Freedom – for Now

Well, it was a bit of a marathon yesterday. I travelled down to ETCW in the morning, a 3-hour drive, sat my exam on Ruth in Hebrew in the afternoon and drove back in the evening. Got home about 9pm. I was pretty tired but didn’t sleep well.

The exam was OK I think. I did not find it easy, but I felt my performance was ‘adequate’.

Some people have left comments on previous posts which I will get back to, I promise. But I still have a busy few days ahead to get everything else back in order, so please be patient.

But hey! I’m free! Well, for a little while…

Freedom – for Now

An Uncontrolled Rant on the Topic of Discussing the Atonement

I have been studying Ruth today followed by the DFC prayer meeting this evening. Later, while soaking in the bath I was having a few random non-Ruth cogitations. I thought I should write them down to help me process them. I have done no research or checking. These are just off the top of my head and probably need correction. But hey! This is a blog, right? Just a conversation between guys, OK?

To business. There is a big kerfuffle going on about the atonement stimulated, it seems, by Steve Chalke and his book The Lost Message of Jesus. I read it and wrote on it some time ago. Lots of people are still writing about it, not least because the emergent church cool guys have latched on to it, as have the NPP not-so-cool-but-influential guys since N. T. Wright wrote some blurb for it.

In the book Chalke has some trouble with the idea of penal subtitution theory of the atonement (i.e. that Christ was our substitute in taking the penalty that we deserved for our sin). This is of course a red rag to the evangelical bull. Penal substitution has long been held to define the essential character of the atonement. James Packer played a key role in nailing this with his seminal paper at the The Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture in 1973.

Now I have a problem to do with the way evangelicals are characterised in the debate. I want to come at it from a couple of angles. The first is this. I am an evangelical. I believe the Bible. Now, I have almost finished preaching through the second half of John’s gospel. There, Christus Victor is a strong theme (e.g. key verse in 12:31). Substitutionary atonement is also there in the Passover lamb motif etc etc. Overall, when I look at Scripture, I have no problem as an evangelical affirming Christus Victor, ransom theory, even some kind of moral influence of the atonement. As someone said, these are all notes in the work of Christ. However, pen-sub is essential, because it has to do justice to God’s holiness and our depravity.

Here’s the second thing. I was converted when I was about 17 and have been in evangelical churches ever since. Yes, penal substitution has been taught. So has Christus Victor. So has Christ’s death as ransom, sacrifice, redemption. Now the problem I have is one of personal orientation in the debate. Those who I have read on this debate (and by that I mean Chalke’s views and the inferences drawn from NTW’s blurb) in blogland (and I am primarily thinking of Al and John – there are others but these I know best) set up their arguments by characterising evangelicals as pen-subs-only, teeth-gnashing, gum-grinding anathematising banshees who will not countenance other threads of thought. This I do not recognise from where I come from. The problem with this for me is:

a) What do they mean by ‘evangelical’? Nowadays it can mean almost anything! Who on earth are they talking about? Describe them. Name them! Finding out someone is an ‘evangelical’ these days is like asking the question, “What’s for dinner tonight?” and getting the answer, “Food”. Duh.

b) I have not met anyone who is like these funny ‘evangelicals’ that John and Al describe. It’s just not my experience. So maybe I’m not one after all! But I thought I was one. I’m disorientated!! (NB: this is satire – I know what I mean by evangelical!)

Or maybe their characterisations, being so general, are just not adequate. I have a funny feeling there is a lot of straw man building going on, followed by steam-rollering. Yes, evangelicals have deep concerns about Chalke’s writings. Yes, evangelicals (like me) want to defend penal-substitution. But no, evangelicals, as far as I can see (I admit there may be some out on the thin branches) do not deny other ‘notes’. And they can be quite nice. Let’s get things in perspective.

Let the counter-rants begin (but I’m off – exams).

