Review: When Everything’s On Fire

2 December 2021

Brian Zahnd is one of my favourite preachers, so I was looking forward to this, his latest book. It is

When Everything’s On Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes by Brian Zahnd (IVP, 2021)

It has a foreword by Canadian Orthodox theologian Bradley Jersak.

I have not been disappointed. This is one of the most telling, and moving, books I have read for a long time. In an age when hope is scarce and the world in deep turmoil, Zahnd shows how it is possible to maintain a robust Christian faith. It will appeal to the multitude of Christians going through some form of ‘deconstruction’ of their faith, but it also has a preventive aspect that will appeal to a wider readership.

I like the way the author refers to Descartes, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Pascal, Derrida and Dostoevsky, plus other thinkers and writers, to show how their views have shaped modern attitudes, and he skilfully exposes both their strengths and their weaknesses. At the same time, Zahnd recounts some of his own experiences to illustrate his conviction that there is hope for the future, and that we, too, can encounter God in similar ways.

The book is in two parts. The first looks at aspects of the current world situation, while the second points the way forward. The loss of faith being experienced by many is more a reaction to fundamentalism (and especially biblical literalism) than to authentic Christianity. The need is to get away from faith seen as holding to a set of doctrines and to experience God. Modernism frowns on this, but it is central to the way God works. We also need to see the key differences between Jesus, Christianity and the church. The latter two undergo change, but never Jesus himself.

In finding our way forward on the journey of faith, we will need to un-learn some things, just as Paul did after his encounter on the Damascus road. This can be a dark time. But the Jewish day begins at sunset, not at dawn, and ‘dark before light’ is the usual pattern in our own spiritual progress. Happily, God specialises in revealing himself, and he will do that for the earnest seeker. Zahnd encourages professed atheists to step out and approach, by prayer, the God they claim not to believe in.

Modernism is still a factor in people’s awareness today, making human reason the ultimate arbiter of truth and reality. Postmodernism, for all its weaknesses, has at least opened people up to the spiritual dimension, and it’s there where the vital experience of God is to be found. We should seek to be ‘mystics’—people who have such experiences. Contemplative prayer is one avenue of exploration to follow.

On this journey we will likely enter a ‘second naïveté’, particularly in our reading of the Bible. After starting with a childlike approach, we move on to a more analytical, scholarly attitude to Scripture—which is both useful and commendable—but then come back to a more simplistic reading, where God can speak to us.

Zahnd’s conclusion is that the way forward is through an appreciation of the bottom-line fact that ‘God is love’. That enables us to have real hope for the future and be able to dream dreams of better things. The author spells out some of the dreams he has for the church of tomorrow, and they are big ones.

This is a warm and hope-inspiring book. It is deep, and sometimes provocative. But whether we are in a process of faith-deconstruction or not, it has something of value to say to us all.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

Is Christian faith still viable in an age of unbelief? Yes, it is possible. I can bear witness. My own faith has passed through the flames of modernity and is alive and well.  (p14)

Being angry with modern people for losing their faith is like being angry with medieval people for dying of the plague.  (p14)

[Nietzsche] was a towering intellect, a tremendous writer, a savage polemicist, and the most formidable critic of Christianity in the modern era. And if one is offended by his hostile disposition toward Christianity, it should be remembered that his caustic assaults were more of an attack on moribund Christendom as a cultural artifact than on a faith centered on the life and teachings of Jesus.  (p17)

In recent years, we’ve seen believers, pastors, and well-known Christian leaders publicly lose their faith. This phenomenon is happening with increasing regularity.  (p23)

Sometimes biblical literalism and angry atheism are just two sides of the same fundamentalist coin.  (p27)

I do my best to nurture my grandchildren in the rich soil of historic Christian faith, which in its healthiest forms has always been comfortable with mystery and nuance, metaphor and allegory, candid questions and honest doubt.  (p29)

From the very beginning, Christians have understood that faith and reason are not rivals but compatible ways of engaging with the mystery of being. A thousand years ago, Saint Anselm gave us the phrase “faith seeking understanding,” and the phrase still has currency. Advances in cosmology and quantum physics have only increased our sense of mystery, thus inviting faith to join the conversation.  (p30)

I know what it is to let go of anti-intellectual theology, doom-oriented eschatology, ticket-to-heaven soteriology, hyper-individualized ecclesiology and discover that something far, far better had been there all along.  (p31)

I suspect that many who think they are done with Christianity may not be as done as they suppose.  (p41)

