Sunday, 31 January 2010


'I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul'.

These words and perhaps the rest of W.E Henley's poem 'Invictus' of 1875 are destined to become the most famous lines of poetry of 2010. They feature largely in the new biopic of Nelson Mandela, directed by Clint Eastwood and focussing on South Africa's victory in the rugby world cup of 1995.

The film is called 'Invictus', meaning 'invincible' or 'undefeated'' The poem was apparently very influential on Mandela while he was in Robben Island prison prior to becoming President of South Africa. The film apparently portrays him giving the written words to the South African captain, Francois Pienaar - although historians say it was words of Theodore Roosevelt which he actually gave. But hey! who cares about facts - just get the message across.

What will the message be? I have not seen the film yet (I believe it opens on Friday) but one suspects, given the title and the prominence the poem seems to have, it will be at least something of a tribute to the indomitable human spirit.

William Ernest Henley (1849-1902) wrote the poem when he was 26, after his leg was amputated because of tuberculosis of the bone. Nasty enough, and one admires anyone coming through that particularly in the mid 19th century.

'Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul'

reads the first stanza; it continues

'In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed'.

The last stanza :

'It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul'.

I am not competent to comment on its literary merit but it certainly has rhythm and I have read worse.

What of its message? Some love it. It speaks of the courageous human spirit contending against all odds; of self-reliance; individualism; of taking responsibility for your own life; of self-determination and the iron will that will not yield to self-pity nor give in to what life throws against it. It is very Stoic; it is just like a Clint Eastwood character. It probably does not do Mandela justice.

Others think it is pompous and over-wrought; in the words of one commentator, rather like choosing 'My Way' on Desert Island Discs; a cut above bar-stool bragging. Gordon Brown has said it inspired him; sometimes, perhaps, the 'fell clutch of circumstance' is a bit too strong.

It is also, of course, very secular-humanist and its last two lines have doubtless been quoted in numerous evangelistic sermons as the epitome of the atheistic spirit.

Just taking them in isolation,though (that is, forgetting for the moment the obviously sceptical stance of 'whatever gods may be' in the first verse), how atheist are these last lines? Could a Christian say them with meaning?

They are clearly amoral - they appeal to the will, not the mind or conscience. They are existentialist. They give no moral guidance for action. It is significant that they were the chosen last words of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, before his execution for killing 168 people in 1997.

Obviously we are not the masters of our fate , the captains of our souls. Any God worth believing in is sovereign. But I was talking to a non-Christian friend the other day who came out with something very like fatalism: that he was not responsible for the big decisions of his life as he felt some greater power had guided him to them and therefore would not be guilty (of much at least) on the day of judgement.

Does he not need to hear a little of Henley? Take personal responsibility!

Then again, when you are pressing home the gospel - does not 'Come to me all you who are heavy laden' or 'Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ' require you to take your soul in your hands and be master of your fate? In terms of power you are not; but in terms of responsibility you are.

Or when you pray, are you not urged to pray earnestly - as if your life depended on it?

Are the warnings, exhortations and commands of Scripture not worthy of taking with the conviction that in doing them and obeying them and heeding them, I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul?

Now I know this poem is in itself ludicrously humanistic, a 'superhuman fantasy', as it has been called. But in a Christian - yes, a Calvinistic framework - it says something a supine generation needs to hear - you, Christian, are responsible. What you do matters. You can change things.

Perhaps the nearest biblical echo of what I am trying to say would be in Ecclesiastes. 'Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might...' (Eccles 9:10).

Within the Preacher's basic framework of the fear of God (the spiritual anchor 'Invictus' does not have) and of keeping his commandments (the moral anchor it does not have) there are worse principles for a fruitful life.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

God's use of 'things' and how people are born again.

Throughout Scripture God attaches special importance to certain 'things'. There are the trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil. There is the rainbow after the Flood and perhaps the dove's olive branch too. There is circumcision, Moses' rod, the fiery, cloudy pillar, the holy mountain, thunder and lightning, the Sabbath Day, the tabernacle, its sacrifices and its furniture, the Temple and the ark of the covenant. We could speak of the bronze snake, Samson's jawbone and Elijah's cloak.

We turn to the New Testament and think of baptismal water, of the mud and spittle in Jesus' ministry, of the bread and wine, of Peter's shadow and handkerchiefs touched by Paul. One could include too the miracles of the Lord and the apostles.