UPDATE: I have amended the post a little from the original because I did not represent Al‘s views fairly, for which I apologise.

I have also added a link to the Packer paper for one’s perusal.

An Uncontrolled Rant on the Topic of Discussing the Atonement

Busy Today

I preached twice today. Firstly, this morning I was at Solihull Presbyterian Church, about 50miles south of where we live. There were 20 there, I think, similar to last week, but some different faces. One lady from the neighbourhood who had come for the first time last week had come back, so she was a great encouragement. Another man who has been along a few times and has many questions about the faith also came. He too was an encouragement. I preached on the rich young ruler of Matthew 19, issuing the call to follow Christ.

In the evening, I was at DFC. We have reached John 21:1-14 where we looked at how Jesus prepared Peter for his full restoration after his denial of Christ.

Naturally, I felt much more at home at DFC than Solihull. I know the people, their circumstances. I know when they are getting restless and when they are engaged. Solihull was a new ball-game – exciting, but tricky picking up the ‘rules’ and ‘plays’!

Now I am shattered and probably will be tomorrow too.

Busy Today

Is S/He Really A Christian?

When I was a young lad and not long a Christian, I and my Christian friends would discuss the merits of the preachers we knew and heard in and around Glasgow. At uni there were many of us in the Navigators and the Christian Union so there were plenty preachers we knew of to talk about.

Perhaps it was arrogant of us to think we knew anything about what to look for in preaching and preachers. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, after all. Youth has a habit of not caring too much about such small but important details as experience and wisdom. But, undeterred, we pressed on with our discussions, often late into the night.

Not all the preachers were considered ‘good’. In fact, based on the quality of the preaching, the things said, the views expressed, occasionally someone would say in hushed tones, “I don’t think he is a Christian”. Such conclusions seemed perfectly rational.

Much later, having moved abroad to England, I still maintained that kind of thinking. In any church there are Christians and not-really Christians.

Now, there are two ways that one can deal with this kind of thought. First, there is the recognition that not all of those who are members of a church today will be there at the Last Day. This is a fact which cannot be denied. Hypocrites are in the church and they will be found out by Christ (Mat. 7:21-23). But the second way of dealing with this is to adopt an attitude akin to the Inquisition. “Is that person really a Christian?” I may ask. The person is a member of the church I am a member of. He/she is not an “open and notorious evil liver”. In other words, he/she could be living an ordered life, outwardly impeccable. Yet the Inquisitor in me says, “Is that person really a Christian?” This is the approach I used to take some years ago as I formed a mental list of those in my church who were “real Christians” and those who were not.

The difference between the two views is simple. Who decides? In the first case, Christ decides. He is the infallible judge. He always gets things right. This is a fearful fact that must be treated with some urgency and importance by each individual. He will not make a mistake and therefore there is no room for appeal, no matter how people will try. (Read Matt. 7:21-23 again to check that this is true.)

In the second case, I try to decide. Of course, open sin must be confronted – theft, adultery etc. Here, the process of pastoral discipline must be followed through by the church (Matt. 18:15-17), resulting in expulsion (1 Cor. 5:1-13) as the final step if necessary. But what of those who are not like that? They may be baptised, professors of the faith, but who at the same time don’t seem very lively spiritually speaking, sometimes come out with whacky theological views, and lack an eagerness to serve that others may have. Yes, there is a case for me to encourage them in greater zeal for worship, prayer, meditation on the Word, acts of service. But is it legitimate for me to entertain that secret little thought, “He’s not really a Christian”?

I can’t justify a “yes” to that question. Can you?

ADDENDUM: Of course I should add for the sake of clarity that for anyone to stand in a pulpit and preach unbiblical nonsense is a great sin. Any afflicted church must deal with this cancer and do so crisply. Young men who do not know what they are saying should be counselled and trained. Older men who know exactly what they are saying should be told to “pick a windae” – as they say in Glasgow.

Is S/He Really A Christian?