The woebots are coming

Well, I suppose some people would find it more attractive. Some do prefer to access counselling online, talking to a counsellor by means of live chat. In fact Relate, the UK’s biggest relationship charity, provided 15,000 online counselling sessions last year, and the service was so popular that there was demand for twice that number. The need is clearly there and this seems to be one way to meet it. Aidan Jones, chief executive of Relate, is quoted as saying, ‘Our counsellors tell me because it is more anonymous, people will start to explain what their issue is faster than if they were in a counselling room.’ Online chat appears to offer a ‘safe distance’ between counsellor and counsellee which cuts down on embarrassment and reduces barriers to sharing difficult issues.

In fact the next stage in anonymity is being contemplated – so-called ‘woebots’, robot counsellors which remove the need for any human involvement. Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) mean that these ‘chatbots’ can interact with human individuals or couples to offer a kind of help in sorting out relationship difficulties. This would be most readily provided where counselling consists mainly of reflecting back in different or clearer terms to the counsellee what he has just said. If counselling is to be non-directive, as some approaches insist it must be, then maybe robots could do all that’s needed. It is not that services like Relate are seeking to dispense with human counsellors entirely, but they do aim to offer a range of possibilities, including face to face contact, discussion via web cam, live chats and also robots. If it can be done, you can be sure someone will offer it.

Such developments ought to give Christians pause for thought, especially pastors and elders and any called to a distinctively caring ministry. Our culture may be more inhibited where expression of emotion is concerned, and the person who quickly pours out his or her problems to almost total strangers is an embarrassment to most of us, but perhaps there are lessons to be learned. We are called to bear one another’s burdens and we are to show the love of Christ to those still outside the kingdom. But how comfortable do even those within the kingdom feel about sharing burdens? How ready would they be to open up to those provided by the Lord to care for them in the congregation? Might they more easily confide in strangers? Might the anonymity of a woebot prove attractive if one were available? Can we dismiss the possibility out of hand?

Questions of trustworthiness and approachability inevitably loom large when the burdens of others are to be dealt with. Can the Lord’s people trust one another to deal wisely and confidentially with whatever is confided to them? In a small church, often closely interrelated, that is a real issue. If people hear the business of others being freely discussed, why would they conclude that their confidences will be respected? Before sensitive information is shared, the prospective helper or counsellor will be carefully weighed up: is this someone who will listen to me with sympathy and understanding (but not agreeing with me simply to be ‘nice’), and will whatever I say be kept confidential? If the answer to either question is ‘No’ then burdens will not be shared, or some other place to share them will be found. As pastors and elders in particular weigh up the condition of their people, they may easily forget that the people are also weighing them up and drawing conclusions about how readily they would seek help from them. It is a privilege to be the recipient of burdens and concerns that have sometimes been shared with no-one else, not even close friends, but it is a privilege that must be earned.

Increasingly the church is regarded as having nothing to offer as far as dealing with the hard issues of life are concerned. Recourse to a minister, common in earlier days, has often been replace by visiting a GP, adding to his burdens and perhaps taking him beyond his competence, especially in an appointment of a few minutes’ duration. Before the woebots take over, God’s people, and especially the leaders of God’s people, need to manifest the Christ-like love, compassion, wisdom and conviction that will draw the burdened and offer them the grace of our all-sufficient Saviour.

The Singing Saviour

Jesus sang the psalms. As a good Jewish boy he would have learned the psalms, along with the other Scriptures of what we call the Old Testament. He would have sung them regularly in worship and they clearly were crucial to his understanding of his mission. One of the most significant moments in the Gospel accounts of his ministry is to be found in the course of the Last Supper when we are told in Matthew 26:30 ‘When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.’ The hymn is generally thought to be the Hallel, Psalms 113 to 118, associated with the Passover, the feast which Jesus was about to fulfil when he offered himself on the cross. He was undoubtedly a singing Saviour.

Jesus sang inspired songs. He used the songs of the Psalter, he did not make up his own worship songs. As part of the Scriptures, the psalms are included in Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 3:16 ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’ That is not to deny that the words of the psalms are the words of David and of the other human authors, yet they are at the same time entirely God’s words, as if breathed from his own mouth. God made use of the abilities and characters of the human authors whom he had prepared, but ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1:21). Ultimately what the psalms say, God says. These are the words the son of God sang.