We can think of words, and the Word.

We can think of the incarnate life of the Son of God.

Now this makes an unequal collection but it is nonetheless true that in some way God uses in these cases some element of creation in a way that distiguishes it from the rest of creation - at least for a time.

We might identify the purposes for which these 'things' are used as being one or more of the following:

1. As a pointer - or sign as it is more commonly called. An earthly thing is used as a signpost to something heavenly. Our minds are not to stay on the earthly thing (sign) but look to the heavenly thing to which the sign points. It is a signpost. It is a ladder, one might say, to enable us to climb to heaven; or a glass through which to look on spiritual realities.

2. As a picture which in some way illustrates the heavenly reality. For example it is easy to see why bread and wine bring to mind the body and blood of Christ or water the cleansing and death-and-resurrection of incorporation into Christ.

3. As a pledge or as we might say a 'seal'. The thing is in some way an assurance and guarantee to the recipient of the spiritual blessing it represents, as was circumcision to Abraham of his righteousness by faith.

4. As a means of participation, so that by means of the 'thing' the recipient receives something of the heavenly reality, namely, and supremely, Christ in his presence and power and in all his fullness and his benefits. This is the highest use of 'things'.

5. Finally the thing may be an instrument by which the Lord accomplishes something, for example the rod of Moses and the weapons of Samson and the cloak of Elijah.

Now the list of 'things' above is very uneven. Some are specifically called signs such as circumcision, the rainbow and the Sabbath -signs of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. Others are signs of his saving work such as the sacrifices and the bronze serpent. Others again are signs of his presence and dwelling with men - the tabernacle, the Temple and the ark of the covenant. Yet others are signs of his sovereign working and rule over creation in the interest of redemption - the rod of Moses, for example, over a long period; or as a'one-off', like Peter's shadow.

Now where does this take us?

1. In the continuing church of the New Testament we see the simplification of the use of things by God. We have the bread and wine and the water of baptism.

What of the Word? The Word of God is also a creation which God takes up and uses. It is a unique creation as it is uniquely inspired but it is still ineffective until the Spirit of God takes it and applies it. Yet the principles above apply; it is a pointer to the things of which it speaks, an illuminator of spiritual realities, a pledge and guarantee that the recipient will receive the spiritual reality promised and the means of participation in that reality. It is also of course an instrument in God's hand to accomplish his purposes.

2.What is the relation between the created thing and the heavenly reality it represents - or as we say between the sign and the thing signified? We have to be careful not to say that God attaches himself to the thing in any way that could render the effectiveness of the thing automatic. A created thing never becomes in any sense divine. Yet we must not go to the other extreme and suggest that the only efficacy of the sign is in God's more or less arbitrary choice to render it effective in such a way now and not then, for 'him' but not for 'her', here and not there. There is a stronger link between the sign and the thing signified than that.

What that link is, is frankly a mystery and one without analogy in the natural realm. Some call it a 'sacramental union', confess it is a mystery and are content to leave it at that. Others push it in one of the two directions indicated - towards a magical ex opere operato view, or alternatively a view that renders the use of the means virtually incidental to the sovereign work of God's Spirit.

Both extremes distort the nature of the relationship God has set up between sign and thing signified.

It is the same with the Word as with the sacraments. Although we cannot say that the Word on its own is enough, or that the Word automatically accomplishes an effect, we must not give the impression either that the sovereignty of the Spirit means that there is no promise attached to the preaching of the Word other than the hope that God may use it. God uses 'mechanical' pictures from nature - rain and snow falling and producing fruitfulness on earth - to illustrate what we may expect of the word preached - Isaiah 55:10,11. The Word 'will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it'.

Further, the effect we hope for may not be that which the Word accomplishes. Paul speaks of the gospel being sometimes a fragrance of life, at other times an aroma of death (2 Cor 2:14-16). Either way, the Word is not being ineffective.

There is a relationship therefore between the created element God takes up and the effective work of God which he has established in the particular cases that we call the Word and the sacraments, which is unique. These things are different from other created things when in their proper use, as a silver coin is different from a strip of silver - it has a value given it by the minter ( yet not a value that inheres in the sign - all illustrations are dangerous!). It is neither automatic nor is it the arbitrary exercise of divine sovereignty; in asserting the essential presence of God's Spirit we must not deny this union nor in asserting the union must we deny the necessity of the Spirit.

