God only has ‘Plan A’

2 April 2018

In a recent Bible-study group, a friend observed that, as he saw it, God started out with the nation of Israel. But they messed up, failing to go along with his intentions for them. That’s the Old Testament story—the bad bit. So God started again with Jesus and the church—which is the New Testament story, and the good bit.

noplanbNot true! The following is an extract from my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, that explains the ins and outs of it…

‘Too many Christians have lost touch completely with the Old Testament. They think that, because it is all pre-Jesus, it is unimportant. One outcome is that they separate Israel from the church. Their unspoken assumption is that, while God in Old Testament days dealt with the nation of Israel (Plan A), due to their failure he turned his attention to an alternative community, the church, founded by Jesus (Plan B).

‘This is not right at all! God has never had a ‘Plan B’. His ‘Plan A’, as we have seen, was the calling of Abraham and his descendants to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’. By this means, he would reach everyone and in due course put the whole world to rights. Paul constantly has this Old Testament narrative in mind in his writings. He insists that the fact that the Jews failed so signally in their mission did not throw God’s plan off track at all. The Messiah, Jesus, proved to be the true Israelite. He embodied everything that the nation had been called to be and, through him, Plan A remains on track. His resurrection vindicated him as God’s chosen one, through whom all who believe — Gentiles as well as Jews — are justified and partake in the new age he had inaugurated.

‘According to Paul, Israel thus continues but has been redefined. The children of Abraham — or to use synonymous terms, ‘Israel’ or ‘the people of God’ — are now all who believe in Jesus, regardless of their ethnic background. Justification breaks down the barriers. In this way God has honoured his covenant with Abraham. This is the message of Paul’s letter to the Romans, whose fundamental topic is ‘Who are the people of God?’

‘All this means, of course, that the obsession of some Christians with Zionism and the current State of Israel, in the belief that the Jews have some separate role in the purpose of God, is completely misplaced. If you have held Zionist sympathies, that could be a wobbler.’

There’s more where that came from, and you may be wanting chapter and verse to back up the thesis. It’s all in the book, which you can download for free at http://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/apitfdownload.htm

And if you want more on the role of today’s State of Israel, you will find food for thought in my blog post, Red Herring In Galilee.

Enjoy!

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Repetition and repertoire

26 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 3.

In the days of hymns, people sang a hymn through once, and that was it. Fair enough, as many hymns had five or six verses, often with a chorus between. Modern Christian songs tend to be shorter, and thus lend themselves to having sections repeated several times. That’s fine, as repetition can drive a point home like nothing else.

worship bandBut repetition, if overdone, has the very opposite effect. It becomes mind-numbing, so that, far from entering more fully into the sentiment being expressed, the congregation is pushed towards either a semi-hypnotic state where meaning goes out of the window, or into crashing boredom. With me it’s always the latter.

Few aspects of music, therefore, need more careful handling than this if we are to get it right. How can we get it right? One obvious step is for the worship-leaders to look and see if the people are actually singing. There has been quite a bit on the web recently about Christian meetings where the congregation have virtually given up singing altogether. Why would that happen?

  1. Because the music has entered ‘performance mode’. This is especially true of mega-church congregations, where the scenario is ‘rock concert’ rather than ‘people at worship’. May we never allow that to happen!
  2. Because even if they sang as loud as they possibly could, they still wouldn’t be able to hear themselves above the high-volume sound pumped out from the sound-system. So they stop competing. The sound system should serve the congregation, not browbeat them into silence.
  3. Because the guitarist-singer is singing in the style of a performer, playing about with timing, cutting bits short, bending notes etc. They are singing, in other words, as if they were on stage, or singing in private. A congregation is made to feel insecure by this and tends to opt out rather than risk singing out ‘wrongly’.
  4. Because some of the songs are virtually unsingable.

This last point leads on to the issue of the repertoire. Speaking for myself, I am increasingly uncomfortable with many of the songs presented for us to sing. The words of some are at best lightweight, and in a few cases dubious in both their theological content and their standard of English. But here I will address a couple of the musical aspects.

