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’.

Christ Alone

As we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, when on 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, 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 ‘Scripture Alone’. This month we turn to ‘Christ Alone’ – ‘Solus Christus’.

To say that salvation is by ‘Christ Alone’ reminds us that in Christ we have a unique Saviour. It is at this point, perhaps more than at any other, that we are also made aware of the difference between the world of the Reformers and our world. The Reformers wrestled mainly with conflicting understandings of precisely how Christ saves sinners. In our context we face a pluralism in which any assertion of a unique way to God is met with amazement, horror or even, increasingly, hostility. ‘How,’ it is asked, ‘could anybody in this day and age believe that there is only one way to be right with God and, worse still, that they have a monopoly of it?’

The ‘politically correct’ view is that, if there is a God at all, there are many ways to him. Indeed it is possible that every way is valid for someone. Thus Christ may be fine for you, yet entirely inappropriate for others. No-one can be told he is wrong and needs to change. The very suggestion is taken as a sign of our bigotry.

If we are to be faithful to God and to Scripture, however, we must assert with Pater that ‘there is salvation in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Jesus Christ as God incarnate is not one among many saviours. In John 14:6 he makes the absolute and unequivocal claim, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.’ We must not be ashamed to assert Christ’s uniqueness, although increasingly we will face pressure to be silent.

‘Christ Alone’ also speaks of a unique salvation. The uniqueness of Christ relates not only to who he is but equally to what he has done. As we read the biblical account of the life, death and resurrection of Christ it is evident that this is the only and the God-given way for the plight of sinners to be addressed.

Consider the natural state of sinners like us: we are ‘dead in…transgressions and sins…by nature children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:1,3). We are under the just wrath of God and unable to change ourselves. Christ addresses every aspect of that terrible plight. As man he atones for man’s sin; as God he is able to save a vast multitude. The Reformers understood how comprehensive Christ’s work needs to be and indeed is, and as the Reformation progressed that understanding became richer and deeper.

Christ’s life of perfect obedience supplied what we lack – the keeping of God’s law in its entirety. His death pays the price for our sin – ‘God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). This unique saviour is ‘the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10), taking the punishment for the sins of his people, thus turning aside God’s righteous wrath. His resurrection as ‘the first fruits’ (1 Corinthians 15:20) guarantees the resurrection of his people.

Every dimension of the sinner’s need is addressed by Christ’s redeeming work. The more we understand the true nature of our situation as sinners, deserving only condemnation and punishment, the more we will appreciate the necessity for the rich saving work of our Saviour. If we are mildly unwell, an aspirin may be all we need to put us back on top form. If, however, we are dead, a miraculous work of Almighty God is the only way of restoring the life that has gone.

‘Christ Alone’ testifies to a unique Saviour who has secured a unique salvation. The Reformation understanding of the person and work of Christ recaptured the essence of the biblical gospel which medieval Catholicism had done so much to obscure. Under the blessing of God the Reformers’ preaching of this Saviour and this salvation brought new life and spiritual freedom to multitudes. In the intervening centuries such preaching has continued to have the same effect. Although we live in a very different culture from that of the Reformers, the heart need of every man and woman remains the same, and the proclamation of ‘Christ Alone’ still can and still does bring life and freedom.

Scripture Alone

We noted last month that 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe – on 31st October Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and sparked such a revolution as he could never have envisaged. God was mightily at work.

But what is the heart of the Reformation? What were the great truths rediscovered during those momentous years? The fact is that the Reformation touched on every significant area of Christian doctrine. A great deal of attention was given, for example, to the biblical doctrine of the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper. The latter, sadly, was a cause of division among the Reformers themselves. The Reformation cannot be reduced to one issue, such as ‘justification by faith alone’, although that was a crucial doctrine much debated at the time. A useful way of approaching the core of the Reformation is through what have come to be known as the ‘Five Solas’ – ‘sola’ being the Latin word for ‘alone’. They are Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and God’s Glory Alone. These five truths do bring us close to the heart of the Reformation theologically and for the next few months Another Voice will be considering them briefly.