Jesus sang prophetic songs. Although most of the psalms arose from the circumstances of the psalmists’ lives and so were songs for their day, as God-breathed Scripture, however, they are also songs for later days. The psalms have in view the person and work of the Messiah and they find their perfect fulfilment in the days when ‘the Word became flesh’(John 1:14). We need be in no doubt that this is the case because e we have Jesus’ own testimony to the fact. After the resurrection, on one of the occasions when he appeared to his disciples he said, ‘Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:44). All the psalms point to Christ. Thus when he sang Psalm 118:22 ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’, he was singing about himself. We need to have a fully Christ-centred understanding of the psalms we sing, so that we recognise they are Christian songs.

Jesus sang redemptive songs. In particular the psalms associated with Passover recall the great Old Testament event of divine deliverance from bondage. God delivered those who sheltered under the blood of the lamb (Exodus 12:23). Most significantly, at his transfiguration Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about ‘his departure (‘exodus’) which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). The cross of Christ is the great redemptive act of God which fulfils and exceeds all that was portrayed in the exodus from Egypt. We have noted Jesus’ statement in Luke 24:44 about his fulfilling all that is written about him in the entire Old Testament. In particular he states, ‘This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise on the third day.’ The psalms, as part of the Old Testament, testify to his redemptive work at the cross and the empty tomb. The psalms are redemptive songs and Jesus sang of his own saving work in songs that he fulfilled. When he sang Psalm 118:27 ‘Bind the festal sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar’ (ESV), in a matter of hours he would be that sacrifice, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John1:29).

Jesus sang perfect songs. The perfect Son of God sang only perfect songs, and as god-breathed Scripture the psalms are perfect songs. They can be sung with faith and full confidence in their reliability. When we sing the psalms, we sing the songs that Jesus sang and we sing the songs that Jesus fulfils. That means that we need to study them carefully and with the aid of the Holy Spirit who gave them to the church so that we understand how these things are so. Of course that is no different from how we must approach the rest of the Old Testament. Perhaps if we have problems in using the psalms, we may have problems in seeing how the Old Testament in general is a Christian book full of Christ. What a privilege to sing the songs he sang.

No Excuse

By any reckoning Stephen Hawking was gifted with a great mind. The former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, who died on 14th March at the age of 76, was known around the world for his contributions to theoretical physics as well as for his battle with increasing bodily disability. He lived many years beyond the short lifespan predicted when his motor neurone disease was diagnosed and with the aid of sophisticated technology, including a speech generating device necessary when he could no longer use his natural voice, he continued to contribute to scientific thought right up to the end. As a result of media exposure he was an instantly recognisable figure and, at the popular level, was familiar to multitudes who would not understand the first thing about his scientific work.

The second holder of the Lucasian professorship was Isaac Newton and Hawking is widely regarded as the equal of Newton in his contributions to the explanation of the nature of the universe. Necessarily his work was highly complex and abstract. His early work A Brief History of Time (1988) was bought by many but probably read by relatively few. Even a simplified version of his ideas baffled most non-specialists. His chief contribution to theoretical physics was his pioneering and revolutionary work on black holes, resulting in the discovery of previously unsuspected radiation emitted by these strange entities, now named ‘Hawking’ radiation.

Like others in his field Hawking has had wonderful opportunities to study the intricacies of the cosmos, to unravel some of its complexities, to engage at a deep level with creation. His studies have confronted some of the biggest questions regarding the origins of the universe and its purpose (if any). He came to some firm conclusions. He upset many when he claimed in 2011 that science had replaced philosophy: ‘philosophy is dead’, he asserted. Philosophers have not kept up with modern science and so, he said, scientists ‘have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’. A big claim for science as the fount of wisdom, or at least of the knowledge that matters.

Perhaps our hearts don’t bleed for the philosophers, but his view of religion, including Christianity, was equally dismissive. He was a self-professed atheist and believed in a universe governed by impersonal law. Narrating the first episode of an American television series on the Discovery Channel in 2011 he said, ‘We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.’

