Posts Tagged ‘Christian Living


should christians vote?

For most Christians (in the West) their freedom in Christ to vote is axiomatic. However, there is still a significant rump who believe that voting is wrong.  I know quite a number of Christians who so believe.  In my view, this is a mistaken belief and I thought I would outline why in the hope that I may free some consciences to vote.  I write this in Scotland and in the week the country votes on whether or not to leave the UK.  In temporal terms this is a hugely important vote and Christians ought to be best placed to vote wisely and responsibly. It will be a great pity if many desist owing to a mistaken belief.

The (mistaken) belief arises from wrong thinking in a number of issues.

christians shouldn’t vote because involvement in politics is worldly

Now it is not my intention to advocate whole-scale Christian political engagement. In my view, this belongs to a few who have such a calling and gifting (just as some have callings to medicine, teaching, law, science etc). It is even less my intention to give the impression that Christians can greatly change (much less redeem) a culture through socio-political action, especially since Christianity is increasingly a minority and unwelcome voice in the democratic West.  Yet this does not mean we should not play a responsible part in our culture and seek its welfare. Jeremiah’s God-given instruction to Israel in exile seems germane:

Jer 29:7 (ESV)
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 

Taking civic responsibilities seriously seems to me an axiom of Christian living. Surely, at a bare minimum this means exercising the (hard won) vote we are given and urged to use; it is one small (but significant) way of promoting just and responsible government and democratic government itself.  Yet we are told by some that Christians ought not to engage in the political process because politics belongs to the world that crucified Christ and the world from which through Christ we have been delivered.

Two questions lie begging here: what does the Bible mean by ‘the world’ and what should be the nature of the Christians interaction with it?

The ‘world’ in Scripture means a number of things.  Sometimes it means simply the material world, the earth.  At other times it means the mass of humanity since Adam in opposition to God.  Still further it may mean the whole system or culture that this rebellious humanity has created.  When Scripture and Christians speak negatively about the world they mean a combination of these latter two definitions. John seems to include all three within a few lines when he writes:

John 1:9-10 (ESV2011)

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world (earth). He was in the world (earth and perhaps human culture), and the world (earth) was made through him, yet the world (humanity in opposition to God) did not know him.

The essential nature of this rebellious human culture (the world) is humanistic; its root impulses are ‘the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life’.  That was its nature at the fall in Eden: Eve saw it was good to eat (lust of flesh), delight to the eyes (lust of the eyes) would make one wise and they would become as God (pride of life… Gen 3:6).  Since the fall in Eden its essential impulses have never changed.

So, yes politics is part of ‘the world’ for politics is part of fallen human culture.  But it is no more part of fallen human culture than medicine, education, law, music, science, commerce, industry, etc.  All belong to a civilization that has rebelled against God and crucified Christ and we need only be involved a little in any or all of these to see the rebellious nature of humanity in action; the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life pervade all.

How then are Christians to relate to this ‘world’ from which we are delivered (Gals 1:4) and to which we are crucified (Gals 6)?  Well, we are not to love it (1 Jn 2:15), be conformed to it (Roms 12:2), or wish for its friendship (Jas 4:4).  We are to keep ourselves unstained by it (Jas 1:27).  Does this then mean we are to withdraw from it?  No it doesn’t.  Jesus’ prays in John 17 for his disciples.  He states that they are not ‘of the world’ (17:14,16), nevertheless, Jesus does not pray that they be ‘taken out of the world’ (17:15a) but that they ‘be kept from the evil one’ (17:15b).  It is within this tension of being ‘in the world’ but not ‘of the world’ we are called to live and can do so with confidence because we have the intercession of Christ our heavenly advocate to enable us to so do (Jn 17).

So what am I saying? I am saying that it is true politics is part of the world but it is wrong to limit ‘the world’ to politics or any other single aspect of its culture (the arts, for instance).  Many do this and as a result their concept of ‘the world’ and of ‘worldliness’ is far too constricted.  The world includes as we have noted, all the other aspects of culture such as medicine, law, industry, commerce, education etc.  Do we withdraw from these?  Do we say, because they are part of the world we must have nothing to do with them?  Of course we don’t.  Neither, in principle, should we withdraw from the political realm.  After all, government is God’s idea.  Human governments are ordained by God and have a good and honourable purpose – they are to promote good and punish evil (Roms 13).  Their function is to engender a fair, just and safe society.  Whatever we may say about other aspects of society the political (government) has God’s explicit sanction.

So what is to be our approach to the world and it’s ‘polis’?  We return to Jeremiah and God’s instruction to Israel living in an alien country… we are to care for the welfare of the city while refusing to embrace the wrong attitudes and actions that are endemic to it (the lusts of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life).

Worldliness is not political involvement: worldliness is political involvement that embraces the sinful values, actions and attitudes that are rife in politics.  To embrace these means we are not merely ‘in the world’ but ‘of the world’. Worldliness is engagement in the affairs of life motivated by the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life rather than by the fear of God and the desire for his glory. This distinction is vital to grasp. Other-worldliness isn’t a monkish refusing to engage in the structures of civil life but a holy refusing to collude in the way these are misused and idolised.  Involvement in politics is not worldly in itself, nor is it friendship with the world, though the way we do so may well be, as it may be in every other area of life in this world.  On the other hand we should remember that if our engagement in politics or any other aspect of life is from the standpoint and standards of faith rather than that of the world we will face opposition.  We will be hated as Christ was hated but we will please the Father and it is his love and love for him that must be our motive (1 Jn 5:4; 3:13; 2:15,16; Jn 15:18).  It is, in fact, this standpoint of faith, as we engage in the various spheres of life, that will enable us to overcome the world as Christ did (1 Jn 5:14).

We are called as Christians not only to share the gospel but to live the gospel by doing good to all men and part of that doing good may legitimately involve seeking to ensure good or best government (i.e. through voting). We do not do so, I repeat, with any vain pretensions of greatly improving culture, far less of ‘redeeming’ culture or bringing about the kingdom of God through socio-political engagement (for that kingdom is spiritual and cannot even be seen apart from the new birth). Rather we hope simply to show mercy and alleviate hardship where we can in a world under judgement. In this surely we share the heart of Christ.

jesus didn’t get involved politically

It is true that Jesus did not get involved politically, at least directly.  His message concerning the kingdom of God was of course in its own way an assault on all human kingdoms but be that as it may.  However, if he did not get involved in politics neither did he get involved in other civic aspects of society.  He did not engage with medicine, education, science, industry, commerce etc.  When we meet him in adulthood in his public ministry he is a rabbi with followers and lives outside of all these spheres.  If his non-involvement politically means that we must distance ourselves from politics then his non-involvement in the other spheres of life presumably means we must distance ourselves from these too.  But we don’t and rightly so.  Jesus is our model for Christian living but this does not mean we are all to be itinerant preachers, culturally Jewish, celibate etc.  In Scripture, it is his loving self-sacrifice for others, his self-humbling, his perseverance in faith, his non-retaliation, his suffering, his holiness, his obedience to his father etc that we are called to emulate not those aspects which were specific to his calling.

the slogan, ‘Our ‘Man’ is already in’

This is a rather supercilious slogan and beneath comment were it not for the fact that many apparently believe it expresses a genuine reason for not voting. Of course, all Christians believe that Christ is the Ultimate Ruler in the kingdoms of men. We find security, peace and confidence in this and rightly so. But this does not mean that the role of earthly rulers in the present is redundant or irrelevant. Again Roms 13 gives the lie to this; they are ordained servants of God. Government is God’s (good) idea for the temporal well-being and ordering of humanity.

Christ is our great Physician, yet this does not mean we do not visit the doctor when we are ill believing simply the Lord will heal. He is our divine Teacher but we do not boycott the education system and consider it redundant. He is also our cosmic Advocate but we do not diss the judiciary and refuse to use the law in our defence when we are threatened (as Paul did in Acts). The Builder of all things is God but this does not mean we smugly ignore the wisdom of the architect and builder when we are planning to build a house. Why should politics be an exception? Why should Christ’s cosmic rule mean that engagement with temporal political structures is worldly while engagement in these others is not?  Why should we refuse to support or use the support of government when we do not refuse to support or use the support of these other spheres of ‘the world’?

It may seem wise and other-worldly to declare ‘our Man’s in’ but in actual fact it has no bearing at all on whether one votes or not. Our citizenship is indeed in heaven and our hopes and aspirations belong there for it is home but this does not mean that we do not value and engage with the structures of this present world in which we live as pilgrims though it does mean we will hold them in perspective and neither fear them nor lose our hearts to them. As Christians, we seek to do good and influence for good in all ways we can, including the political. We do not pass by on the other side refusing to help but we show the compassion and care of Christ wherever we have the opportunity to do so.

we should not vote for we may find ourselves voting against the will of God

This seems to be a genuine concern for some. The problem here is a confusion of God’s secret and revealed will (Deut 29:29). We are not expected to know God’s secret will or second-guess it; it is ‘secret’ after all. What we do know is God’s revealed will for he has given it to us in Scripture and the Spirit of God enables us to grasp and understand this will. It is this will we are expected to obey and it is this revealed will that should guide us when voting. We ought to vote for those who champion policies that are fair and just and beneficial for society, those that best reflect God’s expectations of government.

We apply this secret will/revealed will distinction in other walks of life without a second thought. For instance, if we become ill we do not ask whether it is God’s secret will that we should recover before we call the doctor. We rightly and responsibly do what we reasonably can to improve our health and leave the ultimate outcome with the Lord. Exactly the same process is at work when we vote. In the coming Independence debate it may be that God has decided to punish the UK for rejecting Him. He alone knows whether his patience has run out. However, we vote on the principle of what we believe is best for the future of the country (Scotland and rest of UK) and leave matters about judgement with God, where they rightly belong. What he delights in is our obedience to his revealed will while he will carry out his secret mysterious will according to his own wisdom and ways.


There are other aspects of political involvement that deserve to be discussed. For example, even if we decide to vote it is not always clear for whom we should vote. Are there sufficient differences between the parties to make a vote meaningful?  Party manifestos are a mixed bag making voting for any party difficult.  Politics of course is always the art of the possible. It always involves living with compromise; again in this it is no different from any other job or walk of life.  There is the question too of how best to use our limited time and resources.  We cannot do everything and we must be wise in our use of time. We must prioritise needs and not let the good get in the way of the best.  But these and other questions and complexities must be left for this post is not exhaustive.

In the coming Scottish Independence vote, the issues are above party politics and more momentous (in a temporal sense).  I hope that if you have doubts about the propriety of voting as a Christian these comments may help free your conscience and empower you to make a considered vote informed by revealed Christian values and wisdom. Such responsible voting will know the favour of the Lord and will be a benefit to our needy world.


i am crucified with christ (2)… dead to law

If we are dead and our life is hid with Christ in God we will discover that this death is not simply to sin. Our death, in Christ, has even farther-reaching implications.   We have died not only to sin but to every power and authority that would seek to control us in a fallen world.  Death severs all relationships in this world. 