The center of the human being is the heart—not the mind. I didn’t think my way to faith, rather I encountered Christ with my heart. Ultimately, the witness of my heart is as credible as the reasonings of my mind. And if you say the heart can be deceived, I will say the mind can also be deceived. A pure heart can be trusted. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt 5:8). My conversion was mystical, not rational. But that does not make it any less credible.  (p45)

Theories of eschatology, theories of atonement, and theories of final judgment I had inherited or picked up along the way now seemed to clash with the beauty of Christ. An unavoidable eschatological megawar in the Middle East, the cross as the Father’s violent anger inflicted on his Son, hell as God’s eternal torture chamber—these theological ideas had become too ugly to be endured.  (p47)

I believed in Jesus, but in midlife I became aware of how much of my theology was incongruent with the one who was the true object of my faith. I was willing to sacrifice my theology for my Lord.  (p48)

We’re not going to find Jesus in an archaeological dig but in the place of prayer and worship.  (p53)

Passing through periods of doubt is a necessary part of spiritual growth and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.  (p54)

Within the broad borders of the historic creeds there is plenty of room for creative theology and rigorous debate.  (p60)

Disdain for received religious tradition is more akin to every individual left to discover the wheel and harness fire on their own. Without shared religion, we cannot build on the spiritual progress achieved by those who have gone before us.  (p61)

We train people in prayer by giving them well-crafted prayers because the primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do but to be properly formed.  (p62)

There is a remarkable degree of flexibility and capacity for change within the Christian religion. Among other things, this means that we can rethink and even modify Christianity without losing Jesus.  (p63)

[Re Mark 3]  Losing Jesus. Finding Jesus. Rethinking Jesus. This is the only way we make spiritual progress. Just about the time we think we’ve got Jesus figured out, he goes missing. We may fear that we’ve lost Jesus, nevertheless if we seek him, we will find him. But in the rediscovery we will be required to rethink some things.  (p73)

The sense of being abandoned by God, losing Jesus, is all part of the long spiritual journey. The sixteenth-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross described it as the dark night of the soul. These are the trying times when God plays a mischievous game of hide-and-seek. But it’s all designed to draw us out of our cozy spirituality and onto the hard road of an earnest quest. Christ is found by those who seek him, not those who presume him.  (p74)

In Genesis, the new day doesn’t begin at sunrise or at midnight, but at sunset. Reflecting this, the Jewish Sabbath does not begin at sunrise on Saturday but at sundown on Friday. Each new day begins with new darkness. Newness is not heralded by the rising sun but by enfolding darkness. This is counterintuitive. The new day does not begin with being able to see, the new day begins with being unable to see. Newness is born in nothingness.  (p75)

Complacency, not doubt, is the great enemy of spiritual development.  (p77)

There is a journey of unknowing that is mostly about un-knowing or unlearning. It’s not the learning that is hard but the unlearning. In the first half of life, we tend to think that all we need for spiritual progress is positive addition. Just learn some more God stuff. But in the second half of life, spiritual progress is more often obtained through the apophatic process of negation. We begin to know about God by realizing how very little we know about God.  (p79)

If we think doctrine is more important than love, we already have bad doctrine.  (p86)

The revelation of Jesus Christ cannot be proven (or disproven), it can only be proclaimed. And the proclamation can either be believed or disbelieved. But Paul insists that the capacity to believe is inherently present in the proclamation—the proclamation is self-authenticating because it is the word of Christ. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17 NASB). The capacity to believe is ontologically present in the proclamation of the gospel.  (p91)

If from the outset you insist that if God doesn’t show up in the telescope like Alpha Centauri or in the microscope like a DNA molecule, then God doesn’t exist, well, guess what, you’re going to “prove” that God doesn’t exist.  (p95)

To begin with the Bible and make that the foundation of faith (instead of Jesus!) is to put more weight on the Bible than the Bible can bear.  (p97)

Since the canon of Scripture is closed, the soil of the Christian faith is unchanging. But that doesn’t prevent the living Christian faith itself from growing, changing, developing, and maturing over time.  (p98)

My Christian faith is bigger than the Bible—and dare I say, better than the Bible. Jesus Christ is the only perfect theology and the only enduring foundation.  (p100)

As modern Christians, we are conditioned to be embarrassed by a claim to know something by a revelatory experience, so we are tempted to pretend that our faith is based on something everyone can agree on. But this is a departure from the apostolic understanding of how and why we believe in Jesus. It’s quite amazing to me that it took me decades to admit what I knew all along: I believe in Jesus because I know him.  (p101)

Most atheists I have had conversations with seem to think about God nearly as much as I do.  (p103)