  1. A competent songwriter knows the range within which a typical congregation is comfortable. In broad terms that will be within an octave from the D just above Middle C to the D or E above it. It’s possible to include the odd note outside that range, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Some songs, alas, go so low that many people stop singing. Let’s ditch them.
  2. Many recent songs were originally composed for solo or group singing by Christian musicians and bands that tour around performing. They are fine for that context, and for listening to on mobile devices etc., but most don’t transfer at all well into a public setting. They often include non-intuitive modulations that throw a congregation completely and put them off trying to master the tune, as they quickly come to believe that there isn’t really a tune there to master.

In all this are we, perhaps, neglecting our rich heritage of older hymns and songs? I believe we are. Why, I wonder, is that?

One young Christian who was preparing to speak at a Bible study at his church was asked, ‘What commentaries are you using?’ He replied, ‘Oh, I don’t touch commentaries. I think it’s important to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to me today about the passage.’ To which another Christian, who had overheard the conversation, commented, ‘Strange, isn’t it, how those who make much of what the Holy Spirit is saying to them have little time for what the same Holy Spirit said about the passage to others?’

The same applies to songs in worship. We have a rich heritage of 2000 years-worth of Christian music and song, and we rob the congregation if we fail to include some of that heritage regularly in our times of singing and worship.

In particular, from the 18th century on there have been some superb examples of Christian songs. True, many of them will have the ‘thees and thous’ typical of that generation, but Christians today are surely robust enough not to let that put them off?

To me it’s very sad that, at some churches, they have two separate services, one ‘traditional’ (with the organ and hymn-books) and the other ‘contemporary’ (with a worship-band and projected words). This is unnecessarily divisive, in my view. Let’s have a good, rich mix.

There’s more to say on all this…in a future post.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Miserable Sinners? Our status as God’s people

21 February 2018

Regarding my nature and behaviour before I became a committed Christian I have no doubts. A phrase from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer describes it nicely: I was a ‘miserable sinner’.

That doesn’t mean I was gloomy all the time—in spite of my melancholic streak. No, ‘miserable’ here bears its older sense of ‘wretched’, ‘needy’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, and that was me, all right. And what a relief it was to feel Jesus lifting me up to better prospects as I called to him in faith! That was over sixty years ago.

depressed_bigHe sorted out the ‘miserable’ bit straight away. Far from feeling spiritually ‘wretched’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, I now felt dusted-down, clean and upright, saved by grace and ‘reigning in life’.[1] The sorting-out of the ‘sinner’ bit, though, proved less straightforward. For some years I limped along, often beaten by temptation and feeling awful. But all that changed when, aged seventeen, I had a dramatic experience of being baptised in the Holy Spirit. Love for God and his Word took over, along with a strong victory-consciousness. Sin wasn’t impossible, but it was certainly unthinkable, and I now powered my way through life’s temptations with holy gusto.

I went to my first Anglican service at the age of nineteen and it gave me a shock. Coming from a free-church background, I found it hard enough to cope with the set prayers, but my brow furrowed when we came to the Litany:

  • O God the Father, of heaven: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O God the Son, Redeemer of the world: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O God the Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three Persons and one God: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.

I had problems with that. Here was the church at prayer, and in my book ‘church’ was by definition the redeemed community. So the folk gathered in that gothic building were presumably Christians, saved by grace like myself and there to worship God. But if they were, what was all this ‘miserable sinners’ stuff? Yes, we’re ‘sinners saved by grace’, but the emphasis surely lies on ‘saved’ and ‘grace’, not on ‘sinners’, which can no longer be an apt label for children of God—can it?

Some Christians, I discovered, warned that we are all apt to take sin too lightly. Others said it was an unhealthy preoccupation, and that we should focus instead on liberty and victorious living. I leaned towards the latter position—and still do.

