Musings on Discipleship

Here are some thoughts on discipleship triggered by two things:

1. Being asked to give a ‘quick-fire trigger talk’ as part of a Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) gathering of church leaders, youth leaders and others reflecting on contemporary challenges around discipleship. It was a really good day organised by Rick Hill Discipleship Officer of the PCI (and MA grad of IBI), with lots of good input and discussion.

2. Reading Matthew Bates’ outstanding book Salvation by Allegiance Alone.

For various posts on Bates’ important book see:

Nijay Gupta has a fair and warm review here :

Michael Bird has two interviews here and here :

Scot McKnight did a series starting here:

The Gospel Coalition did an unsurprisingly critical review here

The fun part of a short talk is that you get to do what you tell students not to do: make deliberately provocative statements without following the niceties of detailed academic substantiation. The point of the talk is to raise issues and get open discussion going.

This is not to say these are random thoughts. They come from thinking about faith, gospel and works in teaching and preaching over a lot of years.

It’s also drawing on what Bates does with crystal clarity. He articulates a persuasive case for how themes of faith, gospel and works operate within the New Testament – from Jesus to Paul, John and other authors.

Here are 7 thesis statements with brief notes. Feel welcome to comment – whether agree, disagree or discuss …!

  1. THESIS 1: We have a major problem with discipleship in the West – and to be specific within the PCI.

Discipleship is patchy: in prayer, giving, service, training, Bible reading and study, evangelism, and a passion for holiness. Attendance is plummeting within denominations in the post-Christendom era, including the PCI. Membership is getting older. I can’t prove this, but formerly high levels of nominalism within Christendom are now being revealed within post-Christendom. The cultural pressure to ‘go to church’ has evaporated. Perhaps contemporary members are more committed and serious than many in the past? And there are lots of good things happening in various places, but no-one I talk to is bursting with optimism and confidence about the future of the institutional Church.

  1. Tinkering with programmes and courses isn’t going to address the problem

We can easily fall into the trap of imagining that ‘if only’ we got things right, that the Church can return to its former ‘glory’. Getting things right tends to mean things like having more attractive services, youth and children’s programmes, modern buildings etc. But reliance in externals is just rearranging the furniture. Something more fundamental is at issue. Treating symptoms is not going to address the root cause.

Neither is the solution dependence on pragmatic models of ministry. By this I mean adopting models of discipleship based on x principles of how Jesus made disciples and if we do the same mature disciples will result – as if discipleship is a nice easy recipe to follow and if we keep to the instructions – bingo! Some discipleship resources seem to owe more to management strategies for growing a business than they do to the teaching of the New Testament.

  1. That fundamental problem is theological

We need to think primarily theologically when we think about discipleship. So what’s the theological problem? Let me suggest it includes a superstructure of half-formed assumptions and misconceptions about both the content of the gospel and a proper response to the gospel (faith and works).

For various reasons there are deeply embedded and damaging popular misunderstandings of how gospel, faith and works are understood that distort both the way the gospel is talked about and how a proper response to that gospel is framed. This impacts both how discipleship is understood and how it is prioritised and practiced.

  1. The key issue revolves around the word pistis (faith)

What is faith? At what is it directed? How does it ‘work’?

These are very big questions indeed. Just have a read of Galatians for example to see how crucial a place ‘faith’ has within the argument of the letter. ‘Faith’ is clearly the key to Paul’s passionate appeal to the Galatians to come to their senses – but what does he mean by faith?

Popular understandings of the gospel and faith sound a bit like this:

“Have faith in Jesus and your sins are forgiven.”

“Forgiveness is a free gift, apart from works. Just believe in Jesus.’

“Jesus paid the price so I could be free.”

Or an ‘ABC gospel’: Accept. Believe. Confess. For an earlier post on ‘gospel lite’ versions see this.

In all these formulations, believing in Jesus is the key to salvation. As Bates says at one point, they frame faith in problematic ways that:

  • Confuse the content of the gospel (a narrow focus on sin and personal forgiveness)
  • Obscure the nature of true faith (emphasis on mental assent)
  • Misdirect the focus of faith (focus on my faith, my salvation, my choice)
  • Artificially separate the relationship between grace and works (former makes the latter of secondary importance and of no soteriological significance).
  • Mask what Christians are actually saved for (little or no space for the necessity of personal transformation and growth in holiness and Christlikeness).
  1. Faith tends to be set against works

Popular views of faith are imagined to work something like this:

  • Faith is opposed to works due to the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of not importing works into saving faith.
  • Grace tends to be set against works as well. Grace invites, but does not obligate.
  • Thus works (which is essentially what we are talking about when we talk about discipleship) are artificially detached from both faith and grace
  • Works (discipleship) happen as a fruit of faith: a secondary cause.
  • But the real hard lifting has already been done (forgiveness, salvation, assurance, justification) by faith. Sanctification is secondary.
  • Some propose that ‘works are the fruit of faith’. But this itself is not how the Bible talks about faith – works are intrinsic to saving faith. We are judged ‘according to our works’.
  1. Pistis has a much broader sense of meaning than assent or trust: in both in the Bible and outside it

No-one is rejecting the central place of faith. Take Ephesians 2:8: It is by grace you have been saved through faith. But what does faith mean and how does it work?

