us to do is to pray that the kingdom will come, that the kingdom will come quickly, and that the kingdom will come in all its fullness.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Online Symposium on David Fergusson’s The Providence of God

I am impressed by David Fergusson’s recent monograph, The Providence of God. And it seems that Sapientia: A Periodical of the Henry Center is impressed, too—so much so that they have convened an online symposium to discuss aspects of it. I was asked to contribute a short reflection to this symposium (again, I don’t know who put my name forward, but thank you!), which you can read here. Other reflections published so far are by Rebekah Earnshaw and Kevin J.Vanhoozer, and we can expect further reflections by Tom McCall and Craig Bartholomew, as well as a response by Fergusson himself.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Colin Gunton on T&T Clark’s Theology and Religion Online

The publisher T&T Clark contacted me earlier this year and asked me—I’m not sure why: Did someone recommend me? Was I third or fourth or ninth choice? Was it something someone ate?—to write a brief essay introducing Colin Gunton’s books and essays published by T&T Clark and which would appear on their forthcoming (at the time) online resources platform. Well, that platform is now live—see here—and while you need a subscription to access Gunton’s writings online, my essay, imaginatively entitled ‘Colin Gunton: An Introduction’, is freely available. The proof is here.

Despite my earlier (partly) tongue-in-cheek questions, I am honoured to have been asked to write this essay, but also a little wary. I’ve made some judgements about the development of Gunton’s theology that those who knew him well could easily dispute if wayward. I studied under Gunton as an undergraduate in the mid-to-late 1990s and only met him once more, with a friend, a few years later when he gave a lecture on something or other at a church in the Sloane Square area and, funnily enough, on a District Line train almost immediately after that lecture. He died a month or two later.

Anyway, enough recollecting; enjoy my essay (please)!

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Book Notice: Divine Action and Providence, eds. Crisp and Sanders

Coming soon is Divine Action and Providence: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics, edited by Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders. This is a first-day must-buy for me, though that might be difficult given (a) the Boxing Day release date listed by both Amazon UK and Waterstones, and (b) that my wife might already have pre-ordered it for me for my birthday (which is just over a week after Christmas). Anyway, Fred Sanders (one of the editors, as earlier noted) has written a summary of the contents and should give an indication as to why I’m geeking out about this one. You can read the summary here.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Book Notice: The God Who Acts in History

I’ve just found out about a new book scheduled for publication in January 2020: Craig G. Bartholomew’s The God Who Acts in History. Here’s the blurb:

Did the decisive event in the history of Israel even happen?

The Bible presents a living God who speaks and acts, and whose speaking and acting is fundamental to his revelation of himself. God’s action in history may seem obvious to many Christians, but modern philosophy has problematized the idea. Today, many theologians often use the Bible to speak of God while, at best, remaining agnostic about whether he has in fact acted in history.

Historical revelation is central to both Jewish and Christian theology. Two major events in the Bible showcase divine agency: the revelation at Sinai in Exodus and the incarnation of Jesus in the gospels. Surprisingly, there is a lack of serious theological reflection on Sinai by both Jewish and Christian scholars, and those who do engage the subject often oscillate about the historicity of what occurred there.

Craig Bartholomew explores how the early church understood divine action, looks at the philosophers who derided the idea, and finally shows that the reasons for doubting the historicity of Sinai are not persuasive. The God Who Acts in History provides compelling reasons for affirming that God has acted and continues to act in history.

The publisher’s website also includes the table of contents. Of interest to me specifically is a chapter that seems to address divine action and classical theism in connection with Colin Gunton. I’ve recently finished writing two articles on Gunton (which I hope will see the light of day soon enough), as well as having already published an essay on Gunton’s account of providence, so I’m looking forward to Bartholomew’s book for this chapter if nothing else!