Thursday, March 31, 2005

Book Review - The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God

The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God
John Piper with photography by Ric Ergenbright
Crossway Books

I don't read much poetry but the book of this book with its stunning photography appealed to the designer in me. This is John Piper as you have never read him before. He is well known for his heavier theological writing, and perhaps for his two devotional books, but here he takes himself into the realms of poetry. In a wonderfully moving way he retells the story of Job. Piper takes us inside Job's mind and lets us see the great glory of God in the story of Job. The long arguments of Job's friends are condensed and Piper, writing with beautiful cadences, proves himself to be a capable craftsman of the poetic form. Each of the four chapters ends with Piper applying lessons to the believer and highlighting Christ in the book of Job.

Perhaps you're not much into poetry, try this and I guarantee that you will find yourself marvelling at God.

This is a book to read some morning before church, or in a quiet moment some evening - I intended to read its four chapters over the space of four mornings, but I was captivated and couldn't put it down.

The book is a bit more expensive, but it is lavishly illustrated with photographs which subtly underscore the themes in verse, and is well worth the price. The edition I have came with a CD with Piper reading the poem.

"He is not poor nor much enticed
who loses everything but Christ."

Sunday, March 27, 2005

More than numbers

I sat in the intensive care unit one evening and watched numbers counting down as a life slipped away. How unfitting it seemed that life in all its preciousness should be reduced to a few numbers flickering on a screen.

It was all the more poignant because it was the life of a young person that was fading away before me. Life in all its richness, in all its colour, reduced to a few numbers. And the numbers couldn't even begin to capture the richness of who they really were.

Life can't be summed up by numbers. But yet so often we choose to do it. We reduce life to numbers. How much money we have, or want to have. How fast a car we have. What size its engine is. How big our hard-drive is. How fast our computer runs. How expensive a house we have. How many children we have. How many hours we work. How much money we earn. How many animals we have. How much weight we have lost, how much we have put on. How many holidays we go on in a year. How many cars we have. How many TVs are in our homes. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

I have seen life reduced to numbers, and seen that there is more to life than that. These verses from Psalm 90 make this point:

Three score and ten the years we see,
Or if by strength fourscore they be,
Their pride is labour, grief, decay;
For soon 'tis gone - we f1y away.
O teach Thou us to count our days,
And set our hearts on wisdom's ways.

The real meaning of life is not found in numbers, but in what the Bible calls 'wisdom' - a life lived according to God's word. Life is about living God's way. Does that describe you, or is your life just a collection of numbers?

Friday, March 25, 2005

Food for thought - "We call our sons Peter and our dogs Nero"

(Local newspaper column)

What's so special about Easter anyhow? Is it the death on Good Friday? Not for me. It's the events of the Easter Sunday that grab me. What must it have been like to see a man you knew was dead standing before you?

Of course it's all too much for many sceptics. Dead people don't come back to life, they say. They claim that maybe Jesus wasn't dead when they put him into the tomb, or that he was dead and that he is still in a tomb somewhere in Palestine.

Personally that's a bit too unbelievable for me. Lets look at the objections:

Did Jesus die?
It starts on a Friday morning nearly 2000 years ago. A young carpenter receives 40 lashes from a Roman soldier. The whip is made of leather with pieces of metal and sharp bone woven into it. His back is ripped open, and a huge quantity of blood spills out onto the cobbles. Many men do not survive this flogging.

At the place of execution his arms are stretched out and nailed to the beam with sharpened spikes driven through his wrists, crushing the main nerve.

He is then hoisted to attach the cross bar to the vertical stake. With his body-weight hanging only from his wrists, his arms are wrenched out of their sockets. Nails are driven through his feet - again crushing the nerves. In order to breathe Jesus has to push himself up, scrapping his lacerated back against he coarse wood, breathe in and then sink down again. This goes on and on until complete exhaustion takes over, and he dies through lack of oxygen.

Often the legs of the victims were broken to speed up the process, but in this case it isn't necessary. A spear is thrust though his side into his heart to ensure his death.

And so we have this battered body with its back ripped to pieces, its nervous system smashed to a pulp and a gaping hole torn in its side by a spear.

Was he dead? Surely he must have been. But don't take my word for it; let's ask a few of those present.

The Centurion. Here was a man who knew death when he saw it. When Pilate summons him that evening we read in Mark 15:44,45 that he assures Pilate that Jesus was indeed dead.