Could God do all he wants without means or signs or 'things'? Of course; no -one doubts it. The point is , however, that normally he chooses to work, and represents himself in Scripture as working, by such means.

3. We see at least some analogy of the 'sacramental' union in the hypostatic union, the union of the divine and human in Christ. Here the union of divine and created is perfect and permanent. The taking up of creation by God reaches its zenith in the incarnation . Here is the human nature of Christ , body and soul, taken up into the person of the divine Son, to be all that creation can be in the service of God. Pointer, picture, pledge, participation and instrument of the presence of God in all his blessings and benefits are in Christ incarnate. Calvin's doctrine of the sacraments does justice to this better than any other, in insisting that the fellowship with Christ in Word and sacrament is with his body as well as in Spirit - a spiritual fellowship and a heavenly one, mediated by the Spirit, but nonetheless fellowship with his body for, as Sinclair Ferguson insists, this is the only Christ there is. A mystery? Yes, Calvin would say so. But whether in the preaching of the Word whereby people are mysteriously converted in the combination of Holy Spirit power and human instrument, or in the person of Christ himself, glorified and in heaven in his human body, God's use of 'things' to give himself to sinners is all mystery, and all glorious.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Calvin on Politics - a rough outline

The Political Influence of Calvinism

1. Government is God’s compassionate provision for mankind. Rom 13.

2. Main principles:
· The absolute sovereignty of God which means that all human authority is relative ie not absolute, and therefore is limited.
· Human depravity to be taken into account in those who govern as well as in the governed
· The authority of man over man is only permissible as delegated by God.
· Leaders to be accountable via a senate or similar grouping eg Exodus 18 – Jethro’s advice to Moses – much relied upon by early Protestant writers to limit the power and potential tyranny of a single ruler (although the point of the text itself seems rather to be to distribute the work more efficiently).
· Republicanism as the preferred form of government. Calvin himself though was pragmatic and thought a monarchy could work with checks and balances. These consist, whatever the form of govt., in (i) power being divided between different organs of govt; (ii) having councils of men rather than one ruler; (iii) if a monarchy then a senate of some sort to check any tendency to absolutism.
· Sphere sovereignty: begins with family. Sanctity of autonomy under God to be respected. Then extrapolated, to the city then province then state/nation. ‘Spheres’ include the church, and professional organisations/guilds; Kuyper says science and art are ‘spheres of sovereignty'. Govt must respect these and not encroach and be overweening. (See Althusius below).
· Democracy in the sense that the people were happiest if they could appoint their own leaders; a monarchy should not be hereditary.
· The rulers can be challenged by passive disobedience if they go against the Law of God but in terms of rebellion (active resistance) it should be led by ‘lesser magistrates’; Calvin did not favour populist revolts.
· Any ruler, monarchs included, should be under the law. Tyranny is exhibited by a ruler’s unwillingness to tolerate restraint or live within the law.

3. Calvin saw purpose of government initially as ‘negative’ ie to provide for common safety and peace; but also later to cherish and protect outward worship; to defend sound doctrine and to form our social behaviour to civil righteousness. He saw the role of magistrate (ruler) as ‘the most sacred of callings’.

4. Relation of state and Church – early Calvinists (eg as in Westminster Confession) saw it as the state’s duty to maintain true doctrine as well as protect the externals of true worship. But many came to question this later. In essence Calvinism sowed the seed of separation of church and state. Calvin never wanted a theocracy (church over state) in Geneva; he fought for separate spheres for church and state. In fact it was in his view of church govt., with a plurality of leaders, that many see the origins of his views of state govt.

5. Especially in the young America did the seed sown in Geneva bear fruit in a situation where a new form of constitutional government could be established. It is demonstrable that the pulpits of Calvinist preachers were the most influential instruments in engaging the people to rise up against the English Crown in the War of Independence and establish a Republic.

6. Opposite principle seen in French Revolution (see Kuyper; also Groen van Prinsterer in Hall (below) pp 292-305). That was rooted in the supremacy of reason not revelation, the sovereignty of man not of God. A third option is the idealism or pantheism of German statism (Kuyper). Either man’s reason is sovereign (France), or the state is sovereign and law is some emanation of its mind (Germany). Either way people have no way of challenging the rightness of any laws by measurement against a higher standard. The result is tyranny either of man’s reason or of the state as the only alternative to a Christian based democracy.