As Christians there are many ways in which we could respond to such views. Surely one of our first thoughts has to be, ‘How profoundly sad.’ To be gifted by God with such an outstanding intellect and to use it to conclude that there is no God is so utterly foolish. To be grated such opportunities to examine the Creator’s handiwork and to talk about ‘the grand design’, yet to be unable to see him in any of it underlines the fallenness of human beings, their intellect included. Hawking, of course, is not alone. Think of the naturalists and scientists of all varieties who have unparalleled access to the wonders of the natural world and who come away believing it’s all a big fluke, the product of blind chance. How unutterably sad, and how unforgivable.

In Romans 1:19-20 we read, ‘For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.’ The conclusion, God’s conclusion? ‘So they are without excuse.’ Clear and simple. Pleas that there was not enough evidence will not be accepted. All the necessary evidence is there. We have to close our eyes so as not to see it. ‘I didn’t know’ will not wash in the final judgment. What in fact we do is ‘suppress the truth’ by our unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).

How ironic that the ashes of a man who described the idea of an afterlife as ‘a fairy story for people afraid of the dark’ are to be interred in a cathedral built for the worship of the God he has now met in that afterlife. Unless there was a fundamental change of heart in his final moments, he must bear the consequences of his unbelief, as must every sinner. There is no excuse. How sad.

Take heed!

The death on 21st February of Billy Graham was, by any standard, an historic event. Ninety-nine years old – just short of the century. The responses from the media, both religious and secular, flooded in, many no doubt prepared a considerable time ago. The wide variety of sources testified to Graham’s significance, not just in America, but also on the world stage. Nobody could dispute that a man of stature had departed. Very few preachers leave the world to such public notice. Perhaps none will again. That in itself says much about the role Graham played in twentieth century religious life, and not just within the Evangelical community.

There are, of course, legitimate criticisms that can be levelled against Billy Graham. The first thought for some will be his willingness to include liberal Protestants as well as Roman Catholics among the sponsors of his crusades. The nature of his evangelistic approach – the mass crusades, for example – raised questions for some conservative Evangelical and Reformed observers. His closeness to numerous American Presidents also caused concern, particularly when characters like Lyndon Johnston and Richard Nixon were involved (something which Graham himself seems to have acknowledged). The negatives are certainly there, and we would not close our eyes to them. We would not have any sympathy with those who speak of his death as having ‘prophetic significance’ for the approach of ‘the end times’, as even some family members have stated. And yet there is more to be said.

It is remarkable that in a life of 99 years, much of that time in the glare of publicity, Billy Graham was untouched by even a whiff of scandal – financial, sexual, or of any other kind. That is remarkable, and surely a testimony to the grace of God. Even the most hostile secular critics could get nothing on him, and if they could have, they would have. We can be sure of that. Not only that – nowadays the Internet hosts numerous zealous characters who claim biblical justification for ‘digging the dirt’ on prominent preachers and church leaders in the most scurrilous manner. Perhaps in the earlier years the scrutiny was less intense, the culture more respectful, but with the explosion of the electronic media in more recent times, no corner of the life of a public figure is truly private. Wise precautions were taken, good procedures put in place, all activities were open to scrutiny. Billy Graham passed all the tests. Some whose theology was apparently ‘sounder’ have not.

Whilst there may be legitimate questions about some of his methods of evangelism, no-one can dispute Billy Graham’s zeal for the spread of the gospel for the salvation of sinners. That was undoubtedly his great passion. If we think our understanding of the gospel is more fully biblical, we need to ask ourselves how zealous we are in proclaiming that message. Sometimes the honest answer would be, ‘Not very.’ We don’t have a lot to be proud of.

And why did the Lord allow Billy Graham to preach to hundreds of thousands while we preach to handfuls? Perhaps one reason is that he could trust Graham to handle the temptations and pressures of such a prominent position, and we have all we can cope with. Not too flattering, but perhaps not too far from the truth.

We live in an age that delights to pull down the prominent and successful, and show that they have feet of clay. Sometimes it is fully warranted and even necessary. The exposure of ‘cover-ups’ in many areas of public life has had justification, but it can become a dangerous hobby. Christians are not immune from the cultural tide, as if somehow finding others’ feet of clay made our feet sounder. Not for nothing did the apostle Paul warn the church, ‘Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Corinthians 10:12).

We are not to idealise, much less idolise, any human being, but we are to praise God for the good we see in his servants and seek by grace to imitate them. Billy Graham gives us more than a little food for thought.

