Interview on Preaching to the Affections

burning heartsDaniel Darling interviewed me about my new book Burning Hearts: Preaching to the Affections (Christian Focus 2014, co-authored with Robin Weekes).

You can read the interview here.

Shedding Light on Gay Marriage

The following article was written for Evangelicals Now and published in their news publication for November 2014.

At time of writing the U.S. Supreme Court has just decided to not decide on gay marriage. As anticlimactic as a non-decision decision is, this was nonetheless of great significance. Effectively, the Supreme Court has legitimated the decisions of States to allow gay marriage by refusing to intervene (one way or another). Commentators have wondered whether this was motivated so as not to be tarnished with a Roe v. Wade like stigma which the Court has carried ever since its decision on abortion, at least in the eyes of the conservatives in the country.

But whatever the motivations of the Court may or may not be, the result is the same. Gradual, increased, gay marriage. In this case what then should Christians do?

The answer is far from obvious. On the one hand, some urge belligerent resistance. It is not uncommon to come across people asking for a kind of ‘man the barricades’ response to this decimation of Western Civilization and the full on attack on Christian liberties that are seen by many to be the logical next steps. If you cannot support homosexual marriage then you may, as a business, as a Christian, be forced to do so at some point – for the rationale of the gay lobby all along has been this is a civil rights matter, and if that is the case then it is bigotry to not support gay marriage, in the same way it is bigotry to not support interracial marriage, or mixed and not segregated classrooms. The day may come when evangelicals will need to launch their own civil rights movement.

Then, there are those who are eagerly looking for what they call a ‘third way’. One suspects that much of the desire for this third way from those who are proposing it is a liberalizing agenda more generally. One wonders whether even among the evangelicals (or those who still claim the mantle of evangelical) who advocate for a third way, there is a far lower view of Scripture than the readers of EN would be comfortable with. That said, the pull of this third way – to not speak against the political action of a state for gay marriage, while privately being against gay marriage as a Christian and as a church – has a certain natural appeal, and beyond the nefarious appeal of cowardice. Are we really to ask non-Christians to behave like Christians in this regard, but not in other regards? What do we expect of a secular nation, to legislate in favor of Christian morality?

That said, I think the best approach is that advocated by Jesus when he called upon his early followers to be ‘salt and light’. Interpretations of the original intention of that famous text in Mathew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount vary, but for our purposes let us take it as idiomatic of a two-pronged strategy in this regard. There is the evangelistic strategy. We do not want to speak about gay marriage, homosexuality, those people who have same-sex attraction outside (as well as inside) the church, in such a way that they are far less likely to receive Christ. We need to be ‘light’, missional, engaged, conversational, presenting the Cross as the only stumbling block. Calling people to him, and then letting him address their sin, so that after their encounter with Christ they are empowered to ‘go and sin no more.’

On the other hand, we also need to be ‘salt’. Prophetic, advocating that ‘righteousness exalts a nation, and sin is a reproach to any people’, Amos-like in our call to not just the church but the nations to repentance, standing up for truth, righteousness and justice, in this area as well as in the areas of sexual slavery, poverty, and other clear and present injustices.

Of course the balance between the two is tricky. Some may emphasize one more than the other, some may have specialized ministries in one area more than the other, some may have a disposition to one area more than the other, but overall, at this time, the church’s witness is to be both ‘salt’ and ‘light’ and not solely one or t’other.

Holy Internet Debate

The following article was written for Evangelicals Now and published in their news publication for July 2014.

The text, ‘be holy as I am holy’, is perhaps one of the most old-fashioned sounding in the Bible.

But it is newly alive with interpretative complexities. How are we to be holy? Can Christians be called to be holy? What is the most effective means by which Christians are urged towards holiness? Is it legalism to urge the use of the law in Christian discipleship? Are Christians supposed to put effort into their holiness?

Particularly amusing has been a minor debate taking place in the nether world of the internet as to whether Christians are actually sinners. Given that most would recognise that Christians are also regenerate and justified, it seems unlikely that any can deny seriously that Christians are nonetheless still liable to sin. If any do doubt it, they only need to observe the manner of debate on some blogs: there for all to see is this incontrovertible fact that Christians do indeed still sin.

