Archive for January, 2014

Putting the gospel back into justification

Posted: January 29, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Over the next few days I’m planning to post a three-part series on justification. I’ve set myself the modest goal of trying to salvage the doctrine out of the doldrums into which it’s fallen in my church scene. Here’s part one: the groundwork.


For a long time now the protestant doctrine of justification has been more-or-less detached from the gospel of Jesus. Without this mooring, it has been drifting off into the world of abstract ideas. It has become increasingly difficult to connect ‘justification’ to anything else at all, either in our Christian faith or in the real world. As a result, the doctrine finds it difficult to function in the lives of us believers. It seems to mainly function as a test of orthodoxy, rather than doing something for us in its own right. For ordinary Christians, who know they are orthodox, day to day the doctrine of justification can seem like a bit of an irrelevance.

In particular, this doctrine has long been formulated apart from its proper foundation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without that foundation, it’s been getting increasingly wobbly.

Rather than do an extensive critique of our current approach to ‘justification’, we’re going to attempt a restore and rebuild job. We want to outline what a reconnected doctrine of justification would look like. It’s time to restore the doctrine to its rightful place in the gospel of Jesus.


Jesus taught about justification. In the Gospels, Jesus describes the scene of God’s final judgement: the ‘righteous’ (same word as justified) are placed on the judge’s right, the place of justification, and the ‘wicked’ on his left, the place of condemnation (Matthew 25:31-46). While the condemned ‘depart into fire’, the righteous inherit ‘the life of the kingdom’.

Elsewhere, Jesus explains that this judgement will come through resurrection: the ‘resurrection of life’ or the ‘resurrection of condemnation’ (John 5:29). In these phrases, ‘life’ is the opposite of ‘condemnation’ – i.e. it’s a synonym for ‘justification’. So justification is something that happens at the judgement, and is expressed in resurrection.

However, this resurrection-judgement event can also be brought forward: in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the two come to pray at the temple. The temple scene turns out to be a judgement scene: God justifies the despised one and rejects the Pharisee who judged him. This justification is described  as ‘raising up the one who exposed himself to shame (tapeinon)’ (Luke 18:14) – a significant phrase for the gospel story.

The main event of judgement/justification in the gospel is Jesus’ passion/resurrection story.  This is narrated as a kind of extended judgement or court-room scene. Jesus is acknowledged to be innocent (Mark 15:14) yet condemned to death, first by Israel and then by the nations (Mk 14:64; 15:15). His condemnation consists in this: that he must die in shame.

Jesus had predicted this negative verdict in advance: ‘The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death.’ However he predicted a final judgement scene in which his condemnation would be overturned through resurrection: ‘but he will be raised on the third day’ (Matt. 20: 18). Jesus expects to be justified through his death, in his resurrection.

After all has occurred as expected, at his death, Jesus commits his cause into his hands of his Father, the final judge (Luke 23:46). As the innocent one he ‘entrusts himself to the one who judges justly’ (1 Peter 2:23). He throws himself on the justice of the highest court. And on the third day the definitive verdict is given: the human court’s ruling is overturned and Jesus ruined body is raised into new and glorious life by the Spirit. He has experienced the final judgement of which he taught: in his case, the verdict is vindication. This verdict is experienced in resurrection, the ‘resurrection of life’. Which as we have seen above, is the resurrection of justification.

Jesus’ death and resurrection is the great judgement event of the gospel story, of the NT teaching. And in it, as we have seen, we find condemnation and justification.


When Jesus’ apostles later face the high court of Israel (Sanhedrin), they emphasise the forensic significance of Jesus’ resurrection: ‘You killed Jesus,’ they tell the court, ‘but God raised him to his right hand’ (Acts 5:30-31). In other words, the verdict of their human court has been reversed by the final authority. They had condemned Jesus but God vindicated him by resurrection. Jesus has played the part of the tax-collector from his own parable: he has exposed himself to humiliation – the shame of the cross. And as in that parable, God has justified the despised one, raising him up. The one who judges justly has upheld the cause of his righteous, trusting Son. He has made him Lord and Christ.

The implication of this for the Sanhedrin, and for the people of Jerusalem, is that they have received a negative verdict from heaven’s court. They are pronounced guilty of murdering God’s Messiah.

