Christ Alone–Sufficient for the New Year

Another favourite author of mine is the poetess Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). She was born into a remarkably gifted family in London, December 5, 1830. Her parents, Gabriele and Frances Rossetti, were emigrés from Italy. Her father was actually a political refugee. Christina was taken by them to be baptized at All Souls, Langham Place, which was not far from where the family lived. Though the family was gifted artistically, they had little money and seem to have struggled financially, despite the fact that her father was a Professor of Italian at King’s College, London. It was from her mother that she imbibed her Christian faith.

I love her poem that echoes that watch-cry of the Reformation, “Christ alone.”

None other Lamb, none other Name, None other Hope in heaven or earth or sea, None other Hiding-place from guilt and shame, None beside Thee.

My faith burns low, my hope burns low, Only my heart’s desire cries out in me By the deep thunder of its want and woe, Cries out to Thee.

Lord, Thou art Life tho I be dead, Love’s Fire Thou art however cold I be: Nor heaven have I, nor place to lay my head, Nor home, but Thee.

What a possession to have going into this new year. Christ: life and fire, heaven and home, hiding-place from guilt and shame. It was having Christ that enabled Christina to live from day to day, for he was the only secure Hiding-place from guilt and shame.

She knew what a weight she bore—a weight all of us bear, though not all of us know it.

God strengthen me to bear myself; That heaviest weight of all to bear, Inalienable weight of care. [cited Kris Lundgard, The enemy within (P&R Publishing, 1998), 21].

Where did that strength come from? From none but Christ—Christ alone!

Reader, do you know him? Is he to you what he was to Christina Rossetti? May He be yours as you enter this new year—and he will be Light and Life for all that this new year brings.

Spirit & Structure–A New Year’s Agenda from John Owen

In a recent blog, I have been looking at the perennial tension between Spirit and structure. Lest any think I have erred in the direction of structure, let me share some thoughts from one of my favourite authors, the Puritan John Owen (1616-1683). And in this way indicate “my agenda” for the new year! In his own day Owen was known as the “Calvin of England” [Allen C. Guelzo, “John Owen, Puritan Pacesetter”, Christianity Today, 20, No. 17 (May 21, 1976), 14]. More recently, Roger Nicole has described Owen as “the greatest divine who ever wrote in English” and J. I. Packer says of him that during his career as a Christian theologian he was “England’s foremost bastion and champion of Reformed evangelical orthodoxy.” [Cited Guelzo, “John Owen, Puritan Pacesetter”, 14; J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness. The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1990), 81]. Owen’s chief interest, though, was not in producing theological treatises for their own sake, but in order to advance the personal holiness of God’s people.

For Owen, genuine spiritual experience is vital. Owen asserts that ultimately it is the Spirit who gives the believer such experience: “He gives unto believers a spiritual sense of the power and reality of the things believed, whereby their faith is greatly established…”[A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit (Works, 4:64)].

It is these inner experiences that motivate external attendance on the various ordinances of the Christian life. “Without the internal actings of the life of faith,” Owen writes, “external administrations of ordinances of worship are but dead things, nor can any believer obtain real satisfaction in them or refreshment by them without an inward experience of faith and love in them and by them.” [The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded (Works, 7:435).].

The importance that Owen placed on spiritual experience can be seen clearly and distinctly in the following quote—pardon its length:

“[L]et a gracious soul, in simplicity and sincerity of spirit, give up himself to walk with Christ according to his appointment, and he shall quickly find such a taste and relish in the fellowship of the gospel, in the communion of saints, and of Christ amongst them, as that he shall come up to such riches of assurance in the understanding and acknowledgment of the ways of the Lord, as others by their disputing can never attain unto. What is so high, glorious, and mysterious as the doctrine of the ever-blessed Trinity? Some wise men have thought meet to keep it veiled from ordinary Christians, and some have delivered it in such terms as that they can understand nothing by them. But take a believer who hath tasted how gracious the Lord is, in the eternal love of the Father, the great undertaking of the Son in the work of mediation and redemption, with the almighty work of the Spirit creating grace and comfort in the soul; and hath had an experience of the love, holiness, and power of God in them all; and he will with more firm confidence adhere to this mysterious truth, being led into it and confirmed in it by some few plain testimonies of the word, than a thousand disputers shall do who only have the notion of it in their minds. Let a real trial come, and this will appear. Few will be found to sacrifice their lives on bare speculations. Experience will give assurance and stability.” [A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm CXXX (Works, 6:458-459)].