If in Roms 6 we are said to be dead to sin, then in Roms 7 we have died to the law for law, like sin, is an authority in the world.

Dead to the Law


  • Is the law the ‘rule of life’ for Christians?
  • Where does the NT regularly direct us for the source and shape of our sanctification?
  • Should Christians have certain ‘holy days’ and observe festivals such as lent?
  • Are candles, impressive buildings, and other aesthetic and sensory stimulation an aid to (an advance in) Christian worship?

In Romans 7, Paul tells us that we are dead to the Law, that is, to God’s Law, the Mosaic Covenant and its commandments (and we may safely say, by implication, to all other rudimentary morality codes as binding authorities  Cf. Gals 4:9).  In Ch 6 he hinted at this when he said,

 Rom 6:14 (ESV)
 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

His point is that the Law has no authority in the life of the believer, he is not ‘under it’ rather he lives in another realm, the realm and reign of grace (Roms 3:21-30, 5:2,15-21).  Grace and law are different realms with opposing principles of rule.  In Romans 7:1-6 he makes  essentially the same point through the metaphor of marriage.

Rom 7:1-6 (ESV)
Or do you not know, brothers-for I am speaking to those who know the law-that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

In the patriarchal culture of the C1 a woman submitted to the authority of her husband and did so until he died.  Paul uses this analogy to show how Christian obedience (particularly Christian Jews to whom the law specifically applied 7:1) is no longer to the law but to Christ for death has brought about a change in authorities (or husbands).  Jewish believers were ‘married to the law’ (the Mosaic Covenant had been the authority that controlled their lives) but in death (and the analogy is inverted in that it is the woman who dies not the husband) they have been freed from this marriage to marry another, namely Christ.  Consequently, their former husband has no rights or power over them.  They are not obligated to him any more.  Why?  They have died and no longer live in the realm or world where law has authority and rights.  Indeed, as those married to Christ, to subject themselves to the requirements of the law would make them bigamists.

Now the function of the Law in redemptive history is a big one that generates much controversy.  We cannot hope to deal with it at any length in this post.  Let me sum up briefly the two main functions of the Law as I understand them (as Paul outlines them in Romans).

  • The Law was given to reveal the reality of sin
Rom 3:19-20 (ESV)
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Sin always existed in a fallen world but the law revealed its nature and true power.  Law  (an explicitly articulated command generally accompanied by a sanction) made explicit what was previously implicit and so increased the gravity of the offence; sin became more sinful for it became an infraction or transgression of a legal demand.  Further, because fallen human nature meant none could keep the law, indeed all railed against it, sin is seen in its true colours as an evil malignant destructive enslaving power (Cf. 4:15, 5:13,14, 5:20, 7:7-12; Cf. Gals 3:19).  Law came in to increase the trespass (Roms 5:20) by exposing, exaggerating and exciting it.  

Rom 5:13-14 (ESV)
 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
  • The Law was given to point to Christ
Rom 3:21-22 (ESV)
 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:

It pointed to Christ a) by showing the moral bankruptcy of humanity and so the need of a Saviour b) by foreshadowing the coming Saviour and salvation in various ways.  Other functions of the Law may be added, such as being a hard taskmaster that would contrast more clearly the liberty in Christ (Gals 3:23-25), but these are subsidiaries of the main two functions, namely to give knowledge of sin and knowledge of Christ.

Most evangelicals will happily agree that the Christian is not ‘under law’ as a means of justification.  The Law (many will agree, though not all) was a covenant of works.  Life was promised for a life of law-keeping righteousness; law’s premise was ‘this do and live’ (Ex 24:7; Lev 18:5; Deut 8:1; Lk 10:28; Roms 10:5; Gals 3:12 Cf. Roms 7:10; Gals 3:21).  Law offered ‘life’ on the basis of obedience, it did not assume life, in fact it assumed the absence of life (thus, this do and live).

However, although the Law promised life upon obedience, life by law-keeping was impossible because law-keeping for sinners under it was impossible.  Addressed as it was to fallen humanity, it was only a counsel of despair (Roms 7:7-10).  Instead of providing life it became a vehicle of death; the curse of a broken law fell on the law-breaker and all under it were law-breakers (Deut 11:26-28, 27:26, 30:15-20; Gals 3:10).  From its inception it was clear that the revelation of law, although promising life, could only purvey death (Ex 19:12, 20:19).  We need only read the many death threats explicit in the law to see its danger to sinful people.  It is probably not without significance that the Law-giver, Moses, dies outside the Promised Land; typically it confirmed the inability of law to bless.  Thus, what offered life, because of the corruption of human nature, became an administration of death (Rom 7:10; 2 Cor 3:6,7).  By the works of the law no flesh would be justified for by the law came only knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).  The Law only condemns and brings wrath (Rom 4:15).  Humanity under law needed to be rescued from it.  This is, in fact, what happened in Christ.  As Paul says to Jewish Galatian believers (in Galatians ‘us’ and ‘we’ refers to Jews and ‘you’ refers to gentiles)

Gal 3:11-14 (ESV2011)
 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Law and faith, like Law and gospel-promise, are opposite in principle (Gals 3:12, 18).

The majority of the above will have unanimous consent among evangelicals.  However, while many will happily affirm that we are not ‘under law’ for justification some (many) will just as vehemently affirm that we are ‘under law’ for our sanctification.  The law, they say, takes us to Christ for our justification but Christ takes us to the law for our sanctification.   The law they will insist is the believer’s ‘rule of life’.  Such assertions are entirely mistaken.  Paul does not imply we are not under law for one aspect of salvation but under it for another; Christ is the source of both justification and sanctification for the Christian.  Christ, not the law, is the believer’s rule of life.  We ought to walk as he walked (1 Jn 2:6).  Christ is sufficient for all things.

For Paul, we are either married to the law or we are not married to the law.  He makes no subtle nuances or qualifications here.  Theologians,and theological systems may do so, but Paul does not.  There is no half-way house regarding Law, we are either under it or not under it, either obligated to it or not obligated to it.  We are not free from the law for justification but married to it for sanctification.  The relationship is absolute and admits of no exceptions.  If we are married to Christ then we are not married to the law and vice versa (Gals 5:4).  We are not bigamists and even less are we encouraged by Christ to be such, the very suggestion is blasphemous.  The second husband never sends us back to the first saying ‘obey him’.

The law is not the means or measure of our sanctification, Christ is.  Indeed the law can no more sanctify than justify.  Paul is clear and emphatic on this.  Romans 7, where Paul discusses the believers relationship to law, is less concerned with the question of justification than it is with that of sanctification.  The law produces only ‘the fruit of death’ (7:5).  It is a wife-beater demanding love but unable to either create or provoke it.  Only by being freed from it (through death) and married in resurrection life to Christ can we produce ‘fruit for God’ (7:4).  All of this is sanctification and it is Christ who is its source not law, decidedly not law.

Yes, we are told, but the law is how Christ sanctifies believers?  He sends us back to the law as our rule of life.  Implied bigamy aside, why do you say this?  Where does the NT teach this?  Paul says something quite different.

Rom 7:6 (ESV)
 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

And what does the Spirit do?  Does he send us back to the law and say follow that code?  Does he tell new believers that the Christian life is a whole series of rules and regulations that they must learn and observe – for that is what the law is?  Does he say, ‘go back to the Ten Commandments and keep them’?  Does he say, ‘grow in grace by growing in the knowledge of the law’?   No he doesn’t.  Only rarely in the NT is the Mosaic Code explicitly cited in the context of moral living and never as an absolute authority requiring obedience.  The new way of the Spirit is not to send us back to the old way of the written code. This is palpable contradiction and folly.

We are not directed to the law for holiness but to the gospel.  The measure of a holy life is Christ not the law.  We grow in grace and in the knowledge (not of law) but of Christ Jesus.  The work of the Spirit is to floodlight Christ.  He points us to Christ and the grace and truth in him (Jn 15:26).  In the gospel we have the means, motive and measure of sanctification.  It is grace, not law that saves a wretch like me.  Grace teaches our heart to believe and relieves our fears.  It is grace that brought me safe thus far and grace that will lead me home.  Married to Christ we learn from Christ and are sanctified by him (Eph 4:20, 5:25-27). Living by the Spirit we walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:20).  Under grace, we are taught by grace.

Titus 2:11-14 (ESV2011)
 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

And here is highlighted precisely the difference between the method of the Law and the method of the Spirit.  The law makes us look inside ourselves and examine our lives.  It suggests righteous living comes through keeping a long list of rules and regulations and so inevitably engenders introspection and despair as we self-analyse and constantly find ourselves falling short.  Look at the person under law in Roms 7;  he is constantly looking within, constantly focussing on the ‘I’ and constantly finding only failure and frustration.  The Spirit by contrast takes us outside of self.  He focuses our attention on Christ.  He sets our mind and affections on things above.  He gives us a vision of Christ and as we gaze on a glorified Christ we are changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.

2Cor 3:18 (ESV)
 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

We never need more than Christ.  In him, God’s fullness dwells (Cols 1:18).  In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Cols 2:3).  We are complete/filled in him (Cols 2:10).  What draws our hearts to hate sin is not a set of rules but a growing love for Christ.  What teaches us the ugliness of sin is the beauty of Christ.  It is the clean fresh air of heaven that makes us conscious of the foul air of earth.  We do not focus on mere restraints that when all is said and done outline only the basic rudiments of morality, but on Christ and all he has accomplished, and it is this that gives our soul power to live with God’s sentence of death upon the flesh and so produce fruit for God (7:5).

An imperfect illustration

Suppose you are driving along the road and you keep seeing road signs saying drive at thirty.  Do you obey them?  You see speeding cameras too.  You may break but it will be an external obedience – your heart won’t be in it.  Your heart resists them and wants to find ways of thwarting and outwitting them.  The law and its sanction only creates the desire to breach.

But supposing you have just viewed a beautiful sunset, or just got engaged to the girl you love, or just met and been bowled over by the person who made the road rules – will you still want to break them?  Will your heart filled with glory by the sunset, the love of the woman you adore, the worth of the one who created the rules, not find itself driving in such a way as reflects these experiences.

Let me say, if you have been taken up with Christ you will drive differently behind the wheel than if you’re simply focussing on road signs.