Taking Responsibility

A government minister taking responsibility? Resigning without being forced out? Hard to believe! Not exactly unprecedented, but very rare. On 31 January Lord Bates, the international development minister, resigned when he arrived late for work in the House of Lords. The Conservative peer sparked confusion when he gave an apology for not being on time to answer questions from the dispatch box, having missed a question from a Labour peer. According to press reports, Lord Bates commented, ‘I have always believed we should rise to the highest possible standards of courtesy and respect in responding on behalf of the Government to the legitimate questions of the legislature. I am thoroughly ashamed of not being in my place and therefore I shall be offering my resignation to the Prime Minister with immediate effect.’ His reaction was met with amazement and cries of ‘No!’ One Labour peer suggested that an apology would have been adequate to address the issue. Most present agreed.

We have no mandate to comment on the motivation for Lord Bates’ action. He resigned dramatically in 2016 to undertake a solo 2,000 mile walk from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, so perhaps it’s something in the blood. Not our business. But a minister taking responsibility for failing to reach what he believes are the proper standards for a minister most certainly is.

We do not live in a society where taking responsibility is common. More often we meet with blame-shifting, prevarication, finger-pointing, flat-out denial. At school it starts with ‘It wasn’t me, sir’ and goes on from there. Whatever goes wrong, it is somebody else’s fault, or something else’s fault – my environment, my education, my parents, the government, the stars – you name it, someone claims it. One thing is sure – it’s not my fault.

Not new is it? Ancient, in fact. ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate’ (Genesis 3:12). When confronted by God regarding the first human sin, Adam’s response was to try (in vain) to shift blame onto Eve and, implicitly, onto God himself. If he had done a better job, it seems, Adam would not have ended up in the predicament he now faced. Eve learned fast and tried to dump blame entirely on the serpent. None of it fooled the Lord as the succeeding verses show. Every guilty party was called to account and received a just sentence.

We are in no better position. Refusing to take responsibility for our sins simply does not work. God is not fooled and still calls us to account. Worse still, refusing to take responsibility actually closes off the one route to a solution. If we will not face up to the reality of the disease, we will never seek or accept the cure. Most of us have met people who, although seriously ill, insist that ‘I’m fine’ and act accordingly. They will never seek the necessary treatment since they do not believe there is anything wrong with them. People die proclaiming, ‘There’s nothing wrong with me.’

For sinners, in fact, the situation is even worse. The sinner asserts ‘I am alive’ when in fact he is dead. How much worse, and how much more foolish, could it be? Denying responsibility for sin precludes seeking the salvation God has provided in Christ crucified and risen. That was David’s experience in Psalm 32. He recalls, ‘For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long’ (verse 3). Even his body was severely affected. The solution? Instead of ‘covering’ his sin, he confessed it to the Lord. ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity’ (verse 5). The result was cleansing and forgiveness – ‘you forgave the iniquity of my sin’.

That is the heart of the gospel. True repentance – taking responsibility for our sin as an offence against God – opens the way to the lifting of the burden of guilt and healing of the whole person. Rightly David sang, ‘Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’ (verse 1). Until we take responsibility, that door remains firmly closed.

One Sure Thing

If there is one word that characterises events on the world stage at the moment it is surely ‘uncertainty’. Wherever we look, there seems to be confusion as to what is really happening, confusion as to what is the best solution to complex crises (if there is one) and fear as to what the future holds. Where will American foreign policy go next? Does even the President know? What will North Korea do beyond belligerent sabre-rattling? Will Angela Merkel survive as German Prime Minister? (You will probably know the answer by the time you read this). Where would anyone start to unravel the complexities of the Middle East? What will Brexit look like and what will the consequences be? Your guess is as good as mine, if not better.

Of course few of us can bring any influence to bear on the ‘big picture’. It is the small picture that poses the most pressing problems. Maybe it’s declining health, concern for a young person showing no sign of spiritual life, anxiety about care provision for an elderly relative, or any one of a multitude of other issues. In so many respects the way ahead seems very uncertain, full of the ‘maybe’ and the ‘what if?’

One thing is certain – the future is not in our hands, and the longer we live, the clearer that becomes. We plan, we anticipate, we worry, yet events take entirely unexpected turns and often leave us amazed or baffled. We don’t know what tomorrow may bring, much less next week or next month.