For useful books see Calvin's Institutes Book IV.20, 'Civil Government'; Mark Larson Calvin's doctrine of the State(Wipf and Stock 2009); David Hall Calvin in the Public Square(P&R 2009); Abraham Kuyper, chapter on 'Calvinism and Politics' in Lectures on Calvinism(Eerdmans).

Friday, 8 January 2010

Soul sleep - Calvin on what happens when we die.

A friend had suffered a bereavement. Why, she wondered, did so many passages of Scripture speak of the believer's soul sleeping (eg 1 Thess 4:13; Jn 11:11; Acts 7:60; Job 14:7-12)? I had enough answers to deal with the immediate enquiry, but the question caused me to do a little extra reading. In particular, one systematic theology referred in glowing terms to Calvin's 'Psychopannychia' (with a subtitle measured in inches) written in 1534 when the Reformer-to-be was only 25 and not long converted. As I had invested the princely sum of £45 last autumn in the Banner of Truth's new edition of Calvin's 'Tracts and Letters' I was pleased to have some pastoral justification for acquiring them and turned to volume three.

What does Calvin say about the state of the soul after death?

1. He demonstrates from Scripture that the soul is distinguishable from the body though normally not separable from it. It has a real existence in itself. 1 Peter 1:9,13,22; Heb 12:9,23; 2 Cor 7:1; 1 Cor 2:11; Rom 8:16.
2. After death the soul still survives endued with sense and intellect. Acts 7:59; 1 Pet 3:18; the account of Lazarus and Dives (Lk 16).
3. The soul rests when freed from the body though this is not sleep. Rest is tranquillity of conscience, complete on death though known by the believer in this life. Ps 17:15 is our goal.
4. The life Christ begins in the soul cannot be conceived of as ending ( in unconsciousness) on death. Jn 5:24, 6:40.
5. Death is to be understood primarily as being under the anger and judgement of God. But Christ underwent this death for his people. His death was different from theirs hence the cry of forsakenness because of fear of torment.
6. For those who trust in him there is no condemnation; the sting of death has been taken. The blessedness of the believer is in progress from the time of first faith until the consummation. Perfection of blessedness only exists in perfect union with God. 'Seeing, then, that the reward appointed for all who have part with Abraham is to possess God and enjoy him, and that, besides and beyond it, it is not lawful to long for any other, thither must our eyes be turned when the subject of our expectation is considered' (p. 463).

Calvin's work extends to seventy pages, much of it dealing with abstruse arguments particularly from passages in the Psalms and Job, from Anabaptists (or as Calvin calls them, Catabaptists) and this is hardly an adequate survey; one could add many Scripture references, some of which he does deal with, which evidence the consciousness of the soul after death - Ps 16:11; 17:15; John 17:24; Rom 8:18; 1 Cor 13:12,13; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:21,23; Heb 12:23; Rev 4,5,7,12; Rev 6:10; 7:15f; 20:4.

The strength of Calvin's case though is the rooting of the case for soul consciousness after death in the blessedness of the believer - if to live is Christ and to die is gain, then death cannot mean a diminution of the fellowship enjoyed in life. Moreover that life has begun in the death of death in the cross of Christ. Fulness of life and pleasures forevermore have been won for his people by Christ and to suggest they are interrupted by unconsciousness (a kind of death in itself and therefor something of the curse which has been taken) is a slur on his work. Calvin's argument is essentially Christ-centred.

So maybe I would not turn to this work for the most handy practical treatment of this subject today but Calvin does not fail to inspire.

And he was only 25...and not long converted.


Over Christmas I read an article on 'progress' in The Economist. It was interesting though rather inconclusive; predictably, if we measure progress in material, economic, scientific or technological terms we have advanced enormously in the last generation or two. If however we take into account quality of life then - are we any happier than people were when materially we were far less 'advanced'? Some kind of moral calculus is required, was the conclusion, but as far as I recall no further direction was given.

What help does the Bible offer on progress? Is it a Biblical concept? The following outline might be offered.

1. Objectively progress in the Bible is in terms of the advancing of God's purposes. From a garden to a garden; from Genesis to Revelation; from a 'temple garden' to a city that has no need of a temple because the Lord God is its Temple; from the presence of God who walks with Adam and Eve to the presence of God in the whole of a new creation; from a fellowship that could be lost through sin to a presence that will never be lost; from human existence on probation to life that is assured for ever; from life mediated through Christ as the medium of creation to life mediated through Christ as the Redeemer; from Adam as the first man to Christ as the last Adam and second man in whom all things in heaven and on earth are united.
These are the purposes of God. The movement of history is all progress under the supervision of him who has decreed all that comes to pass; his plans shall never be thwarted. Providence is one invincible success story. Progress at this level is the stuff of eschatology.