But the issue wouldn’t go away. Over the years it kept coming to the surface and demanding re-examination. Not that I held to ‘sinless perfection’. I knew it was to Christians that John wrote, ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.'[2]  In keeping with this, I tried to live each day for God and had no awareness of sinning with any regularity. If he drew any sin to my attention I was quick to confess it to him, receive his forgiveness and march forward again in a manner becoming a child of the King.

My convictions on the issue became more settled. Grace had enabled me to ‘participate in the divine nature’,[3] and, in line with that nature, the bias of my being was now towards doing God’s will, not towards sin. Didn’t Paul affirm, after all, that ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come’?[4]  Yes, the new nature was now in undisputed charge as the driving force of my being!

But friends of The Book of Common Prayer, and some of the Reformed persuasion, kept casting doubts on my conviction. They reminded me that even the saintly Apostle Paul admitted to defeat: ‘I am unspiritual,’ he confessed, ‘sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do….I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.'[5]

So there!

Finding it hard to square this with Paul’s high doctrine of victory in the power of the Spirit, I concluded, with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, that Paul wasn’t talking about his current experience here. He was using a literary device—the ‘dramatic present’—to describe the powerlessness he had felt years earlier when, as a legalistic Pharisee, he’d begun finding his way towards Christ.

Then I came up with a clincher. ‘Notice,’ I told my breast-beating friends, ‘Paul’s words to the Corinthians. They were guilty of pride, party-spirit, greed and drunkenness, and were slow to discipline the sexually immoral. Yet Paul insisted that their fundamental nature, as believers in Jesus, was godly and good. They were to get rid of ‘the yeast of malice and wickedness’ from the ‘batch of dough’ that they were, he urged, so ‘that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are.’

That settled it. As Christians we don’t want to sin and, through the Spirit’s power, we don’t have to. But the habits of our pre-Christian days, and daily shoulder-rubbing with an often-corrupt society, combine to trip us up from time to time. When that happens, we avail ourselves of God’s gracious provision, get back to our feet and resume our journey forgiven. But tripping up is surely a rarity, not a way of life? Our bent is towards godliness, not sin, for God himself ‘works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose.'[6]

That’s it, then. Cranmer and Co., who compiled the Prayer Book at the Reformation, got it wrong. As committed Christians, we’re not ‘miserable sinners’ after all. That notion was baggage brought over from Rome, and good riddance to it!

Then a friend told me the story of the flashlight. ‘When a light shines on you from a distance, many parts of you remain in shadow,’ he said. ‘But as you move towards the light, it penetrates ever more deeply into those shadows. And as we draw ever closer to God, who is light, the more aware we become of hitherto unrevealed sin in the farthest recesses of our souls. It’s the paradox of sanctification,’ he concluded. ‘The closer you get to the Lord, the more conscious you become of remaining sinful tendencies.’

Oh shucks! In that case the measure of godliness is not increasing victory by the Spirit but an increasing attitude of ‘Woe is me!’—back full circle to ‘miserable sinners’.

Undaunted, I dipped again into John’s first Letter for consolation. And I found some. ‘No-one who is born of God,’ he asserts, ‘will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.'[7]  That’s genetic terminology—’seed’ is the Greek sperma. John is saying that, because my heavenly Father begot me, I just can’t help growing like him. Spiritually, his genes are shaping my character as surely as my earthly father’s genes shaped the colour of my eyes. God isn’t a sinner, so neither am I—miserable or otherwise.

So that’s it, ‘the conclusion of the matter’, as the Preacher said. End of story. I’m a saint, not a sinner; a child of the King, not a breast-beating peasant. I’m moving from glory to glory, not from bad to worse. I have a brand new life, a stake in the divine nature, the divine seed within me and victory before me.

I just wish Paul hadn’t said, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am (not was) the worst.'[8]

Footnotes

  1.  Romans 5:17
  2.  1 John 1:8-10
  3.  2 Peter 1:4
  4.  2 Corinthians 5:17
  5.  Romans 7:14-20
  6.  Philippians 2:13
  7.  1 John 3:9
  8.  1 Timothy 1:15

Accompanying, leading or driving?