The rational mind is capable of amazing accomplishments, but it is not an organ suitable for experiencing God. Attempting to use the rational mind as the organ for experiencing God is rather like trying to smell a rose with your ear.  (p110)

Jesus is clear that the only way to know if his teaching is from God is a resolve to act. “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own” (Jn 7:17). You’ll never know if Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life by sitting all alone upstairs in your head thinking about it. You have to act on it.  (p118)

Mystical experiences are not foreign to scriptural tradition but are the norm within scriptural tradition.  (p130)

The goal of spiritual practices like prayer, worship, scripture reading, and the like is to become properly formed as a being who bears the imago Dei—the image of God. Thus, the primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we want God to do but to be properly formed—to become the person God created us to be.  (p131)

Through practices like disciplined Scripture reading, liturgical prayer, formative prayer, listening prayer, contemplative prayer, spiritual reading, and spiritual direction, we form our soul in healthy ways and increase our capacity to experience God.  (p136)

Forty years ago, I read a book titled Knowing God, but as I look back these many years later, I realize that Knowing God isn’t actually about knowing God but knowing doctrines about God—a presentation of Reformed systematic theology.  (p137)

Today, if I’m reading the Bible in the morning as part of my daily spiritual exercises and I read about the walls of Jericho falling down, I don’t muse upon the fact that archaeological evidence does not support this. I know this fact, but now that I know it, I can set it aside and allow the inspired storyteller to tell the story. Because, although I know what biblical archaeology says about this story, I also know there are walls that need to fall and that the people of God need to march around these walls believing they will fall.  (p143)

I hold the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be a historical event. Though the precise nature of the resurrection may lie beyond our understanding, I believe it happened. I believe it because the living Christ has been revealed to me and because of the witness and creedal confession of the church.  (p145)

I actually believe—though I cannot prove it—that God is in a constant state of intervention in the world. I hold to the seemingly outrageous idea that God is never not intervening in the world! God is love, and God is always loving the world. God’s intervention is God’s love. God’s intervening love may rarely (if ever) be coercive and controlling, but the intervention of love is there nevertheless.  (p149)

In a time when everything is on fire with fear, hatred, and violence, the temptation is to fear the fear, hate the hate, and react with violence to the violence. It’s easy to be seduced into thinking that our fear is warranted, our hate is righteous, and our violence is justified.  (p152)

The house of fear exists only because its inhabitants don’t yet know the single greatest truth of our existence: God is love. The universe is not benign, but God is love. Cruel vagaries abound, but God is love. Harms are hidden among us, but God is love. An awareness of God’s love is the secret to facing the world as it is and still abiding in peace.  (p155)

Our blessed hope is that the Father’s house will finally subsume the entire cosmos—that the universe itself will become the house of love. But the particular good news in our present moment is that Jesus invites us to live in the house of love now.  (p158)

When we follow the Jesus way, embrace the Jesus truth, and live the Jesus life, we are on the road to the Father’s house, the house of love. And do I believe that some, drawn by the Holy Spirit, are on this holy way without yet knowing the name of the way? Absolutely. They are what Karl Rahner called “anonymous Christians.”  (p158)

We need to live with both an anticipation of the imminent return of the Lord and with a suspicion that the parousia might be many millennia in the future.  (p163)

[Re Moses and the burning bush]  Learn to sit in some kind of wilderness until something catches fire.  (p170)

Other books by Brian Zahnd that I have reviewed:

Review: God is like Jesus!

9 March 2018

A big question today is ‘What is God like?’ A consensus has been crystallising in the reply, ‘God is like Jesus’. This book takes that, not as its conclusion, but as its starting-point. It is:

A More Christlike God: A more beautiful gospel by Bradley Jersak (Plain Truth Ministries, 2015. ISBN: 978-1508528371).   

amcglargeIt treats its topic comprehensively. Starting with how we tend to create a view of God in our own image and then find scriptures to support it, the book goes on to look at history’s competing images of God (‘will’ versus ‘love’) before looking at the scriptures, both OT and NT, that present a vengeful God—a view of him which the author sees as trumped by Christ’s perfect revelation of the Father’s heart.

Jersak develops at length the idea that God is a cruciform God. He rules through self-emptying love (kenosis), and ‘Christ crucified’ is the climax of his self-revelation. Kenosis is not a surrender of the divine attributes but the very nature of them! God rules, not by force, but by consent, which is evident in the deference of the Persons of the Trinity to one another, and in God’s allowing us to choose to respond to his love.

