Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Long worship, short sermons?

Another characature of charismatic churches is that they are heavy on worship but light on preaching. The Sunday morning meetings at the Newfrontiers church I'm a member of are typically 90-110 minutes long, and the sermons 45-70 minutes. Do the math!

But don't just take my word for it, check out the following sermon podcasts from Newfrontiers churches...

Church of Christ the King, Brighton
Gateway Church, Wrexham
City Church, York

Scripture vs Experience?

All the "reformed charismatics" I know are card carrying Five Solas evangelicals. Yet a common characature is that we place contemporary prophecy on a par with (or even above) Scripture. This is simply not the case, and to repeat such things is either ignorance or mischief.

Another put-down is that we allow our experience to govern how we read the Bible. Of course this is an important issue, but I don't see it as an exclusively charismatic one. Indeed, my own cessationist theology was largely shaped by experience (e.g. bad experiences of various charismatics, a lack of good experiences of various gifts of the Spirit, only experiencing cessationist preaching, etc).

That said, I was rather surprised to discover that the Apostle Paul wasn't averse to appealing to a church's experience of the Spirit...

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain — if indeed it was in vain?

Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?

-- Galatians 3:1-5 (ESV)

The baby and the bath water

I think that one of my tendancies as a cessationist was to chuck out the baby with the bath water. However, when Paul writes to the church in Corinth about the misuse of spiritual gifts he doesn't impose a ban, but instead teaches their proper use.

I used to consider charismatics dangerous, so I chose "safety". I didn't think I was missing out on anything, and I adopted a theology that backed that up. In many ways this was the lazy "path of least resistence" but actually far from "safe" because of the sinful attitudes that came with it.

I have been in situations where "unity" (or "not rocking the boat") is prized more highly than a sense of the presence of God. Being a charismatic isn't "safe", and the felt presence of God can be scary.

'If there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than me or else just silly.'

'Then he isn't safe?' asked Lucy.

'Safe?' said Mr. Beaver. 'Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.'

-- The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The LORD, the lifter of my head

I've been taught that the "wretched man" of Romans 7 is the expected everyday lot of the Christian. It certainly seems to describe much of my Christian experience, but we need to careful when reading our experience back into scripture.

I once had the privilege of studying Romans in a small group in about 25 one hour sessions. By the time we got to Romans 7 we didn't get the impression that Paul's point was to set our expectations for a life of wretchedness. That reading might match our experience, but it doesn't seem to go with Paul's flow.

I believe the Bible teaches about spiritual warfare and a constant battle with sin, but I don't think that's the point of Romans 7. I suspect some folk teach that the "wretched man" experience is normative as an antidote for triumphalism or perfectionism, but that doesn't appear to be Paul's reason for writing it.

The problem with seeing the "wretched man" experience as normative is that it gives me little hope for any victory over sin now, and an expectation that my life will be one of continued failure and shame. But this just doesn't jive with the rest of scripture. And one such scripture that has nagged at me over recent years is:

O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
there is no salvation for him in God.

But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill.

-- Psalm 3:1-3 (ESV)

Years ago I heard a sermon on the neglected doctrine of Adoption (i.e. that the believer is adopted into God's family, gaining all the privileges of sonship). He pointed out that few evangelicals seem to get beyond the doctrine of Justification (i.e. that the believer is acquitted of sin and imputed with the righteousness of Jesus).

The preacher said that many prayer meetings scared him because of their focus on our sinfulness in contrast to the holiness of God. His point was that we needed to move on from grovelling on the floor to enjoy all the benefits of our adoption as sons. Justification was the entry point, but once justified we should not be coming before God as if we were not.

I think this sermon started my long term itch for a closer relationship with God, and a disatisfaction with the status quo. Much of the my yearning and journey is wonderfully summed up in the following hymn by Isaac Watts:

Why should the children of a King
Go mourning all their days?
Great Comforter! descend and bring
Some tokens of Thy grace.

Dost Thou not dwell in all the saints,
And seal the heirs of Heav’n?
When wilt Thou banish my complaints,
And show my sins forgiv’n?

Assure my conscience of her part
In the Redeemer’s blood;
And bear Thy witness with my heart
That I am born of God.

Thou art the earnest of His love,
The pledge of joys to come;
And Thy soft wings, celestial Dove,
Will safe convey me home.

I've known this hymn for years, but with little expectation of seeing it fulfilled in my life. As I write my "confessions of a former cessationist" I have to say that the truth was always out there, but I can only assume that the blindness was in me. There is so much to give thanks for in my upbringing and in the churches I've known, but I was missing something, and this hymn seems to put its finger on it.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Pleasures now, or to come?

One of the big charges leveled at us charismatics is that we have an "over-realised eschatology". That is, that we claim blessings now that are only promised for the age to come.

I'm sure the "Prosperity Gospel" (which really is "another gospel" and no gospel at all) has had something to do with that reaction. However, none of the "reformed charismatics" that I've been learning from (see the Blogroll) could be accused of being for the "Prosperity Gospel". Indeed, quite the reverse!

"I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" -- John 10:10 (ESV)

Actually, I've always been taught that this "life to the full" begins now. But I guess that's ok as long as it doesn't include the seeking of pleasure? However, Christian Hedonism states that seeking pleasure in God (now) brings Him the most glory.