However there is a twist to the story at this point. An unexpected further result of Jesus’ resurrection, is that the apostles can invite people to join in Jesus’ new resurrection life, including acquittal from sins (Acts 2:38). Even those guilty of murdering Messiah can be acquitted. These blessings can be enjoyed through being joined to the crucified and risen Jesus in baptism: ‘baptism into the name of Jesus’. Joined to him, the Jerusalemites can experience the same reversal of judgement that was given to Jesus: from condemnation to justification. They are invited to share in the verdict Jesus received from his Father.

STAY TUNED for PARTS 2 and 3…

Shaming the strong: God’s mission strategy

Posted: January 26, 2014 by J in General

I’ve been reading some red-hot words from Paul’s first letter to Corinth:

1:27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are…

God ignores the powerful, rich and wise of the world, and goes instead to the losers: the poor, the weak, the ignorant. They embrace his Son, while the strong laugh or spit at him. And so the meek inherit the kingdom.

In my tradition we do the opposite. We go for the influential, the rich and the educated. We habitually prioritise the upper middle classes, the university educated, the successful. We are constantly hanging around their door, hoping they’ll open up for us. We go begging them to make a little time for God in their busy schedule. We are addicted. Like the nerd at school who hangs around the cool kids, never accepted but always hopeful, we pester the professionals. They despise us, but we never give up hope!

For too long we’ve poured 90+% of our resources into this addiction. It’s a kind of prosperity gospel. Not that Jesus will make you rich: in our version you have to be fairly prosperous before you even get to hear about Jesus!

When are we going to notice that we’re not making any headway with the cool kids? They have not responded. They’re too busy. They don’t need us. They don’t love us. They don’t appreciate our attentions. More than any other group in society, the wealthy and educated despise both us and the gospel of Jesus we try to tell them.

It’s time we kicked the habit.

If we had spent the past fifty years in Sydney following God’s mission plan in the gospel, imagine what Sydney would look like now. Picture the large, healthy churches in Bankstown, Macquarie Fields, Redfern, Dundas, Cabramatta. Churches committed to reaching the poor, churches who run ministries that connect with migrants, unemployed, elderly, divorced and lonely people. Churches that are generous with good works. Churches full of needy people, people grateful for friendship and love, people with time on their hands. People who aren’t put off by poor personal hygiene and stale-smokey flats. Churches that are a light on a hill in a dark place, drawing lost people to the grace of God in Jesus.

Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe it can still happen in our city. If we could just wake up to ourselves and start listening to the gospel of Jesus. If we could just get over our love-affair with the influential.

So here’s the challenge of the gospel. It’s God’s mission strategy in Christ. The way Paul tells it, it has two definite steps, both important.

Bypass the successful.

Turn to the nobodies.

Shame the strong. Choose the weak.

Who’s up for it?

Shaking the dust off

Posted: January 25, 2014 by J in Bible, Mission

But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say,  ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’  I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.  (Luke 10:10-12)

Jesus is sending out his disciples (the twelve, then the seventy) to do mission. And this is part of his instructions: if they won’t welcome you ‘shake the dust off your feet against them’. A symbolic act: God will shake them off in the same way. Perhaps also the judgement on that town will be so severe, you don’t want any connection with it, not even with its dust.

It’s the last act in the severing of the relationship. It says, ‘We’re finished with you guys. We’re moving on. God’s grace is passing you by, we’re leaving you to his judgement.’

It’s pretty extreme.

What sort of application could this have to mission today?

Where I come from the evangelical way of applying this seems to be, ‘When you meet people, try to bring up the gospel with them fairly soon. If they respond well, keep it going; if they don’t, you’ll probably need to find someone else to talk to. No point in spending too much time with that person. They’re not open.’

So we usually only invest in people’s lives as long as they show a real interest in the gospel. We’ll stick with them, as long as they stay keen. If they lose interest, we’ll find someone else to focus our attention on. That’s our version of ‘shaking off the dust’. We move on.

Is that a good application of Jesus’ teaching to our setting?  I don’t think so.

Here’s some exegetical considerations:

1. Jesus’ teaching is given to itinerant evangelists, not to ordinary citizens. Both times this instruction is carried out in Luke-Acts, it’s in the context of itinerant ministry (Acts 13:51, 18:6).

Most of us are not itinerant evangelists. Application for us will mean taking account of our more ‘settled’ setting. We can’t literally ‘move on’: my neighbours will still be there tomorrow!