This notion of ‘consent’ leads to an interesting take on theodicy, what the author calls ‘an anti-theodicy of the cross’. God has given consent both to natural law and to human will, and does not normally interfere in their operation. But he comes with love and compassion when their effects are negative, having been there himself in Jesus.

The concept of God’s ‘wrath’, too, comes under examination, and the author sees a progression of understanding of its nature as the Bible unfolds, ending in its definition as God’s ‘giving over’ of sinners to the natural results of their behaviour. This is how theoutstandingbook ‘bipolar image’ of God (as both angry and loving) is resolved. Inevitably, this ventures into the realm of ‘atonement theories’, on which Jersak has some well-balanced comments, and takes a detailed look at Jesus’ own metaphors for his saving work, and those used by Paul.

This is meaty, challenging material but also heart-warming. I’ve never been a fan of ‘devotional’ books, always preferring something intellectually challenging. But this book somehow manages to combine both aspects—and that, in my view, is a huge plus.

Here are some quotations. The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers.

God is love and every other aspect of God must align with his love. (271)

When we say “God is love” or “God is good” or “God is light,” we aren’t merely describing his characteristics. We are saying God is love, goodness and light in his energies, just as we say God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in his persons. (283)

I’ve also been pleasantly surprised how this proposition—the message that Jesus shows us what God is like—is often well received by those who don’t profess Christian faith. (308)

What are we to think when the ‘God of the Bible’ seems so un-Christlike? Sometimes even Jesus seems to describe this kind of God. It’s not as simple as tossing the Old Testament; God the vengeful king makes a cameo appearance in several of Jesus’ parables. Awkward! (359)

Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith. Or better, he was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy. He didn’t seem to appreciate our self-loathing. The repentance he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds. (451)

The great peril is that we worship ourselves via an image of God we create out of our own temperament. Then, easily enough, we find scriptures to establish our image as ‘biblical’! (528)

…just one beautiful image of God, evident in the Christ of the Gospels: he’s the Restorer of lives. (754)

…the two principal competing images of God throughout the history of religion: the God of pure will (or freedom) and the God of pure love (or goodness). This divide affects virtually every faith tradition and cuts through the heart of most of them. These two images clash within the ‘biblical religions’ of Judaism and Christianity and even collide on the pages of our Bible! (778)

If God is pure will—even a divine tyrant—then we’d better submit, like it or not. The fact is, historically, such a God recurs in various forms throughout Christian history and even within the pages of the Bible. (966)

According to Calvin, God is not only beyond good and evil, but everyone who does evil is merely acting as his instrument and at his command. When an evil person or even the devil commits evil, it is because the Lord not only permitted it—he commanded them and forced them to do it. Every act of terror, every rape and murder, every genocide or infanticide, every cancer and heart attack, every famine and plague are all in the service of God’s ultimate purpose: that you would fear him and glorify his name. (1006)

…the obvious intended trajectory of revelation from Old Covenant to New. God didn’t evolve; our conception of him did, in greatest part because Jesus came to show and tell us exactly who God is in ways no prophet had the capacity to anticipate—not Moses, David or even Isaiah. (1138)

It’s not only the vengeance or violence from which I’m recoiling: the real problem is the portrait of a God whose un-Christlike naked will eclipses love and trumps grace—a coercive force incongruent with Christ’s cruciform revelation of his Father’s love. (1147)

Throughout his letter [Romans], Paul quotes his opponents and their favorite exclusion texts, then turns those same texts against them (a method called ‘diatribe’). In Romans 9, Paul takes passages his adversaries have used to paint God as a willful hater, but he applies them to magnify God’s freedom-in-love to graciously extend salvation to the Gentiles. (1178)

Because God is fully revealed in Jesus—exactly like him—then God is a self-giving lover, and not a conquering emperor, like Constantine for example. We will need to address both the problem of a seemingly two-faced God (love versus force) and an apparently two-faced Christ (Lamb versus Lion; the suffering Servant versus the bloody Warrior on the white horse). (1216)

If God sent his Son to reveal himself, if Jesus showed us how true sovereignty works, what real power does, and what victory looks like—on earth as it is in heaven—then let me propose that the King of Heaven rules and reigns, not like Constantine, but like Jesus of Nazareth. (1320)

Some believe that kenosis means that God gives up his divine attributes or hides or hinders his own nature in order to become incarnate. He either puts on something (like wearing a disguise) or takes off something (like disrobing). Certainly the fullness of the divine nature is concealed in some ways in the Incarnation. But it is uniquely revealed in Christ as well. “We beheld his glory,” says John (John 1:14). (1413)

What if Jesus’ humility, meekness and servant heart were never a departure from God’s glory and power, but actually define it and demonstrate it? (1437)

