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Book Review: Hidden In Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts by Lydia McGrew (De Ward, 2017)
Are the gospels and the New Testament reliable? This is a central question as Christianity stands or falls as a series of historical fact, above all on whether Jesus really did rise from the dead
Yet, according to a recent poll 50% of people in the UK felt that Jesus either didn't really exist or is a mythical figure like King Arthur, about whom its hard to know much for sure. Within the church numerous liberal scholars poor cold water on the gospels and select only a small part of the text as reliable. Muslim friends will tell you that the bible has been seriously corrupted from its original version
Against this background, there are a whole number of important apologetic points which can be made in defence of the historical reliability of the Bible and the gospels in particular. Yet a whole new front is opened up in this excellent new book which looks at "undesigned coincidences" in the New testament. This review will focus on the gospels in particular as thats the area I am researching at the moment, but equally good points are made on similar undesigned coincidences in Acts in the second half of the book.
What is an 'Undesigned Coincidence'? McGrew defines it as a "Notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that hasn’t been planned but results in accounts fitting together like a jigsaw, thus providing reason to believe the statements are truthful".
“This is what truth looks like, this is what memoirs from witnesses look like, this is what it looks like when people who are trying to be truthful and who possess reliable memories of things that really happened have these memories put down in writing”
She is refreshing and revitalising historical arguments previously made in the C18th and C19th by apologists such as Paley and Blunt. As she explicitly says this is defending the "forward position": that the whole of the NT is trustworthy rather than a 'backwards position' which argues only for smaller and reduced 'historical bedrock'. As she cogently argues if we defend only part — the “historical bedrock” — we undermine the rest by implication, and eventually we underline even the 'bedrock' as who can define what is bedrock and what not?
An undesigned coincidence is not the same as external coincidences — for example where the gospels agree with non Christian sources. Nor are they the same as deliberate coincidences which would be when an author consciously reinforces facts. Nothing to do either with how they were written nor really to do with inerrancy per se — though of course the evidence she marshals clearly supports inerrancy.
Undesigned coincidences are much more similar to what you would find if the police were taking evidence from eyewitnesses and deducing from the undesigned coincidences they found in the statements that the eyewitnesses neither made the event up nor colluded in a statement. The little details confirm the big picture. As Paley noted “the usual character of human testimony is substantial truth under circumstantial variety”. In fact, he defined the term 'undesigned coincidences'.
The power of McGrew's argument is cumulative: each undesigned coincidence can be explained away as chance but the cumulative effect as she piles example on example is enormous. Some are more powerful than others but all help reinforce the point.
The order of undesigned coincidences in the gospel from highest to lowest is John - Luke - Mark Matthew
Let me give a few examples but there are many more and you will need to buy the book to get the full depth of the argument.
Firstly, the Synoptics explain and reinforce John and vice versa
John assumes all kinds of things and especially that his readers have read the Synoptics. He assumes for example that the reader has read Luke and knows that John the Baptist is older than Jesus and that the reader knows from Luke that the voice from heaven at the baptism of jesus says "this is my beloved son".
Pilate asks Jesus "Are you the King of the Jews?" A strange question If it hadn’t been raised before as an accusation against Jesus. It hasn’t in John but it has been in Luke. Luke’s account is therefore filled out by John, which explains why Pilate seems so unfazed by the accusation — he has concluded at this point that Jesus is a harmless religious crank
Similarly, Jesus says in John that his disciples wouldn’t fight: but why didn’t his accusers produce Malchus minus his ear? Because in Luke (but not John) we know Jesus has healed him
Why did Jesus ask Peter after the resurrection "Do you love me more than those" ie more than the other disciples? Because we know from Matthew and Mark (but not John) that Peter had boasted precisely that he did. This is particularly important because these little details underlines the reality of events around the resurrection
How does this prove anything? Well, pretty much everyone agrees that John was the last gospel to be written and he may have had access to the Synoptics and even had them in front of him as he wrote. But would he leave out information in order that 2000 years later a really alert reader might find the explanation in the earlier gospels ? This is highly implausible, much more likely is that they reflect that the eyewitnesses were there and saw what happened.
Let's take another example, the feeding of the 5000. The accounts are different but there are numerous undesigned coincidences. For example Mark says “many were coming and going” but John explains why this is the case by explaining it’s the Passover. In turn this fits with the grass being unusually or strikingly green (Mark) as this was only time of year it would have been green: at Passover just after spring rains. Why does Jesus ask Philip about the food? John notes that he asked Philip but why him — he's quite an obscure disciple. Luke says the miracles were near Bethsaida while John tells us elsewhere that Philip was from Bethsaida. So Jesus in effect we can see is saying “Philip you are from around here: where can we get bread?”
The account of the feeding of the 5000 has many loose ends — and John in particular makes no attempt to harmonise his account with those of the others — but it is precisely those loose ends that are compelling For example, by putting together the different accounts we can see that the men only sit down in groups; presumably they in turn distributed it to the women and children: with such a large crowd and women looking after children in that culture this makes every sense
The synoptics also explain each other. For example, Herod's musing to his servants about who Jesus is in Matthew is explained by Luke recording that the wife of his household manager was a follower of Jesus
Only Matthew mentions that the new tomb in which Jesus is buried belonged to Joseph of Arimathea and nobody had been buried there before: he had in effect "prepaid" for his funeral. Mark mentions none of that, so therefore Matthew had his own independent sources while John also brings in Nicodemus and the fact that it was in a garden. None of these coincidences are explainable by saying simply that Matthew and Luke have copied mark
There are many many more of these carefully argued examples. the cumulative effect I found is compelling. In summary, this well written, easy to read and and very well researched book to me demonstrates that the gospels are reliable. Of course there are other arguments for this as well as coincidences but this book shows that the vast number of undesigned coincidences in the NT (and especially the gospels) strongly reinforce the fact that they were written by eyewitnesses or using eyewitnesses (as the gospels themselves claim). They show that they are written by or based on contemporaneous early and reliable eyewitnesses and can therefore be trusted. The cover picture shows a jigsaw and thats a great analogy - each piece on its own is bit a part but when you put them all together they show a whole and truthful picture.