The foundation of the Reformation was ‘Scripture Alone’. What is the source of Christian theology? Rome relied on a combination of written Scripture and unwritten tradition, interpreted by the ‘magisterium’ of the Church. The Reformers realised that this positon was in fact profoundly unbiblical and in response asserted that we must base all theology on ‘Scripture Alone’. Without denying the value of centuries of study by scholars and preachers, the Reformers recognised that Scripture is the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and practice.

The Reformers understood that in the Bible we have a unique revelation. In the context of the Europe of their day the fact that the Bible was to be regarded as the Word of God was a largely unchallenged view. Theologians might differ as to how to interpret the Bible and as to what the text meant, but they generally agreed that what they were handling was God’s Word.

We face a rather different challenge today with regard to the place of the Bible. We live in a pluralist culture where other religions are on our doorstep, not in the far-flung regions of the world as they usually were in Reformation days. They too make claims to have divine revelations, sometimes in addition to the Bible. We also face the challenge of philosophers and theologians who assert that the very idea of ‘words from God’ is incoherent and incredible. In response we cannot allow ourselves to be moved from the position of 2 Timothy 3:16 – ‘All Scripture is God-breathed’. All Scripture – the Old Testament and also the New Testament then in process of production. In the Bible alone we have the Word of God written, given by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.

In the Bible we also have a unique authority. This follows from the God-breathed nature of the book. If God speaks uniquely in these pages, then they have absolute authority in all they teach. Submission to God’s Word is evidence of submission to God himself. As Christ said, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15).

Many of the great Reformation debates came back to the issue of the authority of the Bible. In response to Rome’s appeal to unwritten apostolic tradition and the Anabaptists’ appeal to the ‘inner light’, the Reformers were convinced that the Bible did not need to be supplemented and could not be replaced by any other source of authority.

We too need to keep asserting the unique authority of the Bible. Rome still appeals to tradition and to papal authority. Charismatics appeal to new revelations of the Spirit and ‘words from the Lord’. Many Christians in practice depend on their feelings as their authoritative guide. In the wider world all kinds of authorities are cited, often centred on human reason, science and ‘experts’. One major danger posed by our digital culture is the ease with which anyone can set himself up as an ‘authority’, subject to no checks of any kind. The very idea of authority crumbles in a Wikipedia world and the response we often have to contend with is ‘Who says so?’ with the implication that my view is as good as anyone else’s.

We must heartily defend ‘Scripture Alone’. In this book God has given us all we need to know (although not all we would like to know). No other source of authority must be allowed to usurp its place in theory or practice. Our love for the Lord must be demonstrated in obedience to his authoritative Word.

500 – A Big Anniversary

Anniversaries can be very important – ask any husband who has forgotten his wedding anniversary! They usually mark significant events, sometimes life-changing events, that ought to be remembered. The annual return of anniversaries such as Remembrance Day serves to keep the lessons of the past before our attention. Happy anniversaries can bring renewed joy in the recollection of good times, especially when they are viewed in the light of God’s providence in our lives. Some things ought never to be forgotten.

There is certainly the danger of living in the past – of letting what is now over govern our lives to an unhealthy extent. Old hurts, old grievances, old failures, old sorrows can shape us in ways that hinder our growth in grace. We need to learn when to remember and when to let go. Churches too can live in the past, keeping the focus always on past glories and successes, conveniently overlooking the weaknesses and failures that might suggest the past was not quite as glorious as we like to think. At times we as a denomination have fallen into that trap, idealising the Scottish Covenanters in ways that made it difficult to learn from them for the challenges of our own day. To forget history, however, cuts us off from the valuable lessons regarding the providence and purpose of God that it could teach us.

2017 marks an anniversary that should be – and no doubt will be – marked in a variety of ways. On 31 October, 1517, the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, the accepted way of raising issues for academic debate. These ‘Ninety-five Theses’ however were profoundly radical and marked the beginning of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Luther was by no means the only theologian raising vital questions about gospel truth – Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, for example, also played a significant role in the reforming movement – but Luther was certainly used powerfully by God to shake the foundations of established theology and ecclesiastical life in Germany and much further afield.