2. The towns Jesus sends these evangelists to are not just any towns. They are Jewish towns. Two ways those towns are different from my town. First, the inhabitants are the heirs of the covenant with Moses. They have 1400 years of history with Yhwh, 500 years of prophetic expectations for the coming of Messiah. That’s a lot of preparation time. When the Messiah is announced, they’d better be ready.

Second, Jesus has done great things in many of their towns already. The seventy are going through the towns of Galilee, the scene of Jesus’ ministry so far. When Jesus gives his ‘shake the dust’ instruction, and threatens, ‘I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town (Luke 10:12) – he immediately makes it clear which sort of towns he’s thinking of:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.  14 But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you.  15 And you, Capernaum…  (Luke 10:13-15)

These are towns that have been given every chance. They’ve been singled out for the privilege of having the Messiah living and ministering amongst them for a long time.

We know Jesus didn’t treat all towns like this:

52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him;  53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.  54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  55 But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:52-55)

The Samaritans hadn’t had all these privileges. (Neither has Sydney.) And when they reject him, Jesus doesn’t give them the ‘dust off the feet’ treatment.

It’s a fact that both times this instruction is carried out as recorded in Luke-Acts, it’s Jews who are being ‘shaken off’, not Gentiles. Gentiles never get this treatment in the Gospels/Acts.

3. This instruction comes at the end of Jesus’ Galilee ministry. He’s now leaving, heading for Jerusalem. He’s not coming back. It’s their last chance. It’s in this context that the ‘shake the dust’ instruction is given. This was probably not Jesus’ normal modus operandi over the previous three years.

These considerations make it hard for me to imagine Jesus giving us the ‘shake the dust’ instruction for general use on our neighbours here in poor pagan Sydney. Exegetically, I can’t see any justification for applying the practice to them.

But here’s an interesting thought: would anyone be valid recipients of this treatment today? And if so, who?

I’d love to hear people’s ideas.

Why I am not Reformed

Posted: January 21, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Church history, Theology

Back in the 90s, before it was cool and trendy for young men, I was Reformed. That’s right, big R. I kept the Westminster Confession by my bedside, read Jonathan Edwards with my breakfast, and listened to Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones whenever possible! Seriously! My steady diet was Packer, Owen, Spurgeon, Sproul, Piper etc. I sold Banner of Truth books. I was Mr Reformed.

Nowadays I avoid the R-word altogether, I don’t find it helpful as a tag, it is so loaded. But since the term has received such an injection of macho and testosterone recently, since so many young guys are so proudly wearing ‘Reformed’ as a badge, it’s become a suitable topic for the Grit to tackle.

I’m a part of a church denomination in the reformed tradition. I’m deeply grateful for the inheritance of faith and doctrine I’ve received there. My own faith has been so deeply influenced and shaped by the traditions of the Reformation, I can’t imagine what Christian faith would be like without it.

So why don’t I identify as Reformed any more? Why not even as reformed?

First, because of the Reformed movement’s semi-Roman stance on doctrine. The RC church as we know claims that its teaching is true and immutable, like God himself. Since the Spirit inhabits the Church permanently, its teachings have the authority of God himself. The Pope can speak infallibly. This of course way overstates the immanence of the Spirit at the expense of his transcendence, as though the Church had the Spirit corked in a bottle, to be dispensed at will.

But the Reformed movement tends strongly towards the same view.  The ‘faith once delivered to all the saints’ is equated with the theology propounded at the Reformation, and captured in the Reformed confessions. (I use the word ‘captured’ advisedly.) Reformed doctrines are given such authority that in practice they become ‘gospel’. Orthodoxy is defined by adherence to them. To question the historic teachings, or even to question their terminology, is to prove oneself unfaithful to the cause, and generally ‘unsound’. The faithful Christian’s calling is to defend and promote ‘the faith’, not to question it.

What has happened is that once again the Spirit has been chained. The events of the Reformation have been so thoroughly identified as works of God that the resulting credal formulae tend to be afforded near-divine authority. In practice, that is, if not in theory. Any later statements of faith will only carry weight in so far as they agree with the Reformation ones. Later teachings that conflict with Reformed doctrine at any point are by definition not of God. Even a revision of the terminology, of the way we express those doctrines, is often decried as a betrayal. Implicit in this stance is the assumption that the Spirit is uniquely connected to the Reformed tradition. This chaining can be seen when people use the term ‘Reformed’ to mean not just ‘faithful to my tradition’, but ‘faithful to God’.

