My review of Popologetics and some thoughts on gospel contextualisation in general

The aim of this essay is to offer a review and critique of Ted Turnau’s book, Popologetics. I will begin by outlining a brief synopsis of the book, before spending more time on what I found helpful and not so helpful in terms of the content within. I will then give some concluding thoughts.

Short synopsis

Popologetics is split into three sections. The first sets some foundations in place as to what one means by ‘popular culture’ and ‘worldview’ while also laying out a brief theology of popular culture. The second offers a critique of some ‘not so helpful approaches to engaging popular culture’ – it’s here Turnau analyses earlier books penned by Christians on the subject. In the third and final part, he submits his own framework for engaging popular culture, applying this model to five such examples.

What I found helpful

Worldview

I was particularly grateful for Turnau’s explanation of the term ‘worldview.’ While I did already have a decent enough understanding of the expression, he further clarified my thinking by helping me realise how one’s worldview affects:

  • How we see the world
  • What are the terms of debate within our world
  • What we live for – i.e. what is worth pursuing in the world
  • How we define and value the things of ‘our worlds’
  • What is and is not up for discussion in the world, and
  • Who we are as individuals and groups

High vs Low culture

I was also thankful for Turnau’s point that just because something may be termed ‘popular culture’ (as opposed to ‘high culture’), it does not mean that it isn’t of considerable cultural and artistic value. He explains how popular culture – whether it be pop music, blockbuster films or TV shows has much to offer in this regard, and as such, how it can help us see what the world values. I also agree with Turnau that popular culture influences (or at least does so potentially) societies and it’s the dominant worldviews and ideas within them just as much, if not more so, than ‘high’ culture.

Related to this, I was helped by Turnau’s historical analysis of how the concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture developed in some cultural contexts. I found it interesting to learn of part race played in deeming Jazz music as popular, or ‘low’ culture and therefore as being of lower value than ‘high culture.’ Indeed, from a technical standpoint, Turnau compellingly argues that Jazz music is just as complex as other genres of music adjudged to be part of ‘high’ culture. Further, I found his explanation of how certain social levers such as the price of participation have been used to keep certain cultural pursuits (the opera for example) as ‘high’ culture. In short, whether something is deemed as high or low culture has at least something to do with the barriers attach to participating in that activity, and not necessarily its complexity or ability to convey complex ideas about a culture, society or anything else.

Enjoying Pop Culture

I was also glad to be reminded that there is a great deal of good to be enjoyed in what God created – pop culture included. Whether it’s a TV programme, film or pop song, Turnau rightly states that it is right not only to enjoy these things as part of God’s good creation, but also when enjoying such culture to worship God as the one who gives animators, musicians, writers the creativity and talent to craft it. He also usefully adds that as much as popular culture should lead us to worship, it should also remind us that we live in a fallen world corrupted by sin, whether that be through the false and damaging ideas portrayed through popular culture or it’s use of these things as idols.

What I found unhelpful

Contextualisation

The main weakness of Popologetics can be found in part 3, whereby Turnau turns his attention to how we should biblically engage with pop culture.

In brief, he recommends that to engage both and with our non-believing friends and family who partake in pop culture, we should, essentially, seek to first understand pop culture and then engage evangelistically on these terms.

To help explain this some more, here’s an extract from the book (p.211) which suggests how to critically engage culture from a Christian perspective:

‘We need to listen to our culture and argue with it for a bit before we are ready to speak creatively into it. Further, we need to remember that the culture (including popular culture) that surrounds us is the worldview of our friends, our neighbours, our children, and ourselves. We need to be able to understand the cultural world around us if we are going to speak the gospel meaningfully into the lives of others, or even our own lives. Popular culture is, in many cases, the point of contact with the hearts and minds of those whom God has called us to love. The shows, websites, songs, games and movies that circulate in our culture show something of the landscape of the hearts of those around us (and our own hearts as well). If we would love these people intelligently, we would be well advised to pay attention to that landscape, to be able to decipher its meanings and respond persuasively to the siren call that makes it to our desires.’