To the Colossian Christians who were in danger of adopting a gospel that added a number of things to Christ, including OT law, Paul says,

Col 2:6-7 (ESV)
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Everything for life and godliness resides in Christ.  Mark this well.  If you need to go beyond Christ you are on dangerous ground.  These Colossian believers were in such danger.  They were in danger not simply of adopting the law as a rule of life for sanctification but as a rule for religious observance.  They were creating a religious calendar of OT rituals and regulations such as were found in the law.  They were being encouraged to observe days, months, seasons as well as abstaining from certain foods that were to do with ritual holiness.  Paul is perplexed and appalled.  They have not grasped the significance of the cross.  Notice what he says

Col 2:8-23 (ESV)
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations- “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)-according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Do you see his point?  The cross ended all this form of externally imposed religious observance.  We have died to the world in which this kind of religion had place. Law was a religion designed for man in the flesh not in the Spirit (Gal 3:2, 4:21-31).  Its very basis is sensuous or fleshly.  It focuses on externals and on sensory and aesthetic experience.  It placed great emphasis on impressive buildings (the temple) religious clothing, smells and bells; candles and altars, rituals and regulations.

But all this belongs to the old age before Christ.  In Christ we died to this.  Now we must grasp this today for evangelicalism is rushing headlong down the route of religious paraphernalia.  At one time the observing of liturgical calendars, special religious feasts like lent, the use of candles, incense and icons were denounced by evangelicals now they are embraced.  Evangelicals want a religion of ‘flesh’.  We want the sensory and aesthetic mistakenly thinking a sensory or aesthetic experience is an authentic gospel-driven spiritual experience (Hebs 12:18).

We must understand that magnificent buildings, stirring music, impressive oratory, and ethereal rites do not bring us closer to God.  They will not produce the slightest knowledge of God nor lead us into a holy life.  They are, says Paul, of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh, instead they feed it.  Christ, and Christ alone, the Christ seen by the eye of faith, leads us to God.  We come to the Father through him (Jn 14:6).  That is why Paul says,

Col 3:1-4 (ESV)
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Instead of a focus on what is earthly (buildings, altars, incense, music, oratory, rituals, ascetic practices etc) we must seek what is in heaven.  We must focus on Christ.  He is the source of our life.  He is our satisfaction.  He is our food and drink.  He is our vision.  He is our altar.  He is our High Priest.  He is our sacrifice.  He stirs and satisfies the heart.  As Robert Murray McCheyne used to say, ‘No man can ever need more than is freely given in Christ’ We live by faith not sight.  We like Moses endure seeing him that is invisible.

No, law, in all its forms, is an authority for men in the flesh, for people ‘alive in this world’ but we are not in the flesh we are in the Spirit if the Spirit of God lives in us.  We do not live by and in the shadow we live by and in the substance; we do not seek the things of spiritual infancy but of spiritual maturity.  Christ not law is the source of our life; Zion not Sinai is the mountain to which we come (Hebs 12:18-24)

None of this is to say we cannot learn from the law nor even less that there are no obligations or responsibilities in the Christian life; we can and there are.  All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for instruction, reproof, training in righteousness… (2 Tim 3:16).   However, it is one thing to read OT Scripture (through the prism of redemptive history) and learn from it, it is quite another to say that the law is a ‘rule of life’ for the believer for to say this is to make the law an authority we must obey.  Let me summarise some of the problems such a mistake creates.

  • It obliges us to qualify Paul’s insistence that we are not under law.  This is exegetically indefensible.
  • It emasculates the law.   If we accept its authority then we must also accept its sanctions (Gals 3:10).  To try to ‘draw its teeth’ is to demean it.  Sanctions (blessings and cursings) lie at the heart of the covenant; they give it glory (Ex 19:18-25, 20:18, 24:16,17; Deut 5:24, 28:58-68; Hebs 12:18-21)  We cannot reject the Law as a route of justification and embrace it as a rule of sanctification for the covenant does not give us this permission.   It is a covenant which cannot be altered.  We must accept it totally on its own terms or not at all.
  • It means living culturally as a Jew.  If we are obliged to keep one command of law we must keep them all.  Law is a covenant agreement.  We cannot be obliged to keep some but free to ignore others (Matt 5:19; Gals 3:10, 5:2,3; Jas 2:10).  We cannot enforce the Ten Commandments and jettison or modify the many other commands of the covenant.  The covenant demands obedience to all or it is broken (Ex 19:8, 24:3; Deut 27:26).  Accepting the covenant means accepting a Judaistic lifestyle.
  • It means keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath was the seventh day and not the first day and to change the day to another day was unacceptable and covenant-breaking.  The Sabbath was the sign of the covenant (Ex 31:13; Ezek 20:12, 20). That Christianity focuses on another day strongly enforces that we are not under law; to abandon the Sabbath was by implication to be free from the covenant.
  • It means embracing what belongs to infancy and is ‘weak and beggarly not intended for sons (Gal 4:1-11) . Law is a rudimentary moral code that Christians ought to have no need to hear anyway.  We should not need to be told not to steal, commit adultery etc.  The works of the flesh are obvious (Gal 5:19).  Christian holiness should be beyond these prohibitions (1 Tim 1:6-11).  

Life under grace, by the Spirit, married to Christ, produces a morality in excess of laws demands.  Law expressed the demands of relationships existing in this life and no more. It did not require that a man lay down his life for his friends, far less that he lay down his life for his enemies.  It did not conceive or demand pure self-sacrificial love motivated by nothing other than pure love.  This is a life modelled only by Christ who reveals the Father’s heart.  Such Christ-modelled, grace-induced, Spirit-enabled love is the heart of Christianity.  Such love fulfils the law (Roms 8:4, 13:8,10; Gals 5:14) and fulfilment in Scripture usually eclipses/excels the original expectation.  Or to put it another way, against such Christ-like, Spirit-produced love there is no law (Gals 5:23).

Gal 5:1-14 (ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.. For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The cross means an end to law-keeping religion.  For Paul and for the early Jewish converts this was precisely its offence (Gal 5:11) and the reason why they were being persecuted by their fellow Jews (Gal 6:11-16).  The world will tolerate religion that makes much of ‘the flesh’ but it will not tolerate Christ. Christ and all who follow him it will crucify.  We must live as those crucified with Christ, as those who having received the law’s own sentence of death, have died to it.  Such is the effect of the cross in Christian living.

Gal 5:1 (ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.


only those who love, hate

Hate is scarcely considered a virtue in our Western world.  Christians too have little appetite for advocating hatred.  Now, of course, there are understandable reasons for this.  All too often human hatred is for all the wrong reasons and leads to just as wrong actions.  However, hatred itself is not wrong and indeed may well be godly.  God hates.

God hates all evildoers (Ps 5:5). He hates: all robbery and wrongdoing (Isa 61:8); the wicked and any who love violence (Ps 11:5); those who oppose him while claiming to be his people (Jer 12:8; Hos 9:15); every form of idolatry (Jer 44:4; Deut 16:22); and hypocritical religion (Amos 5:21).

Proverbs instructs us

Prov 6:16 -19
There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.

Now while this list is pretty comprehensive we must not think it is exhaustive.  Many other examples of things that God hates are recorded in Scripture.  The biblical God, who is love, hates.  Nor is this hatred to be found only in the God of the OT, someone we are (wrongly) told is inferior to the God of the NT (a claim that is arrant unbelief and wickedness).  The God who reveals himself in Jesus hates too.  It is the risen reigning Christ who says to the church at Ephesus,

Rev 2:6
Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

In fact, in a fallen world, it is impossible to truly love without hating.  If we love truth then we must hate lies.  If we love righteousness then we will (like Messiah) hate lawlessness (Ps 45:7) for what fellowship has light with darkness or lawlessness with righteousness (2 Cor 6:14)   Genuine love abhors what is evil and clings to what is good (Roms 12:9).

In Rachel Ray, a delightful love story, Anthony Trollope observes, ‘strong love for the thing loved necessitates strong hatred for the thing hated.’  He was right and simply echoing Scripture.  We may be sure today that one of the reasons we do not hate evil and wickedness as we ought is because we do not love God as we ought.  Our hatred of what is sinful is weak because our love for God and all that is right is insipid.  If we truly love the light we will hate the darkness.  If we really love the life of the Spirit then we will hate the garment spotted by the flesh (Jude v23).

All too often it is not our lack of knowledge that is the cause of disobedience and indifference to sin but our lack of love.  We do not have the jealous love we ought for God’s glory.  We have not the holy love and fear of God that makes us hate evil for the fear of the Lord is the hatred of evil (Prov 1:22).

As Christians we should love what God loves and hate what he hates.  Hate, properly directed, is indeed a godly emotion.  We should hate all unrighteousness, all evil and perversity (Ps 97:10, 101:3).  We should hate false teachers or prophets.  We should hate every form of bribery (Ex 18:21).  We should hate company that is intent on mischief and ungodliness (Ps 26:5).  We should hate all idolatry and idolaters (Ps 31:6).  We should hate and abhor all guile, all deceit, and every false word and way (Ps 119:104, 163; Prov 8:13, 13:5), all double-mindedness (Ps 119:113) dishonest gain (Prov 28:16) for God hates all abominable things (Deut 12:31).

We should hate all who hate the Lord (Ps 139:21).  Our heartbeat should be that of the Psalmist when he wrote,

Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!   They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain.  ​Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?   I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.

But are we not told to love our enemies?  Are we not to do good to those who abuse us?  Did not Christ say, ‘Father forgive them’?  ‘Indeed’ is the answer to all three questions.  The reality is, like God, we are called to love and hate at the same time.  We are to love for God is love and extends his love to the unworthy and sinners.  We love because he first loved us.  Yet from another perspective we are to hate.  We are to hate the wicked because God hates the wicked (Ps 11:5).

Many have tried to reconcile these opposites by the maxim ‘God loves the sinner but hates the sin’.  I have some sympathy with this observation and feel it does go a little way in explaining the apparent paradox, however, the stubborn fact remains that Scripture does not say this; it does not simply say God hates wickedness or evil, it says he hates the wicked and evildoers.  He not only hates lies, he hates liars (Prov 6:19).  He hates not merely discord but ‘he who sows discord’ (Ps 16:19).  He will destroy not simply wickedness but the wicked (Ps 145:20); it is not merely principles but also people who are cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:15).

The truth is that who we are cannot be so easily separated from what we are; actions reveal identity.  Our identity is defined by what we are in our heart and human hearts are invincibly opposed to God and full of evil.  Our actions are simply the overflow of what is in our heart, our corrupt nature.  Wickedness is not a part of us, it is us.  Thus God loves us  for no other reason than that he chooses to love us, for his heart delights in love.  So too we ought to love one another, not because we are loveable but because God has placed his heart of unconditional love with us – he has in grace made us partakers of the divine nature.  Conversely, God’s hate is deserved and morally virtuous, even vital.  Light must hate darkness else it is not light.  Truth must abominate the lie.  Good must be repelled by evil else it is not good.