The reason I call this stance only semi-Roman is because not everyone in the movement holds to it equally. Some people in reformed churches are much more conscious of the distinction in status between Gospel truth and Reformed theology. I thank God for them. Also, few would admit to this stance in theory – Reformed rhetoric is often more cautious in its claims. However, this Roman-style approach to doctrine is a strong and prevailing tendency in the whole movement.

The second reason I don’t indentify as Reformed is because of the tradition’s resulting unwillingness to do theology. This unwillingness is deeply ingrained. And it is deadly. Since Reformation theology is equated with ‘the-gospel-faith-once-delivered’, it becomes the holy deposit to be cherished and guarded: NOT questioned or added to. In fact questioning the tradition is the very opposite of faithfulness: it smacks of unbelief. Since the doctrine is from God, our task is to maintain it, and make sure we don’t turn away from the truth.

Theology as a discipline, then, poses a threat. For orthodoxy has been established: any further theologising simply risks distorting and debasing it. The only theology tolerated is what we might call micro-theology: theology in the gaps where the movement has not yet turned its attention, further clarification of doctrines long-accepted, work on small details. And this sort of micro-theology has long been a specialty of the Reformed movement: arguments over small matters. Rival theories about the precise relationship between law and gospel, for example. We have long been champions at dividing over such minutiae. If the hair won’t split, we will happily split for it! But on all issues of any gospel-importance, the Church’s doctrine has been well-established for centuries: those discussions are closed and no further work is wanted. Any new suggestions or divergent formulations are a priori heterodox.

This fossilisation is of course the antithesis of living theological inquiry. The theological discipline having been castrated in this way, Reformed theologians have become largely historians, curators of the teachings of antiquity. Men who have nothing to say, who need no courage, who will offend no one. Where those ancient writers boldly reformulated their theology to respond to the Gospel as it impacted their culture and society, today Reformed writers meekly preserve those reformulations. The form of the Reformers is preserved, but their spirit and project is long lost. The striking thing about so many modern works of Reformed theology is how little they contribute that is new, how lacking they are in ideas, how mind-numbingly similar they all are. They tend to be compendiums of the work of others (whether acknowledged or not!). It is not just that genuine theological work is often lacking, (it is) the problem is that such work is not even expected. The intellectual atrophy of the tradition is by now surely in its final stages.

A friend who studied at a Reformed college tells of how the doctrine classes would canvas a few positions on an issue, before triumphantly declaring the Reformed view the superior one! This was the regular routine. No theological work was really done in those classes, my friend felt that the students were left bored and uninspired by them.

Richard Gaffin is a glowing exception to this rule, a truly Reformed teacher who was committed to doing theology. But even he knew he had to watch his back, he was often in trouble for his work, and he had to be careful where he trod.  Time and again in his writings Gaffin holds back from stating the implications of his discoveries: he knew what the penalty would be for questioning any of the sacred theological cows. People close to him were guillotined by the Reformed authorities. Roman Catholic theologians tend to face the same troubles in their Church, often being pushed to the fringes of the establishment.

But Gaffin is the exception that proves the rule. There is no future for the discipline of theology wherever Reformed attitudes hold sway.

The Reformed stance absolves the church of its responsibility to test everything by the Word of God, to understand the Gospel afresh in each new generation, to take the risk of speaking new words in response to God’s great Word. In other words, the responsibility to do theology. 

Well, that’s about it: that’s why I’m not impressed with the new trend towards big R Reformed in our ranks. For where God’s Kingdom challenges us with its living dynamism and transforming power, this generation of hip young men is instead buying into something that is essentially conservative, risk-averse and fossilising in its tendencies.

If theology is a Spirit-filled, living discipline, that’s a scary thing. If the butterfly is alive, it might fly anywhere! The only way to be sure about it is to pin it to a board.

Let me leave you with some wise words from a real theologian:

“Under no circumstances may theology set out to appropriate credal propositions merely because they are old and widespread and famous. If it is seriously committed to the quest for truth, it will forego seeking the name and fame of an ‘orthodoxy’ faithful to tradition. There is no heterodoxy worse than such orthodoxy!”

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, an introduction.

Pastoral Damage

Posted: January 19, 2014 by J in Church, Pastoral issues

One thing I’ve realised more clearly than before, since leaving college, is the extraordinary power of pastors to hurt people.