That could be depressing or frightening, but as Christians we know that we do not face the unknown future alone. Psalm 138:8 reminds us, ‘The LORD will fulfil his purpose for me’. There is a word of hope for God’s people to hold on to in the uncertainties of living in a fallen world. Literally the psalmist says, ‘The LORD will perfect what concerns me’. The words are a reminder that our Lord is a sovereign God. He is in ultimate control of ‘all that concerns me’, even the smallest detail. If, as Jesus reminds us, he supervises the fall of the sparrow, he surely oversees all aspects of the lives of his children. The reference to his ‘purpose’ in many of the translations reflects that. There is nothing random in his universe.

Of course control in the wrong hands is a dangerous and frightening thing. World events underline that fact. The psalmist goes on to reassure us, however, when he says, ‘your love, O LORD, endures for ever’. The word for ‘love’ is that wonderful Hebrew word hesed which means eternal, unchanging covenant love, reflecting the Lord’s commitment to his people that results in the salvation provided in Christ crucified and risen. Control could not be in better hands. The Father loves us, the Son loves us and the Holy Spirit loves us. This is the Triune God who will perfect what concerns us.

That is not a guarantee of an easy passage through life. Far from it. There may be trials that we have never imagined or sorrows we have feared, along, we trust, with joys we could not have anticipated. The hard experiences will not break the Lord’s people, however, but will serve his glory and our growth in grace. And even in the hard times, we will by his grace be able to ‘count it all joy’ (James 1:2). Only those who are children of God through faith in Christ have such hope and confidence.

Bruised Reeds

Quality control is vitally important in any business. In the production of any item – from cars to cakes (Top Gear to Bake Off), perfection is required, or as close to perfection as can be achieved. Woe betide any supplier if a customer receives something he considers to be substandard. It will be returned quick smart, complaints will be aired and, in these days of social media, there may well be negative postings on the firm’s web site to ensure that the failure is as widely publicised as possible.

We might have no quarrel with quality control in business, but increasingly the same attitude is being applied to people. So, we are told, only those who fully measure up should be allowed to be born, and the substandard, for their own and everybody else’s benefit, should be disposed of. After all, they will consume scarce resources and require extra care, they may well contribute little to society, families and carers will be worn down, and they themselves will probably be unhappy. All good reasons to exercise the kind of quality control that advances in medicine now make possible and ensure that the imperfect are quietly disposed of. Inevitably the ‘imperfect’ are devalued, and who is imperfect depends on society’s current standards for a valuable life.

The attitude of the church of Jesus Christ ought to be entirely different, because the attitude of the Saviour she follows is entirely different. In imitating him, the church will increasingly stand out from the surrounding culture. Rather than disposing of those who do not measure up, Christ provides grace for the struggling. His ministry is vividly depicted in the words of Matthew 12:20 (quoting Isaiah 42): ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory’.

The word-pictures are striking and would have been very familiar to Matthew’s readers. Reeds, used for everything from pens and flutes to measuring rods and floor coverings, are fragile and easily damaged. Wicks, made of linen, allowed oil lamps to produce some light but were often of poor quality and produced more smoke than light. Bruised reeds and smoking wicks were readily viewed as useless and more bother than they were worth.

The lesson, of course, is not one regarding reeds and wicks. The passage from Isaiah describes ‘my servant whom I have chosen’ – God’s Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. The context here is of Jesus healing the sick (verse 15) and so clearly bruised reeds and smouldering flaxes are people, fragile and vulnerable people, damaged and struggling people. And in one way or another we are all strugglers – for physical reasons (illness, declining faculties), for psychological reasons (anxiety, grief, depression, mental health problems), for spiritual reasons (doubt, temptation, failure). Often all three are mixed together to weigh us down. It can seem hopeless.

The verse, however, is a message of good news. In a world where bruised reeds and smouldering wicks would usually be thrown out and replaced, we are assured that the Saviour will minister graciously to his people and the bruised reed will not be broken, the smouldering wick not extinguished. The Lord cares for his people body and soul, for the whole person. Whatever the cause of bruising or smouldering, the Lord is concerned and is able to deal graciously with the need. No struggle we experience is met with indifference.

