Monday, 26 July 2010

The Sabbath: a letter to 'The Briefing'

This is the text of a letter sent to 'The Briefing' from 'Exasperated of Welwyn'. In 'The Briefing' number 381 there was an article about the Sabbath which like their articles on worship I find frustrating. This article was actually very good except for the mantra-like refrain 'not under law but under grace therefore the Sabbath is not God's law for us today'. So this letter was sent - it helps to get things off one's chest.

It may not be published in 'The Briefing' so I am putting it here as well. I am sorry if it reads like one side of a telephone conversation.

Dear Sir,

David Moore's article on the Sabbath was stimulating and helpful. In particular, the emphases on the Sabbath being primarily a spiritual day (it belongs to the Lord; it is the day when we 'do church') and eschatological in its thrust (it points to our ultimate rest in that we 'recapture a taste of Eden before the Fall', and Christ has fulfilled it) were refreshing. The suggestions on how the Sabbath may be spent were also very helpful.

In fact I could agree with so much of the article that it seemed incongruous to read at least three times, in slightly different words, the conviction that the Sabbath is not binding on us because we are 'not under law but under grace'. I know that this is more or less 'Briefing orthodoxy', and seems to be becoming orthodoxy in much of modern western evangelicalism, but it really should not go unchallenged.

There is no space here to rehearse the arguments for the continuity of the Ten Commandments and the Sabbath in particular, but perhaps I could take up a point or two starting with David Moore's article?

First - the nature of the day. Yes, primarily spiritual and eschatological in thrust. But is there not a danger of an over-realised eschatology? Is it logical to say that because Jesus has fulfilled the Sabbath it no longer binds us as law? We are not in heaven yet. We are still sinners.The truly consummated Sabbath rest is yet to come. Is it illogical to have a special day in God's law for God's people? It would seem more logical in fact to have a special day until the End comes.

Second - the authority for the day. Intriguingly David Moore seems to spend the Sabbath much as many people who, like me, believe it is an abiding divine commandment. I guess he does so on a Sunday too - as most of us do, despite all the talk about the First Day of the week not being a Sabbath or mandatory.

So the question I ask is - why? What is the authority for spending the Sabbath as the Sabbath? If it is not divine law it could be, as far as I can see, (i) convenience - it suits us; (ii) convention - we've always done it that way; (iii) consensus - agreement universally, nationally or locally that that will be the day; (iv) calculation - it pays to use that day - that is, 'it works'; or (v) commandment of men - some human authority, church or otherwise, determines that Sunday will be the day.
In what way, though, are any of these an improvement as a motive on God telling us to keep the Sabbath? I think I would prefer a Sabbath Day commanded by God to a 'Sabbath-type' day subject to the vagaries of man. The Reformers after all delighted in liberating us from the commandments of men.

What I detect behind the repeated refrain 'not under law but under grace' (which in context has of course a very rich new covenant meaning) is
(a) the idea that law and grace are somehow antithetical. Now sometimes they are; I am not under the covenant or curse or condemnation of law, for example; but I am under it as a rule of life. Why should I not include God's authority over my week as part of that? and
(b) forgetting that the spiritual person delights in the law (Psalms19:7-11; 119:97,113). Does not the heart that loves God love a duty simply because it is from God? And to obey because we love him and because he is God - is that not the essence of the spiritual life - which Adam and Eve got spectacularly wrong because they could see no evident reason for God's command?

Jesus, not we, is Lord of the Sabbath. He claimed Lordship over it; was that only for three years? Was it to abolish it? Would something good, that was made for man (Mark 2:27) be struck out of the law - quite apart from the fact that Jesus after all did say the law would abide (Matthew 5:17-21)?

These comments do not of course in themselves make the case for the First Day Sabbath, but they are important features of the debate.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Mark Driscoll on Doctrine

Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe is a Big Black Book by Mark Driscoll and Gerry (pronounced, I am informed, with a hard 'G' as in 'gold') Breshears. It covers about 450 pages and incorporates 13 chapters. It was published by Crossway this year.

I am probably the only Christian in the Western world who has not visited the Mars Hill website and I know of Mark Driscoll only by name and something of his reputation for being 'cutting edge', to say the least. That both makes me incredibly ignorant, but perhaps I can call it 'complete objectivity' which qualifies me to read the book with an open mind.

It is a rattling good read, a kind of doctrinal equivalent of a book to read on a plane or on the beach - and that is honestly intended to be a compliment. The authors cover the ground of systematic theology from 'The Trinity: God Is' to 'The Kingdom: God Reigns' in large but easily digestible chunks. Along the way we have 'Revelation: God Speaks', 'Creation: God Makes', 'Image: God Loves', 'Fall: God Judges', 'Covenant: God Pursues,' 'Incarnation: God Comes', 'Cross: God Dies', 'Resurrection: God Saves', 'Church: God Sends', 'Worship: God Transforms' and 'Stewardship: God Gives'.