The Jews. From the lips of his enemies comes confirmation of the fact of Jesus' death. When they see that he is dead they go to Pilate and ask to have his tomb guarded. They want to make sure that his body, dead and all as it is, is not stolen by his disciples.

Medical Experts. We read in John 19:34 "One of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water". Medical experts tell us that when someone dies in this manner, the sack around the heart and lungs fills up with a clear fluid. So when it was pierced, and the spear withdrawn, John saw exactly what you would expect to see coming from a crucified corpse - blood and water.

We could add Joseph of Arimathea and the women who watched - they all knew he was dead. The universal testimony of all involved in the events of Easter Friday is that Jesus of Nazareth died.

Well that leaves us to answer the claim, "If he was definitely dead, maybe he still is"

Did Jesus rise?
Witnesses say He is alive. Paul, writing only 20 years after the crucifixion to the church at Corinth, lists more than 520 people who saw Jesus Christ after he rose. He effectively says to his readers, "Go and ask them." You don't say that sort of thing unless you can be sure that all those people will back you up.

What about these witnesses? What sort of people were they? Were they emotionally unstable? Simple? Deluded? Gullible? Lets meet a few of them.

The Women. The women were on their way to anoint a dead body - they had no fond hopes that Jesus was alive. They were not hoping against hope that he was still alive. In fact they were so convinced of his death that even when he did appear to Mary Magdalene she still didn't accept it. These women were expecting to find a dead body not a living Saviour.

The Disciples. When the women told the rest of the disciples, we read in Luke 24:11: "they did not believe them because their words seemed like nonsense."! And then there was Thomas who certainly wasn't going to be fooled. He had to see the nail holes and spear wound to be convinced.

Paul. To this highly intelligent man this resurrection/messiah nonsense was a blasphemous heresy, to be annihilated at all costs. Was he likely to be vulnerable to hoping against hope that Jesus was alive? And yet we find him writing "He appeared to me also".

Not only were there many witnesses, but the resurrection was seen and believed by those who were least expecting it.

The Empty Tomb says He is alive. The gospels make it clear that the women took great care to note exactly where it was Jesus was buried. Matt 27:61 "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb". They did not go to the wrong tomb. The simple fact is - it was empty

The real question is, why was it empty? The Jewish leaders had to answer that question, and the best they could do was blame the disciples, even though there was a guard on the tomb - What a weak story! If the guards were asleep how did they know it was the disciples?

The Lives of the Disciples say He is alive. Did the disciples really believe he was alive? When Jesus died his followers scattered, they fled as cowards. How is it then that a few weeks later we find them standing in front of the very people who had lynched their teacher telling this resurrection story?

These uneducated fishermen and tax collectors took the world by storm. Not even the threat of death stopped them proclaiming the resurrection for the rest of their lives. Men do not die for something they know to be false, and yet each of the disciples was to lose his life for his Lord.

What made the difference? Why didn't they fear death? They had seen death defeated - they had nothing to worry about. How else can you account for the transformation from quivering wrecks to triumphant bold witnesses?

The Spread of Christianity says He is Alive. There is no way to explain the growth and spread of Christianity apart from the resurrection.

If you were an alien looking down on the first century, would you think that the majestic Roman Empire or Christianity would be most likely to survive? You probably wouldn't put money on the ragtag bunch of nobodies whose main message was that a crucified carpenter from an obscure village had triumphed over the grave. Yet it was so successful that today we name our children Peter and Paul and call our dogs Nero and Caesar.

2000 years later the Roman Empire is nowhere to be seen, but Christianity is mushrooming across the globe. Why? Because the grave couldn't hold Jesus of Nazareth.

This has only been a whirlwind tour of some of the evidence, much more could be presented, but the same conclusion would always be drawn - Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. It is the only answer.

Where does this leave us then?
  • The Resurrection is proof that the bible is true
For more than a 1000 years the bible had foretold that death would not hold the Messiah. It was right.
  • The Resurrection is proof that God exists and that Jesus is who he said he was - the Son of God.
Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and the Jews executed him for this blasphemy. But in his resurrection we see God reversing this decision, effectively saying, "It was no blasphemy, He is my Son."
  • The Resurrection is proof that Death is not the end.
In the resurrection God shows us that death is not the end. There is a life after death, of which Jesus of Nazareth is King.
  • The Resurrection is proof that Sins have been paid for.
Why did he die? He died so that when judgment day comes his people will not have to hear the crushing verdict of 'Guilty'. In his resurrection God is saying that his payment for sins has been accepted. We need to ask to be included in this payment.
  • The Resurrection is proof that Jesus is the only way to God.
No other religious teacher has ever come back from the grave. Jesus Christ did, and he says that the only way to Heaven is through faith in him alone.