Matthew Bates (and others) argue that pistis has a wider semantic range than in popular models outlined above. Pistis includes faithfulness; loyalty; fidelity; or as proposed by Bates as allegiance to the risen Lord. Faith here is best seen as a personal commitment for all of life.

If this is the case, Bates proposes that when it comes to discipleship we would be better off dropping faith language altogether in order to try to get back to what Scripture means by pistis.

In brief, the gospel is about the good news of Jesus the resurrected Lord and King. The gospel is therefore first and foremost Christology that calls for a response in faith to a person (not an abstract idea). Salvation is past present and future, lived out in hope of resurrection life in the new creation.

In Jesus’ teaching, discipleship is right action in light of his authority. Faith in Jesus = allegiance to Jesus the king. And this sense of allegiance fits the sense of pistis in wider Greco-Roman culture in NT times. A sense of fidelity and loyalty

Bates proposes it has three inter-related themes.

  1. Mental assent – the story of the gospel is true
  2. Confession of loyalty to the risen King
  3. Embodied fidelity – life lived as a citizen of the kingdom

John Barclay comes into the story here with his magnificent book Paul and the Gift that I posted on here and here and here.

He has shown how grace in the NT world is more subtle and complex than theological systems (both Protestant and Catholic) have often allowed. Certainly for Paul there is no problem in expecting grace involves reciprocity. Whereas ‘gracism’ that says that free grace ‘requires nothing’ is an alien concept to the NT.

This is not to say that salvation is not utterly and completely due to the grace of God. We cannot save ourselves. There is forgiveness and new life in the Spirit through confessing and repenting – turning to Jesus Christ in faith. But God’s grace is not opposed to a response of embodied obedience. Grace is not opposed to works, it leads to works shaped by loyalty and action in the world. It is opposed to merit.

  1. How faith, gospel and works are understood will impact discipleship

How we understand gospel, faith and works (and discipleship fits in the category of works) will have practical implications for how we think about evangelism and discipleship.

However you read the NT, any idea of ‘easy believism’, or ‘cheap grace’ is utterly alien. Both Calvinists and others should agree on this. Believers have assurance built on the person and work of Jesus, but since only God knows all we should be wary of offering any blanket easy reassurance.

How I read the NT is that there is a very high expectation of moral transformation. For Paul and Luke especially this is built on the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit. Maybe a basic starting point for discipleship in local churches is to aim high rather than settle for basic and often misleading indicators like church attendance …

What does ‘successful’ discipleship look like? And how can what goes on at church foster development towards that goal and vision?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Chris Wright on the Great Commission

At Belfast Bible College, we had the pleasure and privilege of having Chris Wright speak at our Celebration of Studies last Friday and then at a half day conference on “The GREAT COMMISSION: what does it really include?”

 

Chris Wright @ BBCChris was exploring a biblical theology of mission, engaging along the way with contested ideas of mission, and criticisms of his own approach as outlined most fully of course in his magnum opus The Mission of God.

Some notes and observations of the half-day conference: – and these do not therefore represent exactly what Chris said but one person’s interpretation ..

Both terms ‘holistic mission’ and ‘missional’ are useful but both can easily become too anthropocentric – they revolve around ‘us’ and what we must do. They do not in and of themselves resolve the question of what ‘holistic’ and ‘missional’ actually mean – they mean different things to different people.

Based on the Great Commission of Mt 28, Chris unpacked some key themes. The Great Commission if framed within the lordship and presence of God. It is both cosmic (all of creation – See Eph 1:9-10 etc) and  Christocentric (based on the Messiah’s saving work).

Mission is God’s activity, not primarily ours. It has both a global scope and cosmic scope. The mission of the church needs to reflect the scope and size of God’s mission.