And so, God both loves and hates sinners and so do we.  I long for sinners to repent and embrace the gospel because God has placed his unconditional love within my heart  yet I also long for all who resist God and defy his glory to be destroyed, love for God and right can do no less.  Even the world hates in this way to some extent.  Have you noticed that the world does not simply hate paedophilia, it hates paedophiles?  It does not separate the person from the sin.

But to return to our subject…

As noted above, a great deal of our myopia as believers flows more from weak spiritual affections than our understanding.  Faint love accounts for a great deal we get wrong.  That is what Augustine was getting at when he said,  ‘love God and do what you will’.  Love opens our hearts to the mind of our lover and commits us to his pleasure.  We love what he loves and hate what he hates.  Love gives a clear eye; this is why many a simple believer has a much deeper grasp of God and his ways than the degree-laden biblical scholar for love not learning opens the spiritual eye. Spiritual blindness is a moral problem not an intellectual one.

And so to end where we began… we do not hate because we do not love.  If I am not revulsed by ungodliness and vexed in my soul by unrighteous behaviour and filthy speech then it is because I do not love as I ought.  If sexual perversion and promiscuity is not to me abhorrent and violence is not loathsome then my love is weak and insipid.  If I do not abominate the inter-faith pluralism so vaunted today then I have no jealous love for the singular glory of God, a glory he will not share with another.  If the lies of false teachers are a small thing to me then I do not value Christ who is the truth.  If I do not hate, then I do not love.

Is there enough hate in your heart to identify you as a lover?


christian obedience and pseudo-christian obedience

Firstly, a word of apology to those who have dipped into this blog over the summer looking for something fresh to read.   For reasons of holidays, responsibilities and the need for a rest I have posted nothing in the last couple of months.  Today, I hope to dip my toe in the blogosphere once again with a short post reflecting on Christian obedience and its imposter, pseudo-Christian obedience.  I fear many of us are given more to the latter than the former.

What is Christian obedience?

Christian obedience is that attitude of faith that begins and continues each day determined to live by faith.  It is a daily conscious allegiance to God (through the Spirit) that daily asks, ‘Lord what will you have me to do?’  It is the obedient ear of the one whose ear is opened morning by morning ready to be instructed in the divine will.  It says at every point, including the difficult ones, not my will but yours be done.  It is not merely concerned with avoiding sin but eagerly pursues righteousness.  More, it seeks to live the resurrection life by taking up the cross and following Christ, by living as one crucified.

Christian obedience is by its very nature Christ-like obedience.  We ought to walk as he walked (1 Jn 2:6).  It is an aspirational obedience modelled on that of Christ.  Christ had come not to do his own will but the will of he who sent him.  His delight was in that will.  He was the Son who would do the things that the Father had given him to do whatever the  personal cost.  It was the word of his Father that was his food and drink.  He did always the things that were pleasing to the Father.  He seeks to please the Father, copy his Father.  He does only the things that he sees his Father do.  He is caught up in the perspective and plans of his Father for he loves the Father and wishes to bring honour to him.  And so he will not love his own life but lose it and in that losing of it will know even more the love of the Father (Jn 10:17).  He knows that his obedience keeps him in his Father’s love and urges this same obedience on his disciples (Jn 15:10).  It is in this unqualified commitment to obedience, whatever it may cost, that they will demonstrate their love for him and know and enjoy the Father’s love and the security it brings (Jn 14:21).  Christ’s obedience is such that he is conscious the Father loved him before the foundation of the world (Jn 17:24).   Indeed this very love is what enables him to obey and experience the pain of rejection and the passion of Calvary.  For the sacrifice the Father demands flows from the Father’s love and must ultimately be for the Son’s blessing; if one is conscious of being loved one knows that what is asked of us must be good, acceptable and perfect (Roms 12).  One knows it will result in glory.

In a word Christian obedience is filial obedience; it is the obedience of a son who loves his father and is loved by him.  It is without conditions.  There is no bit in the mouth forcing the direction.  It is simply the whisper in the ear, ‘this is the way…walk in it’.  Such is Christian obedience and when embarked upon it brings  rich reward.  The heart is full of peace and rest.  Relationship with God in Christ is strong and assured.  We know God and are assured we are known of God.  Our hearts are full of love, joy and peace in the Spirit and we know a holy boldness and wisdom.

But our experience is not always like this, is it?

All too often our obedience flows from a different premise altogether.  It is a pale and pathetic devilish parody of Christian obedience.  If truth be told it is not really obedience at all.  I am speaking of that ‘obeying’ which is simply concerned with doing the minimum necessary to meet the demands of conscience and avoid a sense of impending judgement.  It is the ‘obeying’ which is content with merely avoiding of what is positively and evidently wrong and has little appetite for pursuing what is positively good.   It asks only what is objectively right and wrong but avoids discerning between what is good and best.   It does not have the spiritual interest in discerning and pursuing what is excellent (Phil 1:10) so that we may be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ (Phil 2:11).

It goes without saying that this kind of ‘obeying’ steers well away from cross-bearing righteousness.  Its righteousness is no more than that of the pharisee.  It seeks to be moral, even religiously moral, but has no notion of what it means to have died to self.  It cannot, for the one thing it seeks to avoid is dying to self.  It is keen to keep autonomy.  It is keen to protect self.  It is, isn’t it, mere fleshly ‘obeying.  Mere rule-keeping.  The rules are likely to be some Christianized version of the Ten Commandments with C21 accretions, subtractions, and adaptations.  They may differ a little in detail from the Ten Words but the spirit with which they are embraced is the same; if I can only live by these at some rudimentary level then I can satisfy conscience, feel good about myself, and keep myself on the right side of God.  How far we fall from grace.

For of course this is a morality that has little grasp of grace.  There is little concept of sonship here.  We have no delight in the will of a Father who loves us.  We are suspicious that his will is not so ‘good, acceptable and perfect’.  We are not secure in his love.  And, ironically, the more we pursue an obedience of minimum righteousness the less confirmed in that love we will be.  God will cease to be the Father who loves us and whose will we can trust to be in our best interests and will become the God who judges.  We, in turn will ‘obey’ through fear of judgement rather than out of love responding to love.  We will live not as sons but as slaves.  Our obedience will be law-obedience rather than grace-obedience for such ‘obedience’ is mere legalism.

And yet, how often it is our functional obedience.  Our decisions revolve around mere ethical abstractions.  Am I avoiding murder, stealing, and adultery and am I keeping the Sabbath?  What is the harm in this film or that novel?  How little prayer and Bible reading is acceptable?  What level of pre-marital petting is permissible?  Can I get away with this low-cut dress?  Is it okay to introduce some earthy vocabulary into my speech. Can I take part in sport on Sundays and miss church?    What’s wrong with gardening, holidaying,  shopping , advancing our careers?   Our obedience becomes all about boundaries and generally how far we can stretch them.

Now I am not saying we should never ask these questions.  Far from it.  Christian living means we have to do some hard thinking (and Bible-based thinking) about these and other questions.  But when these are the sum and substance of what we think Christian obedience is about and when we ask them with a view merely of allowing us greater wriggle room to do what we want to do and avoid doing what we don’t want to do we have lost the plot.  That all things should be done to edify we have long forgotten.   For me to live is Christ is not part of our frame of reference.  All is mere religious moralising and self-justification.

Little wonder we are dissatisfied in our faith.  Little wonder God seems distant.  There is no reciprocity of love here… no Father/Son  dynamic… no sense that we are loved of the Father.  There is no eager obedience because the Father loves us and so that he will have reason to love us even more.  No being caught up as a son in the business of the Father.  No asking what is my Father doing in this world and how does he want me to be involved in this with him….what is my Father’s will for me?  No shared agenda, shared desires, shared work, shared goals.  And where these are absent relationships die.  Where a son  does enough merely to avoid his father’s wrath or, worse still, from mercenary motives (to get something out of his father that he wants) there is little relationship.  The relationship is dying and will soon be dead.  Far less is there the spirit that suffers the loss of all things and counts them as dung to gain Christ…. the desire to know him and the power of his resurrection through sharing in his sufferings.

I could go on but I hope the point is clear.  As believers all too often we flit in and out of each of these forms of obedience.  At our best we live as sons who eagerly embrace the Father’s will.  But all too often faith fails and we fall from grace.  We slip back into a legalistic ‘obedience’ that is no obedience at all.  We  fall back on the flesh  and mere morality and do not live in the spirit.  But the obedience of the flesh is the way of death.  For fallen flesh is not subject to God nor can be.  Our attempts to create a minimum obedience reveal this only too clearly; God and his will is held at arm’s length as best we can.   We fool neither God nor ourselves.   It is an unhappy place for a Christian to be.  I know  because so often this is my functional obedience.

Allow me to give you my own experience.  Far too often I am determined to follow a certain path.  I find myself so determined that I avoid asking the Lord if this is his will.  I step away from honesty in my relationship with the Lord and fall back on specious casuistic reasoning.  I (secretly) believe that my will is better than the Lord’s.  The result is a loss of intimacy with the Lord and a loss of shalom.  On the other hand when I walk in step with the Spirit and have a heart yielded to the Lord then I find that some of these issues that I agonized over trying to justify suddenly become very clear. I no longer need to agonize over that film to determine whether it is acceptable or not, I simply know that it is not for me.  And, ironically, some of these things that I feared the Lord may withhold from me, I discover he graciously grants.  That rest that I needed, when I ask him about it his wisdom tells me I do indeed need and should take without guilt or having to justify.  I discover that his will is good, acceptable and perfect and my soul rejoices.  When my eye is single, I discover that my whole body is full of light.  I discover too what it truly is to live in the liberty of Christ.  In Augustine’s words, ‘Love God and do what you will (please)’.   O that my foolish heart trusted more consistently and fully.

Let us follow the way of gospel-driven, grace-saturated, Spirit-fueled, son-conscious obedience, the obedience of Christ and recognise our pseudo-legalistic-fleshly-slave- obedience for what it is – a parody of obedience invented by Satan that dishonours and displeases God and dissatisfies and dispossesses us.


preaching about suicide

First of all, a further apology for such a time between posts.  Productivity is likely to remain low over the next couple of months so apologies again in advance.

On a recent Sunday past, a group of students from a nearby Bible College were responsible for our Morning Bible Hour.  Their preacher was a young Dutchman who  spoke ably.  His topic was interesting, indeed arresting.  He spoke in a general and pastoral way on Psalm 23 and made a number of pertinent comments.  He related the Psalm to a very personal and moving account of his young, pregnant sister-in-law’s tragic suicide some three years previously.

The juxtaposing of Psalm 23 and the suicide of a confessing believer in Christ was startling and provocative.