The resurrection is the single most important fact of history. You cannot afford to ignore it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Come rejoice with me!

I don't often go in for the personal achievement stuff on this blog, but I've just finished Stephen Charnock's "Existence and Attributes of God."

In case you're not familiar, this is a mamoth 1100 page discussion by a Puritan preacher on God's attributes. He lived in England from 1628, through the Civil War, the plague, the Great Fire of London (in which he lost his entire library- argghh!) and died in 1680.

I've read other puritan writings, but not much. But this was the first big work I've read.

Started September 2004
Finished March 2005
Aimed to read 10 pages a day for 5 days a week

Wow! Jerry Bridges speaks of this as being one of the most inluential books he has read. I would have to agree. There have been times reading this when I have been struck by my sinfulness, and the myriad of ways I fail. But the overwhelming impression from this book, and from preaching this series on God's attributes is this, I cant wait to go to Heaven and be in the presence of this most wondrous being.

It appeared to affect Charnock in that way to an even greater degree. William Symington writes in the introduction:

"The intense interest which he was observed to take in the subjects of which he treated, was regarded as an indication that he was nearly approaching that state in which he was to be 'filled with all the fulness of God'. Not unfrequently was he heard to give utterance to a longing desire for that region for which he gave evidence of being so well prepared. These circumstances were, naturally enough, looked upon as proofs that his mighty mind, though yet on earth, had begun to 'put off its mortality' and was fast ripening for the paradise of God."

Reading Charnock hasn't been easy though. Some bits are like chewing concrete. But there is much gold buried in the concrete. The digging is worth it. I think that setting a goal of 10 pages per day was good to get me through the good, but sometimes reading the 10 pages became the goal, rather than reading what Charnock was saying.

I'd like to read it again, but more slowly, and dwell on certain passages more.

Ahh well, volume one (of 16) John Owen's works is next on the list.

Some Favourite Quotes

"Whatever God is, he is infinitely so: he is infinite Wisdom, infinite Goodness, infinite Knowledge, infinite Power, infinite Spirit; infinitely distant from the weakness of creatures, infinitely mounted above the excellencies of creatures: as easy to be known that he is, as impossible to be comprehended what he is. Conceive of him as excellent, without any imperfection; a Spirit without parts; great without quantity; perfect without quality; everywhere without place: powerful without members; understanding without ignorance; wise without reasoning; light without darkness; infinitely more excelling the beauty of all creatures, than the light in the sun, pure and unviolated, exceeds the splendor of the sun dispersed and divided through a cloudy and misty air: and when you have risen to the highest, conceive him yet infinitely above all you can conceive of spirit, and acknowledge the infirmity of your own minds. And whatsoever conception comes into your minds, say, 'This is not God; God is more than this.'" - p200

The counsels of a boundless being are not to be scanned by the brain of a silly worm, that hath breathed but a few minutes in the world. Since eternity cannot be comprehended in time, it is not to be judged by a creature of time. - p295

The strongest man is but compacted dust - p303

"While the gardener commands his servant to shake the tree, he intends to fasten its roots, and settle it firmer in its place; and is this an ill-will to the plant?" - v2p313

"But when we give the reins to the motions of our hearts, and suffer them to run at random without a curb, it is an evidence we are not concerned for their falling under the notice of the eye of God; and it argues a very weak belief of this perfection, or scarce any belief at all. Who can think any man's heart, possessed with a sense of this infinite excellency, that suffers his mind, in his meditations on God, to wander into every sty, and be picking up stones upon a dunghill?" - p482

"We see the gardener pulling up some delightful flowers by the roots, digging up the earth, overwhelming it with dune; and ignorant person would imagine him wild, out of his wits, and charge him with spoiling his garden: but when the spring is arrived, the spectator will acknowledge his skill in his former operations." - p606

Our worship of God
"It is against the majesty of God when we have not awful (awe-filled) thoughts of that great majesty to whom we address… It is a contempt of the majesty of a prince if, whilst he is speaking to us, we listen not to him with reverence and attention, but turn our backs to him, to play with one of his hounds, or to talk with a beggar; or while to speak to him, to rake in a dunghill… as if a grand mutineer, instead of numbly begging the pardon of his offended prince, should present his petition not only scribbled and blotted, but besmeared with some loathsome excrement." - p263