Here is a first attempt at some headings. Possibly a triumph of form over content. But who doesn't love a 10 point sermon?
Luke 17:11-19 (p1051)
The cleansing of the 10 lepers
THE EXTRAORDINARY CASE OF THE MISSING NINE AND THE GRATEFUL ONE
A passage all parents should love!
But much more to see:
A deliberate mission (v11)
A miserable condition (v12f)
An informed plea (v13)
A gracious command (v14)
An obedient faith (v14)
A grateful worshiper (v15f)
A surprising example (v16)
A blessed group (v17)
A missing majority (v17)
A saving faith (v19)Marc Lloyd
Intro 1) We’ll be looking at tonight's psalm, Psalm 33. But first of all, I’d just like to start of by asking you to have a think about something. I won’t ask you to say anything out loud, but just have a think. So, my question is, what are you grateful for, what do you give thanks for, who do you give thanks to, who are you grateful to….
2) Because, I think as humans, we have a tendency to cling to our own achievements, reluctant to share the credit with anyone else. Particularly, when it comes to acknowledging the hand of God on our lives or successes.
3) I wonder if you’ve ever been in a situation like this: where you’ve been perhaps awed by the incredible skill of a doctor, or the diligence and inspiration of an activist.
4) And then, you hear someone say, or you think perhaps yourself, oh thank God he’s alright the surgery was successful, or thank God justice was implemented. And you think, what. Because I didn’t see God down here with a scalpel, or setting his bone in place.
5) And actually, the main, or only time when the reliance, or trust in God becomes really easy is really when our problems go beyond our abilities, and we are forced to trust him. We entrust to God things like, our future, or our health, or the health of people we love, because to an extent, they are completely unpredictable, and so beyond us.
6) I have big exams coming up, in a couple of months very important ones, but I’m mindful, that I don’t forget, in the pride of all the hard work I’ve put in, or the worry and stress, that I can lean on God. That my future, at this relatively unpredictable time in the world, and my own life, isn’t just on my shoulders. I have a source of infinite love, and wisdom and comfort right there, and it’s something we can be utterly reliant on.
7) So before we discuss how we can be thankful, or trusting in God, at all times. I think there’s something very important that we have to first understand from all this, that, we are completely dependent, utterly reliant on God. So I think the question is...If the key to being truly thankful, lies in trust and reliance, how do we learn to rely completely on God.
Well, Psalm 33 gives us some great answers.
1) The first few verses are an exuberant call to praise God in song and with musical instruments, and it really sets the tone for the rest of the psalm. Then the psalmist, we’re not entirely sure who wrote it, but they begin giving the reasons, as to why we should praise God.
2) Verses 6-7 declare “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars, he puts the deep into storehouses”.
3) Until we believe that God created everything, you, me, the trees, stars, oceans, we won’t accept that the world is controlled by, dependent on, his wisdom and power.
4) Believing that God created the world, it leads us to the truth of his providence in ruling the world. So to develop that thankful mindset, we must be in awe. And truly it is not difficult to be in awe. I found out last week that you produce 2.5 million red blood cells, every second! And apparently, the human eye can differentiate approximately 10 million different colours. It is not difficult to be in awe
The second reason the psalmist gives us, is that God, is the designers of our fates.
1) Verses 10-12 “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”
2) We all think we are in some way steering the course of history, in many ways this is quite wrong. It is estimated that about 108 billion members of our species have ever been born. What are we amongst that, what real difference can we make.
3) Now, I do not want us to go away feeling insignificant, or unimportant. In fact, quite the opposite of that. We are important because we are part of a much greater plan, and purpose.
4) Even more incredible is that we all share in the likeness of God, we each contain reflections of his nature. In our love, kindness, mercy, empathy, compassion. We are part of a beautiful creation…
The third reason
1) Verses 13-17 “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord...from heaven he looks down and sees all mankind...he watches all who live on earth, he who forms the hearts of all, considers all they do. No king is saved by the size of his army, nor warrior escapes by his great strength.. The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, to deliver them from death”.
2) Essentially, we cannot save ourselves, I cannot alonebe successful in my exams, or my later life. I do not live by my own methods and successes, but by God’s will.
3) We are today, in a world that is inundated with methods and techniques for how to live a Christian life, be a good, loving person. Take the example of self-help books, literally spelling out how you can be a better person, or another example, people commonly ask the question What Would Jesus Do?
4) And of course, many of these methods are pretty credible, often these self-help books are based on scripture or teaching, and the question What Would Jesus Do, asks us to draw inspiration from his life. But the important bit, I think, is to use these methods, enforce these habits, because we trust in God to enable them, not ourselves in our own intelligence and power.
1) So we’ve just heard in verse 13, that God sees everyone on earth, and now in verse 18, the psalmist states “the eye of the Lord are on those who fear him”.
2) What does this mean?
3) Well I think it means that God looks out for those, looks with favour, on those who fear and trust in him to deliver them from those overwhelming, and painful situations.
4) God works, not by finding those with the most power, and strength, and authority, but through those who trust, and rely in him. We do not have to be strong, or self-sufficient. But humble. Those who learn to be thankful, must first learn to trust.
1) The last verses, 18 to 22, are filled with synonyms for trust in the lord, fear, hope, “our help and our shield”.
2) The psalms generally are big on trust, indeed the Hebrew word for trust appears more frequently in the psalms than in any other place.
3) Again, it’s not that our methods, or habits, are wrong, it’s our trust in them that is faulty, our trust must be in God alone, and what is the result of this? Well go back to the beginning of the psalm.
4) Complete trust in God results in a thankful, worshiping heart, they are bound up, you cannot have one without the other.
5) The secret to being grateful, being thankful is to recognize you are in a desperate situation, and from that, delight in salvation, and. You can’t help but sing for joy.