Here then is a strong emphasis upon an experiential Christianity, one that is rooted in the Spirit’s application of biblical truth to the heart of the believer. And it is this sort of Christianity that we are seeking to promote to the honour and glory of the Triune God, one that preserves the biblical balance of Spirit and structure. May this God, the true and living Lord of the universe, enable in the year to come.

The New Year & Blazing into Glory

One of the great things about blogging are the utter gems one finds in other people’s writing. This is such a one from Charlene Dash, the spouse of a former student, Darryl: Walking Thoughts. It is a great reflection for the new year. I love the lines near the end, where she concludes her reflection:  “Small, repetitive, daily living that, at best, will breathe life-giving love into toxic places, that is the work that the Creator designed. The location is inconsequential really. The blaze of glory is reserved for the Creator alone and, to the world around us, is often seen best when our living and doing is no more.”

Is the End of Religion What We Should Be into ?

In the nineteenth century books with titles like The End of Religion were written by those deeply antagonistic to Christianity as a worldview—men like Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). Today, such books are being written by professing Christians. According to one blog entitled Jesus and the End of Religion the authors have a “deep conviction that Christianity as a religion has got way off track from the spiritually-radical, anti-religious message of Jesus” and that “Jesus did not intend to establish a new religion, Christianity. Instead he showed us a new way to approach God and others. Unfortunately, however, his simple message was quickly institutionalized. Despite its many adherents, the Christian religion has lost its way and is viewed negatively by much of the world because of its history and current distortions. In the spirit of Jesus’ message, it’s time for religion (especially Christianity) to die, and for the resurrection of new faith and life.” There is little doubt that Christian faith communities are not always what they should be, but these statements basically write off the entire history of the Church! Can one read such statements and not see a reading of the second century and later through the old liberal historical paradigm of the development of the early church—charismatic and free and no institutional leaders up to the mid-first century as opposed to the second-century church with restrictions and rules and bishops and increasingly less freedom—nascent Catholicism? The problem with the paradigm is that it simply does not fit historically. Moreover, it puts you in the horrifying position of agreeing partly with the analysis of people like the followers of Herbert W. Armstrong who assert that for nineteen centuries the church had lost her way until Herbie came along! And it is all too easy to junk the entire past—how many times have Christians tried to do that from some radical Anabaptist types to various charismatic sorts in the Puritan and Enlightenment eras—and start over. But we cannot start over completely new, for the simple reason that the past is not so easily shaken off! To think otherwise, is sheer historical naïveté.

Trueman, Blogging & Numptiness

There is a lot of wisdom here in Carl Trueman’s latest look at blogging: The Theatre of the Absurd. Some great statements:

  • “the free access to public exposure which the web provides has facilitated what appears to be a dangerous confusion of categories, that of the right to speak with the right to be heard.”
  • “the danger of an uncritical attitude to the web and to blogging is that it comports very easily with the conversational model of theology which is now gaining currency among the advocates of advanced modernism (aka postmodernism) of the Western church situation… The absolute democratization of knowledge to which an uncritical attitude to blogging etc leads is, after all, inimical to any hierarchical view of truth, and thoroughly comfortable with the ‘this is my truth now tell me yours’ approach which is gaining ground even as I write.”
  • “the category of scholar is one which should be reserved for those who have established themselves in their chosen field by actual scholarly achievement, not by simply talking a good game. This credibility is achieved by consistent, careful and scholarly contributions to a field in terms of refereed publications which then enjoy currency among qualified peers outside the person’s immediate circle of epigonous friends.”
  • “pompous and arrogant numptiness”—I had never heard the word “numptiness” before I started reading Carl’s work—it is such a great word, one of those typical Britishisms that capture an entire world.

Why Laughter Is an Appropriate Response to Barna & His Ecclesiological Proposal

To be a Christian is to be faithful to the teaching of the New Testament. That is a given. A second given is this: the New Testament is an ecclesial document. It is written from within the context of believing communities for believing communities. In fact, the idea of trying to be a Christian without the Church is anathema for the writers of the New Testament (see, for example, Hebrews 10:24-25).