As a foundation for understanding mission, Chris went to the 5 marks of mission first articulated by the Anglican Communion in the 1980s / 90s. In brief they are:

  1. Evangelism (proclaim the good news of the kingdom)
  2. Teaching (teach, baptise and nurture new believers)
  3. Compassion (respond to human need by loving service)
  4. Justice (transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation)
  5. Creation care ( strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth)

All intrinsically flow from the Lordship of Christ

Chris broke these down into 3 themes that he unpacked in turn:

A. BUILDING THE CHURCH

Including 1 and 2: evangelism and teaching

1. Evangelism

Is a call for people to submit to the lordship of jesus. Gospelizing is proclamation of the good news. Mission work is telling the story of Jesus and its call for response of repentance and faith. Christians are to be baptised in the name of Jesus and are to follow him as Lord, not other gods or idols. The gospel of Jesus is at the heart of all Christian mission.

This is in contrast to some understandings of ‘holistic mission’ where it means everything else apart from evangelism. (see photo). Holistic mission should never be shorthand for social justice or other activity divorced from evangelism.

Neither should it be the case where “mission” becomes just one option in the buffet bar of Christian activity: some are into evangelism, others not .. Rather Chris was arguing for the centrality of the gospel as an integrating centre.

2. Teaching

A big obvious reality from Scripture is that teaching is part of the mission of God: Jesus is the Rabbi. Paul the teacher / missionary. The OT is one huge story of theological education (after Andrew Walls). A unravelling teaching programme about God, ethics, identity, holiness, faith, covenant, creation and so on that forms an indispensable platform for understanding the significance of the NT.

[I like to see the whole NT as theological reflection on the OT in light of Jesus]

Chris linked to Paul and Apollos: BOTH were vital in the mission of God. Paul is the evangelist / church planter, Apollos is the teacher. Both are about mission work and extending the lordship of Christ in the world. Therefore both evangelism and teaching are part of the Great Commission

(including theological education – the challenge for theological education is to ask how much is it intrinsically missional?;  how are teaching and modules serving God’s mission in the world?)

For Pastors, weekly preaching is part of the Great Commission. It is not some sort of ‘secondary’ task to mission / evangelism.

This does NOT diminish the necessity of global cross cultural mission .. but traditional ‘mission work’ does not summarise or represent the true scope of the Great Commission.

B. SERVING SOCIETY: COMPASSION AND JUSTICE

Chris put compassion and justice under the heading of ‘Serving Society’.

To the objection that “Is this really part of the Great Commission?” he argued how each is naturally linked to the Lordship of Christ. Jesus commands and actions to show compassion on the poor only echoes texts like Deut.10.12-19 and God’s desire for compassion and justice. When God is “godding’ – he is by default with the weak poor and needy. This is who God is and what he does. Likewise, Jesus’ in Matthew describes what true obedience to God looks like – and it is not to neglect the weighty matters of the Torah – issues like justice (see Micah 6.8). His disciples are to be “the light of the world” – meaning people whose attractive deeds shine with goodness and mercy. Like in Isaiah 58:7-8 where light is good deeds done in the name of the Lord. Just as Israel was to be a nation of light and justice, so Jesus’ new community of the kingdom is to be a renewed community of the King – the light of the world.

Such integration of discipleship and acts of compassion and justice are woven though Acts – there was no needy person among them (Acts 4:32-38)

Chris made the often overlooked point here that Paul & Barnabas’s first missionary journey was, contrary to popular assumptions, actually the famine relief visit to Judea as told in Acts 11. Perhaps overlooked because it did not ‘fit’ the popular understanding of ‘mission’ as overseas evangelistic work.

And in a very strong echo of what Bruce Longenecker has exhaustively researched and I posted about here, Chris argued that the ‘remember the poor’ of Galatians 2 is no side issue within Paul’s theology and life. Actually, it is talked about more by Paul than justification by faith. Economic concern for those in need is an integral part of his mission and therefore the Great Commission.

C. CARING FOR CREATION

The third theme of the Great Commission from Mt 28, Chris proposed, is that Jesus is Lord of heaven on earth. This global / cosmic reign of Christ is seen in Colossians 1 where the death of Christ on the cross has a cosmic dimension:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

It’s here, Chris said, that evangelicals above all people should be able to integrate things. They are by definition people passionate about Jesus,  the cross and the atonement – and should be able to affirm how this saving work of God has universal dimensions. Put another way, discipleship talked about in the Great Commission has the context of being worked out within a creation that God is going to redeem. This has implications for how discipleship is understood.

Evangelicals need a better doctrine of creation. And here Chris linked to familiar texts such as Is 65, Revelation 21-22; Romans 8; Colossians 1. God’s agenda is one of redemption, rescue, restoration – not of destruction or obliteration of the earth. The end game is a new heavens and earth; the New Jerusalem and God’s presence coming down to earth. The creation has a future ..

