God is our fortress

I received an e-mail the other day. No – it’s not really that unusual. I do occasionally slink out of digital purdah to check on how the twenty-first century is getting on. I do read e-mails now and again. Just don’t get me started about social media.

Anyway, back to the e-mail. The message that I received came from a company specialising in security doors which they were seeking to market to churches. Unlike many such messages, this appeared to be perfectly genuine – if your church building needs extra security, here are folk willing and able to provide it. They indicated that their products could be purchased with funds provided by the Government’s ‘No Place for Hate’ initiative. This initiative runs alongside the ‘hate crime action plan’ developed by the Home Office. Further research (i.e. clicking a link) revealed that this scheme, which applies to England and Wales, offers help to places of worship with security measures such as CCTV cameras, intruder alarms, perimeter fencing and security doors. Anything, in fact, needed to make your place of worship secure from attack.

The ‘hate crime’ label indicates that one of the concerns behind the project is the possibility of attacks on Christian places of worship by Islamic extremists who regard such buildings with revulsion. That of course is not the only issue since mosques, synagogues and various temples would also be eligible for protection, and the recent resurgence of violent antisemitism in Europe is a reminder that it is not only Christians who may face a threat. Statistics from the International Society for Human Rights, however, indicate that 80% of instances of religious discrimination are directed against Christians, and among those instances are acts of violence.

It is, of course, a sign of the times. Once there was generally a high degree of respect for church buildings and other places of worship, though vandalism did occur and in some places was something of a rite of passage for youngsters. There was broadly, however, respect for the property of those who pursued religious activities, even when their beliefs were written off as incredible. That is changing rapidly in the UK. The ‘No Place for Hate’ initiative is a straw in the wind.

Recent arson attacks on church buildings in Northern Ireland show that the problem is not safely confined to ‘the mainland’. The Government’s concerns no doubt include the threat from Islamic groups, but here we probably have more to fear from local ‘home grown’ hoodlums. The issues aren’t easy – we must be wise stewards of our property, yet we do not want to turn our places of worship into fortresses. ‘Come and join the scared stiff’ is probably not going to be a fruitful evangelistic strategy. A massive package of security measures is hardly a testimony to faith in a sovereign God. A church located in the centre of a city has to take certain basic steps – like remembering to lock doors! – but there have to be limits.

The root problem, of course, is a loss of respect for the God who is worshipped in these buildings. Whether it’s petty vandalism or full-scale onslaught, the message is that of the voices we hear in Luke 19:14 ‘We do not want this man to reign over us’. Although they might never think of it in these terms, they are in fact expressing rebellion against God – any God, given that other religions than Christianity are sometimes the target. They are in fact small-scale examples of the rebellion of the nations so vividly depicted in Psalm 2:2 ‘The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast their cords from us.”’ To describe attacks on churches in such terms may seem to be dignifying petty criminality – ‘pure badness’ as some would describe it – with a grand explanation. Nevertheless when we track the evil actions back to source, that is the poisoned spring from which they flow. Sinners, of whatever kind, are rebels against God, rejecters of Christ, and in one way or another that rebellion will show itself. A brick through a church window comes from a fist shaken in the face of God. As the Saviour warned his disciples in the Upper Room, ‘If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.’ The ‘if’ is not an ‘if’ of doubt but of certainty.

So we take sensible precautions which do not contradict the message we proclaim, but we do so in the assurance that in the face of rebellion ‘He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision’ (Psalm 2:4). In relation to Christ, the hatred of the world served to advance the fulfilment of God’s plan of salvation: It will be no different today. The enemy would be happy to have us cower in fortresses, but he will not succeed. The Word of Life will still sound out for the salvation of sinners and the vanquishing of the opponents of King Jesus.

Declared Righteous

It doesn’t get much better for a preacher. To sit down at the beginning of the week to start preparation for the coming Lord’s Day, to open the Scriptures at the passage due to be expounded and to read, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). If that doesn’t life his heart and fire him with zeal to proclaim the truth, he probably shouldn’t be in a pulpit. What a joy to remind the people of God of their glorious privileges ‘in Christ Jesus’ and to explain to the unconverted the wonderful salvation that God has provided ‘in Christ Jesus’.

The opening verses of Romans 8 are undoubtedly the charter of true spiritual freedom. In a day when much attention is given to various forms of ‘liberation’, here the apostle Paul deals with the most fundamental freedom – freedom from sin and from condemnation by a holy God. How sad that so many regard Christianity as a form of bondage when in truth it is the greatest freedom imaginable. Could it be that Christians have not fully grasped their God-given privileges and tend to live as if they were still in bondage? Perhaps the world has some excuse for thinking as it does.

In a couple of verses Paul shows us something of the richness of our freedom in Christ. There is ‘no condemnation’: the burden of sin and guilt has been lifted. As those who have been ‘justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1) we are liberated from the righteous condemnation of God and we know we will not receive ‘the wages of sin’ (namely, death) of which Romans 6:23 speaks. And that’s not all. Not only are we freed from the guilt of sin, we are freed from the power of sin. As Paul states, ‘For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death’ (verse 2). The Holy Spirit has given new life to those who were formerly held in bondage to ‘the law of sin and death’. No longer is sin the dominating power in the Christian’s life, though, as Paul shows at length in Romans 7, a battle with sin still rages within every one of God’s people. The outcome of the conflict, however, is certain. United to Christ in his death and resurrection, as described in Romans 6, we are liberated from the guilt and the power of sin. The gateway to godly living is open.

At the heart of our freedom is of course the work of Christ. The law could not save us, given the sinfulness of our nature (the ‘flesh’ as Paul describes it in verse 3), but the marvel of the gospel is the ‘what the law could not do…God did’. By his gracious action, salvation in its fullness has been provided. He did it by ‘sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh’ – sharing our human nature yet without sin, and it was ‘for sin’, probably drawing on the Old Testament language of the atoning sin offerings. All the sin and guilt of his people were counted as his and so God ‘condemned sin in the flesh’, in Christ’s body on the cross. The full price of liberation has been paid and all those ‘in Christ Jesus’ are set free.

Not only does God liberate us from certain things, namely the guilt and power of sin, he liberates us for something – for godly living. We are freed ‘in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us’ (verse 4). How striking that Paul puts the law at the heart of Christian living. Far from dismissing God’s law, as many Christians do, Paul shows that it has a crucial place in holy living. We obey not in order to be saved, but we obey because we have been saved. The life of those ‘in Christ Jesus’ is to be guided and shaped by the law of God which, as Paul puts it in Romans 7:14, is ‘spiritual’. Nothing that Paul has said so far in this epistle allows us to dismiss God’s law as no longer relevant to us. It is vital for godly living, and disregard for the divine law is surely one of the main reasons why Christians are so often indistinguishable from the ungodly world around them.

Obedience to God’s law, however, is not just one more self-help prescription, as if we could obey in our own strength. God does not place that crushing burden on his children, but rather provides all the strength we require. We are to be those ‘who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit’ (verse 4). Depending upon the Spirit’s ministry, obedience is possible for us, and expresses the joy of salvation in Christ.

Precious truths to delight the heart of every child of God. What a privilege to preach this gospel.