While I’ve heard some beautiful stories of gracious pastors from people I’ve met in my neighbourhood, many people, and most who’ve joined our church, have stories of how they’ve been hurt by church leaders at some time. They’ve felt judged, misjudged, bullied, ignored, rejected or betrayed. Or they’ve been close to someone who has.

It’s not that pastors are more cruel or evil than other people. It’s the power they have that is the distinctive factor. How it works is: people trust us. They entrust themselves to us. They put themselves in our power.

People come to us with all sorts of problems and issues. Their worst tragedies which they can’t bear to tell anyone else – they tell us. Their deepest fears and insecurities, they want us to know about them. Their most painful experiences, their loves and losses. Their darkest, most shameful sins. They need someone to know, the burden is too heavy to bear on their own. They entrust the weight to us. The confessional is alive and well in the Protestant church!

All this puts people deeply, deeply under our power. It’s not just that we have the dirt on them. It’s that we are allowed further in to the exposed, unguarded parts of the soul than is usual. We deal with people at their most vulnerable. And we deal with them as representatives of Christ himself. What we do at those times has a massive impact, for good or evil. We can heal, and we can wound. We are in a unique position to strengthen faith or to destroy it. My interest here is in the destruction.

I think when I do people harm, it’s usually from ignorance. I just don’t understand them and their needs well enough to know how to help at that point, how to speak words of healing, how to minister the grace of God to them in the way they need right now. Insensitivity is a big part of it.

And most pastors are men.

Aussie men are not world-famous for their relational sensitivity. And yet we pastors find ourselves in this demanding relational role. We are required to operate in an area where we have little natural competence.

And where the stakes are high. One wrong move at that place of vulnerability can do lifelong damage. The consequences of stuffing up can be catastrophic for the people who trust us, and for their families. Scary stuff. And years of experience, rather than teaching us, can simply entrench incompetent patterns of relating and pastoring.

Of all the courses I did at Moore College, the one that has helped me most, that I’ve drawn on most often in ministry, is certainly the fourth year Pastoral Ministry course. The teaching was outsourced to pastoral care professionals who were fairly high powered in what they do, and had massive experience and wide recognition. Those guys taught us how to listen to people and how to understand their needs. At least, they tried to. There’s a limit to what you can do with blockheads in 40 hours!

But it really helped. In particular they drummed into our heads that when needy people speak to us, the cognitive content of the words people speak is not the main part of what they are communicating. The discourse of emotions that is going on ‘between the lines’ or under the surface, gives the real clues as to what is happening for them. And that message may be quite different from the words they speak. In other words, we need to stop relating to people as minds only, and learn the language of hearts. If you can hear a person’s heart, you know them.

As the truth of what they were saying gradually dawned on me, I came to the awful realisation that I was incompetent in this basic pastoral skill. I didn’t speak the right language. As a white anglo protestant male, I naturally prefer to operate from the head and deal with the intellectual content, the ideas, in people’s speech, not with the people themselves.

If I’ve had any success in not hurting people in ministry, it’s been because I’ve been trying to learn and practise the skills those guys introduced to us in 4th year. It was as I say the most helpful thing I did at college to prepare for my everyday work.

But here’s the thing that bothers me: most guys at Moore didn’t do that course. A lot finish at the end of third year, and it was 4th year course. Even then, it was an elective: you had to choose it, and many 4th years didn’t. Suspect they still don’t.

I know some guys are naturally good at this stuff, and are gifted at pastoral work. But for any who are like me, I worry a bit. If I’d come out of college without being challenged about this stuff, I hate to think of the harm I would have done by now in peoples’ lives. It’s scary to think of so much power in the hands of the clueless. Like a guy driving a massive rig with no driver’s licence.

Not that I think I’ve got the licence now. I’m just learning. I hope one day to be a skilful shepherd who knows how to listen and speak and act to bring hope and grace and healing into the lives of troubled people. But for now, at least what I’ve learnt is helping limit the damage I do. Minimising the ‘roadkill on the evangelical highway’. That’s the point of this reflection: it’s about damage.

So here’s my bottom line: I think it’s incumbent on all pastors to gain enough relational competence to, at the very least, be able to receive people’s sacred trusts without harming them in return. I know it’s not aiming very high, but it’s worth saying: surely we are responsible to gain the skills needed to stop the litter of casualties that fall by the wayside of our ministries.

And where are we going to gain those?