"The holiness of God is injured by our unprepared for address to him, when like swine, we come into the presence of God with all our mire reeking and steaming upon us. A holy God requires a holy worship; and if our best duties, having filth in every part, as performed by us, are unmet for God, how much more unsuitable are dead and dirty duties to a living and immense holiness!" - v2p176

"There is as little proportion between the holiness of the Divine Majesty, and that of the most righteous creature, as there is between a nearness of a person that stands upon a mountain, to the sun, and of him that beholds him in a vale; one is nearer than the other, but it is an advantage not to be boasted of, in regard of the vast distance that is between the sun and the elevated spectator." - v2p193

Friday, March 18, 2005

Your God is Love (4)

God's love in Salvation is a Secure Love
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life."

God's love is secure. Sadly, not many people experience secure love today. Children should know the secure love of parents who love their children and love each other. But often children grow up unsure and uncertain about whether their parents love them or love each other. A husband or a wife should be able to rest content and secure in the love of their spouse, knowing that mistakes will be forgiven not allowed to fester.

Lack of security breeds unease and fear and worry. But God's love is secure. Once he takes you in his arms he never lets you go.

This verse tells us that there are only two options available to every human being who has ever lived and will ever live - perish in Hell forever, live in Heaven forever. Those who trust him are secure. They will never perish. God isn't going to give up on you. God is going to let go. He isn't going to wash his hands of you.

His love for you is based on Christ, not on you. He loves you because of Jesus. And his love for his son will never change. So you are secure. Do you struggle to accept that God loves you? Its not because you're lovely, it because Christ is. And because Christ will never stop for a moment being lovely then you are secure. Utterly secure.

That gives us great confidence. When we sin it isn't the end of the world. When we sin we can still look confidently to God's unfailing love. That doesn't mean we can sin cheerfully - that would prove we weren't converted at all, but it means we don't need to sit wondering if God still loves us or not.

And when those times come when God seems far away, or is chastening us as he will do from time to time - what does his love have to say? Doesn't any good father discipline his children if he truly loves them?

God's love is holy. The love of God is no mere attitude of indulgent benevolence. It cannot and will not deny God's holiness. It is stern love: love which desires your highest good: love which holds your eternal perfection and joy more important than your immediate happiness.

God's love is eternal - so you are eternally secure.

God's love is for ever. God does not fall in love and He does not fall out of it. He chose to love you before the foundation of the world and He will love you, just the same, for all eternity. His love is not fitful, it does not change from day to day, it is steady and persistent.

It is everlasting. It keeps on flowing.

Our response to this immense love?

Love Him
What Can You Say?

There is nothing you can say to love like that. Instead, bathe in it, glory in it, immerse yourself in it, feel what it is like to be really loved.

You will adore Him, you will delight in Him, you will long for more of Him: more time in His presence, more knowledge of His Word, more occasions to serve and please Him. You will want to tell everyone you meet about Him: you will not be able to help yourself. You will want to be like Him. Your heart will overflow with so much love that you will pour that love out upon others.

Trust him
Is it true that God is love to me as a Christian? And does the love of God mean all that has been said?

If so, certain questions arise.
  • Why do I ever grumble and show discontent and resentment at the circumstances in which God has placed me?
  • Why am I ever distrustful, fearful, or depressed?
  • Why do I ever allow myself to grow cool, formal, and halfhearted in the service of the God who loves me so?
  • Why do I ever allow my loyalties to be divided, so that God has not all my heart?
(Questions taken from JI Packer - Knowing God)

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Your God is Love (3)

God's love in Salvation is a Giving Love
People who love much will give much. You can see the truth and reality of their love by their generosity and sacrifice and self-denial. Theirs is a love that spares nothing. It is a giving love.

"For God so loved the world that he gave"

He gave although it was us who owed.
We owed everything and yet he is the one who gives.

He gives the best
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son"

There is no-one to compare with Jesus. No being anywhere in the universe whose worth can even be expressed as a fraction of the Son's. There aren't words to describe his majesty. When God gave God for us he gave himself. What more could he give? God gave his all: he gave himself. Who can measure this love?

He gives what we need
If you want to see Gods love, go and stand at the cross. It seems an ugly place to stand to see something so beautiful. But let me tell you why. God's love is not his overarching quality. First of all he is a holy God, and in his holiness he cannot and will not tolerate sin. All sin must be punished. There is no way that God will let anyone off the hook. But as sure as he is holy he is also loving, and in his love he has provided what we don't deserve. He has provided what we need most - the opportunity for a switch to take place - he offers to take our punishment so that we can experience the delights of his Heaven. How loving! What love!