14 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 2.

There’s nothing more embarrassing to the congregation than seeing a worship leader strumming away with their eyes tight closed and thus unaware of someone who has come forward to contribute, or of one of the church leaders who wishes to say something, or is signalling them to stop playing.

guitarIt’s not good enough to say, ‘Sorry, I was lost in worship.’ The answer to that is, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be. Your business is not to ‘lost’ but to be sensitive to the Lord and to other people, not to drive things, but to lead sensitively, and for that you need to be aware of what’s going on around you.’

And, please, leave us some pauses. People who typeset books know the vital importance of ‘white space’. A solid, long paragraph of type puts people off reading, whereas well-spaced, shorter paragraphs with a few millimetres of white space between them enhance readability. It’s the same with music. Constant output wearies people and inhibits their involvement. They tend to shut their eyes, or stop singing, or sit down and adopt an attitude of prayer. What they are really saying by their actions is, ‘Please, let’s have a bit of let-up.’

We need frequent quiet pauses — audible ‘white space’ — where the Holy Spirit can speak in the silence.

Then think, please, whether you are accompanying, leading or driving the ‘worship’. Guitars, by their very nature, have a driving effect; the rhythm impels things along. That’s OK in itself, but it does mean that the musician needs to back off, or at least break the rhythm, from time to time, otherwise ‘drivenness’ becomes the main feature of the music.

Ideally, I believe, musicians and front-singers should fit somewhere between ‘leading’ and ‘accompanying’. As for the first, they are there to set the pace of the song and decide when to move from verse to chorus etc., so that the congregation all know where the song is going. As for the second, the congregation’s singing is just as important as what the musicians are producing, and sometimes it will be appropriate for the musicians to let the flow of a song come from there and fall back into more of an ‘accompaniment’ mode for a while.

Or even to fall silent! We love it when, from time to time in an appropriate song, the musicians stop playing altogether so that we have just the sound of everybody’s voices. And don’t be too quick to come charging back in again with a driving rhythm!

The name of the game? Sensitivity. To God and to the congregation.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Music without ceasing?

12 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective—1.

Hearing deteriorates as folk get older—as I know from experience: my hearing aids are very powerful ones. One feature of this deterioration is losing the capacity to ‘filter out’ one sound from other, competing sounds, and focus on it .

This means that, if someone is speaking in church—praying, perhaps, or making some connecting comment—and a guitar or keyboard is playing at the same time, it is virtually impossible for many of us to make out what the speaker is saying, as the frequency of the music almost always overrides that of the speaker’s voice.

Worship-teamThat’s why it is immensely off-putting to older folk when music is played in the background all the time during the open time of worship. This has, sadly, become the norm in some churches, but I regard it as an undesirable practice. Not only does it prevent some of us from hearing any simultaneous oral contributions. It also inhibits such contributions from the congregation. Few people are confident enough to chip in while music is being played, especially when they feel they will have to raise their voice higher than is natural for them if they are to be heard above the music. So they keep quiet—and we are the poorer for it.

Music and song do not equal ‘worship’; they are simply one of many expressions of it. When we gather as a church family, our corporate worship consists in, not just the singing, but the prayers, testimonies, prophecies, tongues and interpretation, relevant Scripture passages etc.

Musicians and stage-singers have an unfair advantage here, in that they are in position at the front, with microphones, and can thus inhibit or face down contributions from the floor. For this reason, they need to be mega-sensitive to the presence of the congregation and ideally should stop playing immediately if someone in the congregation begins to pray out loud or whatever.

Some would discourage ‘from the floor’ contributions anyway, favouring the ‘front-led’ approach to meetings. The congregation then become, not participants, but observers. It’s a negative trend, I believe, possibly reflecting an unhealthy desire for control on the part of the leaders. Certainly, it’s hardly ‘family’ anymore; it’s a performance. And, to be honest, I often find it boring—though I always try to keep a positive attitude. You never get bored when there are contributions from the floor. Some of them may be a bit messy but, to me, that’s part of what ‘family’ is all about. It’s real, and I think the Lord loves it!