Turnau goes onto recommend five core questions to ask when engaging with pop culture:

  1. What’s the story?
  2. Where am I (the world of the text)?
  3. What’s good and true and beautiful about it?
  4. What’s false and ugly and perverse about it (and how do I subvert that?)
  5. How does the gospel apply here?

Now before I go any further, I want to say that despite having never met the bloke, it seems like Turnau is a genuine brother in Christ, who sees Jesus as Lord and who loves the Bible, which is great. Further, I am not saying his approach is wrong per se – if the gospel is shared (in whatever way), then that’s a great thing. What I am saying though is that to my mind, his approach does have flaws which I’d like to explore – not so as to ‘have a dig’, but to help us all think about how to fulfill the glorious Great Commission (Matthew 18:16-20) which we’ve all been given.

My main issue with Turnau’s methodology is that he recommends a kind of ‘bottom up’ approach. That is (and as the above extract from the book makes clear), we should engage popular culture by framing our gospel proclamation in reference to the piece of popular culture in question or popular culture more generally. Whilst I agree that this method might be helpful, I’m far from convinced that other approaches aren’t as, if not more helpful and biblical in regard to engaging popular culture.

Correspondingly, Turnau didn’t do enough to convince me from scripture that his approach was preferable compared to others – throughout the book there is very little in the way of expository textual analysis. This (even in rudimentary form) would have helped give more credence to what he was advocating.

It seems sadly ironic that having done such a good job exposing how our worldview helps shape our interpretation of the world around us, Turnau goes onto advocate an approach that runs the risk of forcing the gospel to fit into the language, imagery and context of popular culture. It would surely make much more sense, if we really do see scripture as authoritative and sufficient, to speak and share a biblical worldview into the world in which we inhabit (in which popular culture plays a part). I elaborate on this thought below.

A ‘top down’ approach

If scripture is indeed authoritative and sufficient to help us grow in Christ-likeness and glorify our heavenly father (Psalm 19:7-11, Psalm 119:105, Proverbs 30:5-6, 2 Timothy 3:15-16, Hebrews 4:12) then it surely makes sense that we employ a ‘top down’ approach to our evangelism and cultural engagement. That is, we should be confident that when we share scripture faithfully, God will be faithful to work in hearts according to his perfect sovereign will (Acts 17:32-34, Romans 1:16-17, Ephesians 1:11). Put briefly, what scripture from Old to New Testament gives us is uniquely and solely sufficient to help win souls and to sanctify his church, both individually and corporately.

This ‘top down approach’ is very much mandated in scripture. When we look at the apostle’s ministry in the book of Acts (Acts 17) and in the letters thereafter, what we clearly see is confidence in the apostles to share a Gospel message and truth that is directly from God (Galatians 1:11-12, John 14:16). As such, we see that the primary concern of the apostles was not to contextualise a Gospel message so that it might become more appealing or understandable to its listeners, but to share truth, as it is and let God do the work in converting (or not) those who listened. Therefore, if we just concentrate on sharing the gospel, then we can be confident that God will make the gospel and scriptures understandable to those whom he desires.

Indeed, Paul in his letter to the Galatians goes to great depth to tell his audience how they were not to desert the true gospel (which he had been given from God) for an alternative one (Galatians 1). If we believe that the truth of the gospel and Bible has been directly revealed from God to the prophets and apostles and that it is unique in all the ways detailed above, we should be careful to be as true to it as we can when talking to unbelievers.

Observe too how the apostle Paul was so keen to share the unadulterated truth as it was revealed to him that he was willing to be beaten and killed in the process for doing it (2 Corinthians 11:23-28), and even after receiving such beatings carrying on sharing what he had been given from God! Thus, it’s interesting to note how bad reactions to the gospel don’t seem to have had an effect on Paul’s willingness to share the unadulterated truth. I do wonder whether sometimes, our eagerness to contextualise comes down to not wanting to experience a negative reaction when sharing truth with others.

It is true to say of course that Paul and others acknowledged their audience and even some of the cultural artefacts around at the time. Yet in recognising this, we can be sure that they didn’t seek to any extent to contextualise their message. One such scripture that is sometimes used to support the view that Paul did in fact contextualise is 1 Corinthians 9 (‘I have become all things to all men….’). However, notice when reading this chapter how Paul, rather than contextualising the message, is actually saying that he is becoming like men so that he might share the unaltered message that he’s been given. Paul is very keen that he himself would not be a barrier to the message to the gospel.