For any preacher there is ample stimulation and instruction on how to preach doctrine - yes, not just doctrinally, but doctrine. The chapters are full of homiletic gold: the way the subjects are approached, such as 'the Trinity' introduced by a catalogue of human longings reflecting the reality of creation by a Triune God; and 'Worship' introduced by a scintillating discussion of contemporary idolatries; the practical applications are challenging; the illustrations and examples are illuminating as also are helpful quotes from worthies of church history.

One of the things that impressed me early on was that the vast majority of footnotes are Bible references. This is not doctrine culled from a Systematic Theology. It is fresh and vital.

What of the content? Is it 'sound'? I have heard that Mars Hill lost a lot of members through this teaching, or at least this teaching being insisted on as the condition of membership, which may mean any number of things but at least suggests that Mark Driscoll is serious about the importance of doctrinal integrity and truth.

On the whole the doctrinal content is excellent and one rejoices that so much orthodox, Biblical truth is being preached by a man who has a large following. There are some points on which I would disagree; for example, his charismatic position on gifts (in the chapter on 'Stewardship').

On 'creation' they take the view of an old earth (Genesis 1:1) but a young humanity and 6/24 hour days.

Almost inevitably (today), and sadly, they take the line that the Sabbath was a ceremonial law and not now binding on Christians (though the other nine commandments are as they are repeated by Jesus). There is nonetheless a very helpful section on how to spend the 'Sabbath' under 'Stewardship.

A reservation doctrinally was a slight fog over 'justification'. They evidently believe in the distinction between imputed and imparted righteousness, as this is explicitly stated in discussing the gospel in the chapter on 'The Church'. In the chapter on 'The Cross', when dealing with justification, they clearly state that Christ gives us 'his perfect righteousness', citing 1 Corinthians 1:30. They talk of the 'great exchange' (2 Corinthians 5:21) yet the waters are slightly muddied when they go on to say 'The gifted righteousness of Jesus is imparted to us at the time of faith, simultaneous with our justification. Not only does God give us family status, but he also gives us new power and a new heart through the indwelling Holy Spirit'.

Now - as they have previously used the concept 'gifted righteousness' to refer to imputed righteousness in justification, why now say that this is 'imparted' in a context where they are clearly referring to regeneration? It is a bit unclear and risks confusion of imputed and imparted righteousness, though they evidently believe in the distinction.

A further reservation was in the matter of proportion: whereas justification and propitiation are dealt with in about three pages each, 'stewardship' is given a whole chapter and there are about ten pages on 'giving' and eight pages on church discipline and why Christians should join a church. One wonders if the bigger concern is truth or management; liberating people from the dominion and guilt of sin or controlling church members. These matters are not unimportant of course, but in a book called 'Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe' one would have expected more on some of the fundamentals of the gospel and less on church administration.

This is no replacement for a more careful and detailed systematic theology - but then I should think its authors would never claim it was. Despite reservations it is, however, a great inspiration for preachers on making doctrine come alive.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Religious 'marriages' for gays

It is now two weeks since this headline appeared in a national newspaper. The opening paragraph reads: 'Homosexual couples could be allowed to "marry" in traditional religious ceremonies for the first time, a government minister has said.'

Question: around which noun in the headline do you think inverted commas would be most appropriate?

More substantially, what is the issue that really matters? Let me suggest some:

1. The idea that a government minister has the right to permit when 'religious readings, music and symbols' could be used in a 'civil partnership ceremony'. But I suppose the concept of the established church was acquiesced in several centuries ago. Can Anglicans complain?

2. The idea that 'religious readings, music and symbols' have some sort of influence on the nature of an act when that act is itself contrary to the law of God. Is this a kind of Coalition version of transubstantiation? To change an illicit partnership into marriage - just bless it.

3. The idea of religion entertained by the minister (Lynne Featherstone). Clearly a human construct which can be directed and regulated at will by human governments. Not novel but certainly godless.

4. The idea that a partnership between two men(or women)could ever be legitimate whatever religious or other ceremony inaugurated it. Legally, civil partnerships would become virtually identical to marriages as the Equality Act last year removed the bar on same sex unions in churches and other places of worship. So they can take place in church. But are these church civil partnerships then at present without any religious music readings or symbols? Church without religion?

Moreover, if they allow civil partnerships to take place with religious paraphernalia in secular venues, this would be unfair to civil heterosexual marriages as no religious element is allowed when these take place in register offices or venues such as stately homes, hotels or hot air balloons.

So what a muddle it is all getting in to.

And none of it makes it marriage anyway because marriage is and always will be between a man and a woman.

5. The idea, finally, that people who have no regard for the teaching of the Bible (in at least its traditional form) yet want religious elements to their ceremonies. But religion without truth has been going on since the dawn of time so one should not be surprised.

Plus ca change...