In my previous post I included a quote from Psalm 16:11. I was interested (and a little alarmed) to see that the NIV gives the impression of a future only fulfilment, whereas other translations seem to imply pleasures now and forevermore:

"You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand." (NIV)

"You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore." (ESV)

"You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever." (NASB)

"Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore." (KJV)

To my inexpert eyes it appears that the various tranlations use the following tenses:

NIV: "past; future; future >> eternity"
ESV: "present; present; present >> eternity"
NAS: "future; present; present >> eternity"
KJV: "future; present; present >> eternity"

Is the NIV's future bias significant?

Christian Stoicism

Like many good reformed baptists, I was brought up to know the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: "What is the chief end of man?" Like many of my contemporaties, I seemed to forget at least half of the answer.

This isn't a wild assertion, I've tested it many times. Most people I've asked seem able to get as far as "Man's chief end is to glorify God", but many stop there. However, the correct answer is "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever."

I find it telling that I majored on the glorifying God part but overlooked the enjoyment of God bit. The first time I heard the term "Christian Hedonism" it was accompanied by a sharp intake of breath. I doubt that that person even knew what John Piper meant by the term. I certainly didn't.

I've since heard Piper dismissed as a one act show, but again, I doubt such people really understand what he was saying. It was a long time until I was introduced to the Desiring God website and heard Piper's famous summary of Christian Hedonism for the first time:

"God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him"

This little phrase made an instant connection by scratching my long-term itch. It's so simple, but so profound.

I'm not a great reader because I'm a very slow reader and I tire quickly. But I would recommend watching and/or listening to sermons from the Desiring God website (also available as free podcasts from Apple's iTunes Store). I've also become a big fan of The Dangerous Duty of Delight, a short and very accessible version of the book Desiring God (like many of Piper's works, also available as a free download in PDF format).

I must confess that I've been scared off many good Christian books in the past because, instead of seeing them as a means of learning how to glorify and enjoy God better, I've seen them as underlining what a big failure I am, and making me feel even further from God.

But Piper writes very carefully and graciously, not as one who has arrived, but as one who is dissatisfied with where he is, and who is thirsty for more. Once I understood that the enjoyment of God was for my good and for His glory, I started to become more thirsty too.

"You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore." -- Psalm 16:11 (ESV)

Nor the budgie within thy cage

My Dad tells of a household in which the budgie's swing, mirror and bell were removed from its cage on Sundays.

But being aware of legalism elsewhere doesn't make us immune. My early years were quite strictly sabbatatian too. Until I was about ten years old we weren't even allowed to play ball games on "the Lord's Day", or to play with the neighbours. I dreaded the door bell. Why didn't they ever learn? "Sorry, it's Sunday. We're not allowed to play out on Sundays". I clearly remember that Falklands War of 1982 was the first time we ever watched TV on a Sunday.

We were not allowed to play Monopoly on "the Lord's Day", but we were allowed to play "The Wycliffe Missionary Game". However, this became affectionately known as "Sunday Monopoly". Instead of building an empire of hotels, the goal was to be first to translate the Scriptures. Instead of collecting money, we collected prayer partners; instead of paying a fine for being drunk in charge of a bicycle, we lost prayer partners for failing to write prayer letters; instead of going to jail, we caught malaria or had to go home on furlough.

What I've learnt is that my own heart has a bent towards legalism. I can be pretty good at observing the letter of the law while my heart is somewhere else.

But I give thanks for parents who made Sunday special, and who made the regular frequent meetings of God's people a priority. "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is" -- Hebrews 10:25 (KJV)

I've also learnt that it's all too easy childishly to label things as legalism in order to excuse my own lack of discipline. I've seen it in others who seem to regard meeting together even once on a Sunday something of a chore. And I've seen it in my own sloppy personal devotions.

In summary, I'm learning that both legalism and falsely calling discipline by that name are just two of Satan's devices for keeping our hearts far from God.

Perhaps there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for the sabbatarian budgie (e.g. to stop the bird's noise distracting quiet reflection on the morning's sermon)? I just suspect not.

Jesus, friend of sinners

It is a huge blessing to be born into an extended family that is predominently made up of Christians. I don't know of a time when I didn't believe in God, or that He created all that there is out of nothing, or that He sent His one and only Son to die on the cross for our sins.

Yet somehow, I grew up with a very theoretical understanding of the Gospel. As far as I was concered, God was God, I'm was a sinner, and Jesus died to save sinners. So all I needed to do was just trust in that, and hey presto: I'm saved! And, by God's grace, I did have times of immense assurance and joy, but He generally seemed remote.

I was unsettled by people who obviously had a much closer relationship with God. One coping strategy was humour: they're just the "holy rolies", but "normal" people know it's not that simple. But one encounter that haunted me for years was "back stage" with Leith Samuel at a mini conference where I was serving as organist. I don't think Mr Samuel could say the words "The Lord Jesus" without a smile on his face. And that bothered me, because I didn't know Jesus like that.

I've spent most of my life with William Cowper's "O for a closer walk with God" almost as if that's just the way things are supposed to be. "Where is the blessedness I knew / when first I saw the Lord? / Where is the soul-refreshing view / of Jesus and His word?" And I think a defective reading of latter half of Romans 7 had me stoically resigned to living the rest of my life there.