Applied today, this might look like something my church did recently when it held an evangelistic event. Members of the church were encouraged to invite unbelieving friends and colleagues to an event of craft beer, hot dogs and such like, before a talk on the gospel given by one of our ministers with the opportunity for conversation and follow up thereafter. And so, if this is what we mean by contextualisation, then I’m all for it! That is, removing any barriers relating to food, drink and surroundings so that people might come and hear the true gospel plainly proclaimed and engaging people in conversation so that truth can be shared on a one to one level.

Furthermore, as we seek to read, meditate, pray and apply the Bible to our and others lives and use it as the reference point for all what we encounter in this world (the ‘top down’ approach), we will be able to critically appraise pop culture and engage with it and our non-believing friends and family about it in the way Turnau rightly desires (Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 4:12). Indeed, as far as engaging others is concerned, I’m unsure Turnau’s rubric in part 3 (the five questions detailed above) is more effective than merely talking to a person about their pop culture interests. That is, as we chat with a believer, we will soon gain an idea of what they’re into and what they understand about it, and will be able to share the unfettered gospel/scripture with them lovingly and truthfully.

In closing, I hope to have offered biblical evidence as to why a ‘top down’ approach to cultural engagement may be better than a ‘bottom up’ one, as advocated in Popologetics. Let me be clear, I’m not against holding film nights, video game marathons, or whatever else with the purpose of sharing the gospel – I’m all for them! What I am arguing for though is an approach where we don’t have to explore everything (or even anything) about a particular cultural artefact (film, TV show or whatever) before engaging pop culture and/or sharing the gospel. All we need is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the timeless truth of scripture. When we share this, however feebly or weakly, and in whatever context, God in his grace does his work (2 Corinthians 7). Indeed, as we grow in our understanding of the gospel and scripture through personal bible reading, meditation, prayer and sitting under sound teaching, we’ll find ourselves able to biblically engage pop culture. Thus, while learning about the aforementioned shows might very well be helpful in sharing the gospel, and might provide a way into conversations about Jesus and scripture – I don’t believe they are as preferable or as important as Popologetics suggests.

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Why in today’s disunited times, biblical unity matters

‘The times, they are a-changing’, so goes the familiar melody by Bob Dylan, and when you look both at the world we live in today, and how it might change in the future, it would be hard to disagree with Mr Dylan wouldn’t it? To me, this change is particularly characterised in two ways. First, we seem to be in a state of increased disunity. The changes thrust upon us in recent times seem to have exposed divisions based on colour, religion, politics, income, I could go on. Second, we live in a world of uncertainty. Of course, change of whatever kind often brings uncertainty, and events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are no exception.

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You may be pleased to read that I’m not going to spill any ink analysing policy, scrutinising decisions and their implications or studying the character and morality of figureheads. Plenty of this has been done already and will continue to permeate our screens in the days, months and years to come. Instead, in part 1, I want to argue that the disunified and uncertain times we live in should lead Christians to take heart, and perhaps surprisingly, rejoice. Part 2, focusing on the theme of uncertainty, will be published in due course.

Disunity

I’ve just finished looking at the book of Ephesians with my Bible Study Small Group. One of the things we saw was how both Jew and Gentile believers have been united as one body. This wasn’t done on the basis of race, income, politics or any human means, but by the blood of Jesus Christ. As such, Paul is saying that if people groups as different (and as vehemently opposed to one another) as Jews and Gentiles have been brought together by the blood of Jesus, then so have we today in all our differences.

And so, because we are unified in one body, Paul prays that:

‘Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’

This prayer shows us that the unity that has been achieved isn’t just any old unity, but an incredible, amazing unity so much better than anything the world can offer.

Paul goes onto say that if we have been unified in this way, we should act like it. Paul wants us to maintain this amazing unity we’ve been given, and one the ways we do that is by building up the body by speaking the truth (that is, the truth of the Bible) in love with another:

‘Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.’