Luther’s 95 propositions go to the heart of the gospel message and so demand our continued attention. Many historians offer explanations for the rise of the Reformation in terms of the historical and sociological circumstances of the time and some of these do have value, but we have not understood the Reformation unless we see it as a mighty work of God. In the Reformation the Holy Spirit transformed people and communities through the saving application of the Word of God. Whatever else the Reformation was, it was primarily spiritual.

The Reformation was a revolution that took the Church backwards – it was a rediscovery of great biblical truths that had been obscured by the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. The Reformers went back to the biblical roots of the Christian faith and, on the basis of Scripture alone, proclaimed a message of salvation by grace alone, through Christ alone and received by faith alone, all to the glory of God alone. Multitudes experienced the true spiritual liberation that comes through an undiluted gospel. This was not just an intellectual movement – lives were transformed.

Now Luther was not perfect. Nobody knew that than Luther himself. He had his weaknesses and, like most things to do with Luther, they were on a fairly large scale. On some issues, such as his view of the Lord’s Supper, he was beyond listening to contrary opinions. There was in some of his writing a streak of crudity (shared with Erasmus, among others) that forbids quotation. His positon on a variety of matters represented a kind of half-way house between Roman Catholicism and biblical truth. We are, after all, not Lutherans, and with good reason. Nevertheless he was – by grace – a mighty man of God who was instrumental in revolutionising the spiritual life of a significant part of Europe and ultimately the world. A lesser man, a smaller man, would not have been up to the job.

The 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting the Ninety-five Theses ought to be commemorated enthusiastically by the people of God everywhere. We will be doing so at the Shaftesbury Reformed Conference on 15th February. Why not take the opportunities that 2017 will bring to deepen your knowledge of your spiritual heritage and to thank God for these wonderful events?

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.

Order out of Chaos

The whole world’s in a terrible state of chassis,’ says Captain Jack Boyle in Sean O’Casey’s play Juno and the Paycock (1925). Of course he meant ‘chaos’ – despite solemn expositions on the internet explaining that he meant that the world was stripped down to its ‘chassis’ like an old car! (I’m not making it up!). Set in 1920s Dublin, there was plenty of ‘chassis’ around, despite the moments of comedy.

A bit like our own world at present. On the face of it, chaos reigns. The atrocities in France and Belgium in recent months have demonstrated how easily national security measures can be breached by determined and ruthless terrorists. An apparently random knife attack in the centre of London – whatever the reason behind it – takes the life of an American visitor the day she was due to return home with her husband. Life is very fragile. In many parts of the world events seem to be far beyond the capacity of any government or collection of governments to influence, much less control. Syria, to take but one example, is most certainly in chaos, with the people of cities like Aleppo (some of them our brothers and sisters in the Lord) living in conditions that defy imagination.

On a thankfully less violent stage the politicians of the United Kingdom are by and large looking at each other in perplexity as to what to do next after the Brexit vote. Not even the leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign expected the result. What a difference a few weeks made: Cameron gone, Johnston knifed in the back, Gove in the wilderness, May chosen as PM unopposed in the end, Johnston as Foreign Secretary. You couldn’t make it up, and you don’t have to. Civilised, refined, but pretty chaotic. And as for the USA, with a presidential election contest between a candidate whose next words not even he can predict and another who is deeply distrusted even by many in her own party – we’ll not go there, if you don’t mind!

Chaos on all sides. It’s not new of course. Even the most superficial acquaintance with history will show that the world has generally been in what seems to be a state of chaos. Perhaps the only difference now is that, thanks to modern means of communication, we hear vast amounts of news from every corner of the globe and so are much more aware of events in places previous generations knew nothing about. Whether our understanding of world events is any better as a result of the tidal wave of information that engulfs us is a very different question.