Remember that the one described in Isaiah 42 shares our human nature, with the sole exception of sin. He ‘had to be made like his brothers in every way’ (Hebrews 2:17). He ‘was tempted in every way just as we are’ and so is not ‘unable to sympathise with our weaknesses’ (Hebrews 4:15). The saviour can sympathise in ways that no-one else can. He was bruised and he smouldered to a degree beyond what we will ever experience.

Sympathy, however, is not enough. Christ does not leave his people bruise or smouldering: he restores and heals. Our struggles come because we live in a fallen world (though our struggles are often not the result of specific personal sin – the mistake of Job’s friends). The saviour has dealt with the root cause in his atoning death in the place of his people (2 Corinthians 5:21) and as a result those in Christ are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The work of the saviour cannot fail – that is the significance of ‘until he brings justice to victory’. Evil will not have the last word. All causes of bruising and smouldering will ultimately be removed in the new creation after his return. In the meantime he preserves his beloved people, assuring them that ‘no-one can snatch them out of my hand’ (John 10:28). He may well not remove from us some of the things that bruise and cause smouldering (such as the experience of death), but he will give all the grace necessary for us to pass through trails and hard experiences and finally reach glory. By his grace bruised reeds are straightened and smouldering wicks burn brightly.

A pattern for Christ’s church. Reed breakers and wick snuffers need not apply.

God’s Glory Alone

As we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, we are considering five of the great principles that lie at the heart of the Reformation. These are the five ‘solas’ – the five ‘alones’ – that sum up some of the central emphases of this great time of theological and spiritual revival. In June we considered ‘Faith Alone’. This month we turn to the final ‘sola’ – ‘God’s Glory Alone’, ‘Soli Deo Gloria’.

When we think about salvation, one of the hardest ideas to clear out of our minds is the conviction that ‘it’s all about us’. Why has God gone to such lengths in order to provide salvation for unworthy sinners like us? We know that in eternity he set his love upon us, choosing us in Christ before the foundation of the world, as Ephesians 1:4 reminds us. That is an uplifting and at the same time a humbling truth, precious to every child of God. It’s easy then to conclude that the ultimate purpose of the work of Christ is our wellbeing, our enjoyment of the blessings in store for us in the new creation. Not so – it isn’t all about us, and we need to remember that.

Salvation, like everything else in God’s universe, ultimately serves God’s glory. He is the one who says, with reference to the refining of his people, ‘For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another’ (Isaiah 48:11). Although we rightly delight in the blessings of salvation that are and will be bestowed on us, we know that the final goal is not our glory or pleasure or happiness, but the glory of God.

Sin robs God of his glory. Sinners have ‘exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images’ (Romans 1:23) and thus ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). The chief goal of the work of Christ in his life, death and resurrection is the restoration of the glory of God. It is not that somehow God receives additional glory from salvation: he is and always will be infinitely glorious. In Christ, however, sinners are placed in a position where they may glorify God. Paul makes this clear in 2 Corinthians 4:6 by stating that, when a sinner is saved, God is shining into his heart ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’. Saved sinners may now reflect, albeit imperfectly, the glory of God into a dark world. Thus God is glorified in the fruit of evangelism, and in this we have the supreme motivation for evangelism.

The biblical truths that we have considered so far in the ‘solas’ present a God-centred and God-glorifying view of salvation and indeed of all of life. How could any child of God want it to be otherwise? The framers of the Shorter Catechism got it exactly right when they wrote that ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ (Q1). We will not be able to do the latter unless by grace we do the former.

Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone will inevitably issue in a life of increasing holiness and God-centred good works. Notice how Paul’s prayer for the Philippians ends with the desire that they will be ‘filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God’ (Philippians 1:11). Good works, as the Reformers understood clearly, flow from salvation: we do good works because we have been saved, not in order to be saved (as Ephesians 2:10 reminds us). These are works done as a result of the gracious enabling of the Holy Spirit and are evidence of the grace of God that is at work in us. As a result the redeemed are ‘God’s temple and…God’s Spirit dwells in you’ (1 Corinthians 3:16).

The resulting lifestyle has as its focus and goal the glory of God. This is a profoundly transformative understanding of our Christian calling. All of life is embraced in this perspective. As 1 Corinthians 10:31 expresses it, our Christian calling is centred on the pursuit of the glory of God: ‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’. Even the most apparently mundane activities are to have in view the glory of God, done with an awareness of him and, in must be said, performed by his enabling grace. Grace does not bring us to the point of entrance to the kingdom of God and then leave us to go on in our own strength. Salvation is by grace from beginning to end.