Now, it goes without saying that we’re still sinners, and this unity won’t be fully realised in all its glory until Jesus comes again and ushers in the new creation. In addition, we as a body, in our own families, congregations and churches will sometimes find it hard to maintain this unity, and we won’t always feel that unified. It is true however to say that in Paul’s eyes, we are undoubtedly unified now. Further, as well-being able to know this factually, we’re also able experience something of the joy of this unity today.

In an increasingly disunified world, these realities should provide great comfort to us as a body today.

It isn’t just about us though. My hope and prayer is that as the church displays this unity, outsiders would see be attracted to it[1], particularly in today’s increasingly fraught environment.

Maybe they’ll notice the way which we actively seek to speak the truth in love with those who have different views about Brexit or Donald Trump, instead of segregating and sowing discord. Or perhaps they’ll be struck by the way we refrain from calling people who are different to us nasty names, instead affirming them as part of a closely-knit body. Alternatively, they might see the way we don’t merely tolerate those different to us, but cherish them as if we dearly need them in our Christian walk.

Needless to say of course that there’s more we as a body can be doing to pursue biblical unity, but the fact remains that to my mind, these things even only slightly demonstrated show the Church to be a more united institution than any man-made equivalent.

To sum up, making efforts to pursue and maintain unity is worth it for at least three reasons. First, it’s a biblical command. Second, it’ll do us individually and corporately as a body the world of good. Thirdly, this unity puts the majesty and glory of God’s church on display to both the ‘rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’, and to the world at large. With all this in mind, let’s keep going in pursuing unity, in good times and in bad and whether it seems easy or hard.

[1] See 2 Cor 2:15-16, John 13:34-35

4 reflections on unemployment

I’ve just emerged from a time of unemployment, well, sort of. I finished a long-ish term position in April this year, and have now just been offered a full time role (praise the Lord!), having had a couple of intermittent short term temporary posts in the intervening period. Here are 4 reflections.

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1. Fundamental truths

You’ll maybe have heard and have believed the basic truth ‘God provides what his children need everyday’ or a variation of it for years. And yet, during the last few months, God has led me to believe this in a fundamentally deeper way as I’ve been unsure as to what the future holds. I think this has something to do with the fact that when a safety net like a job is removed, we (as was the case for me) are forced to trust in God’s providence in a more real way than previously. As we do so, we see the folly of self-reliance and the wisdom of God reliance.

Likewise, you may be familiar with the adage – ‘your value is in Christ.’ During this season of uncertainty, It’s been a real privilege to see more clearly how in a culture that screams at us ‘you are your job’, ‘your value is defined by your career’ and so on, how our value is actually defined solely in Jesus. This is to say that whether we’re a CEO, a cleaner, banker, lawyer, baker or whatever, when God looks at the believer, he sees Jesus – we can have no higher value! As I worried about my friends ‘getting ahead’ in the world of work, and how others might think of me now I was unemployed, God drew me back to this unconditional reality – enabling me in the process to perceive and appreciate this truth more acutely.

2. It’s not about me….

When jobless, it can be very easy to get caught up in ourselves. That is, as we expend lots of energy and time trying to find that job, I think we can become somewhat cocooned, as if the world revolves around me and finding my job. At church, we’ve just started studying Ephesians and one the amazing truths of the book is not only that as believers, we were chosen to be holy and blameless before the foundation of the world, or that God has a plan to unite all things in heaven and earth under Jesus, but that the reason he does these things is so that he might be praised. We’re also told elsewhere in the Bible to do all things to the glory of God. Applied today, the Bible as a whole teaches us that life is not all about me and my life, but about God’s glory, and the praise of that. This acts as a real challenge to me!

3. How’s the job situation?

During the last month, I’ve been greatly blessed as friends and family have shown love and support through prayer, practical advice, offers of financial support and more. I’d like to think that as this has happened, we as the wider body of Christ have grown together in Godliness. As such, we shouldn’t see the joblessness of our brothers and sisters as a burden, or something to be ashamed of, but as an opportunity for love and service.