2. Subjectively, that is looking at it from man's point of view, the story looks very different. Men and women were supposed to progress from a perfect condition that could yet be lost to a perfection where the highest ideal, the inalienable freedom to do good alone, was attained. However the first autonomous attempt at 'progress' was an unmitigated disaster. Eve was convinced that God was holding her back; to eat the forbidden fruit was to spread your wings, have your eyes opened, become like God, know good and evil. For the first time human beings judged themselves able to assess right and wrong for themselves. What they thought was progress was unqualified regress. God was cast off. His Word was treated as a lie. Decay and decline in the material realm followed (Genesis 3:14f) and then in the moral realm (Genesis 4-6). But God had made sure that man as sinner would not eat of the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24). Whatever progress human beings would make would not extend to eternal life while in a rebellious state.

3. Yet decline was not the whole story. Man made what we today would easily recognise as progress in civilisation and technology (Gen 4:17-22). Yet God's verdict on the evil that dominated existence is well known - earth was corrupt and filled with violence and God determined to make an end of all flesh. Progress in the City and in technology does not impress God if every intention of the thoughts of the heart is only evil continually.

4. So it goes on. God seems indifferent to what we today tend to call progress.Yet it is not to be dismissed. We do not despise the realm of common grace. We do not dismiss the providence of God over the unbelieving world. He is using it to further his purposes of redemption. Christians do not withdraw from the kingdom of the world but rather contribute to the peace of the city, to creativity, to living out what it means to be in God's image, that is worshipping him in every area of life and seeking to make others worshippers too. We rejoice in the immense influence for good that Calvinism in particular has exerted in politics, science and culture generally in the last half millenium. But although our life is in the world, the world is not our life. God and his kingdom are. We are to seek his kingdom and his righteousness first and all these things will be added unto us.

5. Sadly though the progress of the world will usually mean regress in terms of God's kingdom. As in Eden, progress is seen to be incompatible with respecting God's sovereignty and Word. Moral decay and material progress are familiar bedfellows. Look at the incipient decay even in the glorious reign of Solomon. Or the moral decay in time of great prosperity in Israel and Judah during the time of the prophets Amos and Hosea and later Isaiah. Progress is not inherently evil but as the world measures it, it tends to be bad news for the values of God's kingdom; perhaps because it creates or follows prosperity which is always the favoured substitute for God. As in Eden, progress in the world is intimately related to idolatry.

6. What,then, is progress for man? Surely to align himself with what is really progressing - the plan of God. The kingdom is always coming in the Old Testament and has come irreversibly closer in the New. The King has arrived. He calls people to himself and prays that they will progress in joy, in unity, in knowledge of God and love. 'I made known to them your name and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them' (John 17:24). Paul is committed to progress for himself and his churches: 'Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own...But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way...' (Phil 3:12-15). The 'this' that Paul has not obtained as he wants to is knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings, by any means attaining to the resurrection of the dead. (3:10,11). Progress for the believer is the experience of sanctification, perseverance and glorification. '..the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn which shines brighter and brighter until full day' (Prov 4:18).

7. Progress for the Christian, therefore, is knowing God in Christ and all the administration of his grace that accompanies that - growth in spiritual wisdom and understanding for example (Col 1:9). Strive for all the progress you can in the world as it is; but recognise its provisionality.

8. Progress can surely be seen most clearly in the life of Christ. He perfectly loved and obeyed his heavenly Father. He was obedient to death. He overcame temptations and was faithful in all his afflictions. He learned obedience through what he suffered, and 'was made perfect' through suffering (Heb 5:6, 2:10). As a reward for his obedience the Father exalted him (Phil 2:9f) and he sits at the Father's right hand. Progress for him as he represented sinners was in perfectly obeying and, because of sin, suffering, in doing the will of the Father. But glory was in the Father's gift.

So for us - the highest goal a man can reach is glorification; whilst we have the responsibility to trust and obey through life, 'perfecting holiness in the fear of God', at the beginning and end it is monergistic - God's work alone. The only human progress worth having is God's gift: '...he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus' (Phil 1:6).