Unlike the synoptic Gospels and Pauline epistles, which usually associate glory with the resurrection, in John’s Gospel, the ‘hour’ of Christ’s execution is the hour of his exaltation. Jesus is the serpent ‘exalted/lifted up’ on the wooden stick (John 3:14). When he is ‘exalted / lifted up’ from the earth, he will draw all people(s) to himself (John 12:32). Thus, the language of glory and the exaltation / lifting-up of Christ are synonymous in John. For John, the Cross is the diadem of God’s unprecedented self-revelation. (1618)

“Please accept my proposal, my beloved …or I’ll throw you in a lake of fire.” Where’s the freedom in that kind of ultimatum? Where’s the consent? (1672)

Cruciformity and kenosis are not temporary conditions of God’s history, restricted to a first century Jewish long-weekend or even to the whole of the Incarnation of Christ. They describe God’s divine identity—not just what he is like, but who he is. (1676)

As first cause, God is Good and all he does is goodness. But there are also secondary causes. Secondary causes include natural law and human freedom. We refer to them as secondary causes because while God caused them, they also cause things that God does not directly cause. That is, God consents to the free (and often catastrophic) play of these secondary causes—he allows natural law and human freedom to do their thing. God is ultimately responsible for all that is—for natural law and for human freedom—but we would say he doesn’t directly cause or control humans or nature in whatever they do. (1798)

God is in charge, but he is not in control, because he doesn’t do control. (1852)

Kenotic power may seem feeble because it is patient and humble, but in the end, God-as-love—the truly Christlike God—is the overcoming force more powerful because he does what no tyrant can ever do: he wins hearts, restores lives and transforms societies. (1889)

I once heard the renowned South African human rights activist, Bishop Desmond Tutu, say, “For whatever reason, since humankind showed up on the scene, God does nothing without a human partner.” (2076)

Christlike prayer is kenotic, cruciform and willing—not coercive, demanding or manipulative. Partnering prayer listens first to seek God’s will, rather than attempting to impose our will in the world in his name. (2157)

At the Cross, we see the perfect love of God and the crazy-making affliction of all humanity in one place, one moment, one Man—Jesus Christ, the cruciform God. Rather than dazzling us with a clever answer, the Cross arrests us. It offers an anti-theodicy. The love and the anguish—both present in the extreme—are astonishing. (2246)

If evil exists and yet we hold that God is good, then what of his power? Ultimately, the cruciform King—the Cross itself—challenges this premise and overthrows our ideas of what it means for God to be all-powerful in this world. (2325)

A theology of the Cross responds to “why does God allow X?” with “God (obviously and observably) allows everything!” If God is all-powerful, his power is not akin to control. (2339)

We might know theologically that God is everywhere and always present, but we don’t always feel it. In affliction, God’s real presence often makes no practical difference; people still suffer and die in all manner of cruel ways. So in the crucifixion, Jesus shared fully in our experience of absence, assuming it and thereby utterly redeeming it. (2400)

The Bible…itself takes us on a progressive, cruciform pilgrimage from primitive literal understandings of wrath, where God appears to burn with anger and react violently, to a metaphorical reading of wrath, in which God consents—gives us over—to the self-destructive consequences of our own willful defiance. (2491)

By reading the Bible’s judgment narratives through the lens of cruciform consent—through the Cross—we will begin to understand the wrath metaphor. And we will be equipped to retrieve rather than dismiss the so-called ‘toxic texts’ of the Bible. (2599)

Boyd teaches that the judgment of sin is not an externally applied penalty by a divine judge. God doesn’t actively investigate, arrest, convict, sentence and punish sinners. There’s no need and, in fact, that’s not God’s heart at all. Here’s the bottom line: sin carries its own penalty (or ‘wages’ in Rom. 6:23) because consequences are built into the fabric of the universe… It’s not that my sin literally causes God to be angry and provokes God’s judgments. Rather, that sin itself is harmful to us and to others. (2621)

When mercy is hidden and the wrath of self-destruction begins to play out, rather than assuming God’s patience has run out as if he’s decided, “Okay, enough mercy; now I’m choosing to withdraw mercy to release the wrath,” what if it is really we who make that choice, consciously or unconsciously? What if the valve that shuts off mercy is intrinsic in the same way wrath is? In fact, what if it’s the very same thing? (2641)

God consents, but remember, there is so much more. God also participates. This is super-important. Yes, our heavenly Father allows, but he is also truly good and he cares. (2641)