Psalm 23 extols God’s providential care of his people.  David, a literal shepherd in his youth and in his adult life, as King of Israel, a shepherd of a different sort (for kings in Israel were regularly described as shepherds of God’s people), confesses rightly and humbly, ‘the Lord is my Shepherd’.  The Psalm extols the shepherding care of God in David’s life.  Whether in pleasant times (when led by still waters) or difficult dark times (in the valley of the shadow of death) the Lord is his protector and keeper.  David need fear no evil.  Indeed in the very midst of his enemies, when threatened on every side, David’s faith depicts the Lord seating him at a banquet; the Lord’s provision makes a mockery of his enemies and every fearful situation.  David is safe in the epicentre of the storm because the Lord provides abundantly.

The question hangs begging in the air.  Why then did the young Dutchman’s sister-in-law commit suicide?  If God protects his people then why did he not prevent this young mother (and mother-to-be) from self harm?  Where is the God who gives banquets to his troubled and beleaguered people?

It would be a foolish person who did not see that here we are in deep waters.  Deep waters for faith that is.  This kind of topic is neither easy (or safe) to preach or post on for not only is suicide a subject that sends a chill down the spine of most but, more pertinently, who knows whether those who hear or read are themselves contemplating suicide or have a relative who has taken this tragic course. Discoursing on suicide means we must be particularly conscious of our audience.

So what points ought preachers to make when grappling with the subject of suicide of a believer?  Let me suggest a few.

1.  Preachers should stress the need for those who feel suicidal to see their doctor, and soon.  Many suicides arise from clinical depression.  Clinical depression is an illness that drastically skews our thinking.  It is not merely the normal experience of being down in the dumps.    People who are clinically depressed are unable to raise their mood however hard they try.   For whatever reason something has ceased functioning as it ought in their brain or nervous system that results in a mind flooded with dark thoughts and a mood that is deeply depressed and perhaps anxious.  They have a sustained disturbance of mood that is tangible, abnormal, and profoundly affecting their sense of well-being.  Medical attention can help dramatically.  The depression and symptoms can be treated (and significantly alleviated) and the underlying cause diagnosed and tackled.  Clinical depression is pathological; it is an illness and should be recognised as such.

Preachers should stress that just as a heart condition or blood pressure or a broken leg requires medical treatment (and perhaps lifestyle change) so too does clinical depression.  The depressed person is as clinically ill as is the person with say angina.  And while there may be spiritual issues that the illness reveals or creates (as there may be in any illness) the whole story is not likely to be spiritual.  The advice to see their GP soon and speak openly must be clear and unambiguous.  Where symptoms of depression or anxiety are persisting and are moderate to severe in intensity a visit to the doctor is a must and preachers must avoid suggesting the whole matter is spiritual and must be handled at that level.

Let me say it once again, preachers who preach about suicide and depression and other depression related topics must impress, as part of their message, the value of visiting the doctor, to fail to do so is irresponsible.  Medical attention can help dramatically.

2.  Preachers should not pronounce whether the person who has committed suicide is presently in heaven or hell.  They should avoid this for reasons both theological and pastoral.  They should avoid pronouncements for the simple reason that they do not know.  Preachers simply do not have the authority to pontificate for the Bible gives no sure word on this. Preachers have no theological mandate.

At one time the almost uniform view was that no suicide has eternal life.  Nowadays the opposite view prevails.  Preachers tend to fall over themselves to assure those who grieve that their loved one is in heaven. Such diametrically opposing views exist because pastors go beyond what Scripture reveals. On the one hand those in Scripture who commit suicide (like Saul and Judas Iscariot) are hardly comforting company.  It is those faithful unto death who are promised the crown of life (Rev 2:10).  Scripture affirms that it is those who stand firm to the end who are saved (Matt 24:13).  Endurance in faith is a hallmark of the redeemed (Hebs 6:11; Cf Rev 13:10). At the same time, God is not unrighteous and will not forget their work and love (Hebs 6:10).  More could be said here but for brevity’s sake I shall say no more.

Save this…

Pastorally it is disastrous to affirm those who commit suicide will be in heaven.  For the believer in the audience with suicidal thoughts such cavalier assurances act like green lights.  For some, the only brake on suicide is the worry that they may end up somewhere worse.  This is a healthy fear and is no bad deterrent and preachers should not undermine it by pronouncing where they have no word from the Lord.

Where the Bible remains silent we should remain silent.  In this way we avoid encouraging possible suicides or devastating grieving relatives and we stay within the bounds of ‘it is written’.

3.  Preachers should make clear that suicide is always an expression of a collapse of faith.  I imagine I hear shocked protest.  However, we must be blunt and unambiguous.  It is never faith that leads to suicide.  Faith trusts God.  It never gives up.  It never despairs.  It never loses hope.  Faith endures.  Suicide results from a loss of hope.  It flows from despair.  It happens when the pain (emotional or physical) is so great that the person no longer believes the resources are available to cope with it. When pain exceeds pain-coping resources, suicidal feelings are the result.  To believe we have no resources is the essence of unbelief.

Now it may be that the mind which commits suicide is so overwhelmed and distorted that all personal responsibility is gone.  None of us knows – only God knows.

I speak about this subject with some personal insight.  I have known deep depression that created suicidal thoughts.  I know others who have similarly suffered from depression and experienced suicidal thoughts.  In my case, profound and deep though the depression was, insistently mind-altering though it was, I did not lose completely the sense of personal responsibility and accountability. Indeed it was faith asserted when I did not understand and when my mind was screaming otherwise that preserved me.   To have succumbed to suicidal thoughts would only have been possible had I finally (however briefly) abandoned faith.

Perhaps there are depths of depression where such abandonment is inevitable and leave the person without any responsibility for their actions.  I do not know… and neither do you.  What we can say, is whether faith is abandoned knowingly (and so culpably) or otherwise, it is nevertheless abandoned and it is this that frees the person to commit suicide.  Where there is clinging faith there is hope and no suicide.

Of course, the person who commits suicide may have such distorted thinking that he believes he is doing the best/right/believing thing.  He is convinced he is a burden on others etc.  We should be clear (and preachers should make clear)that such ‘convictions’ are not true faith but a deception of Satan.  Again, true faith clings to God and what Scripture has revealed even when the mind and spirit are being swamped by all kinds of deceptive lies.

Again, I ask, is there a point at which the lies become so overwhelming, so compelling, that all personal responsibility is gone?  Only God knows.  But one way or another, either culpably or otherwise, faith has collapsed and the preacher, let me repeat, should make clear that this is the case.  We do none any favours by shielding them from this harsh reality.

This collapse of personal faith by the suicide is what helps us make sense – at least to some extent – of the tension that seems to exist between the announcement of Psalm 23 that God is the shepherd who protects his people and the suicide of a believer.  Why does David feel secure when threatened on every side?  Is it because he is super-brave?  No.  It is because of his faith.  It is because David believes that the Lord is his Shepherd that he is strong in spirit and stands firm.  It his resolve to believe and trust that gives him strength and resilience.  If his faith were to collapse then David would be overwhelmed and crushed.

Yes the Lord keeps his people but he keeps them through faith (Roms 11:30).  It is faith that gives us victory (1 Jn 5:4).  It is the shield of faith that defends us against the fiery destructive darts of Satan (Eph 6).  It is faith that enables us to endure (Hebs 11:27, 12:3; Rev 13:10).  Where there is faith there is endurance and divine keeping and protection.  It is those who trust the Lord promises to keep.  Not those who trusted in the past but those who trust now.  While we trust we are invincible.  When we trust we shall never be put to shame.  It is when we cease to trust we fall and sometimes catastrophically.

Of course, this does not answer all questions.  We are still left asking why the Lord allows faith to collapse.  Why did he allow the Dutch preachers sister-in-law to commit suicide or for that matter the preacher who married my wife and I?  But that question is but one of a whole parcel of such questions.  Why did he allow the young child prayed for and loved to die?  Why did he allow the cancer that took away a loving and needed father?  Why did he allow the pastor to commit adultery?  Why the genocide in Rwanda, the killing fields of Cambodia, the WW2 concentration camps?  Why did he permit Job to lose all that he had?  Indeed the most basic question of all – why did he permit Adam to sin?

To these questions no answer is given.  Such questions are too wonderful for us.  We are but creatures and God alone is the Creator.   In him alone are found the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  Like Job we may in our confusion and pain question God and even, fools that we are, impugn his righteousness.  But like Job we will finally need to learn that God is God and we are but men.  We will need to hear the Lord say to us tenderly but firmly,

Job 40:1-8 (ESV)
And the Lord said to Job:  “Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.” … “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?

Like Job we will need to humble ourselves and discover that what faith really requires is not answers but a fresh vision of God himself, a fresh realization that God is trustworthy even when we are in the dark, that God is righteous and every man a liar and unrighteous.  Then like Job we will confess,

Job 42:3-6 (ESV)
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

In Christ, we have a far greater grasp of the ‘godness’ of God than Job had.  We have far more reason to trust unconditionally. And faith does this; it trusts Christ because of all he is and is content to forego understanding in a host of other areas.

The preacher who discusses suicide will want to make this point, and the previous ones, and perhaps others that I have not considered.  Are there any you feel ought to be included?


christ and true spirituality

What do visualization (Ignatian Examen or kataphatic prayer), silence, solitude, lectio divina, labyrinth prayers, Stations of the Cross, chanting, induced visions, centering prayer, centering down, and astral projection all have in common?  The answer is they are all forms of mysticism (spirituality) that has been flooding the evangelical world over recent years.  I can pretty well guarantee that if  you have not yet encountered these you soon will.

Now let me say up front that spirituality, or Christian experience of God, is very much part of what it means to be a Christian.  I am appalled by some today (such as Old Life Presbyterians) who have little or no time for Christian experience and dismiss it as mere emotionalism or pietism.  In fact, the pietistic movement in Germany in the C17 began as a healthy biblical reaction to the rigid dogma-driven orthodoxy of the Lutheran church married to a high ecclesiology that, not unlike modern old-lifers, discouraged devotional fervour in the faith of believers.

We must not dismiss Christian experience.  We are converted that we may know God, not merely know about him.  Salvation brings us not only into union with Christ but into communion with him.  We enjoy his presence.  We know what is to ‘dwell in God’.    We are called into the fellowship of the Father and Son, for all who love Christ and keep his word know what it is for the Father and Son to come and make their home in them (Jn 14:22).  Christian experience is abiding in God and God abiding in us (1 Jn 4:15,16).  This is much more than a proper standing, or a theological system, it is relationship and intimacy that brings us into all that God is.  Where the affections are not engaged Christianity is not realized.

However, while communion with God in Christ is what we are called to as Christians, like every other aspect of Christianity Satan is only too ready to corrupt and distort it.  C17 Pietism began well but in time was enticed into various spiritual experiences that had no roots in the gospel and belonged more  to mere mysticism with its emphasis on ecstatic visions of the soul and altered states of consciousness created by ‘spiritual techniques’ rather than beholding the glory of God in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 3).