He gives extravagantly
He gives and he gives and he gives. God's love is extravagant. God is not niggardly in the way He loves. He lavishes blessings upon His loved ones.

Eternal Life
Holy Spirit
Christ's perfect righteousness
Clear conscience
Strength to withstand temptation
Grace to endure difficulties
Promises never to lack anything we need
A future; secure and planned entirely for our benefit
Answered prayer
Unanswered prayer

The list is endless. The psalmist says, "He does not withhold any good thing from them". Paul writes, "He causes all things to work for their good".

When we consider the glories we are going to enjoy, the pleasures of Heaven, we see something of the extravagance of God's love. But these are nothing compared to the extravagance in his giving his son. It is the greatest gift, far above and beyond anything else we will ever get.

This is of great comfort too. Like a father who buys his son the most wonderful toy, which has cost hundreds of pounds. He's had to work overtime and take on extra work to save enough. And you should see the excitement on the little chap's face as he opens his present - he's thrilled. He looks and turns the box round and round. And then he opens it and looks at it in all its glory. And then after a moment his face falls. His father asks, "what's wrong?" The little chap comes and says, "It needs batteries Daddy". "Son here they are, do you think after all I've spent I wouldn't get you batteries?"

Sometimes we worry about batteries. After all God has given us in his son we worry about the batteries of life.

Paul writes in Romans 8:32
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
God's love is a giving love and he gives extravagantly.

Are you worried about something, or someone? Are you wondering whether God's love is enough to love you in spite of your past? Are you wondering whether God will love you enough to give you the grace you need to get through a particular situation?

He's given you his son. Lift your eyes to the Son, see his great value and trust God for he will freely give you all things.

They are as nothing. After all he's given, he'll be to you and give to you all that you need for every situation you find yourself in.

He gives freely
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes"

How much does it cost to he the recipient of this great love? What do I have to do? Nothing - just come to him in faith. Believe what he says. Believe what he holds out to you.

His love is priceless, yet he offers it at no price to you.

Fellow believer - how thankful we should be. Look at how low a price God requires. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.

God's love is a giving love

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Quote of the Day

This brought a smile to my face:
"To sin because mercy abounds is the devil’s logic. He that sins because of mercy, is like one that wounds his head because he has a plaster."
From Thomas Watson's 'Body of Divinity' p96

Your God is Love (2)

God's love in Salvation is a Great love
The immensity of God's love is captured in the smallest word in the verse.

"God so loved"

Spurgeon says of this word 'so':
"so" loved it - even the writer of the book of John could not tell us how much; it was so deep, so wide, so strong, that even inspiration could not compute its measure, and therefore the Holy Spirit gave us that great little word SO, and left us to attempt the measurement.
How could we measure the greatness of God's love?

The word 'so' points us forward to the measure of the greatness of the love - not that it was the world in all its badness that he loved - but that he gave that which was most precious to himself: His only Son, his unique Son, His beloved Son.

Oh if we could grasp the depth of the love between the Father and the Son we would be overwhelmed at the vastness of his love. A good father son relationship is wonderful. But there is no love greater in this universe than the love between the members of the trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And yet, mysteriously, and wonderfully it is exactly that love that we are told that God has for each person here who has come to Jesus seeking forgiveness. Listen to Jesus' words in John 17:23
May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
You have loved them inasmuch as you have loved me.
You have loved them to the degree that you have loved me.

God's love for you is the same as His love for His Son. He delights and rejoices in you. You too are His beloved child with whom He is well pleased.

I can't describe it to you - its indescribable. But come and stand on the banks of the Jordan river. A man in his 30's is standing down at the edge. He has just been baptised. There is a noise like thunder, but through it you hear a voice coming from the heavens, "This is my son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased."

Here we get a glimpse of the father's love, his delight and joy in his Son. That's the joy God has over you at this moment. "You are my son, my daughter whom I love."

You are the object of a great love, the greatest love. One writer puts it this way:

"The love of God is like the Amazon River flowing down to water one daisy."

There's great comfort here - it will never run out. You will never exhaust the resources of God's love. When you feel particularly unlovable - God's love is greater. Whne you feel that there is nothing in the world that will comfort you in sorrow or trouble or heartache - come to God, his love is greater than all these.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Your God is Love (1)

Nobody loves like God loves.