9. If progress in terms of God's purposes (objective) is the subject of eschatology, how do our millenial views affect our understanding of it? The difference is in the extent we expect to see God's kingdom realised in the old creation in a visible sense. Postmillenialism will expect a considerable amount of visible progress in terms of a measurable conquest of the gospel before Christ returns. Amillenialism may vary between a position barely distinguishable from the postmillenialist to one barely distinguisable from the premillenialist who will expect Christ to return to a world marked by tribulation. The amillenialist however will say that then Christ will introduce the new creation; the premillenialist will say that Christ will first introduce the millenium.
Post- and some a- millenialists therefore expect the gospel to accomplish visible progress in this world; pre - and many a- millenialists insist that only the return of Christ will bring about widely visible progress and that will be first in a millenial reign (according to the premillenialist)or in the new creation itself (according to the amillenialist). Only then will the earth be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. But each position would insist on the progress of God's kingdom.

10. Will there be progress in heaven? We know what Calvin means when he says '...that our blessedness is always in progress up to that day which shall conclude and terminate all progress, and that thus the glory of the elect, and complete consummation of hope, look forward to that day for their fulfilment. For it is admitted by all, that perfection of blessedness or glory nowhere exists except in perfect union with God' (Psychopannychia,Tracts and Letters, Banner of Truth edition, p.463). Yet if God is infinite there must be progress in heaven, in knowing him and his love. How can there ever be an end of being filled with all the fulness of God? The new heaven and new earth will be a place where that and all the bodily progress we shall ever need or be able to bear, will be enjoyed forever.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Carey - soft on sin?

Swanwick in the snow is a beautiful place but walking up and down to the Derbyshire Hall for sessions of the Carey Conference 2010 in near zero temperatures tests dedication.

Was it worth it?

Well I was only able to attend five sessions including John Benton's stimulating paper 'Going soft on sin?' He looked at the calamity of going soft on sin - we endanger the gospel which is all about dealing with sin. It is the seeming smallness of the first sin with makes some scoffers call the punishment disproportionate; but that same fact should actually make us consider sin's seriousness.

Secondly he looked at the causes of 'going soft' particularly the transition from an age of morality to an age of emotion.

Dr Benton then looked at consequences of going soft; and then at its cure - primarily a massive intervention of God in revival. How refreshing not to have a 'quick fix' or a series of evangelistic techniques given us!

Discussion afterwards focussed on the observation that people are not actually amoral - it's just that people draw the lines in different places. For example, we have abandoned the Ten Commandments as a measure of judgement (unless you are the world's greatest golfer) but get very indignant if anyone transgresses contemporary norms about gas-guzzling cars, unethical eating or other 'sins' against the environment, political correctness or children. Indeed we are in some ways a very intolerant and judgemental society.

People are of course made in God's image. They can no more escape this than they can pull themselves up by their own shoelaces. We are moral creatures and will draw the line between right and wrong somewhere. The trouble is, without God's Word we draw it in all the wrong places. Our morality will be determined, as all morality is, by our god. If our god is pleasure in some form, our religion is hedonism, and our morality will be tailored accordingly.

So preachers have a foothold in preaching the Law. We are not helpless. We must point out to people that they do look for judgement when they talk of 'really wicked' people. The difficulty is in seeing themselves as wicked, and seeing that God's criteria for good and evil apply to us all. Moreover we need to assert that his standard is perfection and that condemns us all.

Moreover, things are not 'all relative'. People prove that to themselves every day when they say 'it's all relative' or ' paedophiles should be punished more harshly' and 'Nick Griffin is evil' and 'terrorists are wicked' and 'industries must reduce their carbon footprint'. We cannot live without a sense of 'ought' and 'ought not'.

The next step is to show that God's Ought is the one that really counts. If there is a God then what could be more reasonable than that his Word is the say-so for us all?

Preach the Law we must. Thank you John for reminding us of that. Creation - what we are as humans, the witness to his image in us - is our ally in this. And as for revival - of course we need it. But then conviction of sin has always been a work of the Holy Spirit, whether during revivals or not. May we have more of his power among us and attending our preaching!

One other question - should we go on using biblical words like sin when people do not understand them and fill them with their own content? Surely the answer is yes! If we back off biblical words that unregenerate people distort we would stop using 'God'. The answer is to explain, illustrate and apply the words so people do understand them. That is - preach them. And pray for the Spirit to convict and enlighten.