I know from experience that it’s possible to welcome contributions from the floor with congregations up to about 150 in number, provided the musicians are sensitive and know when to keep quiet. After that, the dynamics change. But I’d argue that, once numbers reach 150, it’s time to split the congregation into two of 75 each anyway, to keep the ‘family’ atmosphere that the New Testament presents as central to the church’s very nature. Small is beautiful!

What do you think?

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Who are you?

11 February 2018

Some words grabbed me in a song we sang in church this morning: ‘You’re a good, good Father; that’s who you are… And I’m loved by you; that’s who I am…’

woodworm floorboards 2

‘That’s who I am.’ I felt a deep satisfaction in that: the essential thing about me—my identity—is that I’m someone loved by Father God.

I’d been prompted to think about identity by a couple of Facebook posts I’d read the night before. One was from a woman who wrote, ‘First and foremost, I’m a feminist.’ How sad. Nothing wrong with feminism, of course; in a male-dominated society it can bring a needed balance. But it’s hardly worth making the centre of your personal identity.

Then I read a post by a man who had been in a local ‘gay pride’ march. He didn’t say so explicitly, but he gave the impression that, for him, his identity lay in his sexual orientation. Again, one can sympathise with gays who have suffered discrimination and feel the need to push for greater acceptance in society. But for your whole personal identity to be tied to this aspect of your personhood is, surely, a sad state of affairs.

In the West, we tend to find our identity in our job. Who are you? I’m a nurse. I’m an engineer. Our profession is probably one we have chosen, rather than one foisted on us by circumstances beyond our control. It suits our natural gifts. And we probably devote at least eight hours a day to it for a sizeable chunk of our lives. So, yes, it’s important. But can your profession truly be ‘who you are’? I don’t think so.

Others find their identity in some physical trait. I’m black, and proud of it. I’m Native American and proud of it. Nothing wrong with that either, especially if you have suffered discrimination and want to redress the balance. But it’s hardly important enough to make you say, ‘It’s who I am’, as if everything else about you is minor beside it.

The physical trait may be an illness or disability. I’m a diabetic. I’m a cancer-sufferer. I’m paraplegic. No doubt this is a major element in your life, so you might as well come to terms with it and, as far as you can, make the most of it. But to build your whole identity on such a feature—that’s can’t be right, can it?

No. All these sources of identity are unsatisfactory. Each one is like rotten floorboards in a house: they will hold you up most of the time but, sooner or later, they won’t be able to take your weight and you’ll end up, injured, in the cellar. Sure, being a nurse, a homosexual, a feminist, a black-skinned person, a diabetic or whatever is a major facet of your life, but if you make it the source of your very identity you’ll never reach your full potential as a human being.

You need a more solid floor to walk your life on. I’m convinced that, if you’re to reach your full potential, be at peace with yourself, and be of maximum benefit to those around you, there’s only one truth worth pinning your ‘This is me’ badge to. It’s what we sang to God in church this morning: ‘You’re a good, good Father; that’s who you are… And I’m loved by you; that’s who I am…’

This is true for everyone, by the way, not just for committed Christians like me. Of course, if you don’t believe it, it’s not going to do you any good. Like the poor student who received a solicitor’s letter to say he’d been left a million-pound legacy by a distant relative he didn’t even know existed. He thought it was a con and continued to live like a poor student. It was months before he ventured to look into it properly, only to discover, to his astonishment and joy, that it was true. Then, and only then, did he begin to experience the benefits.

God is a good, good Father. And you really are loved by him! It’s worth investigating, starting, perhaps with a few tentative prayers. As a result, you could discover your real identity, find solid ground at last beneath you feet—and weep for joy.