It reminds me of the old story of Charles Spurgeon – I trust not entirely apocryphal. When at a conference listening to man saying he had attained sinless perfection, the next morning Spurgeon is said to have poured a jug of milk over his head. And watched his sinless perfection evaporate before his (and everyone else’s) eyes.

Of course that debate was different to this one. Then the debate was whether Christians could attain a state of sinless perfection through some higher experience, or an especially devoted yielding of themselves to God. Now the debate is as to the appropriate means towards holiness. It seems incontrovertible that the gospel encourages holiness (Romans 12.1: ‘… in view of God’s mercy… offer your bodies as living sacrifices’, meaning that considering the whole massive panoply of the gospel, – ‘God’s mercy’– we are to sacrifice ourselves for Jesus). It also seems incontrovertible that being called on to obey God is orthodox Christian teaching: much of the second half of Paul’s letters is in the imperative mood, if not literally always in the imperative tense. Yet it is not now solely a matter of will power – by the Spirit, as born again Christians, we are enabled to follow Jesus so we strive to do so. Perhaps Philippians 2.12-13 is the text that we all need to make a renewed effort to memorise, for its wonderful balance: ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’.

Or a refresher course on J.C. Ryle’s Holiness. Or, if his language from that long ago is a stretch or the book is too long in our soundbite age, at least the excellent The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. As J.I. Packer said of it, ‘The work is pure gold: be sensible, and invest in it’. Anyone fancy doing a reprint of the Bridges classic? Or another of Ryle, perhaps a summary version?

Better still, write a new one. Take Philippians 2 as your text. Work out what God works in.

Preparation for Worship

Worship is active. It takes effort. To come ready to hear God’s Word, to encounter Christ, prepared to receive and give and pray for each other, to minister together – all that does not happen by happenstance.

One person in a meeting who has come with his heart fine-tuned for the voice of Christ through His Word, that expectancy can spread throughout the rest of the gathering, fueling a sense of what will happen next. What will God do? Whose lives will be changed? Which hurts will be healed? Which sins will the Holy Spirit convict us of and then lead us to the cross to find forgiveness?

In short, a “worship service” is something to get ready for.

  • Tenderize your heart by asking God to speak to you.
  • Arrive ten minutes before the meeting begins. Look around. See who else is there. Who needs your prayers? Who needs your support or encouragement?
  • Invite friends. Come with a group. Ask them each to talk to you afterwards about what you learnt.
  • Replace presumption with expectancy by reading the passage for the service before arriving.
  • Renew your commitment to Christ the rest of the week so that the “worship service” is the culmination, the peak, the summit, the high point, of a life devoted to Christ.
  • Be still. Treat the worship service as if it were the God-designed place to encounter true meaning and perspective upon life itself. Still yourself to realign yourself with Him.
  • Think not about the form, what you like or do not like about how someone stands or the way they greet you; instead look through the earthenware pot to the treasure of Christ within.

Telling the Truth About ISIS

The following article was written for Evangelicals Now and published in their news publication for October 2014.

Observing the conversation regarding the abhorrent evil that is ISIS, I have come to two conclusions.

One, worldview matters. Two, some, even when their worldview is patently failing, will continue to stick their head in the sand.

ISIS is such an obvious evil that is hard to find sufficient adjectives to describe its horror. None of rational turn of mind will deny that evil. The challenge is to interpret it within a framework that makes sense. Whence this evil? Who are these people? Why do they act this way? Out of the answers to such questions will be formed a practical policy to defeat the evil itself.

It appears that the secular worldview with relation to ISIS is that these are not the true representatives of Islam, and that the motivations for their actions are largely political. The solution, therefore, is to form a more effective representative government in Iraq, and to come together with a multinational alliance (including prominent Muslim countries) to defeat the evil.

