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Audacious Faith for Supernatural Solutions to Enormous Problems

If you are facing a seemingly insurmountable problem, then this is for you. I pray that it blesses and encourages you. 

1 Samuel 14:6

Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”

Nothing can hinder God…

1 Samuel 13 describes in detail the pickle that Israel had gotten themselves into. In the first place, their God-anointed leader, Saul, had disobeyed God’s direct instruction through Samuel bringing judgment both on him and on the nation that he represented before God. In the second, with an army of only three thousand fighting men, Israel had managed to provoke the Philistine army, which was now making preparations to annihilate them. This army, we are told, consisted of six thousand charioteers, two to a chariot, and soldiers on foot ‘as numerous as the sand on the seashore. But the equation only got worse. When Israel saw the position they were in, the army went into hiding in “caves and thickets, among the rocks, and in pits and cisterns.” Most simply ran away in fear. In the end, there were only 600 men left facing a foe of tens of thousands. In the third place, only two men among those 600 carried with them weapons of war. The oppression of the Philistines was such that Israel had been prevented from amassing the necessary arms for the battle. Things could not have gotten much worse. Indeed their situation, had it not been so desperate would have been almost comical. It could only have ended with their doom, were it not for the miraculous power of God. And yet, not even those circumstances could hinder God from what he had chosen to do.

I challenge you today to line up your own circumstances with those Israel was facing. Let faith arise. Let hope arise. Let boldness arise. If God did it then, he can do it now. Nothing can prevent God from saving because saving is essential to his character. Its not about how big your circumstances are. Its not even about how much God loves you (though he loves you more than you can possibly imagine). When it comes to saving, its about God remaining true to his character.

…from saving…
God is into saving because he is a saviour. God is into delivering because he is a deliverer. God is into granting victory over impossible circumstances. Watch how he does it:

1. Audacious faith arises. 

Despite all that had happened to Israel, Jonathan still believed that Yahweh is a God who saves. So do we by the way. The very name of Jesus (Yeshua) upon which we call for our salvation literally means “Yahweh saves.” Indeed this was the purpose of the mission of Jesus to the earth: to reveal God as saviour by effecting our deliverance from the oppressive enemies of sin and death.

But notice that Jonathan’s faith, while audacious, is not presumptious. It does not manifest as a manipulative insistence on a particular outcome. Indeed, it begins only as a flicker of hope—”perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf”. Rather, his faith is manifest in a dogged refusal to allow the present circumstances to compromise the revelation of God as deliverer—”nothing can hinder the Lord from saving…”. This is the same kind of faith that his close friend David will show three chapters later when he confronts the giant Goliath. Like Jonathan, he has no way of knowing whether God would act in a particular way at that particular time. Like Jonathan, David takes what seems to be a reckless punt on God’s unchangeable character. And just as here with Jonathan, God responds, proving true to his character, and delivering not only David, delivering the nation through him.

2. Contagious boldness replaces fear.

Light is stronger than darkness. And in the same way that a little light dispels a lot of darkness, it only takes a little boldness to dispel a lot of fear. The few that were left of the army of Israel, were so afraid that they had taken to hiding in caves and pits and cisterns. And yet as Jonathan decares his faith in God’s character, boldness takes hold. It spreads first to his armour bearer who says in response “Do all that you have in mind…Go ahead. I am with you heart and soul.” It then spreads to the entire army who, emboldened by Jonathan’s success join in the pursuit. 

At any point the Philistines could have woken up to the situation and realised that logically they were the superior army. Their pursuers were far less in number and weaponless. But fear is a funny thing. A little boldness can turn the weapon of fear back on itself. Have you ever thought about that? Fear is one of our enemy’s most effective weapons. Have you ever stopped to consider why? Your enemy fears you. Because he knows that if you will but realise who you are—a son or daughter of the King of kings and thus invested with his full authority and resources; if you will but confess your faith in God’s unchangeable character—an all powerfull God of deliverance who cannot be hindered from delivering from our enemies; if you will but step out in obedient action, your enemy will be utterly defeated. All of the fear and intimidation that keeps you bound and keeps you from pursuing God’s purposes is nothing but a con. Its bluff. Powerful though he may wish you to think him, he knows well what we would do well to remember. He is a defeated foe. Let boldness arise! 

3. A supernatural strategy/solution emerges. 

The idea was so ridiculous that it just might have come from God. But he still wasn’t sure. Jonathan’s plan was to come out of hiding and show himself to an outpost of the Philistines. If the Philistines called out to them to “come up,” that would be the sign that God would give him victory over them. But notice that if they decided to come down to him, that would have meant destruction for him and his armour bearer since they had already given away their hiding place. In other words, once he had committed, there was no safe option. He and his armour bearer would fight for their lives either way.