Heavenly Father,Open our hearts to welcome your eternal love, and devotion. You who designed the stars and the heavens, and drew together the seas, who fashioned out hearts and minds. The same God, who calls us to praise, and draws near in comfort. You cry out for us to trust. Help us to recognise our dependence, our reliance, and place our lives into your hands. Open our eyes to see this wonderful creation, help us to never feel ashamed, or afraid, or unworthy to give thanks for it. Lord, you have given us so much, but we pray lastly, for a grateful heart. Amen.
This really helpful, powerful and deeply personal book about living with cancer and living with remission is a combination of personal experience and biblical teaching. As I am just finishing a book along the same lines, I found it very striking and thought provoking, even though our experiences in many ways could not be more different. Gillian was diagnosed with lymphoma as a young adult in 2000 and went through brutal and harrowing treatment before being told eventually the cancer was gone and that she was in remission. She tells her whole story, including the period since she was "clear": as she points out though you can’t go back into your old life even though the cancer appears to be gone.
The two strands of the book are woven together in a way that is both skilful and very helpful. Her own story she tells with searing honesty and openness and I for one am really grateful that she put the time and what must have been a huge emotional effort into writing it. Cancer remains a taboo subject, the great unmentionable, which means as I know that when you are “dropped into it” as a patient means its disorientating and terrifying. By having the courage to tell her own story in such an honest way I am sure Gillian has helped many others like me. It’s also highly practical and includes helpful overviews of what cancer actually is and other down to earth information and advice on being treated and what cancer typically means. It’s also a very helpful book if it’s not you that has cancer but a loved one as it opens up so clearly what it’s like to have the disease and how it changes everything. As she points out cancer has a profound impact on our relationships and friendships.
The book is structured as a journey, a pilgrimage, both for the patient and for Christ. It covers Christ’s journey to the cross, the Garden of Gethsemane, his death and the waiting in the tomb before resurrection and our mission after his return. Even though I suspect we could hardly come from more different Christian theological traditions (rare are the books that the eminent Dr Martyn Percy and I would both highly recommend, I suspect!) I found her insights very helpful and deeply rooted in the bible. To think of Christ in his suffering and resurrection is surely absolutely the best place to go. Just to take a few examples of her helpful writing: that Christ in the garden when arrested didn’t do much.. but through his (relative) passivity he let the glory of God shine through in the events that followed. The cup is accepted and the strength of Christ is ours “do not forsake me. O Lord; O my God do not be far from me; make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.” (Psalm 38/21-22). He was forsaken and alone that we may never be forsaken and alone.
Or for example “Christians believe that Christ is with us today in whatever happens to us because of what he went through on Good Friday and the resurrection...Christ (is both) God and ‘a man of suffering acquainted with infirmity’... so whatever pain we need to deal with then when we are met with our own ‘Lower Calvary’ then we are assured of God’s presence and can be certain that our suffering is held within the heart of God. ‘In the hour of fear: I will put my trust in you’ (Psalm 56:3)” and “the cross shows there is meaning in the suffering... as Bonhoeffer wrote ‘only a suffering God can help’. Because of the cross, through the cross and in the faith of what happened on the cross we have that firm ground necessary to fling that question (Why me?) to the heavens, knowing that Jesus has been there too..’see I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands’. “
To which I would say “Yes, Amen, let all adore you!"
For these are palms that as we see them are deeply scarred for the love that the Lord had for us.
May this book do you good as it did me. It will do us good because it takes us to Christ and there is nowhere else to go.
I participated in the Bridge Builders Course Transforming Conflict 1: Leadership, Discipleship & Community on 3 -8 February 2019. It was brilliant and I am grateful for the facilitators who led the course. I want to jot down a few things to embed my learning.One of the objectives of the course is to transform our attitude towards conflict and engaging with conflict, another to increase our self-awareness as leaders facing conflict. The poem Conflict – what art thou? suggests that conflict has always been with us. The difference between A and B is not a problem but a difference with tension leads A and B to C for Conflict, out of which flows predictably D and E. There is diversity within unity in the Trinity; there is no grasping within the Trinity (cf. Philippians 2). Difference becomes a problem where the unity of love is lost. It is lost by the fear of not having enough, the desire with which we seek to grasp rather than receive.Wants Needs
Grasp“Conflicts are power struggles over differences.” (Hugh Halverstadt)Some people fear conflict, others relish it. Fearing conflict can lead to avoiding it but avoiding conflict can feed it, make it bigger and more difficult to handle. Conflict can come across as a force but there is nothing automatic and inevitable about it. In the poem Conflict – what art thou? D and E lead to F, G and H but these are denied (“notto be Feared...no Giant...”) and the sequence is broken. Power lies with people, not with the conflict as such, and we must take responsibility for the power given to us (as well as the power grasped by us). It helps to realise how much power we have and how powerful adopting a certain stance can be, e.g. the offer of a non-anxious presence.It is right that conflict questions and rattles us but with the right skills and motivation we can engage with it and having been transformed ourselves, released from the need to justify and defend ourselves, we can help to transform conflict. Conflict brings danger and opportunity. The danger is represented in the poem as the stinger of a scorpion. Poetically the chiastic D-E-E-D sequence of lines 3-5 is echoed in the (less obvious) R-S-S-R sequence which is part of the new ‘narrative’ (Q-R-S in the middle stanza followed by T-U-V-W-X-Y in the final stanza). The new sequence (‘narrative’) is the result of a decision to frame conflict from a new perspective and the use of new skills. These allow C to emerge as a positive word (“Comfortable”), once the danger has been removed. In fact, the middle stanza does not mention “Conflict” but this does not mean it is ignored (it is after all the implied subject of “Questioning” and “Rattling”). Rather, it is not allowed to dominate. Space is made, embodied in the beginning of the stanza, not least by the refusal to engage in tit-for-tat.The opportunity conflict offers is the lifting of veils, allowing two unknown entities (“X and Y”) to see each other “face to face / For the first time.” (I was thinking of the wonderful novel by C.S. Lewis, Til We Have Faces).* The absence of Z suggests that the story is not over; the absence of the letters between H and P maybe signals that not everything can and needs to be said.