However, while “the more the merrier,” and any rational person would surely agree that not all Muslims behave like ISIS – anymore than all Christians behave like the Ku Klux Klan – the challenge is a little matter called truth.

The reality is that ISIS is Islamic. It is deeply Islamic. In fact, the case could be made that it is far more Islamic than the more moderate versions.

The reason why such a statement is important is because of this matter called truth. For a peaceful world, we want Christians to be more Christians. And we want Muslims to be less Islamic. We want Christians to take seriously Jesus’ command to love your neighbor, and his example of foot washing, service and self-sacrifice to save other people. We want Muslims to ignore as much as possible (indeed entirely, if that were possible) the teachings and example of Mohammed, and of the actions of pure Islam pursuing Caliphate by war.

This truth is seldom spoken.

Why? Because it is an inconvenient truth. What it denies is the whole basis for relativism in our world.

The universities are beginning to realize this and looking for ways to engage theology and ideology – knowing now that it cannot simply be ignored, or that ground will be ceded to the extremists.

Let us hope that the move to proclaim England as a Christian country – at least in the sense that its values are originated in Christian ones – and that America was founded on a similar set of assumptions, mixed with Enlightenment rationalism and mercantile ambitions, is not too little too late. To play the game of Western moderation, kindness, democracy, you need a worldview that will accept it. That worldview is not extremist Islam, or Islam in its extreme.

It is time to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Even if it is an inconvenient truth.

Radical Muslims Strive to Expel the Mideast’s Christian Remnant

The following is a guest post from Harry Genet. 

Radical Muslims Strive to Expel the Mideast’s Christian Remnant

So how will the church survive and thrive?

July was an ominous month for Christians in the Middle East.

Fighters of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, had swept across central Iraq from Syria the previous month, conquering even Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city. Now the roughly 30,000 Christians there (down from 60,000 a decade ago) were told that they had until July 18 to convert to Islam and pay a special tax, or leave. Then the Jihadists changed their mind. Over loudspeakers they announced that all Christians must leave by the next day—or be killed. The Christians—often with only the clothes on their backs—fled to already overcrowded Christian villages nearby. They continued on to the Kurdish-controlled northern sector of Iraq—semi-autonomous and more tolerant of Christians. As the Christians departed Mosul, ISIS painted the Arabic letter “N” in black on their houses (for “Nasrani” a designation for Christian) along with the stenciled “Property of the Islamic State.” For the first time in 1,600 years, the sound of church bells mingled with the Muslim calls to prayer have been extinguished in this once tolerant city.

Slightly more encouraging was the news from Sudan, where Mariam Ibrahim had been sentenced to death for apostasy in May. Born to a Christian mother and a Muslim father, she must, under Sudan’s version of Islamic law, be a Muslim. But her father abandoned the family when she was young. She was brought up as a Christian, married a Christian in 2011 and, when denounced to the authorities by a relative, refused in court to change her faith. She was sentenced to death by hanging and, soon afterward, delivered her second child in prison. An appeals court, perhaps influenced by the international outrage at the sentence, overturned it. She is now in the U.S., where her Sudanese-born husband is already a citizen.

While a majority of Muslims agree that the death penalty should be applied for apostasy, the original verdict in this case raised eyebrows. Prince Hassan of Jordan, for one, issued a bold condemnation. “There is no value in worship performed in the absence of free choice and volition,” he wrote in an article published in Jordanian newspapers.

In Afghanistan, the last public Christian church was razed four years ago. Meanwhile, a constitution drafted with the help of US diplomats while claiming freedom of religion, in fact contains a “repugnancy clause,” which basically says that not only converting from Islam, but virtually anything considered inconsistent with Sharia law, is illegal.

In Egypt, with the largest Christian minority of any Middle Eastern country (8 to 12 million), many Islamists blamed Christians for supporting the coup against Muhammad Morsi. They launched violent attacks on Christians and their houses of worship in what one author called the worst spate of violence aimed at the Christians since the fourteenth century. The mass migration of the Coptic Christian population has been termed “unprecedented.”

So how should American Christians pray for their oppressed brethren still in the Middle East?