This all means that our best view of creation is as tenants – with temporary stewardship responsibilities. Creation care now is prophetic action foreshadowing God’s restoration of creation to come. Creation care – a career in the sciences, in environmental work etc – is a legitimate and valued calling of the Great Commission.

CONCLUSION

‘Mission’ is not done only by missionaries. All of God’s people are to be involved in the mission of God. There is a profound and damaging dualism in much traditional evangelical theology of mission where there is a dichotomy between those who do mission and those who do not. A better way to see things is the church as a body of people who are all on mission, with some at work overseas.

Just as the mission of God is broad in scope, so not everyone can do everything. Some will be missionaries and evangelists, some in creation care, some teachers and preachers, some working for justice and serving those in need.This is not to revert to the ‘buffet bar’ or ‘bag or marbles’ approach to mission where only some do evangelism and others do justice – the lordship of Jesus must be at the centre of all Christian life and witness.

Chris linked to Lesslie Newbigin here in mission best being understood as dimension of the church not as a specific task of the church. In other words, the church exists in mission; and within that existence are many expressions of mission. Just like within Science there are many expressions of the scientific enterprise; or similarly within the Arts.

So, how does this broad framework for understanding the mission of God help you think about your life and work – whatever it is that you do?

Do you find this liberating from old-style dualisms between the sacred and secular?

What do you see as potential weaknesses or dangers of this broad understanding of the Mission of God?

And, reflecting on this more, I wonder if certain jobs ‘fit’ more easily within the 5 marks of mission than others? Chris argued that those at all sorts of work are routinely engaged in ethics and issues that call for justice, truth and rightness and their calling needs to be seen as vocational within the mission of God, just as much as any missionary or pastor involved in ‘spiritual’ work. I agree with this – but do the 5 marks of mission [summarised under ‘Church work’, ‘serving society’ and ‘caring for creation’] still leave out most types of work that most people do day to day?

Yes, if you are a teacher, nurse, counsellor, carer, religious worker, environmental consultant – your work can fairly easily fit in the 3 themes. But I am not sure they really make space for someone working in IT, or accountancy, or business who are not doing church related stuff, nor caring for others pastorally or focused on looking after creation.  I guess I wonder if ‘serving society’ needs to move beyond a pastoral focus, to include bringing positive benefit to society – like creating jobs, giving the opportunity for the dignity of work, training people to develop in life skills and experience and so on.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Paul and the Christian Life (2) JDG Dunn

J D G Dunn has the opening chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective edited by Scot McKnight and Joe Modica and published by Baker Academic last month.

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Back in the early 80s Dunn was the guy who coined the term the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul and is one of the triumvirate of key NPP scholars (E P Sanders and N T Wright being the other two).

Dunn has written hundreds of thousands of words related to Paul – his letters, theology and life. He has several publications related to Galatians in particular and this essay is in a sense a distillation of that previous work. It is, dare I say, surprisingly untechnical and straightforward. The heavy lifting has all been done elsewhere; here Dunn is in effect doing an extended Bible study on Galatians as a guide to how Paul sees the Christian life.

One obvious fact: faith (pistis) and Spirit (pneuma) are two words which are peppered throughout the letter (both appearing over 20 times). They point to how faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit are, for Paul, absolutely central to the Christian life. From this opening platform, Dunn unpacks each in turn.

First, faith. For someone who has, at times, been accused of undermining Reformation truth of justification by faith alone, it is striking (and probably no coincidence) how this chapter is an extended articulation and robust defence of that doctrine.

He refers to Gal 2:15-16 and Paul and Peter’s clash at Antioch

We are Jews by nature and not “Gentile sinners,” knowing that no human being
is justified by works of the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ, and we
have believed in Christ Jesus, in order that we might be justified by faith in
Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no flesh
be justified.

Paul opposed Peter because ‘To demand “works of the law” in addition to faith, as a necessary expression of faith, was to destroy the fundamental role of faith.’ (7).

And further

This was where Paul drew the line. Becoming a member of the people of God (Israel) was not primarily what the gospel was about. Rather, the gospel was primarily about being related to God through Christ—being a member of Christ. To be justified before God, only faith in Christ was required. To require any more was to undermine that central gospel affirmation. (7)

This point is hammered home repeatedly in the letter, so much so that Dunn concludes

To make clear the sole primacy of faith—faith, yes, as expressed in baptism and “working through love,” but faith as the sole means and medium through which the justifying relation with Christ is established and sustained—was Paul’s principal concern in writing to the Galatians, and that should never be forgotten or downplayed. That the Christian life, as “Christian,” is a life of faith, faith in Christ, from start to finish, is the primary message of Galatians. (10)

You can’t get much more classically sola fide than that ….