As I was leaving Moore, I pleaded with those in charge to make that Pastoral course a core subject for all students. I don’t think they did.


(The final post about the Protestant tradition of privileging hearing over seeing in gospel ministry. See previous three posts below)

A closely related concern is whether a ‘hearing not seeing’ approach to the Word does justice to the identity of the church as the gathered community of Jesus.

Throughout Luke’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that he is regathering and reconstituting God’s people Israel. The apostle Paul develops this insight so that it becomes clear this new people is actually a regathered humanity. Jesus is a kind of new Adam, restarting mankind:

Just as we have borne the image of the dirt-man, we will also bear the image of the heavenly man. 1 Corinthians 15:49

This new humanity is regathered to God and also to each other:

…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,  and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death the hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:15-16)

So then the work of Christ in the gospel has a human-ward dimension as well as a God-ward dimension. The reconciliation goes in both directions.

And this renewed mankind is not a hope for the future but a present reality, established by Jesus at the cross:

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity…through the cross. Ephesians 2:15

Paul makes it clear that this new humanity is actually to be found in the little groups of believers which sprang up wherever he went announcing Christ. The place it is to be seen is in the community of Jesus, the gathered congregation of believers. That is where the power of the cross is expressed and experienced day to day:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God… being built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.  (Ephesians 2:19,22)

In other words, the Christian community is the living embodiment of the power of the gospel, the outward evidence of the effectiveness of Christ’s atonement. This was why Paul was determined to plant reconciled, united Jew/Gentile congregations:

to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the congregation, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known  (Ephesians 3:9-10)

Using the terms of the last post, the church is a sign of God’s arriving kingdom. And a whopping big one at that!

Jesus had spoken of his band of disciples in much the same way:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Here the community of believers is to be the visible expression of the Father’s glory, of the light that is coming into the world. And this expression is to be noticed, seen by all. Gulp!

This same reasoning was at work when Jesus gave his disciples the ‘new commandment’:

Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:33-35

Jesus will no longer be physically present, no longer will people be able to look and see him. But his presence will not be lost: it will continue in the company of disciples. From now on it is them people must look at and see Christ. As the new and heavenly love among the believers is noticed, people will realise that this is the new community, the new humanity which Jesus is creating. Onlookers will find it hard to deny the message of Christ and his cross which the disciples bring – for they will be confronted with the reality and power of it at the very same time. It will be ‘in their faces’: for the congregation which announces the gospel also demonstrates its reality – by existing!

This is the reason Paul gives why the renewed behaviour of believers is so vital:

…that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the congregation of the living God, the pillar and prop of the truth.    (1 Tim 3:15)

Just think on those last 6 words. It is extraordinary – and a bit scary – to think that we play such an important role in the authenticating of the gospel. But that is clearly how Jesus and Paul saw it.

To sum all this up, it is not enough, not nearly enough, for the church to speak the Word of Christ. It is called to this, yes, but to much more as well. We are called to embody and display that Word visibly. For it is not enough for people to hear the Word. They must see its power demonstrated – in the present, in us. The light set on a hill – that light is us. If we are not being presently transformed, then our message is discredited, and why would anyone believe it? If people can’t see Jesus in our renewed community, why should they believe he is alive and active anywhere?

Our Protestant tradition of hearing-not-seeing the gospel doesn’t really leave room for an ecclesiology of this sort. One where the church-as-community has a vital role as gospel-embodiment, that is. Denigrating sight in favour of hearing necessarily implies minimising the place of the congregation in God’s purposes. For the congregation doesn’t really need to embody anything, if embodiment is not of much importance.

Moreover, a focus on congregational life could be seen as potentially idolatrous, a hankering after something visible in the hear-and-now. Such distractions may be thought to lead us away from an undivided focus on Christ. In fact, in the Protestant movement, ‘the church’ has often been treated as a rival to the gospel. ‘They’ are committed to church, while ‘we’ are committed to the gospel. I hear people talk like this pretty often in my evangelical circles. Built into this thought-structure is an anti-church tendency. We don’t hate church, we tolerate it. But nor do we love it, or trust it. Or expect much from it. It comes naturally to us to operate at a ‘para-church’ level, where most of these issues are sidelined and we can devote ourselves to a pure ‘word-only’ ministry. Our favourite!

We are continuing to critique the ‘invisible faith’ tradition which has dominated Reformed Protestantism all along (see posts 1 and 2 below).

