Ash Wednesday


After the splurge on pancakes yesterday, many Christians today feel bloated, and a bit lethargic.   It’s just as well that the medieval church foresaw this problem, and made sure the first day of Lent was a super-fast day.

The whole point of Lent is to prepare for Easter – because it’s easy to boil Christianity down to certain holy days, instead of making it about a life of service.   So while Jesus fasted 40 days at the outset of his public ministry, someone had the smart idea that a 40-day preparation for the holiest of holy days – Easter – was a good plan.

Christian preparation ought – rightly – to involve confession of sin.   This allows us to more sweetly savour the work of Jesus, as both atoning sacrifice and cloak of righteousness.   It also forces us to face the need for reconciliation with our fellow humans, particularly in the church – “forgive us, as we have forgiven others” is a radical, life-altering prayer.

But because it’s very easy to reduce Christianity to ritual behaviour, a display of repentance became the focal point.   Searching the Bible, wearing sackcloth (the clothing of the utterly destitute) and sprinkling ashes (the ash-heap probably being the place of discarded rubbish) was identified as an outward display of grief, and by extension grief over sin.   The problem with ritual is that it builds symbolism upon symbolism.   The sprinkling became a little ashen cross on the forehead (while the priest intoned the words “repent and believe the Gospel”), and the ash itself was the blessed cinders of the previous year’s Palm Sunday branch-waving.

But what if these displays of repentance are better understood as cultural expressions, not divinely-commanded displays for all of human time?   In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus compared the public displays of prayer – which he went on to teach as including repentance – with the way he expected his disciples to pray:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

(Matthew 6:5-6 ESV)

Instead of obsessing about ash-filled ritual today, why not get back to the radical heart of repentance?   Firstly, enjoy a private engagement with God.   The sweetness of the Gospel is that it doesn’t rely on public displays to affect inner peace.   The reward of a secret-seeing Father is that the secret hurts and grief are also seen, and tenderly healed.

Secondly, be reconciled to people.   Ritual masks – it papers over – the broken reality.   Show the love of God today, not by wearing an ashen cross, but in a broken heart that longs to be reconciled with your hurting wife or husband, with quarrelsome parents or siblings… the power of God to heal in these situations cannot be discounted.


Shrove Tuesday


Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

Everyone loves a good detox, especially after the excesses of the annual – Christian? – Christmas over-indulgence.   For contemporary, detox-addicted Christians, Lent is a sort of spiritual dryathalon.   Go for a month without some small luxury – what are you giving up, anyway? – as you prepare to celebrate the resurrection, rolling eggs down hills and other empty symbols.

That’s right, folks!   The annual 40-day fast, held by Christians since the 4th Century, starts tomorrow.   #thatsucks   But then, today is “Pancake Day” – so use up all them eggs, sugar and mmm… buttery goodnesses.   #woohoo

That’s just the first paradox Lent throws us – before we fast, we must completely finish our feast; just to be sure we waste nothing.   Ah, so it’s a fast with no real cost?   I’m sure God designed thriftiness as a feature of the spiritual exercise of fasting.   I wonder was there ever a committee testing slogans like, “Shrove Tuesday: Prepare to spiritually thrive without wasting a penny!”

There are a lot of problems with Lent.   Over the next 40 days I’ll try to highlight some of them in a series of devotionals.   Why?   I want you to know (deep down in your chocolate-craving soul) that ritualised Christianity doesn’t even come close to the splendid good news about Jesus.

If you really think abstinence is a detox – that you’ll be purer for abstaining – remember Jesus told us:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.”

(Matthew 15:17-20 ESV)

Good luck giving up sin for the next month – hope you don’t try to get it all out of your system today!

Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.

In the last few days, I have been unable to find the words to respond to the news spewing from Iraq.   Jonah maybe has it.

It is not the first time in history that Nineveh has been the scene of atrocity and scandal.   The prophet Jonah, his tomb said to have been destroyed just days ago, was sent to that great city.   The word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

God’s sight was absolute: their deeds have come up before me.
God’s verdict was just: their deeds are evil.
God’s call to righteous Jonah was terrifying: Arise, go, call out against it.

Some find it comforting, in a world plunged into the darkness of sin and murder, to know there is a God who sees, who judges, and who will, on the great day, call out finally against the wicked.

So terrible was this knowledge, however, that Jonah rose and fled from the presence of the Lord.   Instead of heading north and east, he headed to the coast, to sail away into the West – abandoning his mission.   Some suggest he feared the people of Nineveh would repent, be spared, and still crush his homeland in Israel.   I think he just feared.