But if justification is by faith alone, that justifying faith is never separated from the other great theme of Galatians – the work of the Spirit. Dunn calls this the counterpart to faith.

A quick aside here – not surprisingly it is the role of the Spirit that emerges as one of the consistent themes of the book across the various essays. My chapter is called ‘The New Perspective and the Christian Life: Solus Spiritus‘, Timothy Gombis’s one is ‘Participation in the New Creation People of God in Christ by the Spirit’. The authors submitted chapters completely independently, so its interesting that when Dunn says

“By faith alone” could be matched by the equivalent phrase “by Spirit alone” as the heart of Paul’s gospel. The outworkings of each should never be allowed to diminish or confuse the primacy of each. (11)

it mirrors a point I make in my chapter that

one could wish that another sola had been articulated at the Reformation—solus Spiritus—for the Christian life is life in the Spirit from beginning to end. (95)

After tracing a theology of the Spirit in the letter, Dunn concludes, with reference to Galatians 6:8 (“Those who sow to their own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption; but those who sow to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life”) that

Paul confirms that for him the most important aspect in the process of becoming a Christian was the fact that he and they had received the Spirit. It was the entrance of the Spirit into their lives which made the vital difference and departure from a life dominated by self-service. It was the work of the Spirit in their lives which ensured the inheritance of eternal life. Beside that, everything else was secondary. And anything which distracted from or confused that central offer and promise of the gospel was a corruption of and distraction from the gospel. If the Christian life began with the reception of the Spirit, then it was also to be lived in accordance with the Spirit.

The big problem in Galatians is that the ‘true mark’ of being a Christian was being measured by ‘works of Torah’ – like the physical mark of circumcision. This was distracting and detracting from the radical gospel. Dunn puts it this way

There is no way of being Christian, according to Galatians, other than faith-and-Spirit working through love. (15)

What, do you think, are contemporary distractions and detractions from this ‘simple’ gospel?

 

 

 

True Detective: touch darkness and darkness touches you back

This post is inspired by Jaybercrow’s recent rare 6-monthly post about the bleak inheriting the earth.

true-detective-posterI watched True Detective with the rest of the family a while back – well we all watched it at different stages, sometimes together, and talked about it later: such is modern consumption of media! I’ve been meaning to blog about it since then but something has stopped me – something Jaybercrow put his finger on. There is a fairly vague spoiler ahead btw.

It is exceptionally powerful television. The desolate cinematography perfectly captures the sense of menace within lost backwaters of southern Louisiana in which cops Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaghey hunt a serial killer over 17 years. The foreboding soundtrack sets the scene for what follows – check out Far from any Road by the Handsome Family so see what I mean.

The plot isn’t unfamiliar: ritualistic murder, corruption, bad religion and politics. But what the writer, Nic Pizzolattto, managed to achieve brilliantly, is telling of the story of the compelling and complex relationship between Harrelson’s ‘Marty’ Hart and McConaghey’s ‘Rust’ Cohle.

Both actors give, I think, perhaps the best performances of their careers. Cohle’s relentless nihilism against family-man Marty’s flagrant hypocrisy sets up a narrative that shapes the whole series. That is, just below the surface of our apparently advanced ‘civilisation’ is a dark dark world: a world of violence, abuse, fear and horror in which the powerful take advantage of the weak with impunity. That darkness embraces individuals, the law, the church, the powerful, drug-dealers as well as obvious victims – murdered prostitutes and children.

Every major character is deeply flawed. But it is McConaghey’s Cohle who, alone, sees the world as it truly is. No-one can live with such searing ‘prophetic’ honesty – he can hardly live with himself.

And so the story under the story is whether there is any hope for McConaghey. And therefore is there any hope for any of us? That question is sort of answered in the last episode – of which a little more in a moment.

What’s so compelling about such a bleak tale? Well, its truth for one. ISIS? Indiscriminate killing by Drones? Child abuse covered up in Rotherham? In Ireland? A world in which the weak and vulnerable are ruthlessly exploited by the powerful with impunity. The sin and hypocrisy in my heart – and dare I say in yours. Law and politics, when working well, will never deliver utopia. At best, they will put boundaries on the depravity of the human heart and we fool ourselves if we believe otherwise.

Dwelling in such unremitting darkness feels true to life: it captures the reality of a globally twisted world that perhaps we now know far too much about. News about the darkness assaults our senses every day. It is compelling to watch someone like Rust Cohle face the darkness head on, with no illusions or sentimentality.