And when you move out into the early patristic period up to the time of Constantine, say, the ecclesial focus is just as strong. How can one hope to have any idea of what Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c.110) is talking about, if one does not see his very heavy emphasis on the Christian community? Irenaeus (c.130-c.200) is the same. Where did Ignatius and Irenaeus get this ecclesial emphasis from? From the New Testament, of course! By stating that, I am not saying that these two early Fathers got their picture of the church entirely right. But there is a continuity between their ecclesial interests and those of the New Testament.

And it does not help to say that after the New Testament there was a calamitous falling away in which all of the key New Testament emphases were misplaced by the Ancient Church. That utterly fails to see how important the Scriptures were to those early Christian communities. Nor can this emphasis be written off with post-modern hermeneutical verve by claiming that this focus on the church is all about power. That too misses the point that the church was the context in which faith was nourished.

Then there are the third-century fathers like Tertullian and Cyprian. Both North Africans and both committed churchmen—and I say this despite Tertullian’s schismatic proclivities. Was it not Cyprian who argued that the person who has God for his Father must also have the Church for his mother? Again, the question is moot whether or not Cyprian got it all right when it came to ecclesiology—I personally think not. But his ecclesial interests are rooted in an ideological context that stretches back to the New Testament. And there would have been no Christian story if these men had not devoted their cares and toils to the communal expression of God’s people.

All of this to say this: George Barna’s Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary [see previous post, Barna, Bonhoeffer and true revolution] is so out of sync with the the New Testament and the realities of the Patristic era to be utterly laughed out of court, where it not for the dreadful ignorance about the Scriptures and the Patristic era that is increasingly apparent in North American Evangelical circles.

There will be some, I am sure, picturing themselves as brave souls going where few in our day have gone before—and so experiencing the adventure of the Christian life in all of its white-water intensity—who take up Barna’s suggestions and try to do Christianity without Church. In so doing, they will be sculpting their Christianity into the shape of our culture or sitting down to supper with the devil with a short spoon—either metaphor is frightening—and abandoning one of the key verities of the Faith.

Barna, Bonhoeffer and True Revolution

George Barna, that evangelical weathercock, has a new book entitled Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. The title is typical for anyone who is a boomer and who cut their ideological teeth in the sixties. This one calls for a spiritual revolution that presents pristine first-century Christianity to a spiritually dessicated world, but does without the medium of the church, hence the subtitle. I appreciate aspects of Kevin Miller’s critical review of the Barna volume in Christianity Today—“No Church? No Problem”. Miller rightly observes that Barna’s “book merely reveals every thin spot in evangelical ecclesiology. We flamingly disregard 2,000 years of guidance under the Holy Spirit. We elevate private judgment above the collective wisdom of apostles, martyrs, reformers, and saints.” Here is Evangelicalism throwing the past and its caution to the winds and eloping with the fervently anti-institutional spirit of the age—a nymph with oh so many paramours. Nothing really revolutionary here. Just utter silliness and the giddiness of childish infatuation.

But as Miller rightly goes on to say, “Do you want to become a Revolutionary? First, trade your copy of [Barna’s] Revolution for Life Together, the manifesto written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the dark days of Nazi Germany. Then, if you want to do heroic and revolutionary exploits, go back to your local church.”

Wise advice. I do not agree with all of Bonhoeffer’s views, but his Life Together is a classic about Christian community. And it is in the Church that the Father will be glorified (Ephesians 3:21).

Edward Trivett’s Christmas Hymn

Edward Trivett’s Christmas hymn—just found at Free St. George’s: “Our Christmas Message.” Was very surprised to see this. Then to read that this was “THE Christmas hymn in Norfolk two hundred years ago.” Trivett (1712-1792), a Particular Baptist pastor, had a thriving ministry at Worstead, Norfolk, during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Would love to know where this hymn was found. Thanks to Free St. George’s for posting it. Though I do think the host of Free St. George’s must have been somewhat in jest to call it “THE Christmas hymn” of two hundred years ago!

Let me take this opportunity to thank him for his warm wishes of about ten days ago—“A word of Explication.” I am only very sorry that when we met recently at The Westminister Conference I did not take more time to get acquainted. My sincere apologies!