It is a fearful, terrible, thing to fall into the hands of the living God.   (Hebrews 10:31)

The reality of God’s judgement is the most terrible message to bear, and ministers of the word can never carry it flippantly, and without tears.

“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”

But tonight, I find myself preparing to preach from Psalm 36.   These words have echoed in my ears all week, as we learned them at our Holiday Club:

Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O LORD.

They are words strangely like the end of Jonah’s story.   He had gone to that great city.   He had called out against it.   And they repented!   Judgement didn’t fall from the skies, like angels bearing death on fire-tipped wings.   Jonah was deeply unhappy.   But in this disappointment, God spoke to Jonah a second time:

“Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

The pivotal verse of Jonah is at the end of chapter two.   Jonah, repentant, in the belly of a huge fish, had remembered, “Salvation belongs to the LORD!”   Salvation for failed preachers like Jonah.   Salvation for the brutal, murderous people of Nineveh.

“Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

I can’t humanly reconcile the crying demands of judgement, with these incredible words.   I certainly don’t know if justice and mercy can meet in Nineveh at this time.   If my heart were laid open, I don’t even know if I want it to… so little do I grasp the words of Hebrews 10.

But I know somewhere God did bring justice and mercy together.   At the cross, the guilt, the shame, of all the great evil was fully and finally punished in Jesus, in a cry to utter anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”   The last drop of sin-earned wrath was poured out.   And salvation flowed like rivers.

I don’t know about Nineveh tonight.   I desperately hope someone will arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before God.   Will death fall on fire-tipped wings, bringing ruin to these men?

But I do know about my God.   Salvation belongs to him.   And I long to sing Psalm 36 – of the vast, incredible love of God.


General Assembly 2013

With the General Assembly only hours away, the excitement is [doing something, we’re not sure what exactly: probably slowly dying in the corner perhaps?   This year, nobody is thrilled to be facing the tough challenges of the day, be they financial or doctrinal].   Over the last few weeks I’ve read a few blogs about the forthcoming events on the Mound next week.

Church of Scotland minister Louis Kinsey writes at his blog about the problems with the “broad church” logo the Kirk seems to present as a good thing.   It could be, if “broad church” meant different dress codes, or bible versions, or even styles of worship (at a push) – but when “broad” refers to hugely divergent systems of doctrine sheltering under the umbrella of one body, you have a problem.

Meanwhile, Free Church theologian Donald Macleod’s column in the West Highland Free Press is worth a read – it’ll appear as a blog eventually [it has], much like his piece on the Theological Commission’s Report on Same-Sex Relationships.

Free Church ministers David Robertson (with a piece over at St. Peter’s blog) and (retiring Free Church Moderator) Iain d. Campbell come back to the need for a reorganisation of Presbyterianism in Scotland, to establish a clear and distinctive voice promoting God’s Word in our society today.

Is any of this schadenfreude on the part of the Free Church?

I’d say not – but maybe I’d say that anyway?   It would be easy to think the Free Church, (much maligned as tiny and largely an irrelevant Highland Denomination) are just cheering from the terraces, delighting in the demise of a competitor in the Scottish Presbyterian ecosystem.   Only, we’re not.   We care deeply for the good of all Scotland – with congregations all over the country.   And while smaller, we are conditioned to not see the Kirk as the only game in town.   Those accusing us of schadenfreude  forget that we pray for, have good relationships with, and want to bless healthy Church of Scotland congregations up and down the length of Scotland.   We’re not the denominationalist fiends you think we are.   Please look again, and see what is, rather than the caricature.

Over the last few years we have really taken to heart the oft misquoted message of Thomas Chalmers – “Who cares for the Free Church, except as an instrument of Christian good?”   The Free Church has quietly abandoned much of the stuffy traditionalism that characterised our denominational identity, but has done so without losing the distinctive message of the Gospel, and largely without threat to our Presbyterian heritage.   In my estimation we are an example of the good broad church Louis Kinsey speaks about.

Maybe it’s time for the Evangelicals in the Kirk to ask themselves the same questions of their own denomination?   Who cares for the Church of Scotland, except as an instrument of Christian good?   It’s not Schadenfreude to suggest an alternative to the Kirk, as it fast becomes an instrument opposed to the Christian good of Scotland – as a growing number of ministers leaving her ranks will testify.

The Christian good of Scotland would of course be served by a Reformed Kirk.   I’d love to see it, and I’ll continue to pray for that.   But in the absence of Reform, and in the presence of serious advances towards the Kirk further conforming to the world, how is the Christian good of Scotland best served?