Having said that, I’ve been doing some thinking about the amount of times I’ve been asked ‘How’s the job situation?’ No doubt, I was asked this out of genuine loving concern. However, I wonder whether the frequency to which this question was put to me shows something of the sometimes unhelpful value we place on work and the employment status of our friends and family. In actual fact, I wouldn’t have minded if my employment position hadn’t been raised as much in conversations. Why? Firstly, out of slight social embarrassment on my part if there had been no change from the previous week, or feeling pressured to put a positive gloss on things when asked that question. Secondly, because our lives don’t revolve around jobs, nor, as discussed already, do they define us.

4. It could be you

In employment terms, we live in an increasingly short term, fragile and transient age. Gone for the most part are ‘jobs for life’, and in are short term temporary assignments, zero hours contracts and consultancy agreements. And while it’s still far too early to assess the consequences of Brexit, sizeable job losses may take place in certain sectors in the months and years to come. Even if you are on a relatively secure, ‘perk-tastic’ contract, many will tell you that an unjust boss, a hostile work culture, and sub-par personal performance could leave you out of work. Put simply, unemployment can happen to anyone. This should keep those of us currently in work humble – not in anyway thinking ourselves as superior as unemployed brothers and sisters.

Summing up

Overall, the last few months have led me to a deeper appreciation of certain biblical truths. I’ve been reminded that trials exist to refine our faith, and to help transform us into the image of Jesus. This time has also helped alter my perspective; in the grand scheme of things, my career really doesn’t matter that much! Finally, God has used the last few months to help me better understand how we can be helping those in the church who find themselves without a job.

Why I’ll be voting to stay in the EU

It’s hard to believe, but the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) is little more than a day away. Which way will it go? With the polls neck and neck, it really is anyone’s guess.

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Countless claims and counter claims have been made about innumerable topics, but to my mind two issues have stood out – the economy and immigration. Both these are well worth considering for sure, yet for the Christian there is something even more important to think about, the implications for the spread of the Gospel – the Great Commission to evangelise and make disciples of Christ. This could certainly involve the sending of missionaries and the planting of churches, but it could also entail individual Christians moving abroad to undertake ‘normal 9 to 5 jobs’, wishing to do their bit in building brothers and sisters up in Christlikeness.

Before I go any further, I don’t want to claim that whether to ‘bremain’ or ‘brexit’ is an issue of primacy where disagreement should lead to division. Many faithful Christian brothers and sisters are sure to disagree on this question, and that’s ok.

With that in mind, allow me to make my case as to why I will be voting to remain in the EU.

At present – I could move to European nations such as Spain, France, or Germany to work and it would be done. No visas, no restrictive domestic immigration rules, no fuss.

Now, if we do vote to leave, we could remain in the European Economic Area (EEA) or the single market and do a Norway or Switzerland respectively. This would mean that despite being outside the EU, we could still work and live throughout the EEA and single market which includes countries in the EU plus a few others, and with the same ease as is currently the case.

It’s worth noting however that the Vote Leave front men – Messrs Gove and Johnson believe we’d be better off out the EEA and single market altogether. The argument goes that once outside Britain will be able to negotiate it’s own deals with individual European nations regarding the free movement of labour. In other words, Britons could move and work throughout much of Europe as before even if outside the EEA and single market..

However, and bearing in mind that Vote Leave want to tighten the rules restricting the flow of migrants into the United Kingdom, how likely is it that the powers that be in Brussels will allow the British to move to other countries freely to work, yet will also allow Britain to impose tougher rules on who can come through it’s borders? Some may wish to take this chance, but personally I don’t view it likely that a complete withdrawal from the EEA and single market would mean things would go on as before. In fact, I think things would be tougher for British believers wanting to move abroad.

Why? Well consider the argument that because we are a major trading partner of the EU, we would be able to use this leverage to negotiate preferential labour movement terms vis a vis the above (we can move freely, and restrict the numbers coming in). However, this ignores the fact that the EU is an even more important trading partner for us. In other words, in terms of trade, we rely on them more than they rely on us.

Only God knows how things will go both on Thursday and in terms of free movement negotiations should Vote Leave prevail. However, given the above, I think the risk is too great. For the reasons given above, I think there is a more than reasonable chance that Brexit would make the spread of the Gospel throughout the Europe harder than it is now.