*In the poem, counter-intuitively, it is the seeing that removes the veil not vice versa, emphasising our decision to see as the action that enables conflict to be a lifter of veils. The novel suggests that only honesty gives us faces, making it possible for “the gods” to engage with us.
Conflict – what art thou?Ancient, Always BubblingDirectionlessEndlessEver DeepeningConflict – not to beFeared. Thou art no Giant,Holding the Power.
Conflict – Questioning us,Rattling us – A Scorpion:Beautiful andComfortable, the StingerRemoved.
Conflict – what art thou?To be trusted to un-veil: whenX and Y see face to faceFor the first time.
Felden Lodge, Hemel Hempstead, 8 February 2019
In 1771, a huge controversy rocked the evangelical Christian world in the UK and USA. The publication of the minutes of the 1770 Wesleyan conference convinced many people that John Wesley was heretical. A backlash ensued from his Calvinistic colleagues and although Wesley made some concessions to his critics which calmed things down for a while, he then "recanted" provoking an even tougher response.
What are the lessons of this for our times? Church History is useful only if it sheds some light on today.
Wesley was from birth ill disposed towards Calvinism as his high church mother had reacted against her nonconformist Calvinist upbringing ( as we all can do!) Susannah Wesley said writing to John “The doctrine of predestination as maintained by rigid Calvinists is very shocking and ought utterly to be abhorred because it charges the most holy God with being the author of sin. And I think you reason very well and justly against it for it is certainly inconsistent with the justice and goodness of God to lay any man under either a physical or moral necessity of committing sin and then punish him for doing it”
Wesley throughout his life reacted against three errors he perceived as being prevalent both in England and the colonies.
- "Latitudinarian" clergy preaching respect of the social orders and moralism
- "Pietism": while he appreciated some aspects of the Moravian teaching he particularly disliked their emphasis on doing nothing until prompted by the Spirit. Wesley wanted to get things done!
- Calvinism leading inexorably to antinomianism and lack of interest in evangelism. He (mis)defined Calvinism as the idea that "If I’m elect I can do what I like" and that Calvinists believed "only 1 in 20 is saved" (which as we shall see was one of his favourite phrases).
Wesley was not a theologian and tended to use words cavalierly. As we read in 'Alice in Wonderland': ' "When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less." ' Wesley often contradicted himself. Criticised he would tack back in the opposite direction: for example, in 1765 he said “I believe in justification just as Mr. Calvin does. “
The 1770 controversy wasn’t a bolt from the blue for hostility between Calvinists and Arminians were rumbling on for years especially at local level. Politically, American tensions were increasing and Wesley was very much a Tory while many Calvinists were sympathetic to the rebels
What did the minutes (which were published very late and Wesley hadn’t reviewed them: they were written by John Fletcher his secretary) actually say?
"We must guard against “leaning too much towards Calvinism “ (ie antinomianism in Wesley’s definition)
(1) Who of us is now accepted with God? He that now believes in Christ with a loving, obedient heart.
(2) But who among those that never heard of Christ? He that, according to the light he has, “feareth God and worketh righteousness.”
(3) Is this the same with “he that is sincere”? Nearly, if not quite. [The Arminian doctrine of “universal sufficient grace” here comes to the surface.]
(4) Is not this salvation by works? Not by merit of works, but by works as a condition.
(5) What have we been disputing about for these thirty years? I am afraid about words . . .
(6) As to merit itself, of which we have been so dreadfully afraid. We are rewarded according to our works, yea because of our works. How does this differ from, “for the sake of our works? Can you split this hair? "I doubt [i.e. I rather think] I cannot . . ."
(8) Does not talking . . . of a justified or sanctified state, tend to mislead men; almost naturally leading them to trust what was done in one moment? Whereas we are every moment pleasing or displeasing to God, according to our works . . .
These minutes sparked off the heated and tragic controversy of the next five years, in which Wesley’s lieutenants John Fletcher and Thomas Olivers exchanged fierce literary punches with Augustus Toplady, the Hill brothers, and Berridge, while the Calvinist and Arminian segments of the revival movement drifted further and further apart.
Confusion reigned for the 1771 conference more or less simultaneously published the contradictory statement “we abhor the doctrine of justification by works.. our works have no part in meriting our justification, from first to last either in whole or in part”.
To pour fuel on the fire Whitfield died in America on 30/9/1770 and Wesley preached a notorious memorial sermon in London that November. Wesley dwelt on what they had in common and ignored what he had just published, to which Whitefield would have taken strong exception. Even stronger protests then ensued, led by Walter Shirley who was the cousin of the Countess of Huntingdon, the main funder of both Wesley and Whitefield, and Augustus Toplady. Eventually, Wesley agreed to sign a revised version of the document. In it Wesley and 53 other preachers reassured people that they were not upholding justification by works and “has no confidence but in the alone merits of Jesus Christ for justification or salvation...our works have no part in meriting or purchasing our salvation either in while or in part”
But John Fletcher Wesley’s assistant, made it clear that the teaching at 1770 was not Calvinistic: he defended the idea that justification was not a one off but could be increased or decreased. He even taught that you can move out of it completely as David did when he murdered Uriah and then move back in.
So what did they mean by 'salvation' and 'justification'? In another version edited by Fletcher 'justification' is replaced by 'salvation' which is the Wesleyan version. Wesley was accused (with perhaps some justification) of being slippery. Disputes became personal and a lot of mud was slung: for example Toplady called Wesley “the old fox”. Wesley infuriated Toplady in turn by publishing a fake declaration supposedly made by him saying “Only one in 20 of mankind is saved... the elect shall be saved do what they will, the reprobate shall be dammed do what they will can...believe this doctrine or be dammed”
The debate wasn't polarised as there were some people like good old Henry Venn who felt that both sides should stop abusing the other. He said he felt like Christ "crucified between two thieves: ranters clamouring for instant perfection and antinomians abusing grace"
Certainly the level of vitriol and abuse was wrong, something we should learn when we dispute with fellow believers. A good thing they didn't have social media in 1771!