The answer is that, in fact, we do not see things as they really are if all we perceive is the surface appearance. ‘Chaos’ suggests lack of order or control, an absence of meaning. The Christian, with a mind moulded by God’s revelation in Scripture, knows that appearance is not reality. In the pages of the Bible we are addressed by a God who is in sovereign control of his entire creation and whose infinitely wise, holy and loving purpose guides all that happens. Above the rebellion and chaos of the nations depicted in Psalm 2 sits a God who, in and through his Son, works out his sovereign plan of salvation. It is only when Asaph, perplexed by the seeming prosperity of the wicked, ‘entered the sanctuary of God’ (Psalm 73:17) that he understood something of the reality of what he had perceived. Obtaining a little of the divine perspective corrected his mistaken human viewpoint. Sinners are fully responsible for their sins, yet they are called to account by the Lord and his will ultimately prevails.

That is not to say that we, with our very limited capacities, often skewed by sin, can grasp exactly what the Lord is doing in any particular situation, and we do well to be wary of those who can come up with an answer to every question regarding what God is doing in contemporary events, personal, national or international. There was a divine purpose in Job’s sufferings, yet Job was never told what it was and had to be satisfied with a powerful demonstration of the glory and sovereignty of God.

We do know, nevertheless, that the Lord reigns. All things are in the hands of King Jesus because in those same hands are ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ (Matthew 28:18). We can rest in that assurance and, by God’s grace, experience ‘the peace of God which transcends all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7). Chaos does not have the final say, but our sovereign God does.

In the fast lane

Where did last week go? Last month? Last year? Do you find yourself asking questions like that? Doesn’t life seem to fly past, almost in a blur sometimes? No. it isn’t a sign of getting older – I refuse to believe that. Of course time is not passing any more quickly, but the truth is, almost everything that people do is getting faster, and the implications are wide ranging, not least for the Church and for Christian discipleship.

The trend is well summed up in the title of a recent book – The Great Acceleration. How the World is Getting Faster, Faster, by Robert Colvile. Colvile argues, on the basis of all kinds of studies, that the idea that life is speeding up is not just a perception but is hard fact. In the early 1990s investigators visited 31 cities and measured how long it took people (who were unaware that they were being observed) to cover 60 feet of unobstructed pavement. When the experiment was repeated 15 years later, it was found that people covered the same distance in around 10 per cent less time. They were literally going faster. That’s just a symptom of greater changes in society, but a very significant one.

With recent developments in technology people can get what they need faster and have come to expect that they will be able to do so. Who is willing to wait for a shop to order an item and be told that it will be there in a week? Virtually nobody. They will order online and become restless if delivery takes more than a couple of days. Speed is everything, and online retailers know it. A tenth of a second increase in the loading time of the Amazon website will cut sales by one per cent. Google found that by improving loading times for its site by as little as 400 milliseconds raised traffic by 0.5 per cent – a significant increase given the volume of traffic involved. It makes you dizzy just trying to think about it.

There are certainly advantages in these developments, although pity the poor retailer trying to compete with the online behemoths. How do you stay in business when the customer checks an item on your shelves and goes and orders it cheaper online and has it delivered to his door or to some convenient drop-off point? Of course many will go under. The theory in the workplace may be that workers will be able to accomplish so much more given these electronic resources, but the truth is very different. Studies show that an office worker will check his or her e-mail 30 to 40 times an hour. An average employee spends 11 minutes on a task before switching to something else, and changes focus within the current task every 3 minutes. At the top of the corporate tree, the day of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company is so chopped up by electronic messages that on average he has only 28 uninterrupted productive minutes a day. How does anything significant ever get done?

So what about the Church and its members? The busyness and accelerating pace of life mean that attention spans shrink and minds buzz in all directions. Time with the Lord in prayer and meditation on Scripture is squeezed into ever-diminishing spaces. No wonder there are ‘Bibles’ offering three-minute or five-minute devotions. Any day now there will be a 30-Second-You Don’t-Even Need to Stand-Still Bible (or perhaps there is one). A few blessed thoughts and a quick check on the latest blog from your favourite celebrity preacher, and you’re good to go-go-go.

So many forces in society are encouraging high-speed superficiality, yet healthy Christian discipleship requires slowness – time invested in prayer, Bible study (not Bible dipping), private and corporate worship. ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10) is a baffling concept to people who are never really still, or who perhaps are afraid to be. There are no short cuts to Christian maturity, and bite-sized devotions make for bite-sized spirituality. Perhaps it is no surprise that many Christians look very little different from the world around them. If time and space for God are not available, then something is seriously wrong and hard questions need to be asked, and perhaps hard decisions made.