As a result, I will be voting to remain in the European Union on Thursday.

Who is Jesus anyway?

Christmas, great! Looking forward to chilling out, spending time away from work, with the family.

Christmas, great. Another Christmas having to endure Grandma’s farts, trying (but inevitably failing) to avoid arguing with Christina and putting up with Dad’s rants about Politics.

Christmas, great! Looking forward to eating, drinking and getting Merrah!!

Christmas, great. Another Christmas on my own, thinking about everyone and everything I’ve lost.

What does Christmas mean to you? Maybe you can relate to one or more of these scenarios.

Yet, when all is said and done, Christmas is about one person.

Jesus.

And when we think of Jesus, maybe an image like this comes into our heads:

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Yeah? So? Why does matter? Jesus is born, grows up, says some wise things, dies a tragic death, the end. Can we get to the presents and eating please? Casino Royale is on isn’t it?

As good as it is to lie back, relax and enjoy some good food, presents and TV in the presence of family and friends, doesn’t it make sense to spend a little bit of time thinking about the person it all goes back to?

As such, to get an idea of who Jesus truly was it makes sense to go back to the source text, the Bible. To begin with, the Bible says that Jesus was fully God (John 1:1-14). Ever wondered what God is like? Well, you could do a lot worse than to look upon the man Jesus as revealed in the pages of the Bible. Have a think about that when you’re tucking into your sixth helping of whatever it is people eat at Christmas these days.

Still, you might be thinking – ‘why does this matter?’ Or ‘how will this effect little Jonty as he opens his king size remote control fire engine complete with singing and dancing Fireman Rupert on Christmas Day morning?’ And you’d have a good question. Why does it matter that God came as a human being to earth? It all seems a bit abstract and dusty and quite frankly, all rather meaningless.

Except that it really isn’t. Eyewitnesses at the time tell us that (amongst other things) Jesus came to save us from our sin (1 Timothy 1:15), which is a short way of saying that we’ve all turned away from God (Romans 3:12), lived our lives with no regard to him, and are therefore deserving of judgement, or death (Romans 6:23).

Enter Jesus.

Without Jesus death and resurrection (God put Jesus forward to die on our behalf so that by faith we might not have to endure the punishment we deserve, see Romans 3:25) we’d be up a certain creek without a paddle, facing total separation from God and an eternity in Hell. If your answer to that is ‘my friends will be in Hell’ or ‘oh, at least it’ll be warm in Hell’ then might I humbly suggest that you haven’t really understood how bad Hell, or sin, really is.

Some people don’t like mention of all this Hell stuff, and in one sense, neither do I. Yet, without it the Bible says we don’t really get a sense of God’s love. That is, in order to understand God’s love for us, we surely have to understand what we’ve been saved from (Romans 5:8).

And yet there’s more. This fully God fully man Jesus also desires to know us. This again is only possible through Jesus death and resurrection, and knowing God in this way changes everything. From our human relationships, to what we live for in life, everything. To know God then is to live in a way God naturally intended, it’s what we were created to do (Genesis 3).

One last thing. Jesus, the supposedly sweet docile baby, grew up not only to die and resurrect (although that is quite something in itself) but is also now the ruler of heaven and our universe (Ephesians 1:22). As such, there are two options. We can either refuse to acknowledge Jesus rightful place as ruler of the world and our lives (Romans 3:10-12), or we can pledge allegiance to Christ, receive forgiveness for our rebellion and live under Jesus rule, with all the benefits that entails.

For Christians, Christmas gives us a chance to reflect on Jesus really is, what he’s done for us and what a privilege it is to know him as our king.

And if you don’t yet know him, why not spend some time in the next few days reflecting on who Jesus really is?

This talk by Jamie Child (minister at St Helen’s Church Bishopsgate) is as a good place to start. A Christianity Explored course would also be an ideal opportunity to ask any questions you might have.

Merry Christmas everyone!

 

Justification, sanctification and taking possession of what is already yours

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 I’ve been reflecting on the whole ‘justification vs sanctification debate’ lately and how we (myself very much included) can become tied up in knots about whether one cancels out the other, or how both interact.