At the last day it will be seen by every creature that all things glorify God alone. On that wonderful Day of consummation ‘every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:11). The Son and the Holy Spirit will share equally in that glory, as our Trinitarian theology reminds us. It will be Christians’ joy and privilege willingly to give all glory to God as they begin to experience the full fruits of God’s grace in Christ. God’s eternal plan of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone, all to God’s glory alone, cannot fail. Having begun a good work in us ‘will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:6). There we have a firm foundation for assurance, thanksgiving and service for the glory of God.

Faith Alone

As we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, we are considering five of the great principles that lie at the heart of the Reformation. These are the five ‘solas’ – the five ‘alones’ – that sum up some of the central emphases of this great time of theological and spiritual revival. Last month we considered ‘Grace Alone’. This month we turn to ‘Faith Alone’ – ‘Sola Fide’.

It might be thought that the order in which we are considering these principles is a matter of indifference – could the five not be taken in any order as long as they are all included? The answer in fact is a resounding ‘No!’ The order is not random. It matters very much where each principle fits into the sequence. This is especially clear when we consider grace and faith.

The placing of ‘Faith Alone’ after ‘Grace Alone’ is a recognition of the order of the elements of salvation revealed in the Bible. There is an order – an ordo salutis as it is sometimes termed – which is not the product of human ingenuity but a reflection of the way in which God in his sovereign mercy provides salvation. Thus when ‘Faith Alone’ follows ‘Grace Alone’ we acknowledge that sinners believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation because of the grace that the Lord has shown to them. To reverse the order would suggest that sinners receive grace because they have believed, a thoroughly unbiblical idea.

This crucial fact is set out in a text such as Ephesians 2:8, where Paul is expressing something of the wonder of the salvation that God has provided in Christ. The Apostle writes, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And that is not your own doing, it is the gift of God’. Notice how Paul includes even our faith under the idea of a ‘gift’, given by the grace of God. Scripture everywhere emphasises the ‘gift’ nature of salvation, and that is because grace precedes faith in the order of salvation.

This principle in no way detracts from the fact that sinners must believe in order to be saved. When asked by the jailer in Philippi, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Paul’s answer was, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved and your household’ (Acts 16:31). The necessity for believing in Christ must always be impressed upon sinners. They cannot avoid that responsibility. But the reason why any sinner responds to that exhortation and actually believes in the Lord Jesus is that God has graciously enabled him or her to do so. Behind the sinner’s response is the gracious action of God. A specific example of this is provided by the conversion of Lydia recorded earlier in Acts 16. In verse 14 we read that ‘The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.’ That ‘paying attention’ was not a merely outward listening to the message: Lydia clearly responded in saving faith, as a result of the grace of God she experienced.

The preservation of the biblical order of grace and faith is vitally important. Not least it protects against the ever-present danger of turning faith into a kind of ‘work’, subverting the truly gracious nature of salvation. We may reject the idea of works contributing to salvation, just as the Reformers did, yet think of faith in such a way that it becomes something we contribute to our salvation, something that God accepts in the place of the ‘good works’ we are unable to perform. Unwittingly we then allow works to enter again through the back door, a fatal mistake. We have nothing to offer God that has any merit, not even our faith.

As the Reformers recognised when they insisted on ‘Faith Alone’, there is always a danger of allowing something else to creep in alongside faith in relation to salvation. Medieval theologians were perfectly ready to speak of faith as necessary for salvation, but Luther and his spiritual descendants recognised that when any kind of good work was thought to play a meritorious role in salvation, the biblical order was corrupted and the grace of God fatally undermined. Faith plus anything destroys the gospel. The same battle has had to be fought many times since the days of the apostles who refused to yield to the pressure of the ‘Judaizing’ faction in the church which wanted to assert the necessity of law-keeping alongside faith for salvation. There is always a temptation to believe that, even in some tiny way, our efforts contribute something to our salvation. ‘Faith Alone’ humbles our pride.