And it’s here that my ambiguity about watching True Detective comes from: there is such little light in TV series like these that they leave you in the dark. I’m thinking of other superbly made series like The Sopranos and the (Scandinavian) film / book series like Girl with a Dragon Tatoo, both of which I hugely ‘enjoyed’.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that there is a little shaft of light at the end of True Detective. But, for me anyway, it was unconvincing: the darkness had been so well drawn that the light felt contrived and out-of-place.

The gospel of Jesus Christ shares the truth that ‘Rust’ Cohle sees. Like him, it is not remotely sentimental or optimistic. Like him, it is unflinchingly realistic about human nature and the injustice and sin that is woven into all areas of life. But True Detective’s gospel struggles to get out of the darkness that is has so brilliantly described. It lurches, unconvincingly towards an illogical optimism.

Put it this way: Christian hope does not rest with you or me – or with ‘Rust’ Cohle or with any individual seeing life in a new way. Such hope is transitory, individualistic and ephemeral. But Christian hope is based on what God has done in history. It is not ‘cheap hope’ – but a deep hope that rests entirely on God’s victory over sin, evil and death at the cross and resurrection of his Son. It is only in God’s redemptive work that there is hope of the healing of this beautiful yet tragic world in which you and I live:

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.  (1 Cor 15:55-58)

 

Darrell Bock on gospel

Irish Bible Institute was set up to provide good quality biblical and theological training for leaders and lay people in the Irish context. We do this through developing our own undergrad and postgrad programmes, designed for our context, taught by teachers engaged in local ministries (this includes our full-time staff) and meant to be applied practically into everyday life and ministry.

It’s a privilege to work here. And one of the bonuses is that we have been blessed with some wonderful guest teachers for short Summer Institutes over the years. Basically, we’re cheeky enough now and then to ask top notch speakers and scholars if they’d like to come teach and often it has worked out that they can.

So it was fun to get to know Darrell Bock and his wife Sally on their recent visit and show them around a bit before they left for a lecture tour in Australia and New Zealand. I even grew a beard in preparation (we have similar ‘hairstyles’).

An open lecture was on the Gospel in Luke-Acts

 

There is I think no more important topic than the gospel for Christians to be wrestling with and thinking about. Not primarily for the negative reason of tying down ‘correct theology’ and identifying error (although that is always a partial role of theology). But because Christians first need to be re-envisioned, excited, thrilled and energised by the good news if they are ever going to begin to reach out to a post-Christendom culture that thinks it has ‘heard’ all there is to hear about Christianity.

And, in my opinion, too often it is Christian semi-understandings of the gospel which have reduced it down to something that is not that thrilling, exciting or transformative.

So – to Darrell Bock’s lecture – and the notes which follow are my own and they may well not be an accurate representation of what he said.

– the good news revolves around the identity of the Messiah

– the Messiah is the one who brings the promised Spirit

– thinking Jewishly – it is the Spirit who cleanses and who brings renewal and restoration to Israel

– In Acts 2, the big point is how Pentecost is fulfilled promise, the new era has dawned. God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ. How do we know this? Because he is the one who has poured out the Spirit of God.

– So often the gospel is presented as a solution to a negative plight. ‘You’re a miserable sinner, you shouldn’t behave like that’ or ‘here’s how to avoid hell and spend time in eternity with God’ (the gospel is about personal survival)

– the astonishing good news of Luke-Acts is how the Holy Spirit of God is given as gift by God even to pagan Gentiles. This inclusion is orchestrated by God alone. This is unexpected and boundary breaking. Peter knows God has included the Gentiles because they are cleansed and forgiven by the gift of the Spirit through faith in the Jewish messiah.

– Gentiles are ‘cleansed vessels’ Acts 15:7ff. The Messiah and the giving of the Spirit fulfilling the promises of God is what the gospel is all about.

Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.

– James and Paul and Peter all agree on this in one way or another

– The gospel is therefore about the renewing and life-giving presence of the Spirit. Without the Spirit we are DEAD (and Darrell lay on the floor playing the Last Post at this point which you don’t see every day]

– As Paul puts it, the gospel is the POWER of God for salvation

– The good news is of a new community of faith, empowered by the Spirit

– We undersell the gospel by reducing it to a check box of belief and ‘we get what we pay for’ – a message with little expectation of necessity of personal and corporate transformation.

– The whole purpose of the good news is a new relationship with others and with God that issues in a renewed life.