Wrath is a metaphor for the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God… When mercy gives way to wrath, it must be that we ourselves hit the off-switch and rebuffed mercy through our sinful acts. (2672)

As God is increasingly unveiled as life-giver rather than death-dealer, the biblical authors reflect this perspective more and more, becoming ever more careful to assert that God is not to blame. A simple example of this shift appears when David counts his armies. (2707)

In the Gospels, Christ did not operate in the power of miraculous interventions (the magical suspension of laws), but in the authority of supernatural love (the application of God’s highest law). (2845)

The cruciform King is not literally an angry monarch seething from his heavenly throne, but we do experience wrath as God’s passive and indirect consent to the destructive forces of necessity. (2886)

How did the life, death and resurrection of Christ save us and reconcile us to God? Was the wrath of God somehow satisfied through the punishment of Christ? Or was the Cross God’s grand rejection of wrath as a solution to sin? (2998)

Confusing atonement theories with the gospel itself, or with the biblical metaphors they strive to interpret, leads to a terrible mistake. The mistake occurs when we want to speak about the meaning of the Cross, but skip the Gospel narratives and New Testament metaphors, and charge straightaway into debatable and polarizing theories. (3026)

God’s saving work through Jesus is so multi-faceted that Christ and the apostles found it necessary and helpful to use a constellation of metaphors to describe its benefits. Each metaphor serves to clarify, but can also obscure. Every metaphor can extend our understanding, but can also be over-extended such that we corner ourselves into error. So our theories about the metaphors need to be held very lightly—no theory holds a monopoly on the gospel, nor should it lay claim to actually being the gospel. (3033)

One of the tragedies of the atonement wars is how wound-up many pastors and theologians get about theories composed many centuries after the New Testament, and the great efforts involved in imposing those later theories back onto Scripture. If this weren’t already worrisome, the comparative dearth of concern for the breadth and depth of Jesus’ own metaphors is pretty appalling. (3060)

When we see sin as a fatal disease that produces ugly symptoms and a sure death-warrant, we see how useless punishment is as a cure. (3097)

There is no law or principle of justice higher than God to which he is beholden. ‘Justice’ is not a god to whom Yahweh must bow or appease with blood. Nor is God’s ‘Law’ some retributive principle that binds him. The whole point of the prophetic Book of Hosea is exactly this: that God is utterly free to forgive sinners—to show mercy to the guilty. He is able to respond to legal demands for punishment with a counter-verdict: complete pardon based in God’s own grace. (3260)

Christ’s self-offering must define the true meaning of sacrifice, as opposed to letting the symbols of sacrifice define the reality of what Jesus did. Reversing these is the quickest path to paganizing the sacrifice of Christ. Christ doesn’t get his meaning from the symbols; the symbols derive their meaning from him, even when they predate his own sacrifice.

The meaning Christ attributes to sacrifice is simply this: laying one’s life down for someone else (1 John 3:16). Anyone who gives their life to rescue another—whether it’s a fireman dying while pulling someone from a flaming building; a policeman who’s fatally wounded while rescuing a hostage; or a martyr stoned to death for preaching the good news—is ‘paying the ultimate price.’ Here, the metaphors are off the table. Here, sacrifice (laying down your life) is raw actuality—the events as they really happened.

Notice that this type of sacrifice has nothing to do with punishment, payment, retribution or appeasement. In every case, a life is given for the sake of the other, not to satisfy someone’s wrath or placate their anger, but as a life-giving, life-saving sacrifice. (3390)

We want—even demand—to know how the death of Christ removes sin, whereas Paul resists the mechanics of transaction: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Wages, payment, sin, death—that’s ledger language, wrath language. But Christ doesn’t balance the ledger; he nails it to the Cross (Col. 2:4)! He utterly removes it. God’s ways are not bound to the ledger, but free to the boundless way of pure grace and free gift. (3412)

We can retain a biblical form of ‘substitution’ if we ask simply, “Did Jesus do for us what we could not do for ourselves?” Of course he did. Did he ‘step into the ring’ as our substitute? Did he go through the battle royal with Satan, sin and death for us? Sure he did. Did Jesus ‘take a bullet for us’? Yes! The key is to remember, God is not the one holding the smoking gun. We are. And as he bleeds to death, he forgives us and says, “I’ll be back—see you in three days.” (3462)

The great problem the gospel addresses is not primarily your guilt or God’s need to punish it. Rather, it is about saving us from death and the fear of death through which the devil held us in bondage all our lives (Heb. 2:15). (3721)

This drama is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament. God makes a promise, someone turns from him, they experience the tragic results, but God comes to find them. (3769)

Some will resist and reject God’s love and forgiveness to the bitter end. And when humanity experiences the penalty of its own sin, when it falls away into death to be forever separated from God, what does God do? God says, “My love is stronger than the grave!” (Song of Sol. 8:6). “Even if you make your bed in sheol, I am there” (Psalm 139:8). God in Christ pursues us in his wild love all the way into death. (3856)

Brown shins: Scripture and phenomena

11 January 2018

I have learnt two vital loyalties. The first is to be true to the Lord—hold fast to him, rely on him, believe him, trust him. The second is to be true to myself.