What actually was Wesley's view? Was Wesley slippery? Or a man in hurry for action and impatient with doctrinal niceties? He was certainly not a theologian but a man of action.
Wesley was often inconsistent eg he affirmed the Westminster Shorter Catechism answer on justification but around the same time removed Bunyan’s explanation of the same point in ‘Pilgrims Progress’
Wesley changed his views over time. Richard Hill confronted him with the question “is justification by faith the article of the standing or the falling church?” (Is it in other words the litmus test). Wesley replied "I used to think so but I found reason to doubt and since that time I have not varied”.
What had Wesley changed? He wanted says Iain Murray “to distinguish between the believer being accepted on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and his personally being accounted righteous. By means of this distinction he meant to reduce the content of “justification” to forgiveness only. “
What did he believe then as far as we can tell? That:
- God offers salvation to all and all are free to accept or reject it (by virtue of Gods grace in allowing this what Wesley called “prevenient grace”)
- We are saved by faith not works but: we must never relax, we must actively pursue salvation (not sanctification which every Calvinist would agree). Salvation begins with justification by faith alone but must continue and be brought to completion by sanctification.
- Salvation is a process and is the product of what Wesley called “those two grand branches” justification and sanctification. Whereas a Calvinist would think of a tree with the roots being justification and this in turn leading (as it must) to the branches and fruit of sanctification.
J.I. Packer expands on this in his analysis of Wesleyan Arminian teaching
- Atonement makes salvation possible but not necessary.
- Faith is not 'fiducial' (trusting in what another has done) but 'volitional' committing to do something
- It denies and strongly dislikes the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ
Packer again “ We conclude, then, that Arminianism should be diagnosed, not as a creative alternative to Reformation teaching, but as an impoverishing reaction to it, involving a partial denial of the biblical faith in the God of all grace. The lapse is less serious in some cases, more so in others, but in every case it calls for responsible notice and compassionate correction. The logical conclusion of Arminian principles would be pure Pelagianism, but no Arminian takes his principles so far (otherwise one would call him a Pelagian, and be done with it). Calvinists should therefore approach professed Arminians as brother evangelicals trapped in weakening theological mistakes, and seek to help them to a better mind." (highlighting mine)
I am sure don't need to convince you if you are a Calvinist that that biblically Wesley was wrong and his opponents right. Romans 6-8 is perhaps the crucial passage, there are others, space doesn't allow me to cover this in detail.
However, I think Wesley does have many things to teach us and I actually have some sympathy with his actions (as opposed to his theology). With Wesley its best to "do as i do not as I say".
Iain Murray (hardly an Arminian) writes
"While I know of no evidence that Hyper-Calvinism is recovering strength, it would appear that the priority which soul-winning had (for example) in Spurgeon’s ministry is not commonly seen to be our priority. The revival of doctrine has scarcely been matched by a revival of evangelism… Doctrine without usefulness is no prize.”
It's so easy to proudly look down on fellow evangelicals and swell with pride as to our correct doctrine. But what if we have correct doctrine but no heart for the lost? What if we are armchair FB doctrinal police, quick to detect heresy in others but without a fraction of Wesley's concern for the lost?
I see the following as serious dangers for us Calvinists
1. Lack of interest in evangelism: especially in acting as Whitefield and Wesley did, going out and 'seeking by all means to persuade some". Do we risk preaching theologically polished sermons to the chosen, safe in our churches while millions go to a lost eternity? Are we willing to leave the comfort of our churches and studies and venture out boldly into the world — maybe to get dead cats thrown at us like they did?
2. A love of doctrine for doctrines sake. The devil is a master at doctrine but it does him no good. Wesley was not a great theologian but a wonderful man at getting things done. Do we value doctrine so highly that we lack men and women like Wesley who are "doers"? Are we overly cerebral? Do we look for a right balance in our leaders? Having right theology is vital but it's not enough.
3. Insufficient attention to human effort in sanctification. The importance of personal holiness, becoming more like Christ, knowing Christ more, can be lost. is there is a danger of stressing so much the atonement and justification that in practice we risk being the kind of people whom Wesley was reacting against? Are we Calvinists at risk of a suspicion of the work of the Holy Spirit in personal sanctification for fear of being labelled charismatic?
4. A suspicion (at times bordering on paranoia) about doing good and what we might call mercy ministries. Yet both Wesley and Whitefield saw no contradiction at all between being passionate evangelists and establishing orphanages and other good works.
5. Vitriolic language in arguments with fellow Christians is un Christ like and creates bitterness. Best to talk face to face rather than "drive by shootings" on social media.
We should be like Wesley in practice but not in theology — which being translated means we should be like Whitefield! Or better, more like Christ.
May we learn from Wesley's love for evangelism and his tireless devotion to the cause of Christ and personal holiness.
If you want to read more about this period I highly recommend Iain Murray's excellent "Wesley and the Men who followed"
I would like to thank very much the brilliant Robert Strivens who teaches this period at London Seminary for inspiring me in this topic!
From The Rectory
I recently went to an excellent event, which shall remain nameless, where the many children present were told to follow their dreams. There was lots of “you’re all very special and marvellous” and “you can do anything you really want to do. Never give up!” You know the kind of thing.
And there is much in it, of course. I am all for being positive. There is a danger that we crush ambition. Perhaps as Brits we love to chop down a tall poppy. We fear anyone getting above themselves and being too big for their boots. So, yes, think big, kids! Dare to dream! Seek to fulfil all your marvellous potential. But from a Christian perspective we might say at least five quick things.
(1) You are very wonderful and special
You are not just a wet chemical machine or a higher ape. In fact, you are made in the image of God. As such you are so so so loved. You are unique and brilliant and almost infinite in your depths and potential. You are almost like a god. Wow to you, times one million!
(2) But you are also weak and wicked
You are a fallen, broken god. You are so vulnerable and needy. Self-sufficiency is a dangerous illusion. But it is more than that. You don’t just mess up. There is bad as well as good in you. Some of your motives are crooked and… You have done and said and thought things you shouldn’t have done and failed to do things you should have done. And sometimes quite deliberately and knowingly. You are both more loved than you could dream but also more wicked than you really know or care to admit.