What I found particularly helpful was Bock’s insistence on the integral place of the Spirit in the good news. No artificial distinctions between faith as mental assent to a message that might, or might not, result in changed life and behaviour. Luke of course is the great theologian of the Spirit. Luke insists on the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ leading to a response of faith and repentance and the gift of the Spirit of God. The result is life from death; an empowerment for holy living and for mission. And all of this is the surprising and unexpected plan of God (a big theme of Luke).

Popular understandings of the gospel as merely a solution to personal need have at least two major problems:

1) They fail to do justice to Luke’s narrative of the good news. It de-stories the gospel and abstracts it from the fulfilled promise to Israel. It is literally an unbiblical reduction of the gospel.

2) They lead to an anaemic gospel that has little or no place for the powerful, enlivening and transforming presence of the Spirit to purify and change Jew or Gentile believer in the here and now within a renewed community of faith.

In ‘gospel debates’ swirling around evangelicalism, those who want to equate the gospel narrowly with the cross and personal salvation (‘Jesus died for our sins’) and those who want to equate the gospel broadly with the good news of cosmic reconciliation under the Lordship of Jesus the King, need to listen to each other. Bock argued that Luke’s unpacking of the gospel gets beyond an unbalanced emphasis on one aspect of the good news. We need the whole story.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Darrell Bock at IBI

A couple of events over the next few days with Darrell Bock at IBI

Open Lecture

The theme will be ‘Recovering the Real Lost Gospel’.

While some seek so-called lost gospels, Professor Bock will argue we need to rediscover the gospel already found in the Bible.

He will unpack how the New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ is connected to the cross, discipleship and the mission of the church in a broken world that needs the message of grace.

June 12th
Time: 7.30-9.00pm

Venue: IBI, Ulysses House, no charge, all welcome.

 

 

Summer Institute with Darrell Bock

June 13th and 14th

Dr. Bock is an internationally known New Testament scholar and author of over thirty books.

Prof Darrell Bock

We are delighted to welcome him to IBI for Summer Institute 2014.  His work includes several books on Luke-Acts, historical Jesus study, biblical theology, as well as with messianic Jewish ministries. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) for 2000–2001, serves as editor-at-large for Christianity Today and has been a Humboldt Scholar (Tübingen University in Germany).

Some of his articles have appeared in leading journals and periodicals, including many secular publications. He has done a variety of media shows on national media. He blogs on culture and Scripture at http://blogs.bible.org/bock. He has been a New York Times best-selling author. Prof Bock is married to Sally (for thirty-seven years) and is a father of two daughters and a son, and has two grandsons.

Ultimate purpose of being a Christian (2): death

Some follow on thoughts from the last post ..

Response in faith to the gospel, marked by conversion & baptism, is merely the beginning of a process of being conformed to the image of the Son.

This ‘conformity’ involves bringing the Christian into a personal experience of both the death and resurrection of the Son.

Being a cheerful sort of bloke, I’ll stay with death in this post.

Paul can say things like ‘I have been crucified with Christ’ (Gal 2. 19) and all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death‘ (Rom 6:3-4).

Col 3:2 says ‘For you died ...’

In Romans 6:5, he can say that Christians “been united with him in a death like his“.

But if Jesus was physically killed, obviously his followers ‘die’ in a different way …. don’t they? 

Maybe, but maybe not. 

If you are Christian, what did / do you ‘die’ to as part of the process of spiritual transformation?

I say did / do because there is a past tense death, yet also an active imperative to ‘keep dying’. Paul commands believers to ‘Put to death‘ whatever belongs to their old life (Col 3:5).

Put it this way – before new life is possible, there is death to the old. Death is the beginning of the Christian life. Before resurrection is crucifixion.

The call of discipleship is a call first to come and die … and then to keep dying.

Consider Philippians 3:10-11

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

I suspect that most of us are very comfortable about knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection – and rejoicing and giving thanks for new life and hope.

But I wonder if we are as keen to know Christ through ‘becoming like him in his death‘ and by ‘participation in his sufferings?

This sort of knowing is not only a spiritual death, Paul had no problem linking it to very real and physical suffering.  Even to the degree where he can ‘delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties’ (2 Cor.12:10).

Is Paul some kind of masochist?  No, it is because suffering points to how Christ was ‘crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power’ (2 Cor.13:4)

This is rugged uncompromising stuff. It speaks of the offence of the cross to all forms of human self-sufficiency and optimism that ‘I’m OK, You’re OK.’ The death of Christ was absolutely necessary or God becomes a moral monster. Only in Jesus’ death is atonement and forgiveness made possible.

The call to death can be, and frequently is, misunderstood.