To follow the traditional route of “inquiring of the Lord” before the battle would have required alerting others to his plan, which would certainly have prevented its execution. Sometimes faith requires us to commit to a course of action and ask God to direct rather than just sitting around and asking God what to do next. And sometimes faith requires us to put ourselves in a position where God has to ‘show up’ or we’re done for.

4. God brings supernatural multiplication.

So Jonathan and his armour bearer did exactly what Jonathan had suggested. They stepped out of their hiding place and challenged the enemy. From this point there was no turning back. And their enemies called out to them to “come up”—the sign. And so, with growing boldness, that’s exactly what they did. They had to climb with hands and feet to reach the Philistine outpost, which in itself would have been exhausting, and as soon as they got to the top, they had to engage in a battle where they were outnumbered at least ten to one. And yet, as they simply spent the energy that they had, God brought a multiplication to their efforts. He supplied what they needed for the climb and for the assault—surely no small miracle in itself—but then God brought a panic on the Philistines. They were in total confusion and began killing each other. Another miracle. And then there was a great multiplication of the resources as the other Israelites came out of hiding and joined in the pursuit.

…by many or by few
And so God brought about a great deliverance for Israel. It was miraculous from start to finish, but in order to accomplish it, he needed somebody to respond to him in faith; to declare the truth of God’s unchanging character, and then to prove that truth by his faith filled action.

Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few. In other words, God always acts in a way that is consistent with God’s character. And he is not limited by what we perceive as limitations. If your enemy is debt and you only have a few dollars, if your enemy is stress and you only have a few hours, if your enemy is the godlessness of a city or region and you only have a few people, nothing can hinder God from bringing victory over your enemies. God will deliever by many or by few. The question is, will he do it by you?


Grace #1: The Kindness and Severity of God’s Amazing Grace

Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. Romans 11:22

God’s Grace is Simple

Some people think of God only as wrathful and judgmental; others as infinitely loving and gracious. Indeed, these are the stereotypical extremes between which the pendulum of Church culture and practice swings, as from age to age and culture to culture, the Church does its best to preach and to embody the good news of God’s restorative love. Both extremes, while they have an element of truth, if taken by themselves are of course inadequate views of God—not perhaps heretical untruths, but lamentable and limiting sub-truths nevertheless. The whole truth is that God is Holy and Loving, Just and Forgiving.

Sometimes, because of the limitations of our understanding, we characterise God’s attributes as if they are in tension with each other. We might say for example, God is love, but since he is also a God of justice, he cannot co-exist with sin. And yet, as theologians remind us, God is simple—that is to say he is not composed of parts. What God is, he is entirely. In other words, though we may at times be, God is not confused. The various aspects of his nature are not in tension. That is (at least partly) why, I believe, the verse above invites us to consider both God’s kindness and his severity. We cannot properly understand one without the other. God’s grace then, is not merely an operation of his kindness, but rather it is an operation of God himself. It must flow therefore from his kindness and his severity, from love and from holiness, from compassion and justice.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, or the big Marshmallow in the sky?

Over the last couple of decades there has been a (sorely needed) revival of interest in and emphasis on God’s grace throughout much of the Church. In part, I believe this has resulted from an increasing realization of just how broken the world is, and how the church has all too often prioritized conformity to a norm over genuine empathy and compassion. We badly needed a grace revival. Nevertheless, it is all too easy for a badly needed theological corrective to become and over-correction. To return to the analogy of the pendulum, I wonder if we are not beginning to swing ‘past the middle’ on this issue. If so, it is certainly not in our teaching of the historic truth of sola gratia (grace alone), but rather in our narrow definition of what God’s grace entails.

I can already hear the objection. “Surely its not possible to overemphasise God’s grace.” True enough. And yet the Scripture with which I began this post invites us to consider both the kindness, and the severity of God. If our proclamation of the gospel emphasises one of these elements at the expense of the other, it may well function as a prophetic message in a particular cultural situation where imbalance already exists, even though it is not the ‘whole truth.’ Jonathan Edwards’ now infamous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is a great example of this. Edwards preached God’s wrath to a church that was complacent, proud, and dangerously apathetic, in order to provoke a response of repentance. We may well judge Edwards’ sermon (or its title—in my experience, most people who criticise it have never read it) from the perspective of a different cultural situation, as being lopsided, mean-spirited and judgmental. Edwards, it seems, considers only the severity of God, rather than also his kindness. His message is incomplete, but, I would argue, necessarily so. If an imbalance is to become balanced, it requires a counter balance.