(3) You should raise your sights and aim high
Yes, dream! C. S. Lewis once said that our problem is that we settle. Our dreams are not too big but too small. We are like kids making mud pies in a slum. We have not imagined what the beach might be like!
(4) But you should not stop at aiming for fame and fortune – you should look even Higher!
Follow your dreams, but not just selfishly. Could you actually do good for others and for the world as well as doing what you really want to do? Sometimes you should do things you don’t want to do.
And your ultimate aim should be the glory of God. Your goal, your hope, is God Himself and his New Creation. Inventing a cure for cancer or the longer lasting lightbulb, by itself, would be too small a thing! You need a really big picture. The biggest. God. You are to know and love him. Don’t settle for anything less than the eternal and infinite. That is what you really really want and that for which you were made. Anything else will disappoint.
(5) And ultimately all this will be sheer gift, not just hard graft
It is not, “try really really hard and you can do whatever you want”. Some of your dreams will fail.
But you can know God and be known by him. You can serve his kingdom and purposes and make a wonderful difference of eternal significance. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. But aim for anything less and you ultimately lose it all.
And all this is not because you’re so fab on your own. God made you. If you are a believer, he saved you in Christ. He empowers you. He will get you to glory. It is all gift – all the way down. So, receive his love and mercy. It is from that position of grace (“You are my child whom I love”, God says to you) that you are to take on the world. And in Jesus you can be sure of victory. Enjoy the adventure!
The Revd Marc LloydMarc Lloyd
 Mental health problems still carry a stigma which is why many are keen to avoid any suggestion that gender dysphoria is a mental health issue.  I recognise that the desire to make one’s body conform to one’s gender identity is not universal among trans people. It is however one of the contexts of the Guidance and the Guidance does not distinguish between gender transitions with and without sex reassignment surgery.
Peter Sanlon is a vicar in nearby Tunbridge Wells and has turned a series of recent sermons from different parts of the New Testament - Romans, 1 Corinthians, Jude, 1 Timothy and revelation- into a book. It’s short, punchy, contemporary and to the point. No punches are pulled!
Peter's theme, which he draws out from a wide range of bible passages, is that the bible is being “stolen” from Christian believers by teachers within the church who refuse to teach (or worse, actively undermine) the core teachings of the bible. Not in secondary or disputable areas but very basic ones such as perhaps the central issue at stake today in contemporary society: sexual morality and the biblical call to sexual purity. His analysis is clear and highly relevant to whats occurring today in the UK. He is careful to distinguish between those outside the church - to whom we are not preaching morality but seeking to point them to Christ - and those inside the church, especially those in positions of authority who either turn a blind eye to sin or even worse teach that evil is good and sin pleasing to God. Here we must indeed "earnestly contend for the faith once for all entrusted".
Nor can we bury our heads in the sand and hope all of this unpleasantness and difficulties just go away. Thinking (especially for those of us not employed by a church) “not my problem” is not an option. For, as Peter notes in the letter to the church in Thyatira, the Lord Himself takes that church to task, not for what they do but for what they don’t do: for tolerating false teaching they should be opposing. He is very good on the ludicrous sight of the church chasing helplessly after our contemporary culture : as if imitating the broken world will somehow help the church. He rightly points out that we have to be radical in our discipleship, imitating Christ not the world, and that a desire for unity and love, though important, cannot be allowed to unilaterally overturn biblical truth. This is a common argument "lets agree to differ" and there are many areas (baptism, ecclesiology, last things, creation, worship and liturgy, spiritual gifts all spring to mind) where we must do so. But on the absolutely fundamental gospel matters such as the ones Peter covers this is not possible.
My only mild criticism is that you can easily see - as Peter acknowledges upfront - that these are transcribed sermons. In places some editing would have improved the literary style and removed some passages which would be of interest mainly to Peter's local church, plus one or two digressions. No doubt Peter was too busy and if that’s the worse fault in a book it can easily be forgiven!
In summary, from the bible, Peter issues a clear and biblical call to believe and obey the Bible and stand up for truth and oppose false teaching, for “if you love me you will obey my commands ”
My friend Chris helpfully replied to my previous post https://jsjmarshall.blogspot.com/2019/01/what-stops-people-believing-some.html
with some follow up points about the nature of fear that stops people taking a look at the Christian faith. Here are his comments (in italics) and my replies
I haven’t troubled your inbox for a while, but wanted to add some thoughts in response to your latest blog. I can’t claim to have interviewed hundreds of people, but since the 3 topics of conversation banned (and therefore most frequently embarked upon) in most offices and all ships are sex, politics and religion, I can claim to have witnessed and even occasionally contributed to many such conversations with quite a diverse collection of participants. A few highly educated, many ‘ordinary Joes’ and definitely no bankers!
“What stops people believing?” is your question. I would say straight away that I believe there is clear blue water between what many people would say in public, and their private thoughts. The common theme running through them all is, I would say, fear. Here’s a distillation of the most popular responses:
In general Chris my general advice is a) try and understand where people are coming from by asking them questions b) try and get them to look at the evidence "is it true"? c) if they still reject Christian faith move on (and often people who react most negatively is because there is something nagging at them, sometimes they come back when the nagging gets worse ) d) always if possible chat 121: I use John's gospel plus the notes I recommend, as people are far more open 121 and a lot of the points below go away. But sometime's thats just not possible! Anyway, thank you very much for the input and I hope the below is helpful
1. “Leave me alone”
This is the head-in-the-sand approach from people who are neither atheist nor truly agnostic; they simply refuse to engage with the topic. Ranges from a fingers in the ears la-la-la-la to an indication that prolonging the conversation will be interpreted as a hostile act. Interesting that this can provoke such an emotional response so quickly… if they were genuinely uninterested you might just expect a dismissive shrug...