Meanwhile, across the road…

The Free Church Assembly, meanwhile, has to keep that question front and centre as we struggle to face our own challenges.   How is the Christian good of Scotland served by the Free Church in times of austerity?   We’re certainly not going to do it cutting back on theological education – or jettisoning solid doctrinal teaching for a more exclusively vocational curriculum.   I’m persuaded the job of the pastor-teacher is to equip their congregations for ministry – not do mercy ministry in the place of their congregations.  The only conceivable reason Christians don’t do mercy ministry is because they don’t understand the love of God.   So skimping on doctrinal training for a different model will actually make the work of the Church harder, not better – don’t we need better preaching, accompanied, of course, by the work of the Spirit?   I’d have thought academic training for the pastor-teachers in our pulpits is therefore vital, along with vocational training for people doing other jobs in mercy ministry – a “both not either” approach.    That’s an expensive aspiration, so I should probably shut up.

And how is the Christian good served in times where Scotland lacks a distinctive Christian voice speaking to the moral and spiritual decay in our nation?   I suspect being distinctive is not something the Free Church will find hard – let’s pray and hope we sound a distinctive note for the right reasons.

Solus Christus

After scribbling some notes yesterday about the five solaes of the Reformation – Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone, To God Alone be the Glory – Pope Francis has helpfully come along with a tweet demonstrating why these points remain vital today.

At his election, there were many, many evangelicals around the world claiming that this pope was a friend to evangelical Christianity, possibly even open to dialogue with the Reformed or Protestant types.   I wonder where these voices are on a day like this?

Mariolatry is dangerous because it invests faith in someone other than Christ to intercedes for us and help us.   Mary is of course blessed, and we ought to thank God for her – the role she played in rearing Jesus is incredible, his human knowledge, his experience of learning, was at her knee.   It is probably not unfair to say that her motherly influence will have shaped parts of Jesus’ character.   She had incredible privileges.

But a mediator she is not.   An intermediary between us and God she is not.   Christ alone carries out these roles.   He alone is the one in whom our faith must be rooted.

Church of Scotland Theological Commission Report (Part 2) – Really Reformed?

The idea of being a “reformed” church crops up in the Church of Scotland’s Theological Commission Report on same-sex marriage.   But after reading the whole report now, I’m left wondering whether the “Reformed” credentials are valid.

What is “reformed” and does it matter much?

Labels can be a killer – being labelled homophobic is like modern day leprosy, nobody will hang out with you.   It seems, reading the report, that the Church of Scotland is working really hard to present itself as being reformed, or within the reformed tradition.   Clearly the label matters a great deal to the report’s authors – irrespective of whatever value people in the pews attach to the term.

So what does it mean?   The idea of being reformed, unsurprisingly, harks back to the Reformation.   Before 1560, the Church in Scotland was formally Roman Catholic in character.   But Scotland was happily influenced by Europeans (proving that not everything Europe offers us is bad), particularly John Calvin.   Calvin was one of a party of men who could no longer accept Roman Catholic doctrine in a wide range of areas.   Some of them were ejected from the Roman Church; some left the Roman Church to join those ejected, but did so taking as many with them as they could.   Whatever their path out from under Roman Catholic doctrine, the new scheme they moved under was characterised quite distinctly from the Roman Catholicism.

Is there a “reformed” litmus test?

The Reformers held five solae statements – the “alones”.   These are perhaps the key test of a reformed church – how do we relate to the solae of the Reformation?   These are:

  • Sola Scriptura – the Church and the path to salvation is governed by Scripture alone.   In Roman Catholic doctrine, Scripture is not alone in providing a rule of faith.   Alongside Scripture, the tradition of the Church is a rule, and the pope speaking ex-cathedra carries authority.   The Reformers stripped away all the peripherals, and left Scripture as the only rule of faith.
  • Sola Fide – we are justified by faith alone.   In Roman Catholic teaching, good works co-operate with faith, to secure justification for us.   The Reformers taught that good works were a necessary evidence of faith, but that in themselves add nothing to our salvation.
  • Sola Gratia – we are saved by the grace of God alone.   Related to Sola Fide, Roman Catholic teaching implies a degree of cooperation with grace, for example in receiving grace through rightly observating of the sacraments, or other meritorious good works.   The Reformers taught that salvation was entirely the free gift of God, for which any merit would add an element of purchase, and mean in was no longer free.
  • Solus Christus – we have only one mediator between God and humankind, i.e. Christ alone.   Roman Catholic doctrine establishes a sort of series of subordinate mediators: Mary, the Apostles, the Saints in glory.   The Reformers, while not seeking to dishonour Mary or the Apostles, taught that they had no role in interceding for the saints on earth, but that only through Christ’s intercessory work, in his life, death and resurrected life, can we have access to God.
  • Soli Deo Gloria – God alone is due the glory.   The Roman Catholic teaching of “sainthood” is that some Christians are elevated to particular status, or canonized by the Church – that the Church on earth has authority to elevate men to some glorious higher status.   The Reformers recoiled from this, and taught that no believer – all of whom are “saints” – can be elevated in this way, but that all believers give all the glory to God.