The Reformers were absolutely correct to insist that all of salvation is ‘by faith alone’. Thus they taught the great biblical truth of justification by faith alone, emphasising that our right standing in the sight of God is granted freely to us when the righteousness of Christ is counted as ours. That blessing is received by faith alone, in harmony with Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28 that ‘one is justified by faith apart from works of the law’, and Luther was theologically correct to add ‘alone’ to his German translation of the verse, even though the word is not present in the Greek text.

Salvation by faith alone is a liberating truth that ensures we do not try to carry an impossible burden of earning that salvation by our works. Salvation, however, is not by a faith that remains alone – it inevitably leads to a life devoted to our gracious God, doing the good works he has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). It is a life lived to the glory of God alone, the last of our five ‘solas’.

Grace Alone

As we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, we are considering five of the great principles that lie at the heart of the Reformation. These are the five ‘solas’ – the five ‘alones’ – that sum up some of the central emphases of this great time of theological and spiritual revival. Last month we considered ‘Christ Alone’. This month we turn to ‘Grace Alone’ – ‘Sola Gratia’.

A vital emphasis of the Reformation was that salvation is by God’s grace alone, drawing on texts such as Ephesians 2:8-9 ‘by grace you have been saved through faith’. ‘Grace’ is to be thought of as the favour of God to those who deserved only condemnation and it is this grace that is the source as well as the guarantee of the sinner’s salvation.

We need to notice that the pre-Reformation church did speak about salvation ‘by grace’ – it is a caricature to say that the theologians of that period taught salvation by works. The problem was, however, that they tried to combine an element of grace and an element of works. They believed that God gave grace to assist those who made their best effort towards salvation. The ‘grace’ they believed in was thought of as a kind of substance that God infused into people to strengthen their efforts, like a kind of spiritual energy drink.

The Reformers, however, realised that a consistently biblical view of salvation meant that it is ‘by grace alone’. There is no contribution that the sinner makes, and indeed none he could make. With reference to salvation, grace excludes works entirely. One among many significant texts is Romans 11:6 ‘But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace’. Not only does salvation begin by grace, it also continues by grace. That is so despite the attitude of some Christians who seem to think that having had past sins forgiven by the grace of God, they must then stay in God’s good books by their own spiritual efforts. That is a deadly misunderstanding.

The grace of God provides everything required for salvation. God’s amazing love for a sinful world led to the provision of a Saviour, as the familiar words of John 3:16 remind us. That Saviour by his life of perfect obedience, his atoning death and triumphant resurrection, all as the Substitute for his people, provides full salvation for all who belong to him by the divine decree of predestination. Christ gives new life to sinners, so that Paul can say that God ‘made us alive together with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:5). In saving union with Christ we have justification, adoption, sanctification and eventually glorification. Romans 3:24, for example, tells us that we are ‘justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’. At every point the explanation for what we have as Christians is the grace of God.

Such an understanding of salvation is profoundly humbling. There is nothing left in relation to salvation for which we can take credit. It is, however, also wonderfully liberating. Salvation by grace alone lifts a crushing burden from our shoulders, a burden we in fact cannot bear. We realise now that we cannot contribute to a salvation that is all by grace alone – and we do not have to. We do not have to do the impossible, and so we are set free from the bondage of trying to establish our own righteousness before God by our own efforts.

This was one of Luther’s great (re)discoveries. When he read a text like Romans 1:17, with its reference to ‘the righteousness of God’, he at first thought of a righteousness by which God judges sinners and a righteousness which he demands of them. In his mind this was a righteousness which he had to produce and which he could not, despite having tried everything that the church recommended. Then the Lord graciously opened Luther’s eyes to the wonderful truth that texts like Romans 1:17 actually refer to a righteousness that God gives as a free gift of grace, the very righteousness of Christ. In the Preface to his Latin writings this is how he describes the discovery: ‘Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.’ He was free at last!

The truth of ‘grace alone’ flows from the sovereignty of God in salvation. He did not have to save any, yet he has fully provided for the salvation of a vast multitude of sinners (note Revelation 7:9). This Reformation assertion of ‘grace alone’ echoes the truth of Jonah 2:9 ‘Salvation belongs to the Lord’. It is a truth that exalts God and humbles men and women.

A further consequence of the sovereignty of God in salvation which should delight the heart of every believer is the certainty we have that the work that God has begun will certainly be completed. As Paul expressed it, ‘I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:6). Such certainty strengthens our assurance of salvation and fills our hearts with joy – ‘by grace alone’.