On the one hand, it can be tempting to think that once we put our trust in Jesus Christ then we’re saved, that’s it, we can now live our lives as we please until eternity. On the other hand, I think we can beat ourselves up by thinking faith alone doesn’t make us righteous in front of God and that we have to demonstrate evidence of works in order to be saved. In other words, salvation isn’t by faith at all, but is salvation by works, or salvation by faith and works, or salvation by faith but made extra certain by works.

Many reformed commentators argue that Christians tend to fall into the first of these categories. That is, we take our salvation by granted and can take the ‘easy’ option of coasting along. Whilst I’m sure this is true for many, I think many of us can believe the second or third category. I know I can! We can doubt the fact that we’re saved by faith and think that we have to make our own distinct effort (i.e. works) in order to make our salvation absolutely sure.

Luckily, God in his grace hasn’t left us to flounder in anxiety and worry about this.  Jesus (God in human form) has given us the apostles to teach us on this issue. What is more, this teaching of the apostles is backed up with the authority of Jesus himself. We’d therefore be wise to listen to their words given to us in the New Testament.

As such, at the 10:30 am service at St Helen’s Church, we’ve recently been looking through the second letter of one of Jesus’ apostles, Peter. In a sermon three weeks ago, William helpfully brought out the fact that we’ve been saved by faith (as a gift from God by his grace), and that we are totally secure in this (2 Peter 1:1-4). William also brought our attention to what Peter says in the following verses, where he urges the believer to make every effort to take possession of what is already theirs. That is, the things Peter lists in verses 5-7 that pertain to Christlikeness already belong to the believer. It isn’t that we have to take part in some sort of theological treasure hunt to discover them, which in turn leads to the ultimate treasure of salvation. No, by his amazing grace, God has already given us all these things.

I don’t think I’d appreciated this in quite this way before. I knew (despite my sinful self/the devil sometimes trying to deceive me otherwise) that I’m saved by God’s grace through faith alone. I also knew that one of the main thrusts of the New Testament is to exhort the believer towards Christlikeness (i.e. sanctification.) Yet I suppose I never knew quite how to mete these two things together.

Yet the apostle Peter offers an inspired answer:

Knowing that we’re saved (through faith by God’s grace), let us make every effort to obtain what is already ours.

Here’s the text in question. Feel free to leave a comment below!

Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

Confirm Your Calling and Election

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

12 Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. 13 I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, 14 since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

Jesus’ agenda isn’t political, it’s so much bigger!

There’s an election on!

Or at least there will be come May 7th. And as was to be expected I suppose there’s been all manner of hype and insufferable tweeting regarding who’ll win, who won’t, who we should vote for and who we shouldn’t. For political nuts like me it’s easy to be swept up in election fever, and even if you’re not particularly into politics you may too be looking forward to seeing the swingometer swinging with abandon and the results coming in overnight. I know I am!

Christians too will of course not be immune from all this coverage, and I’m confident some fellow believers may even tell us who we should be voting for, what policy issues we should care about and so on. As such, Christians should remember this simple but important fact:

Jesus’ agenda isn’t political; it’s so much bigger!

This is a glorious and exciting truth whatever your level of interest and views regarding politics, and in what follows I hope to explain why.

Involved without losing perspective

Firstly, let me say that it isn’t wrong to be interested in politics, nor that Government (of whatever hue) is inherently bad and to be avoided. The apostle Paul says that Government has been instituted by God (Romans 13:1) and that we should pray for our political leaders -‘that we should live a quiet and peaceful lives’ (1 Timothy 2:2). These scriptures therefore encourage a certain degree of engagement in the political process; even it is just paying taxes, obeying government and praying for our leaders.

Some will, in tune with their individual gifts feel particularly motivated to get more involved in the political process. This is a good thing. We need a gospel witness in the social, cultural and political sphere as much as (but not more than) in the accountancy office, factory, school etc.

Yet we need to realise that no amount of political and policy intervention will deal with humanity’s biggest problem – sin, which has ever present in the world since the fall (Genesis 3). Jesus said as much when he said that from the human heart come all manner of evil (Mark 7:21-22). Indeed, the problems we see in the world today can be directly attributable to sin, whether indirectly through the broken world we live as a consequence of the fall, or via direct human action.