Such mysticism did not originate in the C17.  It plagued the church from its inception.  We have been focussing in recent posts on various aspects of the heresy that harried the Colossian church.  We noted that this heresy was a hydran mixture of philosophy (human wisdom trumping revealed truth), Judaism (human religiosity and laws for holiness becoming a substitute for grasping what it means to have died with Christ to this world), and finally mysticism.  This mysticism was false and dangerous because it offered spiritual experience detached from a singular focus on the revealed Christ.

This danger Paul addresses in the Colossian church when he writes:

Col 2:18-19 (ESV)
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

Some, it appears, were advocating religious experience through intermediaries (angels) and visionary states of consciousness, perhaps induced through bodily deprivation, that had nothing to do with looking at Christ.  However, these are man-made spiritualities.  They appear wise  but are really self-made religion (Col 2:23) for they are not about the simplicity of holding on by faith to the risen and reigning Christ.

The simple reality is, not all spiritualities are authentically spiritual.   Nowadays the desire for a Christian spirituality is leading some into rather strange places.  Modern mystics like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster promote forms of spirituality that have a lot more to do with Roman Catholic mysticism than genuine biblical faith.  Classic medieval mysticism was virtually unknown in Evangelicalism until popularised by Foster in his ‘Celebration of Discipline, the Path of Spiritual Growth‘.  Voted by Christianity Today as one of the ten best books of the C20, Foster introduced all kinds of dubious mystical techniques into the evangelical consciousness.

How do we stop genuine pursuit of God being corrupted by a false kind of mysticism?  Let me try to answer this question in terms of a few propositions.

true spirituality never divorces itself from objective truth

The Christian gospel is objective truth we are called to believe (Jn 20:31).  Indeed, we grow in the knowledge of God only as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ (Jn 17:3).  There is a tendency in Christian mysticism to pay only lip-service to revealed truth.  As one writer observes,

The essence of mysticism lies in this, that the seat of authority is transferred in the mind of the mystic from the external Word of God to the spiritual consciousness — the “spiritual man” — internal to themselves. Homage of quite an orthodox kind may be verbally rendered to the Scriptures, and yet they may be largely displaced.  It has little or no restraining effect upon the flights of his imagination. He quotes it of course, but only as supporting or illustrating or adorning his own conceptions of truth. His conceptions become the primary thing on which the main emphasis must be laid. Scripture must be interpreted in the light of those conceptions, and its words become of secondary importance.

Evelyn Underhill, a leading Anglo-Catholic mystic of the early C20  confirms the truth of this criticism in saying,

“Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, is the direct intuition or experience of God; and a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience — one whose religion and life are centered, not merely on an accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.”

Where quests to know God are not founded on what the God who has made himself known has objectively revealed for faith to grasp they soon wind-up as merely fanciful experiences. The subjective trumps the objective and the mystic becomes ‘puffed up with their sensuous mind‘ (Col 2).  The Quakers (or Society of Friends) are a classic example of where for many ‘inner light’ has replaced revealed truth; connection with the head is lost.

true spirituality focusses on an exalted Christ outside of self and not on Christ within

It is true, and wonderfully so, that Christ dwells in the heart of every believer by faith.  Yet it is equally true that we are told to focus on the exalted Christ outside of ourselves and not the Christ within.   The gospel does not encourage pre-occupation with what is happening inside of us.  Instead Paul exhorts,

Col 3:1-4 (ESV)
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

It is the risen and exalted Christ in glory who is the object of faith and adoration.  We look to Jesus who has triumphantly completed the life of faith and is now seated at the right hand of God. (Hebs 12:2).  Looking within merely leads to self-absorption the very opposite to the self-forgetfulness that the gospel creates.  The kind of mysticism that calls for navel-gazing is not biblical spirituality.

true spirituality has Christ as its object and not spiritual experience itself

The inclination of fallen humanity is to be self-absorbed.  Our human tendency is to make much of ourselves.  We like to be the centre of everything.  If we give in to this everything becomes false.  The flesh loves its own reasoning, its religious observance, and its own religious consciousness. The gospel, however, always takes the focus away from us and on places it on Christ.

False mysticism is interested in religious experience rather than Christ.  It deals largely with ourselves, and our own state and apprehension of the truth. It is occupied not with divine realities themselves, but with how we become conscious of those realities, and of the way they work out certain results in us.

Lectio Divina, meaning “sacred reading,” is a technique that moves beyond the normal reading the Bible. It aims at going beyond the objective meaning of the words  to that which transcends normal awareness.  One writer instructs,

‘As you attend to those deeper meanings, begin to meditate on the feelings and emotions conjured up in your inner self.’

Notice how the technique subtly turns us in on ourselves and our consciousness. It is not about God, it is about us.

Mysticism has about it an apparent profundity of thought and utterance. It promises a far greater depth of understanding, which is alluring, and especially to minds of a certain contemplative type, fundamentally disposed towards introspection and self-occupation.  We can be sure such self-occupation is not biblical spirituality.  As even the Roman Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton writes

‘If I were to say that Christianity came into the world specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth… Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; anyone who knows anyone from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones… Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners’.

true spirituality is not merely aspirations after God in Christ but present enjoyment of him

A feature of much false mysticism is that it is about un-realised desire.  It pants for God but never seems to find him. It longs to know love but never experiences it.  Now we must be careful here for there is always that which is aspirational in faith.  Paul wishes to ‘know Christ’ and reaches out to what he has not yet attained, HOWEVER,  this is within the context of already knowing and enjoying Christ.  The love of God is already shed abroad in his heart (Roms 5).  He already ‘knows the love of Christ which is beyond knowing’ (Eph 3:19).  Yes we wish to be filled with all the fulness of God (Eph 3:20) but we are already ‘filled’ in Christ, the one in whom the fulness of the Godhead dwells (Col 2:9).

We not only desire Christ, we have Christ.  He is the present satisfying object of our love and adoration.  We delight in him, enjoy him, and are complete in him.  In the Spirit he is already for us a spring of water springing up to eternal life, eternally satisfying.

John 4:13-14 (ESV)
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Desire and love are not exactly the same.  Desire is never satisfied.  It does not possess the object of desire, but love does.  Love supposes that we have full possession of the object of our desires.  Love does not so much desire as delight in the one loved.  Mysticism, absorbed as it is with self and feelings, never gets beyond desire; while simple Christianity, giving the knowledge of salvation, puts us into full possession of the love of God.  I know that I am loved and I know the one I love.  Indeed, my very love is self-forgetful, for that is what true love is. Desire turns one in on oneself while love takes one out of oneself and rests on the object loved.

In Christianity, I dwell in love, divine love.  In peace, I contemplate this love, and I adore it in Christ. I dwell in Him and He in me.  In God, and contemplation of him, I am deeply and completely filled and satisfied.  He satisfies the longing soul and fills the hungry with good things (Ps 107:9).  Love, peace, joy and unspeakable glory are not elusive but enjoyed realities in Christ.  Yes, I long for more, but I do so from one who is satisfied.  He has already filled the hungry with good things (Lk 1:53).  This biblical tension is important to maintain.

true spirituality is not technique-driven but simply adores God in the risen Christ

A criticism that can be rightly levelled at many spiritualities ancient and modern (for the modern are only the ancient resuscitated) is the degree to which they are technique-driven.  All involve processes to create transcendence.  Now this immediately rings alarm bells, firstly because there is something contrived and manipulated about such techniques, and, secondly, because these ‘techniques’ are hard to find in Scripture.  Sometimes verses are cited in support but often these are asked to deliver much more than they are able.  We have to ask of many of these ‘techniques’ why they are not plainly exhorted in Scripture.

On so-called ‘centering prayer’ (focussing on a single word like ‘love’ or ‘God’ to clear the mind of other thoughts) Tony Campolo comments,

‘In my case intimacy with Christ has developed gradually over the years, primarily through what Catholic mystics call ‘centering prayer.’ Each morning, as soon as I wake up, I take time-sometimes as much as a half hour-to center myself on Jesus. I say his name over and over again to drive back the 101 things that begin to clutter up my mind the minute I open my eyes. Jesus is my mantra, as some would say.’

Letters to a Young Evangelical Pg 20

Henri Nouwen the late Roman Catholic mystic popular in Evangelical circles explains,

“The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart … This way of simple prayer … opens us to God’s active presence” (The Way of the Heart, p. 81)

Yet we are obliged to ask where such a technique is commended in Scripture?  Notice too, Nouwen, is taking us into ourselves rather than outside ourselves.  This is deadly, for immediately we ‘lose connection with the head’ (Col 2).

True spirituality or Christian mysticism is that which contemplates the truth of God revealed in the gospel of Christ.  It is firmly anchored in objective truth and arises from it.  It recognises that in holding fast to the head is the way of spiritual experience and reality.  Faith and love look without and not within.

More observations could be made.  We could consider the suspect role of spiritual directors in mysticism.  However, I hope what has been said so far gives cause for caution and reflection before buying into the ‘spiritualities’ on offer in the evangelical world at the moment.  Never fail to ask what is the central concern and focus – religious consciousness or the revealed and reigning Christ?

I suggest for further reading an article by D A Carson written some years ago.  Below are his opening paragraphs.

The current interest in spirituality is both salutary and frightening.
It is salutary because in its best forms it is infinitely to be preferred over the assumed philosophical materialism that governs many people, not only in the western world but in many other parts as well. It is salutary wherever it represents a self-conscious rebellion against the profound sense of unreality that afflicts many churches. We speak of “knowing” and “meeting with” and “worshiping” the living God, but many feel that the corporate exercises are perfunctory and inauthentic, and in their quietest moments they wonder what has gone wrong.

It is frightening because “spirituality” has become such an ill-defined, amorphous entity that it covers all kinds of phenomena an earlier generation of Christians, more given to robust thought than is the present generation, would have dismissed as error, or even as “paganism” or “heathenism.” Today “spirituality” is an applause-word—that is, the kind of word that is no sooner uttered than everyone breaks out in applause. In many circles it functions in the spiritual realm the way “apple pie” functions in the culinary realm: Who is bold enough to offer a caution, let alone a critique?

Carson is just the man to do so.


lent…or the ashes of judaism that deface christianity


Lent is the forty days before Easter in the Christian liturgical Calendar.  It starts with Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday.  It is traditionally celebrated in the West by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans.  Until fairly recently, for most evangelicals, the very hint of liturgical calendars and days like ‘Ash Wednesday’ and ‘Holy Thursday’ would have been enough for them to run a million miles.  No longer.  Liturgical calendars are de rigueur.  Evangelicals are outing as ‘liturgy-men’ and proud of it.  Celebrating Lent is where it is at in modern spirituality.  A cursory glance at many evangelical websites will make this plain.   Goodness, even Michael Horton has jumped on the bandwagon.  Everyone’s loving lent.