As in so many respects, Christian faith is counter-cultural when it comes to the pace of living. If Jesus is really to be Lord, maybe some slowing down and switching off will be required. Who knows? Perhaps you will catch up with some of those other whizzing Christians at the next set of traffic lights?

Gospel Opportunities

It is not unspiritual in gospel work to make plans, to look ahead and give careful thought to how and where witness should be carried on. The apostle Paul was a missionary who thought carefully about the next steps in his work and who had in mind places where he hoped to preach the gospel and minister to the Lord’s people. Rome, for example, was much on his mind (Romans 1:10-12).

The danger, however, is that we come to rely on our plans or our methodology instead of relying on the Lord. It is, after all, his work and we need to be seeking his leading and guiding regarding gospel ministry, taking the opportunities he provides, not the ones we have decided we want. Again Paul is an excellent example. Let’s take a look at what he says in 1 Corinthians 16:9.

As he writes to the Corinthians from Ephesus he is planning ahead, perhaps for an extended visit and then a trip to Jerusalem with the collection for the poor. He is however conscious of an overruling factor: ‘if the Lord permits’ (v7). At present the Lord is overruling. Paul cannot move on from Ephesus ‘for a wide door for effective work has opened to me’. The Lord is providing significant opportunities and Paul has to respond appropriately. Literally he says that a door stands open and remains open. This is not a fleeting opportunity. There can be no doubt that in Paul’s mind that it is the Lord who opens doors of gospel opportunity, as for example at Troas (2 Corinthians 2:12). The sovereign, gracious Saviour opens doors that no-one can shut (see Revelation 3:8). This is, in every sense, his work.

If this is the case, we surely need to discern the opportunities he is providing. Whilst we may ‘push’ at doors to see if they will open, we must not be guilty of trying to force open a door that we have decided we want to go through. We require submissive spirits and contentment with what the Lord provides. We also need a readiness to exploit the opportunities the Lord gives: open doors are to be entered. Above all we surely need to pray for open doors. Note Paul’s request in Colossians 4:3 ‘pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ’. Prayer to the sovereign Lord is essential. It is because he is sovereign that we pray.

Paul is conscious that the Lord is providing ‘a wide door’. In Ephesus he has many opportunities for ministry. The work, described in Acts 19, is among both Jews and Gentiles, including the sick, practitioners of magic and even some public officials. From this influential city the gospel spread into the surrounding area ‘so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.’ Wherever the Lord has placed us there is scope for gospel ministry that will make use of all our gifts and resources. Disciple making, in obedience to Matthew 28:19, is always possible.

Note that Paul speaks of ‘effective work’. He expects success. Sometimes we are suspicious of ‘success’ in gospel work in reaction to an unspiritual focus on, for example, numbers. Nevertheless faithful work can expect to be blessed with ‘biblical success’ – the Word of God coming home to the hearts of men and women with transforming power, bringing the spiritually dead to new life in Christ and renewing them in his likeness. When the Holy Spirit applies the Word, lives will be transformed and gospel work will be ‘effective’, all to the glory of God.

Paul’s experience in Ephesus also offers dramatic evidence that ‘there are many adversaries’. He is utterly realistic about the warfare entailed by gospel work, and the record in Acts 19 bears this out, not least in the riot stirred up by the Ephesian silversmiths. ‘I fought with beasts at Ephesus’ he says in 1 Corinthians 15:32. This is not a contradiction of the ‘open door’ of which Paul speaks. In a sense it confirms it; where there is effective work, the enemies of the gospel will be stirred to oppose it. Behind the human adversaries of course stands Satan, the ‘roaring lion’ of 1 Peter 5:8.