These five points were the key distinctives of the Reformation Church.   A Church today that wants to call itself reformed can of course talk about “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” (A reformed church, always reforming – i.e. always re-examining itself to ensure it is faithful to God’s purposes).   But a reformed church would have to be really bold if it were to depart from the five solae (like Federal Vision, or New Perspective on Paul acolytes, you’d have to argue that the Reformers essentially misunderstood Christian doctrine).

Yet, here’s what we find in the Revisionist position in the Commission’s Report (emphasis mine):

“Nowhere is this subtlety and complexity more evident than in the crucial area of the interpretation of Scripture. As Reformed Christians, as members, Elders, Deacons and ministers of Word and Sacrament of the Church of Scotland, we take as our starting point the recognition of ‘the word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament’ as our ‘supreme rule of life and faith’, but within that deliberately ambiguous formulation there is room for many different approaches to discerning the will of God, using the many different resources which an infinitely imaginative Creator has provided; the written words of Scripture; the inner conviction of the Holy Spirit; human reason and experience; Church tradition, to name but a few.”

Para. 6.10

I don’t fully understand all the ins and outs of how the Church of Scotland got to a point where an office bearer can suggest that there is a rule of faith besides Scripture, but that is exactly what this passage is arguing.

Bear in mind, we’re not talking in this report about how an individual Christian discerns God’s will.   Answers to individual questions, like, “Where should I work?”, or “Who should I marry?” don’t bind the conscience of all office bearers within the Church.   So it is quite legitimate to come to your own understanding of God’s will, based on “the written words of Scripture; the inner conviction of the Holy Spirit; human reason and experience” – if you’re in a charismatic fellowship, you could even add in words of prophecy!

But we cannot formulate binding rules for the Church in the same way – ours is not a God of such confusion, as would inevitably result.   To suggest the Church rely on tradition as a help to settling matters of doctrine flies in the face of the Reformed principle of Sola Scriptura.   If anything, such a step is not Re-forming, but De-forming: a retrograde step back into Roman Catholic doctrine.

The point of highlighting this is not to poke holes in the Church of Scotland.   Thankfully, the Traditionalist case fits snugly into the Reformed characteristics outlined above.   But it does show that there are some, probably many, within the Church of Scotland who do not share these Reformed credentials.   Given the trajectory the Church of Scotland is on, not just recently on this issue, but for many years on many issues, it is impossible to claim the Church of Scotland is entirely within the Reformed tradition.

A Broad Church?

But, the Church of Scotland is a broad church.   Aye, good and well.   But the Reformed Church in Scotland helpfully established a few other characteristics of a healthy church – and presumably we take “reformed” to at least share healthy characteristics.

A true, or healthy, church will hold to the correct use of Scripture, the Sacraments and Discipline.

That final point is really important.   Discipline matters.   A denomination must deal with particularly office bearers tenaciously holding and vigorously teaching heterodoxy (teaching which isn’t characteristically “Reformed”).   If you can’t remove heterodox teachers from office, at the very least in order to prompt repentance, but more importantly to protect the flock of God from wolf-like false teachers, then you are not a healthy Church.   And if the heterodoxy cannot be successfully challenged, can you call yourself a “Reformed” Church?   Doesn’t unchallenged heterodoxy become the new orthodoxy?

I don’t doubt there are many people holding to Reformed Christianity within the Church of Scotland.   But there’s something else lurking in the church alongside them.   My colleague Paul Gibson, at Perth Free Church (a former Church of Scotland minister) has said,

“I think evangelicals will feel the report simply demonstrates what has been known for a long time – namely that within the Kirk are not two Christian perspectives but, in fact, two distinct religions, both of which are incompatible with the other. One is called Christianity and submits to the Bible as the word of God and the other is called ‘liberalism’ and does not.”

What to pray for?

So, back to my original question of last week, what to pray for?   For one, I want to see a reformed church in Scotland.   I’d love to see a Church that’s serious about its reformed credentials, not one that plays the game of pretending to be something it isn’t.  And I love to see what such a church could do for the national spiritual and moral health of Scotland.   My concern is that if the reformed don’t triumph in reforming the Church of Scotland, but also stay within the broad church, Scotland is going to be bereft of the essentially reformed church she needs to prosper spiritually into the days to come.   A Church of Scotland which is not characteristically Reformed is as bad for Scotland as a resurgent Roman Catholicism – yes, there might be good somewhere within, but wolves hiding under the umbrella of “the Church” are particularly dangerous – hence vast tracts of the New Testament epistles refute them, and address how you deal with them.