Have conservative evangelicals got it wrong all these years?  Have they been too strict, too stuffy, and too legalistic (an ironic claim in this context if ever there was one)?  Do we need to invest in the ‘Big Tradition’ and rediscover these disciplines?  I guess, my tone in writing so far will reveal where I stand on this issue.  I am appalled at how casually evangelicals are buying into traditions that are essentially Judaistic and sub-Christian.  At best these are a pointless distraction but the reality is much worse; they are actually an indulgence of ‘fleshly’ religion which draws away from Christ.  Strong words, I know.  Not likely to please many.  Such sentiments will be castigated as intolerant and narrow-minded for sure.

Let me say, at the outset, I don’t mean to be unkind or harsh.  As Brian McLaren would protest, how can a mild-mannered guy like me ever be misunderstood in this kind of way?  In fact, if Lenten-men were simply those who have observed it for centuries then I probably would have said nothing.  However, when those who were traditionally free from this kind of childishness (a word I shall later justify), even slavery (another word I shall endeavour to defend), begin to lapse into religious shadows that in Christ are fulfilled and abandoned, I feel compelled to protest.  I am jealous that Christ is being lost in the paraphernalia of human religiosity.  Indeed, all who grasp what it is to be a believer who has died and risen with Christ ought to be jealous for Christ’s glory and care deeply when they see believers submitting to what Scripture calls ‘weak and worthless elements‘  and being enslaved by them (Gals 4:8).

Paul writes, in a context closely allied to the matter in question (rites, rituals and regulations),

Gal 3:1-5 (ESV)
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain-if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith.

The Galatian Judaizers were advocating Christ plus the Mosaic Law, and especially its emphasis on rites (Gals 5:2, 6:12), purity laws (Gal 2: 11), and liturgical calendars (Gal 4:10).  For Paul, the whole methodology and minutiae of the Law, symbolised in circumcision, was addressed to man in the flesh and not the Spirit; it is a methodology (a religion) for flesh (Gals 3:3, 4:21-31; 6:12) that is fulfilled and finished in Christ.  It is my conviction that adopting liturgical calendars, special festivals, dietary laws, symbols of penance and self-humiliation, and bodily self-denial rites as an end in themselves or as part of a religious calendar is to embrace the old covenant of law as a means of relationship with God and is seriously regressive in our walk with God (whatever protests are made to the contrary).  When the Christians of Galatia are tempted to do this, Paul says, ‘I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain‘ (Gals 4:11).  In accepting these principles of law ‘Christ will be no advantage to them‘ (Gals 5:2).  Thus the Galatians are urged,

Gal 5:1 (ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery

Of course, those evangelicals who advocate Christian Calendars are at pains to point out that liturgical observances do not save.  They do not affect our justification or standing before God.  Nor are they to be imposed as a rule upon the church, but are a matter of Christian freedom.  Indeed, the legalist, it seems, is someone like me who opposes rites and rituals, certainly any promotion of them. I am apparently denying freedom in Christ to those who wish to worship and serve as they wish.  The irony is rich.  For, of course, it is precisely those who promote such practices that Paul regards as legalists.  Indeed it must be so, for they are promoting OT law not NT gospel; if you promote law you are ipso facto a legalist.

no nt mandate

Show me one text from the NT epistles teaching that Christians should live by religious calendars, or dietary laws, or observe special feasts, or abstain from foods, and so on.  It cannot be done.  Such rules and regulations in the NT are conspicuous by their absence, which is singularly odd because one would expect that if such disciplines are so helpful  the NT would be replete with exhortations to pursue them.  But it is not, for they are not (helpful).  The silence of Scripture here is deafening.

They do not ‘save’, their evangelical protagonists agree.  Yet, if this is so, and it is, why commend them?  If I can grow in my Christian life fully without religious rules and rituals, and I clearly can since the NT never advocates them, then what is their purpose?  Moreover, we should not be so confident that these ‘disciplines’ will remain a matter of ‘freedom’ in the consciences of those who embrace them.  The witness of history and Scripture is against this.  What begins as voluntary soon becomes established tradition and finally binding truth.  Whatever we give ourselves to we become slaves to (Roms 6:16).

It is little wonder Paul is so opposed.  He has great patience and sympathy with people who have been converted from legalistic religion.  He bears with weak consciences in Jewish converts who cannot feel free to eat certain meats etc.  He knows it can take time for these consciences to find their full freedom in the gospel (Roms 14,15).  Yet he is in no doubt that these consciences are ‘weak’.  They are not gospel-trained consciences fully aware of their freedom (from religious legalistic observances) in Christ.  However, while he bears with weak consciences, he has no patience for those who promote and teach the value of ritualism to others.  He is opposed to this root and branch and challenges any teaching that suggests or imposes such practices.  There is simply no freedom given in the NT to promote and champion Judaistic practices however ‘Christianized’.  The reality is, that there is no such thing as ‘Christianized’ Judaism (or at least the only version is its fulfilment and finish in Christ) only ‘Judaized’ Christianity.

Some of the above is contention I have not yet proved.  Let me regroup before engaging.

I am opposing religious calendars, man-made rules, and religious rites for holiness for two reasons:

  • because the NT nowhere recommends or suggests them for the life of godliness.
  • because the NT actually opposes them and suggests they deflect us from Christ.

I have made the case for my first contention, follow me as I now make the case more fully for my second contention: the NT actually opposes them and suggests they deflect from Christ.

colossians 2:1-3:4

The key NT text refuting calendars and man-made religious disciplines for holiness is Colossians 2/3.  I urge you to read this text carefully and prayerfully.  It is a clear and powerful criticism of all attempts to introduce religious ritualism into Christianity.  Below, I want to outline its main thrust and thesis.

christianity is christ

Paul’s central and vital point in this chapter  (and in Colossians as a whole) is that Christianity is essentially a relationship with Christ by faith.  Everything that matters is found in Christ alone.  Christ is supreme (Col 1:15-21).  God’s great revealed secret, hidden in the past (in OT events, figures etc) is Christ (2:2).  In Him, lie all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3).  Further this revealed secret is that Christ lives in God’s people (1:27).  This union between Christ and his people is the sum of what the gospel and Christianity is all about.  As Paul writes,

Col 2:6-7 (ESV)
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught…

Living in our union with Christ is the be-all-and-end-all of Christianity.  We are ‘filled’  or ‘complete’ in Him, the one in whom God’s fullness dwells (2:9,10).  We have no more than Christ and need no more than Christ.  Indeed there is no more than Christ (Col 1:15-19).  Paul reminds us too that this union is a union of death and resurrection.  That is, to be united to Christ is to participate (by faith and through the Spirit) in the death and resurrection of Christ (2:8-11).  Like Christ we have died to this world (and so, as we shall see, to all its religious observances) and live in resurrection life to God.  Our ‘life is hid with Christ in God’ (Cols 3:3).  This means that Christ in heaven is the source, story and raison d’etre of our life.  We find and enjoy life as we set our affections on Christ in heaven.  As we put to death what is earthly (living for the things of this world as well as the sins of this world) and set our minds and hearts on the invisible world perceived only by faith we triumph in faith.  This, and this alone, enables us to grow in grace.  In this way alone ( looking to Christ in heaven and putting to death what is earthly) are we, ‘filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,  so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.’ (Col 1:9,10).

This is what it means to be ‘connected to the head’ (Cf 2:19).  To live other than by the faith union that puts to death what is earthy and lives by a heart absorbed with Christ in heaven is to fail to ‘hold fast to the head’ (2:19) and results in being ‘disqualified’ (2:8); or, in Galatian language,in being ‘severed from Christ’ (Gals 5:4).  It should be obvious that if we look elsewhere other than to Christ as the source of our life and power we are cutting the link of faith.   Only by a conscious living in, looking at, and living for Christ can we become ‘mature in Christ’ (Col 1:28).

false routes

Paul does not urge that the Colossians live in Christ in a vacuüm.  He writes because some were teaching otherwise.

Col 2:4 (ESV)
I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments...


What precisely the Colossian heresy was need not concern us here.  Scholars delight in discussing such matters but rarely reach final conclusions.  In any case, the main components are clear and it is these that interest us.  It was a mixture of philosophy (2:8), mysticism (2:18) and Judaism (2:8, 11, 14, 16,17).  Singly, and as a whole Paul is opposed to these influences on Christian life and practice.  He says they ‘delude’ (2:4) for they are based on ‘plausible arguments’ (2:4).  They appear to promote sanctity (2:23) yet are merely ‘empty deceit… human tradition… elemental spirits of the world… having an appearance of wisdom… self-made religion… things on earth… not according to Christ’ and more  (Col 2:8, 20-23, 3:2).  Paul will have no syncretism of Christ and anything else.

Now, we should underline that what Paul is dismissing is not merely philosophy (what has Athens to do with Jerusalem) and mysticism (what has Eleusis to do with Jerusalem) but also Judaism or the Law (what has Sinai to do with Jerusalem, or better, the New Jerusalem ).  For many this dismissal of Law in Christianity is a bridge too far.  I confess, I do not really understand why.  Paul is consistent and clear in his proclamation that Christians are not ‘under law’ (Roms 6:15; 7:1-6; Gals 4:21; 5:18; 1 Cor 9:20).  While Christians can learn from the Old Covenant as we see how it points to Christ, we are in no way obligated to it.  It has no rights over us or claims upon us.  We are not called to obey it, nor to adopt it in any way.  In fact, we are told that there is a basic incompatibility between the forms of Judaistic Law and Gospel Christianity.  Jesus makes it clear that the gospel cannot be contained in the old forms of religion that belonged to law.

Mark 2:21-22 (ESV)
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins-and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” 


This is vital to grasp.  Paul tells us the difference is profound; the law belongs to the old age and old world while the church belongs to the new age and new world.  It is those ‘alive in this world’ to whom the rules and regulations of law (moral, religious or otherwise) are of any relevance (Col 2:20). But Christians are not ‘alive’ in this world they have ‘died’ (2:11, 3:3) and they live in an age beyond this age and a world beyond this world.  They ought not to ‘submit’ (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) to regulations that belong to human religion (2:20) for they belong to an age which is passé.