This latter needs a bit of explanation. Being true to yourself means accepting your basic personality and not trying to ape someone else. It’s not an issue of character. Character is a moral thing and good character is the degree to which you are like Christ, whose qualities like love, courage, faithfulness, honesty and patience are ones we should all strive to develop. They are the fruit of the Spirit. Personality is something different. It’s the way you were wired from birth. It makes you, for instance, an introvert or an extrovert, chiefly rational or chiefly emotional, a details person or a strategist, a leader or a follower.

Such leanings are, in themselves, neither good nor bad but they can find expression infeet of jesus good or bad ways. For example, I’m an introvert. I’m happy with my own company and think deeply about things. Sometimes that’s good. It means that I can crack on with tasks that require prolonged concentration without being distracted by the urge to go and find human company. But, on the down-side, it means I can sometimes neglect the human company I need if I am to avoid getting too internalised and out of touch. Another example: I’m more rational than emotional. I don’t really do excited. So I keep cool in crises, think things through and reach a studied conclusion, which is good. But I also tend to lack sympathy towards people for whom emotion is more central, which is bad. I’m constantly working to find a sensible balance in these things, but I will never be an emotional extrovert, and don’t want to be. I have to be true to myself as the rational introvert that God wired me to be, accepting that as my fundamental nature and working with it, not against it.

In terms of Christian ministry that makes me more of a teacher than a prophet. I don’t like flying by the seat of my pants. I like my message well-prepared and properly researched, my notes clearly laid out and my PowerPoint presentation synchronised. Because God made me the way I am, he for the most part goes along with these inclinations. But since, being God, he won’t be restricted, he very occasionally kicks my crutches away so that I have to depend on his direction in the moment-by-moment way that I normally find grimly challenging.

A personality like mine was never going to be comfortable with the ‘Toronto blessing’—or, as it was called in my neck of the woods, ‘the refreshing’—which came our way in the mid-1990s. If ever I see people keeling over, laughing hysterically on the floor or staggering around in glassy-eyed euphoria I want to go home right away and read a book. So it was reluctantly that I went to that meeting in 1995, drawn chiefly by a sense of duty to the leaders who had convened it.

It quickly became the scene of chaos that was to become typical. ‘Get me out of here!’ was my unspoken cry. But my rational nature insisted I try to understand what was going on, to analyse it and to reach a conclusion as to whether it was divine intervention or a form of mass hysteria—or maybe an unsettling hybrid. What should I do?

‘Play safe’, I decided. ‘Sit tight and, above all, keep your focus on the Lord rather than on the groaning, laughing and falling about that’s all around you.’ So I continued to speak in tongues under my breath. Speaking in tongues because that is a means of edifying oneself and keeping the Lord in view. Under my breath because, according to Paul, it should not be out loud unless there is to be public interpretation, and that didn’t look likely. I shut my eyes to keep out the unhelpful scenes.

Comfortable with this internalised approach, I became strangely peaceful. Yes, I was doing the right thing, giving God alone my attention and, while sceptical of the phenomena, staying open to the possibility that he might somehow bless me in the midst of it all. Then I became so peaceful that my backside began to slide slowly forward on the chair. ‘Mmm. If this continues I’ll end up on the floor,’ I thought. ‘But so what? Most other folk are there anyway.’ Sure enough, I crumpled gently and comfortably to the floor, where, confident that I could slip no further, I continued to praise God in tongues, head on the carpet, eyes still closed, and enjoyed the peace.

Whether I fell asleep and had a dream, I don’t know for sure. It might have been a vision—a waking dream. Either way, my eyes must have been open literally or figuratively because from my worm’s eye view on the floor I became aware of a pair of feet about a metre from my head. They were in brown sandals and I just knew, somehow, that this was Jesus. I looked a bit further up and saw the rough hem of his homespun garment. Between that and the sandals the visible shins were astonishingly brown. ‘Yes, well, of course Jesus wasn’t a white Caucasian; he was olive-skinned, a brown Mediterranean man,’ I thought. ‘So that figures.’