In just the same way, however, the ‘grace message’ of today is in danger of considering the kindness of God only, at the expense of his severity. And while this message may perhaps function (or rather, may perhaps have functioned) as a necessary counter-balance in churches and cultures that are overly legalistic, it must be said that the contemporary Church, by and large, is currently somewhere near the opposite extreme. Furthermore, our western culture, into which this Church is called to be a prophetic voice; a culture whose central virtue is tolerance; could not be much further from the legalistic extreme that would legitimate a cheap-grace counterbalance. We need to be aware that a counter balance, if incorrectly placed may cause us to overbalance.

Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more

My point is that if we define God’s grace as equivalent only to his kindness, rather than flowing from his character, then we limit the operation of grace, which, in its fullest manifestation, both forgives and heals the sinner. The two sides of God’s grace are perhaps most clearly and simply seen in the response of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” To respond to sinners with the second part of this saying only—go and sin no more—is clearly legalism, but to omit the second part is only license. True Grace responds with both parts.

It is vitally important that we teach the whole truth about God’s character and hence about his grace. This does not require ‘toning down’ the preaching about grace that has become so popular, but rather beefing it up. Surely if the truth sets us free, then the whole truth will set us completely free. For this reason, I have decided to do a ‘mini-series’ of blog posts on grace over the coming weeks. Stay tuned.


Forgiveness: Strength in weakness

I forgive you, but its not ok

There is a huge difference between saying “I forgive you” and saying “that’s ok” when somebody apologises. With many smaller offenses, the difference may seem inconsequential, but as we ascend the levels of offense (if you will), the difference becomes clearer and more important. For example, if you accidentally step on my toe and say “I’m sorry,” I may well say in return “that’s ok” or “it doesn’t matter.” We’ll call that ‘level 1.’ If you accidentally run me over with your car however, its not ok. That requires forgiveness. We’ll call this ‘level 2.’ If you intentionally run me over with your car, but later regret it and apologise, (‘level 3’) I may wrestle with my decision to forgive you. But if you intentionally run me over with your car, and never regret it, (‘level 4’) I’m probably going to struggle, and for a long time.[i] It is because of these higher levels of offense, that true forgiveness, the Christian way, has been denounced as powerless, permissive, and passive. It isn’t.

The high cost of forgiveness

I still remember the day my Mum read me the story of the crucifixion for the first time. I don’t mean the sanitised ‘kiddie picture bible’ version “…but they didn’t like Jesus. So they put him on a cross. Then God made him come alive again…”—just the real words of Scripture. A lump began to form in my throat and when it got to this part I could take it no more and began to silently sob: “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again.” (Mt 27:28–31)

The detail is horribly graphic; the stripping and mocking intended to cause maximal humiliation. These men (along with the dehumanizing regime that saw them as expendable weapons of war rather than men) were incredibly spiteful, and utterly merciless. Jesus had already endured an unimaginable flogging, which many did not survive. Now they beat him around the head again and again with a rod (think baseball bat) for who knows how long; each blow driving the spikes from the ‘crown’ ever deeper. All this before the actual crucifixion. They were just getting warmed up. But it was not the graphic detail which brought me to tears. It was the sheer injustice of it. Jesus did not deserve this. And yet, he endured it for me.

Is 53:5–7 tells us that “…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

He endured it for us, for my healing and for your healing from the contagion of sin. And even in the agony of his final moments, he begged for the forgiveness of the perpetrators of this crime “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” How truly it is said that he is our advocate before the Father, for this prayer was prayed not just for the soldiers who nailed him to the cross, but for you and for me and for every sinner for whom he died.

Jesus endured it willingly

But he did not endure it passively. On the contrary, propelled inexorably by a love that I cannot imagine, he endured it willingly.

Back in the garden, Jesus made this crystal clear. Seeing Jesus arrested was more than Peter could take. In what can only be described as a fit of characteristic rashness, he drew his sword, slashing wildly in panic (that’s the only conclusion I can draw) and ended up cutting off somebody’s ear. For this, he was met with a rebuke. Jesus declared that if he had chosen, the Father would have put at his disposal ‘twelve legions of angels’ to prevent his arrest and execution (Matt 26:51–54). Make no mistake. Jesus endured the cross willingly. This is what sets the suffering of Christ apart from all other human suffering.[ii] He chose it. And he chose it for our sake. His suffering is not passive; his submission not weak.

And that is why repentance must accompany faith. For when God declares our sins forgiven; when we in faith, appropriate his dying prayer for us, we realise the tremendous weight of our own sin—it was our hands that drove the nails in, though it was not the nails, but rather his love for us that actually kept him on the cross. Our sins have been forgiven at a great cost.