This temporal distinction between the present and the future is tied into a spacial distinction between what is ‘earthly’ and what is ‘heavenly’ in Scripture.  This latter distinction is one that many modern evangelicals are reluctant to admit.  Yet it is clear and vital.  It is part of the distinction between the old and the new, the law and the gospel.  Jesus is ‘from above‘ and brings in a reality that is ‘from above’ (Jn 3:31; 8:23).  ‘Earthly’ things were revealed in the OT but as the one from heaven he reveals ‘heavenly things‘ (Jn 3:12).  Because he is from heaven he returns to heaven and on his return unites his people to him there.  We find our identity not in the earthly Adam but the heavenly Christ, not in the natural but the spiritual (1 Cor 15:45-49).  As a result we are a ‘heavenly people’ (Eph 1:20; 2:6) and our interests are to do with the realm where Christ our life is found (Gals 4:26; Col 3:1,2; Hebs 3:1; 11:6; 12:2).  The Law and its forms are ‘earthly’ and part of the elementary principles of ‘this world’.  They are merely an earthly copy or shadow of heavenly things (Hebs 8:5; 9:23). Thus they have nothing to do with the believer who is not ‘alive in this world’ but shares the resurrection life of Christ, a spiritual and heavenly life (Col 2:8-11).  This distinction is wrongly dismissed as dualistic and gnostic by some who should know better.  It is not.  It is the plain teaching of Scripture.  Ritual and rite are not merely passé but also unable to lift the soul above this world.  They cannot remove us from the realm of ‘flesh’.

fleshly, childish, enslaving, and inadequate

The law is Judaism. It belongs to the first creation, the earthly, the natural, this world.  It is called by Paul ‘the elemental spirits of the world’ (2:8).  Paul similarly describes the law in Galatians. He writes,

Gal 4:1-5 (ESV)

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

His point is that Law, as a religion, functions much like a ‘disciplinarian’ or ‘nanny’.  These are hired to oversee children and in the past were expected to do so with firm discipline; they did not so much teach as control.  Law as the above text points out treated those under it as infants, as childish.

Although God-given, it was given to man in the ‘flesh’ (Roms 7:1-6; Gals 3:3; Cf Hebs 7:16; 9:13,14).  It was a ‘religion’ that attempted to curtail and curb human behaviour by external rules and religious regulations but it could dig no deeper.  It could not change hearts.  It could not give life (though it promised it for obedience) and it could not produce holiness.  When Israel was exiled the failure of law to influence flesh was proved.  This is why Paul says of law and all religion that is about undertaking rules, regulations, ritualistic restrictions that it are ‘of no value in preventing the indulgence of the flesh‘.  Mark these words well for they are very important.  However, holy and virtuously self-denying many rites and rituals seem to be THEY ARE OF NO VALUE IN PREVENTING THE INDULGENCE OF THE FLESH.   They may deny the body but they could not curb ‘the flesh’, that Adamic nature we have so opposed to God.  This is true of the rites not only of the law or Judaism but of every other religion.  In fact, from this perspective, Paul puts the Law or Judaism on the same level playing field as all other religions.  They all are elementary or rudimentary.  Paul tells the gentile Galatian believers who are being encouraged by Judaizers to embrace the Jewish Law that they would be as well going back to their old pagan religions for the law was no more effectual than they.

Gal 4:8-11 (ESV)
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. 

Let the force of this sink in.  In Galatians, Paul uses two plural pronoun groups, ‘we’ and ‘you’.  ‘We’ applies to Jewish believers and ‘you’ to gentile believers.  In Ch 4:1-5 he speaks of ‘we’.  We Jews, he observes, were enslaved to the law (the elemental principles of the world). In 4-8-11 the gentiles were enslaved to their false religions; however, if having being freed from these they now embrace the Law then this is tantamount to a return to their old religions; they are turning back to ‘weak and worthless elementary principles of the world’ and to slavery once again.  Paul’s comparison shocks and is intended so to do.

It is impossible to read Gals 3:21 – 4-11 and avoid the conclusion that those who submit (freely or otherwise) to the law and its ordinances are regressing to what is childish and enslaving.  They believe they are embracing something new and exciting, something progressive and fresh, something that may help them to be holy and godly, but actually they are embracing what is weak, worthless and inferior.  Satan’s sardonic irony as he deludes is keen.

Neither human philosophy nor religious mysticism, nor rites, nor ascetic practices enable us to grow in grace.  None enables us to know God.  It’s no good claiming that these regulations were Jewish rather than Christian rules and regulations.  Jewish regulations and rites were God-ordained religious observances (indeed the only God-ordained ones) and pointed to Christ but they were merely shadows not the substance (2:17).  The substance was Christ.  If we want shadows of the gospel rather than the substance then Jewish ceremonies is the way to go.  None we invent improves on those God gave.  But Paul’s criticism is not of this or that particular liturgical calendar.  It is not specific Jewish days, months and sabbaths to which he objects (though sabbaths clearly shows these were law-based since none but Jews had sabbaths).  It is not certain diets and ascetic techniques he objected to.  He objects to the whole methodology per se.  The methodology was passé, earth-bound, childish,enslaving and inadequate.  Methodologically these rituals were of no value in preventing the indulgence of the flesh.  Indeed, they did the very thing that was the problem – they focussed on the flesh.  Law in any shape or form does not deny flesh, it excites it and promotes it (Roms 7).

Law and all human religion focus on the flesh and have confidence in it (Phil 3:3,4)  This is Paul’s constant criticism of the Judaizers.  They focussed on flesh, whether its status (Phil 3:2-5) or its performance (Phil 3:6).  Circumcision (the symbol of the Judaizers) was all about the flesh (Phil 3:2; Gals 6:12).  For Paul, circumcision epitomised the flesh because it was circumcision of the body and not the heart.  It is what a man did to himself and for himself.  In this circumcision was an appropriate symbol of law which was essentially a covenant of works, of human achieving.  The gospel, by contrast, is ‘circumcision without hands‘ that is, it is by and of God not man (Col 2:11).  The circumcision of the gospel happens at the cross when we die with Christ to the law and its ordinances (Col 2:14).   It is an act of God that removes all human involvement and so all human boasting.

We need to see that self-denial programmes of ‘touch not, taste not and handle not’ are fusty and futile.  The Law and Judaism was full of such prohibitions at certain times in the religious calendar yet they did no good whatever; the nation that had the law crucified its Messiah.  Indeed, Messiah himself teaches that it is not what goes into a man (the food he chooses to eat or not to eat) that defiles but what comes out of his heart (Matt 15:1-20).

Artificially imposed times and programmes of repentance and ascetic self-denial and the like all focus on self.   If we succeed they puff us up with pride and if we fail we feel defeated.   Nowadays they tend to be about giving up chocolates or alcohol or some other luxury related to the body.  For those more serious about their faith they may mean self-imposed severe bodily deprivation.  But whether the dilettante denials of the modern evangelical or the more serious denials of the older ascetics the result is the same – no effect in restraining the indulgence of the flesh, merely a means of focus on it (Cols 2:23).  Flesh (fallen human nature) loves to act piously (and to be seen to do so either by others or self).  It loves to appear humble and focus on its achievements, religious or otherwise. So rather than subduing the flesh these ‘ordinances’ satisfy the flesh. Thus they are not merely passé, earth-bound, infantile and futile, but counter-productive.  In addition,and perhaps most damning of all, they utterly fail to come to terms with the position of a believer in Christ.   Those who promote them have not grasped that growth in holiness is not by looking at self and undertaking various ascetic disciplines but by looking away from self and focussing on an exalted reigning Christ.

christianity is christ

What draws me away from the world and focus on self is not my body on earth but Christ in heaven.  As I love him, look at him, live in him (and he in me) then I have the power to put to death what is earthly.  It is the expulsive power of a new affection.  Christ, and only Christ, is our wisdom, justification, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:29).  Holding fast to the head is the only means of grace (Col 2:19).  The moment I put something else between, whatever shape this may assume, I am not holding fast to the head.  The hallmark of the ‘true circumcision’ is simply this- ‘it rejoices in Jesus Christ and makes no provision for the flesh‘ (Phil 3:3).  The question for all of us is simply, is Christ all?.  If Christ is not all then there is no maturity, only flesh.  Fathers in the faith (the spiritually mature) are recognised by this – they ‘know him who is from the beginning’ (1 John 2:14).  Paul’s cry of spiritual maturity is for Christ and yet more of Christ (Phil 3:8-16).  He did not want types and shadows, rules and religious observances; he wanted Christ.  He recognised in Christ he had everything and without him he had nothing.  The heart of a believer is satisfied and enraptured only by Christ.  In him, we have, ‘all things that pertain to life and godliness‘ (2 Pet 1:3).  Toplady is one among many who has expressed this in hymn.

Compared with CHRIST, in all beside
No comeliness I see;
The one thing needful, dearest LORD,
Is to be one with Thee.
Whatever else Thy will withholds,
Here grant me to succeed!
O let Thyself my portion be,
And I am blest indeed!
Loved of my GOD, for Him again
With love intense I burn;
Chosen of Thee ere time began,
I choose Thee in return!
Less than Thyself will not suffice
My comfort to restore;
More than Thyself I cannot have;
And Thou canst give no more.

to summarise

Allow me to once again briefly regroup.

Liturgical calendars with their special seasons and ceremonies are not progress but regress.  They represent a spiritual nose-dive.  Far from maturing, they are a regression to the childish and enslaving.  They do not lead to Christ but detract from Christ.  They are for those in the flesh and not life in the Spirit.  They limit our horizon to earth and do not raise our gaze to heaven.  I have every sympathy for believers raised in churches where Judaistic rites and rituals are taught.  Their consciences should be sensitively considered.  However, I have little sympathy with those who should know better.  I have little patience for evangelicals who have been free of such bondage yet now in the conceit of what they fondly call Christian freedom wish to promote and encourage what is weak and enslaving.  Such teaching receives stiff opposition from Paul (Col 2) and ought to be opposed by all who love freedom in Christ.

Let me say again that freedom in Christ does not mean freedom to worship as we please. Freedom in Christ is freedom to worship in spirit and truth.  It is freedom to live in Christ not shadows. There are forms of worship that are neither helpful nor appropriate for they lead us away from Christ; they disconnect us with the head.  They do not lead us into freedom in Christ but into slavery.  Such forms are neither commanded, commended nor condoned by the NT (Col 2).  That some who profess to be teachers of God’s people do not see this is culpably irresponsible.  We may rightly ask them as Jesus did Nicodemus: are you a teacher in Israel and do not know this?

My heart-felt appeal to my brothers and sisters in Christ is – do not be ‘bewitched’ by them.

a final comment

What then are we to make of fasting?  Doesn’t the NT promote fasting?  And for that matter, what about baptism and the Lord’s Supper?  Are not these ordinances?  These are good questions and I hope to address them.  But not in this post.  This post is already far too long.  I will try to address these questions in the next post.  For the moment, let me say simply this: whatever our questions, don’t allow these to undermine or relativize the plain NT teaching we have explored so far.  To exhort in a specific context: do not choke the living flame of the gospel with the Lenten ashes of Judaism.

the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.


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