I turned my head some more and looked higher. I saw all of him. He was short-bearded, a bit like me. He was looking directly down at me, with a smile playing around his lips. But what struck me most was the roguish, conspiratorial twinkle in his eye. He didn’t say anything, but spoke so eloquently with the smile and the twinkle that I knew without a doubt what he was saying. In fact he winked at me: ‘I’ve cracked it, Dave. The whole lot—the devil, the curse, sin and death. And I’ve come out on top at the other side of the grave. And I’ll tell you what, Dave: you stick with me and you’ll soon have cracked it, too!’
Nothing there that the theology of the believer’s union with Christ hadn’t already assured me of, but this was a personal confirmation, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, very sweet, very precious.

The vision faded and, very gradually, the sounds in the room began to intrude on my ears again. I opened my eyes. There were still some folk on the carpet, but most were up and beginning to move towards the exit. I heard someone say that soup and rolls were being served in the other room. I got up, rubbed my eyes and, with my wife, joined the soup queue. I felt perfectly normal. Certainly not euphoric or in some altered state. Just warm inside and content with my rendezvous with Jesus. People told me I had been motionless on the floor for an hour and a quarter. In fact one lady, a nurse, had wondered if I’d had a heart attack and had apparently stooped down to check my pulse!

So what was Mr Rational to make of all this?

I look back on the experience with pleasure. That it was of God I haven’t the slightest doubt, and I am grateful that the Lord Jesus took the trouble to address me in such a personal way. In times of stress I remind myself of his words and find in them strength and comfort. It wasn’t a highly-charged emotional experience but a gentle one, leaving my heart, in Wesley’s words, ‘strangely warmed.’ It remains an unobtrusive milestone on the route of my pilgrimage. I say ‘unobtrusive’ because it isn’t painted crimson, just quiet white, like all the rest. But a milestone nonetheless and, as such, important to me.

Ah, but was it ‘biblical’? Of course it was. Scripture is full of instances where the Lord made personal appearances to people, and it nowhere suggests he might have finished. But it was personal to me. I didn’t write a book about it or trumpet it on Christian TV. I didn’t even feel it was something I should urge other people to seek for themselves. The Lord, in his gracious sovereignty, had met me where I was and, in such an acceptable way for me and my personality, had gently but clearly reminded me of his love for me and the hard facts of his resurrection. Brilliant.

Such experiences are cherries on the cake. The cake itself is a much more robust affair. The church’s foundation is solid propositional truths, revealed by God and recorded in Scripture. It consists of people who, responding to that revelation, enjoy a living, personal relationship with him. In such a relationship, of course, anything can happen, so always be open to the Lord’s surprises, but don’t allow your life, or that of your church, to revolve around them.

They tell me that the latest breakout of dramatic phenomena is happening in such-and-such a place. I shan’t be catching a plane or train to visit. If it arrives on my doorstep I’ll take it as it comes, exercising discernment, and encourage the people in my church to do the same. Meanwhile, we’ll crack on with the unchanging task of glorifying God, reaching out to the lost with both words and works, and nurturing the saints with the good food of God’s Word.

Some will say that my personality is my bias—that it inclines me towards these more routine, even humdrum realities of the Christian life and away from the spectacular, the phenomenal and the allegedly mega-prophetic. They are right. But two thousand years of Christian history are with me on this one. Essential Christianity is not oohs and ahs. It is unflinching allegiance to the hard facts of God’s revelation in Christ.

For that reason our priority must always be to keep reading, teaching and practising the Word of God. Phenomena will come and go. The ones that are of God we may embrace; the ones flavoured with learned behaviour and crowd-manipulation we will avoid. The church of Jesus Christ we will love and nurture; the Church Of The Brown Shins we will never found.

Best bliss

29 October 2010

Hymns sung in my childhood and youth regularly come back to me. I usually sang them then with little appreciation of their depth and insight, but now, in my relative old age, I see them for the gems they are. I love to take them out, polish them up and admire their beauty afresh.

Here’s the latest treasure to get this treatment:

Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts,
Thou fount of life, thou light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts
We turn unfilled to thee again.

It’s that last couplet that gets me. How true it is!

I’ve been blessed with a good life and have enjoyed many moments of blissful joy and contentment. That’s right and proper—the Lord is the giver of ‘every good and perfect gift’ and he has given us ‘all things richly to enjoy’. But deep down I know full well that only Jesus himself truly satisfies.

So, ‘from the best bliss that earth imparts’ I find myself resetting my bearings to ‘turn unfilled’ once more to him.

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