Is it wrong to pray that the Church of Scotland will either reform or perish (was that what Paul suggested when he wished the false Galatian teachers would emasculate themselves Galatians 5:12)?

Christmas Message: What do we want the Church to be?

At the end of the year, we pray that the Church, despite her shortcomings, may be increasingly recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place

Benedict XVI ‏@Pontifex

Thus tweeted the Bishop of Rome earlier this week.   Leaving aside all the many, many areas where the Jedirev disagrees with Roman Catholic doctrine and dogma, this isn’t a bad prayer.   And I share the concern.  At Christmas many will celebrate Christ’s coming – but this Christmas, I want to reflect on Jesus’ gift to the world (see John 17:18 or Hebrews 11:38) – it is a precious thing.

I hope not only for the sake of Roman Catholics the world over, but for every man, woman and child on Earth, that this prayer is answered – because there is no salvation outside the Church, but without Christ being recognisably present, there’s no salvation inside the Church either.

But what do we want the Church to be, when we pray we might be more “recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place”?

For me, three things:

1.            I want the Church to be doctrinally recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.

Our age seems to be characterised by very little affection for real doctrine – schism and mergers tend focus on what we do, asking, “In what style do we worship?”   But doctrine matters – it matters a very great deal.   For example, it’s a doctrinal question to ask, “Who am I worshipping?”   It’s not satisfactory to arrive at a service on Sunday without asking yourself this question.   The dangers are many – we may worship ourselves, some may worship a building, some a tradition – and we might get bogged down in all these dangers, and finding interesting, dare I say it, legalistic, extra-biblical formulas that ensure our worship is “pure”.   But a real doctrinal answer to this question is far more satisfactory.   We worship a holy Triune God – but what are the implications of that?   Being doctrinally recognisable as Christ’s dwelling place means we ask questions, not firstly about ourselves, but firstly about our God.   Doctrine matters because it is actually our doctrine that defines us – not the practical conclusions about what we do.   What we do is shaped by what we believe.   If we marginalise doctrine in our identity as Christ’s body, the Church, then our identity itself is in jeopardy.   (See Titus 2:1)

2.            I want the Church to be practically recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.

Having right doctrine is good; coupling that with right practice is better.   But there is a danger the Church can express this in all sorts of wrong ways.   There are, for example, many believers in Scotland concerned Presbyterian Religion’s “place at the heart of the nation” might be lost should Scotland become independent – not recognising that this Establishment exists in ink only, no longer a practical reality in Scotland.   It’s the same sort of concern now being expressed in America, where Christians seem to have lost the power to influence the outcome their nation’s presidential election.   But I just don’t buy the argument that a healthy Church must intrinsically have temporal, political influence and power.   Jesus didn’t.   The apostles didn’t.   Yet they did tremendous practical good – alongside the spiritual good – without political influence.   And at no point did they gripe about this.   The Church, Christians even, do not need earthly power to exert godly influence.   In fact, my suspicion is that political influence of this sort only comes as a happy consequence of exerting gracious effort in the first place.   I’m not sure we should long to restore, or even just harp on about, the influence we’ve lost.   But we must be willing to serve our communities with grace (not just spiritually, but practically and sacrificially) so that we will be recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.   (See James 1:27)

3.            I want the Church to be functionally recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.

I want the Church to be what the Church is for; using the means God has given us.   What I mean by that is that I want the Church to function as the Church.   I suspect part of the Western Church’s problems today stem from the liberalising agenda of decades ago, where people forgot what the Church is for.   In Scotland, that was a full on social gospel, that turned the Church into a community organiser.   In the more conservative communities, including the Highlands sadly, the Church became for some a means to preserve only empty tradition.    Another danger, this one more distinctly American, is the rise of mega-churches.   But the Church is not just about gathering people, or gelling communities, or harking back to the old days.   To steal Stott’s analysis: the Church exists to Worship God; to convey Teaching from God; to Fellowship together, but also, with God; and to share the Evangel, to preach Christ crucified.   We do this through right use of the Word, Sacraments and Discipline.   Christ is at the centre of all these things.   To be functionally recognisable as Christ’s dwelling place, everything we do, and how we do it, has to be Christo-centric. (See, well… start with Ephesians and see where that takes you!)