Strong faith-filled forgiveness

I say all that to say this. True forgiveness is not weak. Nor is it passive. When we extend God’s forgiveness of us, that Jesus earned on the cross, to others, as indeed we must; when we say “I forgive you,” it is an act of strong faith. Its not just saying “its ok, it doesn’t matter, its not that big a deal.” Nor is it saying “Well my feelings are not important, so its ok that you walk all over me.” Its not ok. Its never ok. No, saying “I forgive you” is far from passive. It is an active declaration of faith. When we say “I forgive you” we simultaneously declare two things. First, we acknowledge the seriousness of the offense—it was serious enough to send Jesus to the cross. Second, we declare in faith that we believe that Jesus paid the penalty for the offense committed against us. And that his payment is enough. We therefore voluntarily relinquish the right for revenge. It isn’t weak. It isn’t passive. It takes guts. It takes faith. And its powerful and liberating. And as Christians, who have freely received God’s grace, we have no choice but to freely give it to others.

[i] Obviously there are higher ‘levels’ and to think that this progression is strictly linear risks over-simplification, but work with me here.

[ii] I might also add that this puts to bed the ridiculous and frankly blasphemous notion of the suffering of Christ as ‘cosmic child abuse’ put about by those who seem to want to undermine the power of the Cross. But more about this, perhaps, in another post.


What is Truth?

“What is Truth?”

This is the pervading question of the postmodern age, but it is not a new question at all. This was in fact the very question posed by Pilate at the trial of Jesus, just over 2000 years ago.

Jesus answered, “You are right in saying that I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. “What is truth?” Pilate asked. (John 18:37–38)

In my last post, I began to write about Jesus’ saying, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” I started with the first claim: “I am the Way.” In this post, I want to deal with the next claim “I am…the truth.” In that post I showed that when Jesus said “You know the way to the place where I am going,” the way that he was talking about was Himself, not just the path of life that they would have to travel in following Him. In the same way, when 1 John 2:20 says that “…you have an anointing from the holy One, and all of you know the truth,” it is not referring (only) to the knowledge of certain facts about God, but about the knowledge of Jesus himself who is the location and fullest expression of the Truth concerning the Father, the Very Truth himself.

The tragic irony in Pilate’s question—What is truth?—is of course that the answer was staring him in the face. Jesus is not a Truth among many, just as he is not merely a way among many. Jesus is not just a teacher who proclaimed truth. Jesus is the Truth. And for that reason he is the necessary beginning and the end (that is, the goal) of any sincere search for truth. For to know Jesus is to know the Truth, and to seek the truth is to seek Him.

Fully God and fully human

It is therefore of the utmost importance to understand exactly who and what Jesus was. The Bible reveals Jesus as both Human and Divine; the Son of Man, and the Son of God. In the words of Peter’s confession, Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” (see also Martha’s confession in John 11:27) and in Thomas’ words, he is “my master and my God.” The truth that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine has been codified since the early centuries in the language of the creeds (“true God of true God. . .of one substance with the Father. . .who for us all and for our salvation. . .was made man”).

A true understanding of Jesus then is one that recognizes both his humanity and his divinity. So on the one hand Jesus is the truth about God. Jesus came to do the Father’s will on the Father’s behalf, and by so doing, to reveal the Father to us. When Phillip said to him “Show us the Father and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8), Jesus answered:

Don’t you know me, Phillip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work (John 14:9–10).

On the other hand, Jesus is the truth about us. Jesus did not only come to represent God to us, but also to represent us to God. In Jesus we do not only see what God is like, we see what true humanity is like. Reading a Theology text recently,[1] I was challenged by the thought that we all too often devalue the image of God in humanity. We say for example, when speaking of a fault or a failure in somebody’s character, “well, he’s only human after all.” What we should say instead is “in that area at least, he is less than human.” The Bible tells us that humans were created very good—in God’s image and likeness—but that we fell through sin, becoming in the process something less than God’s original intent; less than human. Jesus came to reveal the Father, but he also came to restore humanity to the Father’s original intent, to be the image bearers of God who rule the planet on his behalf. The truth about Jesus is that he is fully human in a way that we ourselves can never be unless we find our identity in Him.

“Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. . .” (John 8:31–32)

In order to truly know Jesus, it is important to believe and confess rightly about him (the theological term for this correct belief and confession is orthodoxy). Jesus himself said, that true worshippers must worship the Father in spirit and in truth. That is to say, we do not worship God truly unless we believe and confess him as he truly is. But this is only the start. To worship the Father in truth does not only mean worshipping him truly but worshipping the Father out of our true identity in Christ, that is, in Truth. Because it is only in Christ that the Father becomes our Father.

The goal is to know Jesus, not just to know about Jesus, but we must know about Jesus in order to know him truly.

You have to know the truth in order to be set free by the Truth

This blog is called ‘Theology Matters’ because of my conviction that what we believe about God (theology) determines how we live our lives. I pray you would know, fully experience and enter into the truth of Jesus, the one who is Truth, the one who reveals his Father to us, inviting us, in him, to call his father Our Father and the one who shows us what it is to be fully human.

[1] Larry Hart’s Truth Aflame.