Another major concern is whether this ‘hearing not seeing’ approach to the Word allows for the New Testament teaching regarding the kingdom of God. ‘The Kingdom’ is a theme that has been largely ignored in the Protestant tradition, but it is front and centre throughout the NT. The reasons for its neglect may become clear.

In the NT the kingdom of God is something that is now coming near, something people will have to reckon with. The thing to get about the Kingdom, is that it’s in your face.

But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon youLuke 11:20

The kingdom was not coming invisibly: the whole point of its coming was that it would appear. God’s kingdom was considered to have always existed, but would now be revealed on earth, in power.

“Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 9:1)

The visibility of the kingdom is captured in the important NT theme of signs. The signs are visible evidence of the kingdom’s arrival. For though the arrival of the kingdom is not obvious to all, yet neither is it totally hidden: glimpses of its glory and enormity are there to be seen.

So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21:31)

John the Baptist was doubting whether Jesus was truly the one to bring the kingdom. Jesus’ reply made it clear how to become certain about this:

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:22).

It is important to notice that these signs do not function like signposts, pointing away to some other reality. Rather they function like symptoms, hints of the condition which is now present. They are not signs of what is going on in heaven, but ‘the signs of the times’ (Matt. 16:3) – i.e. of what is coming upon earth. They are ‘the sign[s] that all these things are about to be accomplished’  (Mark 13:4). The apostles’ healing miracles were one example of this sort of sign:

…cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)

The signs then are glimpses of the kingdom’s arrival, which can be seen by anyone who cares to notice them.

To sum this up, the arrival of the kingdom comes not just as an announcement, but as a concrete reality which may be experienced by the senses.

For the kingdom of God is not in words [only], but in power. (1 Corinthians 4:20)

because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power(1Thessalonians 1:5)

Compare this with the approach to God’s kingdom in, for example, The Pilgrim’s Progress, the most influential Protestant book ever written (and a favourite of mine!):


Pliable: ..tell me now farther, what the things are, and how to be enjoyed, whither we are going.

Christian: …since you are desirous to know, I will read of them in my book.

Pliable: And do you think that the words of your book are certainly true?

Christian: Yes, verily; for it was made by Him that cannot lie.

Pliable: Well said; what things are they?

Christian: There is an endless kingdom to be inhabited, and everlasting life to be given us, that we may inhabit that kingdom for ever.

Pliable: Well said; and what else?

Christian: There are crowns of glory to be given us; and garments that will make us shine like the sun in the firmament of heaven. 

Pliable: This is very pleasant; and what else?

Christian: There shall be no more crying, nor sorrow; for he that is owner of the place will wipe all tears from our eyes.

Pliable: And what company shall we have there?

Christian: There we shall be with seraphims and cherubims…


(After death they will enter God’s kingdom): “There you shall not see again such things as you saw when you were in the lower region, upon earth.”


In other words, the pilgrim’s faith is of the classic Protestant hearing-not-seeing type. He seeks a kingdom which is entirely elsewhere, and for now entirely unseen. He only knows about it from a book. By putting his trust in the words he has heard from the book, Christian is able to persevere through trials and finally enter God’s kingdom. Hearing is the only possible way to faith, for down here there is literally nothing to see. Sight is postponed until the moment of death, at which point Christian leaves this lower world behind.

The contrast could hardly be greater with the NT kingdom-in-your-face teaching we have seen in our study. Pilgrim’s Progress, for all that I love it, I have to admit it offers a narrative of the kingdom which is fundamentally different to that of the NT.

It is notable that Bunyan, though he writes about God’s country, doesn’t much use the language of the kingdom of God. This is also in keeping with mainstream Protestant tradition. Perhaps our exploration has given us some insights into why this prominent NT theme has received such short shrift in the Protestant tradition. For if you have a prior commitment to hearing-and-not-seeing a gospel message about an invisible other world (as we do), then kingdom as described above is not a theme that you’d easily connect with.

The Visible Word

Posted: January 11, 2014 by J in Bible, Church history, Theology

Last post we described the ‘hearing not seeing’ tradition that is so strong in our Protestant heritage. Our biggest question about this approach to the Word of God, is whether it does justice to the incarnation:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory… (John 1:14)

And whoever sees me sees him who sent me.   (John 12:45)

Surely this event changes everything. The Word of God, which had so long been held as promises, now becomes fulfilment. The faith of Simeon and his sort, based in what they had heard, now becomes faith in what they see:

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your Word;  
for my eyes have seen your salvation, (Luke 2:29-30)

Before, it was the Word promised. Now it is the Word revealed and visible. For the Word has taken on flesh.

Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it… (Luke 10:23)

We might say then that the big difference between this age and the previous one before Christ, is that now is the age of sight.

It seems strange, for a faith that is grounded in the incarnation of the Word, to disparage seeing in favour of hearing – don’t you think?

To focus in more specifically within Christ’s incarnation, there is the resurrection of Jesus, that age-turning moment in salvation history. The great thing emphasised about this event, is that it was witnessed. Seen.

Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ (Matt. 28:6-7)

Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”  Luke 24:39

And this sight then becomes the basis for the apostolic announcement:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—  this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it…  (1 John 1:1-2)

Here the thing seen is ‘the Word of life’. Once again it is the Word which has become visible and tangible.

And so people were encouraged to believe in the risen Christ on the basis of this eye witness:

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.  (Acts 2:32)

Seeing, then hearing. For our faith in the resurrection of Christ, it seems seeing comes first, and is the basis for the heard Word.

In NT Christology, hearing and seeing go very much together. Far from being in tension with each other, the two operate hand in hand. The Word can be heard, seen and touched.

We have to ask then whether the Protestant and Reformed emphasis on hearing over against seeing fits well with our theology of the Word, of the incarnate Christ. It is wise to extract one aspect of the Word, excluding the other?

Tomorrow: seeing the kingdom

It goes back to Calvin: the word is good but the image is bad. What is heard is of faith, but what is seen – that is likely idolatrous. It runs through the whole Reformed tradition: the gospel is something spoken and believed, but not visible. The truth of gospel realities is somewhere else, on a heavenly plane – not down here on earth. There has been a strong strand of our teaching which has said, God’s kingdom cannot be seen, only believed.

You get it in The Pilgrim’s Progress, when Christian is told of a far off land he must set out to reach. He constantly talks of it along the way, and seeks to persuade others that it is real. But no one ever sees that land until the very end of the story, which is Christian’s death. Faith is ‘the conviction of things not seen’ (Hebrews 11:1).

It goes back beyond Calvin. This same emphasis earlier led Luther to teach that the Christian is simul justus et peccator – at once righteous and a sinner. Sometimes Luther explained this to mean that a man may appear wicked on earth, but in heaven he was justified. He wrote that his churches were often worldly and corrupt, and that he didn’t expect much better from them. At least the people had faith. Justification, like faith, was invisible.

Clearly, this ‘unseen realities’ approach to faith tends to downplay or even deny present transformation in the life of the believer or the community.

Where this strand has loomed large, churches have tended to describe the Christian identity as one of ongoing failure. The main need of the believer is forgiveness. Our best hope is that God will look upon us and see – nothing. No sin. With this view of the believer, the possibility for a renewed community is slight. Not much is expected there. The church is a support group to help the failures keep believing in invisible realities.

Any suggestion of something good or new being established on earth, of something that you could point to and say, look at that glorious thing – such talk worries believers in the ‘invisible’ tradition. It smacks of the idolatrous. For anything seen is likely to be an idol – or to become one at any moment. No one should ever look at us, or encourage people to look at us: we should only look at Christ. Who is apparently to be found elsewhere…

In terms of eschatology, this emphasis on hearing over against seeing pushes the power or effectiveness of the gospel into the future. It leads to an eschatology that is very little-realised – some might say under-realised. All we have now is the promise: we must wait until later for the fulfilment.

In our church life, this approach allows us to comfortably consume gospel sermons week by week, year by year, without feeling troubled if nothing changes afterwards. Without worrying if our church life contradicts the things that were proclaimed. After all, we don’t expect to see any of this – we just hear about it.

In mission, the ‘invisible realities’ approach leads to a stand-alone word ministry, unaccompanied by good works. What we bring to the world is a bare message, unadorned by any other thing. For the vital thing is that the world should hear the gospel. It doesn’t matter much if people see it in action. In fact, if they are going to be believers, they’d better get used to believing things which they can’t see at all. If they still need to see it, they’re probably still idolaters. A word-only ministry is what so many of us evangelicals have grown up with.

As you may have guessed, we have some concerns with this ‘hearing not seeing’ tradition. Tomorrow we will outline them.