In most Muslim countries, the dominant religious grouping uses its power to promote its message via the schools, the media, and the funding of preachers.

1.  Pray for more moderate Muslim leaders and for governments able to reign in the widely prevailing dominance of mosque over state.

Washington Post columnist and Wheaton College graduate Michael Gerson notes that it took many centuries for Christendom to accept a pluralism that extended to others the right to be a heretic. So why, he asks, is America, so rooted in religious pluralism, reluctant to use its influence to promote in Middle Eastern countries the right to be an “infidel”? Introducing democracy is one thing; protecting against the tyranny of the majority is just as vital.

2.  Pray that our government would more strongly condemn abuses, condition its aid on the protection of minorities, and support moderate forces in the region.

Our growing cluster of ministry partners in at least six nations of the region must have a reason for residence there considered valid by their host governments. They must also settle on low-profile methods of engaging neighbors and colleagues, concentrating on those with openness to exploring the gospel.

3.  Pray for courage and sensitivity for our partners, enabling them to communicate and disciple effectively in spite of the many barriers they face.

In centuries past, Muslim majorities and rulers coexisted with large Arab Christian populations. Although the Christians were relegated to second-class citizenship, they were not subject to violent intolerance. Today’s jihadists have brought brutality and intolerance to new levels. The declaration of a caliphate in late June by the leader of ISIS, with the nom de guerre of Abu Bakr Baghdadi, and his demand that Muslims swear oaths of fealty to him, may prove to be a providential piece of overreach and provoke a strong backlash.

Back in 2005, extremists turned their Sunni allies in Iraq’s Anbar Province into enemies by forcing locals’ young daughters to marry their foreign fighters, flogging people for offenses like smoking, and outlawing traditional religious and cultural practices. The counter-uprising of local tribes—with the help of American arms and money—was known as the “Awakening.”

4.  Pray for the Holy Spirit to initiate a record number of conversions, as appears to already be occurring in Iran. CT reports that last year 228 former Muslims participated in what Elam Ministries calls the Iranian church’s largest baptism in centuries. “Elam expects thousands more as the Islamic government’s crackdown on Christianity backfires, making the faith more intriguing to Iranians disillusioned with theocracy. In other words, Jesus—the enemy of their enemy—is becoming their friend.”

Here in the U.S., several evangelical leaders were among 188 Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox leaders who recently urged our government to do more to help the dwindling Christians of the region. But Fawzi Khalil, pastor of Kasr el-Dobara Church in Cairo, the largest evangelical congregation in the Middle East, described the kind of support they most desire. “We value so much the prayers and concerns of our Christian brethren around the world,” he said. “But we don’t believe outside pressure would be the best for our daily life with our Muslim friends.”

Summer Celebration 2014

Summer Celebration is this weekend, June 14 and 15, at College Church. We look forward to welcoming Stuart Briscoe who will be preaching Sunday morning, June 15, at 9:30 and 11:00 a.m., and Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m. For a full list of events, click here and watch the video below. Join us as we celebrate the start of summer at College Church!

Sermon Video: The Righteousness of God

The video from this weekend’s sermon, “The Righteousness of God,” from Romans 3:21 in “The Gospel of God” series is now online.

Romans 3:21 is one of the great texts in the Bible, and my prayer is that the confidence and hope of this passage will permeate through us all to God’s great glory.

You can watch the sermon here. Discussion questions about the sermon are available by clicking here.

The Gospel of God #29, The Righteousness of God

This weekend, the sermon comes from Romans 3:21 in the series “The Gospel of God” with a message entitled “The Righteousness of God.” Watch a video preview:

Sermon Video: Questioning God

The video from this weekend’s sermon, “Questioning God,” from Romans 3:12-20 in “The Gospel of God” series is now online.

This passage has at its heart Paul’s articulation of how it is that people can be shown their profound need of Jesus and His gospel. Its aim is to cause us to wonder at and appreciate and believe in the gospel that Paul has announced back in chapter 1 verses 16 and 17.

You can watch the sermon here. Discussion questions about the sermon are available here.