The only solution to this fatal problem is the gospel (which can be summed up as ‘Jesus is Lord’, click on the link for more details). Faith in the Lordship of Christ and not politics will ultimately save us from the judgement our sin deserves. Indeed, the reason Jesus came to dwell on earth was not to achieve political revolution, eradicate poverty or overthrow the leaders of the day, but to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). We would do well to remember this as we go to the polls on May 7th.

Living out the gospel

Ah, but what about when Jesus talked about proclaiming good news to the poor? Surely that shows that Jesus was concerned about tackling poverty and eradicating injustice right? Whilst I don’t think Jesus would have been immune to the plight of the poor, or not cared about injustice, I believe this passage where Jesus talks about ‘proclaiming good news to the poor’ helps reiterate Jesus core mission, to call sinners to repentance.

The fact Jesus used the word proclaiming tells us that his primary concern was to tell us something life changing, the gospel. In addition, whilst the ‘poor’ in this content certainly includes the materially poor, the Greek word concerned can also mean figurative poverty (that is, spiritual poverty.) Thirdly, Jesus acted in various ways to change people’s physical circumstances (in performing miracles for example) so that people would see that he was the one to come (Luke 7:21-23), no one less than the Messiah, Saviour of the World and Son of God.

All of this makes sense of what Jesus says in Luke 5:23-24 and 32

Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins — he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home” (my emphasis).

And in v. 32: ‘I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

An eternal focus

Very well you might say, politicians can’t deal with this fundamental problem, and Jesus might have primarily come not to bring about political revolution but aren’t we called to live out the gospel through changing our communities, cities and nations? Shouldn’t we use this amazing hope we now have to deal with the plethora of problems we see in the world? Surely the love of Christ in us motivates us to such action?

These are all very good questions. As said already, some of us will be called to be involved in such things, and even if we’re not, I think having concern for the problems in our world is by no means a bad thing; we are called to be stewards of the earth after all (Genesis 1:28). In addition, God clearly commends justice and fairness (Deuteronomy 15:11, 24:21-22, Galatians 6:10.) Yet in acknowledging this, we need to be aware of three things.

  1. Jesus (and indeed the Bible’s focus) is not primarily on this world but on the one to come (see for example Genesis 22 and 2 Corinthians 4:18). Christians are told to live their lives in light of eternity (Romans 8:23), set their minds on ‘the things that are above (Colossians 3:2-4), lose our lives for the sake of the gospel in order to gain life later (Mark 8:35) and invest in treasure that will never perish (Matthew 6:19-21.)
  2. As such, scripture promises a time when the ills blighting humanity and our universe will be no more (Romans 8:21, Revelation 21:4) and where we’ll be in perfect relationship with him (Revelation 22:1-5). Thus, whilst political and social interventions can and do (by the grace of God) alleviate some of the pain, injustice and evil we see in our world, the thing we truly long for (a permanent end to all imperfection) can, and will be solely achieved by God alone bringing in a new heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17-24). It is vital we see all our political and social ‘good endeavours’ in this light.
  3. As a result, our primary concern should essentially revolve around the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) – reaching out to others sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and making disciples helping believers become more like Christ. This process, sanctification, is a major focus of the apostolic letters of the New Testament (see for example, Romans 6:13-18, Colossians 2:6-7, 3:12-17, 1 Peter 1:13-15.)

In summary, it is my hope that we’d see the upcoming General Election as an opportunity to remember:

  1. God cares about Government; he instituted it and expects us to obey it.
  2. That it is good for Christians to be concerned about various local, regional, national and international injustices for God cares about injustice and unfairness
  3. The greatest problem facing the World today is our own sin, something which can only be remedied through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
  4. As such, Jesus primary concern during his time on earth was proclaiming and embodying his lordship, and thus, calling sinners to repentance.
  5. Our primary concern should be making disciples of Jesus Christ and pursuing Godliness in light of eternity.
  6. Whilst political and social interventions can have positive impacts of alleviating social and political problems, the new creation, which will exclusively be brought about by God (and not us) will be the only place where sin, evil, pain and injustice will be no more.