I think you are spot on Chris that if people were really just not bothered they would not react so strongly. In fact, would suggest that such people are really in one of the categories listed below! Especially the one directly below! In all cases I'd try and ask a question to understand more about where the person is coming from. As the apologist and evangelist Ravi Zacharias says "behind every question is a questioner". I'd maybe ask something like "what makes you reluctant to even think about it?" "have you had a bad experience?" "what puts you off the Christian faith?". Usually as you say there is some kind of fear. Sometimes if people really wont talk about it, its best just to leave it. God determines what ground the seed falls into, our task is to throw out the seed. We cant change anyones opinion by one iota, but God can.
2. “I’m scared that there may be something in it”
People are scared that they are in some way signing up for judgement on themselves, and that they will be found wanting, which could have bad consequences. Have the notion that they will somehow be OK by just ignoring the whole issue (overlap with above point), but at least acknowledge it.
I think this is fairly common view: like the reaction that we have if we find something like a lump on our body and think "Should i go the GP or not?" I guess Chris this depends on whether or not we think we are OK - whether if you like we think we need 'treatment" in the first place. I find that the vast majority of people in their heart of hearts know that the world is a mess and that their life is broken and damaged in places. We all know (even if we dont want to admit it) that we have done things in our life that we would be ashamed about if others knew about. That's what we mean by "conscience". I wouldn't say this (normally!) but its also true that judgement is coming if we like it or not. Not human judgement (and the the church and people in it can sometimes come across as judgemental) but divine judgement. The proof of that is that we are all going to die, for "the wages of sin is death".
3. “I’m scared that there may not be anything in it”
People are unwilling to make a significant commitment to something which may not bear any fruit. It’s seen as an expensive insurance policy which may never be needed. Doubts over some of the difficult questions such as “Why does God allow suffering/not help us?”, many clergy disbelieving in the Resurrection/miracles etc. Surely it’s sufficient to just rely on own personal moral code.
My response to them would be: there are two possibilities. If its rubbish and you give me 30 minutes to look at the evidence you have wasted 30 minutes. But if it is true, its more important than anything else in your life ever will be. You will be perhaps familiar with 'Pascals wager' - "Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell)." This argument has limitations as a) its not enough to tick the box you have to genuinely believe and b) which God to believe in, if any. But it does underline the craziness of not at least thinking about whether it's true or not. 30 minutes vs eternity? I ask people to give me 30 minutes and say upfront that if at the end of that time they tell me "never ask me again" i wont. So far nobody has taken me up on “never asking me again”.
Our own moral code is inadequate to get us to God - he asks us for belief not morality. See point 6.
On suffering, thats a huge issue too big to go into here, i am working on a blog on this.
As for clergy who just dont believe in the resurrection etc - they are I am afraid to say 'false prophets'. if you are a vicar or pastor and you completely stop believing in something (as can happen - or maybe you never believed in the first place) you need to find another career. Its hypocrisy to get paid for something you dont believe in. Doubts from people who aren't in a position of authority though are different - see below.
4. “I’m scared of losing face”
People feel peer pressure to act strong, not be a prawn, not be seen as weak, feeble or meek. Doesn’t fit with their own self-image.
This is why I much prefer 121 to any other type of witness — because it enables people to say what they think and ask questions without any fear of being laughed at — either by their non believing friends or indeed by the Christians in church. Thats very common. Often it's not so much colleagues and friends but fear of the reaction of their immediate family and especially for the reaction of their spouse or partner. I can think of several friends where I suspect they think the Christian faith is true but they are afraid to acknowledge it for this reason. My advice to someone in that position would be "keep going". Keep exploring the bible, keep pressing on and eventually with Gods help you will see more clearly and your courage will overcome your fear and doubts. It's normal to have doubts, but seek to resolve them. (Having doubts and coming to church is a good thing, though of course over time you want to try and remove your doubts by looking at the evidence if they are major in nature. My beef is not at all with people like that - the church is open for all - but people in authority who should be helping their flock with doubts who simply dont believe)
5. “I’m not old enough”
Plenty of time to worry about all that later – its only pensioners who go to church anyway. And, if all that stuff about forgiveness is true, then I can enjoy myself now and apologise when I’m older. Maybe. Is there an app?
Ha ha! I dont think there is an app. First of all at least in the churches I know (ones that truly believe that Jesus did rise from the dead -see previous question!) there is a pretty good cross section of ages. Secondly none of us know how long life is, we may die tomorrow. Thirdly, this assumes we can pick and choose when we will listen to God. But we cant. Now is the time that the door to God is open, it may shut at any time. Thirdly, I would argue and have indeed found myself that I am far happier as a Christian than not. God is not a 'kill joy' (that is the lie from the devil) rather, he is a 'make joy' who knows whats good for us and wants us to be truly happy. We are by nature like a three year old who thinks if he eats ice cream after ice cream until we are sick that will make us happy. Augustine said “God made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him”. There is no peace or rest without knowing God and there is no knowing God without being right with God
6. “It sounds hard”
People are put off by the perception of strict “life rules”, arcane ceremonies and rituals and not knowing how to start – can’t just go to church since won’t know what to do and will feel stupid. In a funny way, many of these people might welcome a non-religious(!) church service as an easy introduction. People are happy to set their own standards which seem more relevant to modern life. They would sign up for ‘some of it’ but not everything, so by default do nothing.
Fair point. The church is its own worst enemy here. It often does come across as very dusty and arcane. People do feel strange about going to church, many things that happen in church seem weird and Christians are often weird too! You are absolutely right that this puts them off. I dont ask people to come to church (nor did Jesus ask them to go to the synagogue) but to take a look at the evidence and if you like “kick the tyres”. I also dont ask people to conform with morality - because just as you say we/they cant keep Gods standards even for an hour. It's impossible. Even if I could convince someone that some aspect of their lifestyle was wrong and they (very unlikely) changed it baaed on my say so, that would not make them right with God. If they on the other hand meet God, get right with God, then naturally, they will realise what they are doing is wrong and will feel what the bible calls "repentance" - they will feel sorry for the things they have done wrong and going forward they will want to try and obey his commands. There is a cost to becoming a Christian: it's best expressed as this: who knows best what's good for me: me or the God of the whole universe? If the former carry on as you are now (but the end is eternal death) if it's God then make a change, turn 180 degrees (and the end is eternal life).