Wart Treatment: the blight of ‘isms’

5 February 2018

The body of Christ has warts. They’re called isms.

I’ve seen lots of them. I was born into Methodism and grew up in Brethrenism, where they taught me Dispensationalism from the Scofield Bible. At university, I encountered the writings of the Puritans and embraced Calvinism, with its inseparable partner, Amillennialism. This taught me, of course, to despise both Dispensationalism and that alleged arch-enemy of thinking Christians, Arminianism.

wartLater, I flirted with Postmillennialism and got involved with what some called Restorationism. Finally, resisting the advances of (among others) Reconstructionism, Haginism, Wimberism and Classic Premillennialism, I settled on a brilliantly novel idea: I would just try to interpret the Bible sensibly and serve Christ. What a stroke of genius! Maybe I should patent it and market it as Christian Minimalism.

You’re thinking: ‘You pompous ass. It’s impossible to avoid isms altogether! It’s human nature to take even mainstream items of Christian faith, lump them together and stick some ismic label on them. Even good people do that. You can’t beat ’em, so join ’em. Wear your “I’m a Baptist” badge with pride.’

No chance. Seriously, I’ve concluded that every ism must, by definition, be something less than fully-fledged, developing Christian faith. Have you noticed that while each ism is quick to line up supporting Bible proof-texts, it conveniently ignores texts that seem to say something different? Or it explains them away in what seems to me like elastic exegesis.

Take Calvinism, for instance. It maintains its ‘five points’ based on the acronym TULIP,[1] claiming that the five stand or fall together and forbidding us to pick and choose. But Limited Atonement sticks in my craw. It does the same even when they euphemise it as Particular Redemption. An estate agent can insist on describing a house as having ‘great potential’ but in reality it’s still a run-down property.

When I point out to Calvinists that ‘The Lord is…not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’,[2] they tell me that ‘everyone’ means ‘everyone without distinction’, not ‘everyone without exception’. My reminder that Christ is ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’[3] prompts the retort that it depends what we mean by ‘for’. Certainly I have no business, they insist, to tell people indiscriminately that Christ died for them. Hmmm.

It’s the same with the Perseverance bit. Sure, it is God who saves, and no-one can snatch us out of his, or Christ’s, hands.[4]  But if ‘once saved, always saved’ is true, why did the Holy Spirit, in overseeing the compilation of the New Testament, include so many warnings about the dangers of falling away?

The sobering words of Hebrews six and ten apply, Calvinists say, not to the genuine believer but to the person who merely professes to believe. But that’s hard to swallow when he’s described as having ‘shared in the Holy Spirit'[5]. And if he’s liable to the ‘raging fire’ of God’s judgment[6] because he has ‘treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him'[7], in what sense did Christ’s blood sanctify him in the first place?

Yes, yes, I know the standard answers you’re going to throw back at me. I’ve read them all and studied them ad nauseam, and I’m still not convinced.

No, the whole TULIP thing is too simplistic, too neat and tidy for me. It forces on Scripture a scheme that’s less than Scripture and that tends to become a Scripture substitute. It’s an ism and a wart. Bishop Ryle was right when he observed: ‘I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic in their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by the idolatrous veneration of a system.'[8]  For me it’s out with TULIP and in with CHRYSANTHEMUM—or any other long-named flower that gives scope for all those facets of God’s truth that can’t be made to fit a five-letter acronym.

‘Ah, so you’re an Arminian!’ you say. Not so. ‘Saved today and lost tomorrow’, for instance, doesn’t square with the New Testament’s promises of eternal security for the believer.

‘Oh, come on! You can’t have it both ways!’ Yes, I can, because that’s the way Scripture seems to have it. Like the twin lines of a railway track, divine sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation run a parallel course, meeting only in eternity and the mind of God. For now, I’m content to run my theological train along both rather than opt for the wobbly ride of any ismic monorail.