Nothing has changed in this regard. Gospel work is warfare (Ephesians 6:10ff) and there are still ‘many adversaries’. Such warnings should help to guard us against complacency and confidence in ourselves and should keep us spiritually watchful. We must not be intimidated, however. Effective work will be opposed and that very opposition may show that the Spirit is rescuing sinners from the enemy’s grasp. Christ has bound the strong man and his possessions are being plundered (Matthew 12:29). The work will accomplish the Lord’s perfect purpose.

Vital Stats

Yes, I know – you can prove anything with statistics – yet sometimes they can highlight important trends, indicate patterns we should be aware of, flag up issues that need to be addressed. A good example is a recent survey of the views of young people conducted by the magazine Premier Youthwork. Some very interesting results were obtained in this survey of 293 young people, almost 95% of whom were professing Christians.

Of course in seeking to learn lessons for ourselves, we have to take into account that those polled were English, but the truth is that spiritually the gap between Northern Ireland and ‘the mainland’ in spiritual matters is narrower than we would like to admit. The days when people here could console themselves with the vision of Northern Ireland as a little oasis of Christian faithfulness in the midst of a sea of spiritual darkness are long gone – if you doubt me, I’ll take you for a dander round the streets of Belfast. On a recent door-to-door outreach scarcely one in ten of the locals made any kind of claim to a church link, however tenuous. Some Ulster evangelicals need a reality check.

What about the survey results? For a start, as far as denominational affiliation was concerned, 10.8% were ‘Don’t know’ and 11.9% were ‘Don’t care’, with another 12.3% not fitting at all into the very wide range of classifications on offer. It confirms what is a significant trend in church life, especially among younger Christians: commitment to a denomination is generally very weak. Increasingly a church is not chosen because of the label it carries, but for other reasons, including its style of worship, the quality of its teaching, the warmth of its fellowship. We have to recognise that fewer and fewer will come to us or stay with us just because we are ‘Reformed Presbyterians’. Far more is needed. And indeed to most people in our communities the label is meaningless.

Encouragingly, 78% of those surveyed attend church weekly and another 12.3% twice a month. A smaller percentage (64.1%) attend a youth group with the same frequency. There is a striking contrast in their attitudes to the two gatherings. Given five options and allowed to choose one, just under half (49.2%) described youth group as ‘a fun place to be’ and the almost the same percentage (46.34%) described church as ‘a place to connect with God’. Surely there are lessons here both with regard to church life (why do more not see church as a place to connect with God?) and also with regard to youth work (why do only 15.2% regard it as a place to connect with God?)

On matters of belief, there are majorities for acceptance of statement such as ‘Hell is a real place’ and ‘You get to heaven by believing in Jesus’, whilst few accept that ‘Everyone goes to heaven’ or ‘If you believe in any kind of God we could go to heaven’. The fact that by no means all hold to biblical positions on these key issues should warn us of danger ahead, however. Part of the explanation for such variable commitment to foundational doctrines may be found in the fact that 50% of the young people who identified as Christians don’t read their Bible more than once a month and only a third read it a couple of times a week or more. Those are frightening statistics. They seem to support the impression we have that many Christians, young and not so young, are seeking God’s voice in all kinds of experiences rather than in his revealed Word. The inevitable result is weak commitment to divine truth. We of course need to be on our guard that we do not become ‘all head and no heart’ – an accusation often levelled at Reformed churches and sometimes not without justification – but our emphasis on Bible teaching is healthy and attractive to those who come to see the shallowness of making experiences our spiritual guide.

There’s more of interest in the survey: as far as what is deemed most important in a church, the results were 1. An experience of God, 2. Community, 3. Teaching, 4. Social action and 5. Evangelism. Evangelism only fifth! A father’s attending church is a stronger indicator that the children will attend church than a mother’s attending. 83% of Christian young people think sex is only for marriage (although their practice may be different), but only 36% think homosexuality is a sin. That last statistic indicates where one of the future battles in the churches will be fought, and indeed is being fought now.

We could, of course walk away, giving thanks that ‘we are not as others’, but that would be both complacent and foolish. For one thing, we are just one part of the Christian Church and we need to understand the environment in which we, and in particular our young people are living. We might also hope that the same survey conducted within our congregations would yield rather better results, but maybe we shouldn’t be too sure after all.