7. “I don’t understand the question”
This is pretty much equivalent to your first point, and includes the fear of the unknown.
There is a major fear-giving known unknown: death. The Christian claim is that one person came back from beyond death: more than that actually conquered death. Is it true? "If I could offer you eternal life, would you take it?"
If you dont understand (and many people genuinely dont) my friendly invitation would be - "Do you fancy having a chat about the bible using these notes on John's gospel?"
Anyway, keep blogging — always good to read, and we're always thinking of you.
All the best,
Someone on an excellent FB group posed the question "What are the most common reasons you’ve encountered amongst family, friends and acquaintances for them not being a Christian: or what is it that draws them to an alternative belief?"
This is a great question. It's a wonderful way to start a conversation as well. Rather than then responding and trying and bash our friends views we should listen: I have suggested some kind responses below
Anyone reading this who isn't a Christian and has other views on what they find stops them (or people in general) please do post.
Due to my illness (i have incurable cancer) I have had many many opportunities to ask this question - with maybe 50-100 such discussions in the last few years, so this is reasonably statistically accurate. Of course its accurate within my friends who are obviously similar to me: white, male, highly educated often work in the City and around 40-60. Based on this reasonable sized sample I would say
1. Most people have no idea what the Christian faith actually is about: if any idea it’s mainly moralism. They certainly have no idea about the bible and it’s message . Crucially they know almost nothing about the historical Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Palestine.
2. They either think Christians think they are better than everyone else, or they think "I've never done anyone any wrong". If you think about it thats two sides of the same coin: that Christianity is an exam and you have to get a certain pass mark. They see religion as a system of doing good and they see no need for that. Crucially they don’t understand (our fault not theirs) that our faith is a free gift not works. The most common reaction by far is “I’m not religious”: people see Christian faith as something like being left handed - some people are born that way most not its fairly harmless but not very important
3.Some will see attractions in other religions mainly some kind of Buddhist influenced philosophy: they wouldn’t call themselves Buddhist in the main (some would) but that kind of Eastern enlightenment. I have found relatively few out and out atheists mainly some sort of vague agnosticism or deism. So most have not rejected Christianity but see no need for it and see themselves as “non religious” or "none of the above".
4. Of the ones who have rejected Christianity (and again that is the minority) dislike of religion and bad personal experience of church as mentioned above. They see the church as moralistic hypocrites (which has some truth lets be honest) and think that Christians look down on other people (linked to point 1 above).
5. Finally some do have some specific objections. The most common objection is I would say "all religions, including none lead eventually to God - why are you Christians so exclusive?"
Followed next by “science has disproved God”.
Some say "I dont want God telling me what to do"
How can God allow suffering?
Some do mention that the bible isn't trustworthy (especially Muslim friends)
Fired up by this discussion i asked a good friend what put him off Christianity. he said
"1. The church is about morality. The church (and to some extent the people I meet) are judgemental, harsh, look down on people, Christianity is about “Sunday best” and dressing up, Christians tend to think that they are morally inherently superior to other people
2. On the odd occasion I have been to church felt like going back to the 1950s — old people, old buildings, everything old and dusty, everything feels in a time warp and outdated.
3. It doesn't accept me (or others) “as I am” but is all about rules, dos and donts. I dont like being told what to do by other people (which I said was very honest!)
4. All religions are basically the same, so ultimately doesn't matter"
How to tackle it? I use stories from the Bible and especially Johns gospel - which i am trying to get them to look at with me, so its like a trailer for an upcoming film
If we make straight for Christ we can't go far wrong.
I use them as follows (i dont whip out my bible thats off putting, I tell them the story in my own words)
1. Dont know: Would you like to chat about/look at the bible (ie John) with me?
2. Morality/Not 'religious'/church is terrible: Most importantly dont defend the church! we are here to promote Jesus Christ not the church, which is indeed full of hypocrites. as my father used to say to people who said this to him "You are quite right; come along and make one more". Bible wise: Nicodemus (thought he was very religious, Jesus sent him off with a flea in his ear) or Prodigal son (older vs younger brother)
3. Rules and regulations: Pharisee and tax collector - who went home right with God? Not here to defend the church which is full of bad people - its a hospital not a moral Oxbridge. Or Prodigal son. But we also must stress "if you love me you will obey my commands" Christian faith about a relationship with God, knowing him, if we have that we want to try and obey his commands.
4. Other religions: Samaritan woman - followed another religion/lived an immoral life: Jesus rises above religious traditions and points her to himself.
a) Science: John 1:1 plus a simple discussion of “where did the universe originate from?” (The first cause argument) I find extraordinarily powerful.
b) Rebel: (this is a very honest answer!) Prodigal son (especially "when he came to his senses"). What is sin? ultimately about how we treat the Father.
c) Suffering: Lazarus
d) Bible not trustworthy/not true: Thats my all time favourite objection (i say to myself thank you God when it comes up ) as it is such a gift to talk about Johns gospel and the historic Jesus and how we can know him.
I have never had anyone ask me about some things that we worry about like Predestination, Genocide in OT.
In summary it’s not that our friends in the main have considered and rejected Christianity but that they have never considered it as they dont know what it is. Whose fault is that? In part it’s ours because we haven’t properly communicated it! How do we do that? Through reading John’s gospel with notes (word 121) has been my experience. I have found it utterly amazing and forgive me for boasting (and it’s God not me) but I have 15-20 people I regularly do this with and have had quite a few come to faith. I ask all my friends “would you like to chat about the bible ?”
So brothers and sisters our friends (at least some of them anyway!) are much more open than we think. Let’s have the courage to ask them to chat about the bible: God will do the rest. If they say "no" thats their right, we should respect that, on to the next.
If anyone has any questions about how to do it just DM me or make a comment.