I’ll be a Calviminian. If I meet a troubled Christian who lacks assurance, I’ll remind him that Jesus turns away none who come to him. If I meet one who indulges in sinful behaviour without raising a hair, I’ll warn him that his salvation is in jeopardy and quote him Matthew 7:21-23. For myself, I’ll relax in the security of God’s sovereign love and grace that keeps me safe now and for ever, and I’ll hold fast to him as if it all depended on me.

This isn’t a new idea. John Newton, caught up in the Calvinism versus Arminianism debate three centuries ago, wrote that when preaching he tried ‘to keep all shibboleths and terms and forms of distinction out of sight, as we keep knives and razors out of the way of children, and if my hearers had not other means of information I think they would not know from me that there are such creatures as Arminians and Calvinists in the world. But we talk a good deal about Christ.'[9]  Wise man.

And here’s another thing: our understanding of the Bible—where we tend to root our isms—is constantly growing and developing. Every ism takes a selection of biblical truths, as understood at the time, and sets them in concrete, leaving no flexibility, no scope for our grasp of God’s amazing truth to be adjusted. That’s never going to sit comfortably with people like me, who feel that, like the potter’s jar in the book of Jeremiah, our traditional ‘jar’ of received doctrine has been smashed beyond repair, and is being reshaped on God’s wheel into a new and more beautiful one.

Isms have another off-putting feature: they lock people into a sub-culture that’s a parody of fully-rounded Christian faith. Methodism, for example, locks its followers into John Wesley, Wesleyan doctrine, Wesleyan hymns, stewards, circuits and moderators, and I don’t want to get stuck in an eighteenth-century rut any more than I want to get stuck into a seventeenth-century Puritan one.

I don’t even want to get stuck in a twenty-first century ‘new church’ sub-culture. Once quite broad, this is rapidly narrowing to ismic proportions. Suggest singing one of Wesley’s hymns in some ‘new churches’ and they’ll laugh at you. Question the ear-splitting volume of the music group’s sound system or propose a period of quiet prayer and they’ll tell you—as someone once told me—that you’re going to be uncomfortable in heaven, because the silence there lasts only half an hour.[10]  Suggest that what is commonly called ‘anointing’ is often just hype and they’ll accuse you of not being ‘in the flow of the Spirit’.

I want to break out of denominational sub-cultures and just be a follower of Jesus. That doesn’t mean adopting the pious ‘I belong to Christ’ stance of the Corinthians[11] or becoming the sole member of a church of one. It means acknowledging that the Holy Spirit who speaks through the Bible to me has also spoken through it to others—some of whom are long dead.

That’s why we need at least a nodding acquaintance with church history. Each new movement of the Christian era has picked up neglected Bible truths and handed them like a baton to subsequent generations. Tragically, we tend to throw away the baton of accumulated understanding and manufacture our own flimsy ism, running with it as if it’s the repository of all truth. Inevitably we end up in isolationism and triumphalism—though we never admit to either.

But there’s an end coming to all this. One day, praise God, the warts will all be gone, leaving the body of Christ a fit match for its glorious Head.[12]  Meanwhile, we can move things along in that direction. How? By refusing names and labels that mark us out as something less than disciples of Jesus. Let’s put Christ first and, by refusing any lesser loyalty, help turn Christianity’s isms into wasms.

Footnotes

  1. The Total Depravity of fallen humanity. God’s Unconditional Election of some to be saved. Limited Atonement—Christ died only for the elect. Irresistible Grace that draws the elect to Christ. And the Perseverance of the Saints, who will endure to the end because salvation is God’s work, not man’s.
  2. 2 Peter 3:9
  3. 1 John 2:2
  4. John 10:27-30
  5. Hebrews 6:4
  6. Hebrews 10:27
  7. Hebrews 10:29
  8. Quoted in N. Douty, The Death of Christ, p60
  9. Quoted in J. Pollock, Amazing Grace: The Life of John Newton, Lion, 1981/1996, p170-1
  10. Revelation 8:1
  11. 1 Corinthians 1:12
  12. Ephesians 4:15-16

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