Rather than the gateway to a joyful transformed new life (of which more in the next post), some interpret it as a call to an existence of perpetual life-denying misery. There is something truly tragic about joyless, glum, pessimistic, fearful, hopeless and death-fixated Christianity. The worst consequence of all being that it ends up damaging the weak and vulnerable under its control.

We’ve had our fair share on this island – of both Catholic and Protestant forms – and I think some research into the theology that fostered such darkness is crying out to be done.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The greatest story

Last week a university student union invited me to give a talk on how Jesus, the OT and the NT fit together.

I used this outline:

1. What is the Bible about? 

An all-encompassing story – from Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Spirit & Church – to our place in the story and looking forward to the END of the story (new creation)

2. What is the NT?

Here’s a suggested definition

a theological reflection on the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in light of Israel’s story as told in her scriptures.

Every NT writer is doing this in one way or another. Examples from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul in Romans .. etc etc

3. Who is Jesus?

The promised Messiah in whom God fulfils his promises to Israel and accomplishes his plans for the redemption of the world.  He is the one around whom the whole story revolves. To understand the OT as Christian scripture, you start with Jesus and re-read the reconfigured story. The NT does this in hundreds of ways -the diagram is a quick sketch of some examples. Most significantly, Jesus is the embodiment of YHWH himself come to his people to redeem his world.

Jesus and the OT

4. What difference does this make?

Someone (rightly) said I didn’t earth this practically enough. So here’s another go:

Being a Christian is much more (but not less than) believing truth – it is faith in a person; being ‘in Christ’ who is the resurrected and living Lord.

This gives believers:

A new identity – the old ‘I’ is gone, the new creation has come.

A new purpose – ‘my’ story finds meaning within God’s story in Christ

A new community – my story is lived with others who are in Christ

A new hope – the story is not over yet.

Such profound identity change costs everything – it is a complete re-orientation of the self, of life, of values to live by, of meaning and of purpose. It is, in other words, a radical decision to join one’s life to one true story; the greatest story of all.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Gospel of God: is God good?

Probably one of the biggest questions circulating around the interface between Christianity and contemporary (western) culture concerns the goodness (or not) of God.

The (not very) new atheists take the line that the hypothetical idea of ‘god’ (which lazily tends to mean the Christian God lumped within an ill-defined and ultimately nonsensical notion of ‘religion’) is a decidedly unpleasant character – perhaps indeed the greatest villain ever to be invented by the human mind.

Hence Christopher Hitchen’s polemic that God is not great or good and Richard Dawkins’ famous adjective-laden description of the God of the OT – you know, that petty, unjust, unforgiving, vindictive control-freak who is at the same time a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Yes, that one.

Yet the ultimate foundation to sustain a living Christian faith is a belief in the absolute goodness of God. For if God is not good he can’t be trusted, loved, worshipped and followed with any solid sense of joy and hope. And the consistent witness of Scripture is to the utter goodness of God.

So it is a significant theme that Michael Bird turns to in Part 2 of his Evangelical Theology – the gospel of God (e.g., Romans 1:1). This means not only that the gospel is of God (he is the origin of good news), he himself is good news.

Bird argues that it is in the gospel that God is most truly revealed. The doctrine of God is best seen through the lens of gospel. This works out in 4 ways:

Trinity: the gospel is a window into the triune nature of God. The gospel is our closest point of contact for understanding the triune God – Father Son and Spirit who act together in salvation. Each person of the Godhead ‘perform’ distinct roles in the economy of salvation (eg the Father chooses, the Son redeems, the Spirit sanctifies]. Without the Trinity the gospel loses coherence [I’d have expected some engagement with Rahner’s view that ‘the economic trinity is the immanent trinity’ and vice versa since it ties in so closely with what is being argued here].

Character: the gospel reveals what God is like; it shows us his self-giving nature; his infinite love, his justice and judgement and his grace.

Story: if the gospel is a narrative of Jesus, this narrative is set within the wider story of creation, redemption and new creation. So the gospel of Jesus Christ points us to the revelation of God as creator and redeemer.

[Observation: here I think was a possible departure point to write a very differently structured ‘evangelical theology’. While Bird is using ‘gospel’ as the key to unlock systematic discussion of the traditional foci of theology, it would have been a more radical move to structure the book around the gospel narrative rather than fitting gospel into systematic structure.]

The ultimate aim or telos of the gospel also reveals God’s final objective. God is the giver and gift. His goal is ‘bring glory to himself by the effusion of his holy love in uniting the world with the Logos.’ (91).

The next few chapters unpack this in detail. I like the emphasis on gospel and it feels fresh as an interpretative lens by which to look at the doctrine of God. This is a very readable theology textbook.