He has given us a whole book in the Bible that is about love. The Song of Solomon tells a story of love lost and found again; of a lovesick heart made joyful.

It helps us see what true love is, for it is only when we have seen that that we can begin to understand what God means when He says, "I love you."

As noted below in a separate post God's love refers to different things. In this post we considering what it means to the believer.

The familiar words of John 3 16 teach us several important truths about God's love in salvation that we should be convinced of. We'll look at each of them in turn over the next few days:

God's love in Salvation is a Sovereign Love
"For God so loved…"

The verse starts off with God because God's love starts off with God. Not with us. Nothing in you caused Him to love you. Quite simply, he chose to. Paul shows us this in Ephesians.
1:4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

Ephesians 2:3 Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved.
God is sovereign, and God's love is sovereign. God is under no obligation to love any person.

We are so used to our ideas of love. A girl looks at a boy and sees something in him she likes, likes a lot, and because of that she falls in love. Our love is called into being by something in the other person, something that attracts us, something that pleases us, something that delights us. But the love of God is free, spontaneous, uncaused. Think about that for a minute.

God loves you just because He loves you

Great comfort in this. God didn't see how loveable I was and then set his love on me. He loved me when I was unlovable. There was nothing attractive about me. In fact we were positively unattractive, repulsive to God.

And when our verse tells us that "God so loved the world" it isn't telling us about the vastness of God's love, although it is vast. It isn't the bigness of the world that is in view, but the badness of it. John uses the word 'world' to refer to mankind set against God, intent on disobeying him.

God loved us while we were sinners. God loved us before we looked to him. God loved us while we were disobedient. God's love is sovereign. That doesn't give us an excuse to do what we like, but it does mean that when you fall, God doesn't say, "Oh so that s what you're really like, well if that's the case then I don't love you any more." He knew what you were like anyhow. Nothing comes as a surprise to him.

I find it hard enough to grasp that my wife loves me, and even though she knew what I was like before she married me, I'm amazed that she still went ahead and married me. But to know that God knows exactly what I am like, right to the very recesses of the darkest corner of my imagination, and to know that although he doesn't like what he sees, nevertheless he has chosen to lone me - it is beyond understanding.

God the sovereign King has chosen to love you. His love for me, and for you, is not based on our attractiveness. And it does not depend on you being loveable. He has chosen to love and that's just it.

Grasping this is the first step for the believers to living confidently in God's unfailing love.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Food for thought - Woodpecker Proof

(Local Newspaper Column)
Evolution says things just happened, the Bible says that God designed and made all things. Which is it? I believe the Bible is right. But what proof do we have?

Take the woodpecker for example…

The woodpecker spends its life spiralling up tree trunks looking for insects. To do this it feet need to be a different shape from all other birds, its legs need to be different, and it needs special stiff tail-feathers to prop it in tight against the tree.

The woodpecker pecks at a rate of 16 times a second, that's twice as fast as a submachine gun, so its head is travelling twice as fast as a bullet. The rate at which its head comes to a halt as it hits the tree is 1000 times the force of gravity. Just to put that in perspective - an astronaut is subject to 4 times the force of gravity (4g) during take off; and 6g-9g is enough to destroy a person! The woodpecker survives because it has an especially reinforced skull and beak.

Joining the beak to the skull is a shock-absorbing system that is vastly superior to anything we humans have ever invented. To keep this high speed kango-hammer under control is a finely tuned inbuilt gyroscope to make sure that it doesn't hit the tree at an angle and rip its beak off.

And then once it has the holes bored in the tree it has a hugely long tongue to remove the insects.

The woodpecker looks like it was designed to do what it does do, and what it does do, it does very well. It's just one example from nature that shows how evolution can't work. Why can't it work? The woodpecker can't evolve step by step because all these component parts need to be there for the woodpecker to function at all. If any one of these factors was not present then the woodpecker would be a complete disaster, there'd be lots of beakless, brain-damaged, hungry woodpeckers about.

In the Bible Job says, "But ask the animals and they will teach you. Or ask the birds of the air and they will tell you. Speak to the earth and it will tell you. Or let the fish of the sea tell you. Everyone of these knows that the hand of the Lord has done this." - Job 12:7-9

All of nature shouts at us of the presence of a designer; to believe that it all just happened by chance requires a much greater faith - faith that goes against all the evidence. Personally I find it much easier to have faith in creation than in evolution.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church and Letterkenny New Life Fellowship.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Wrestling with God's love

I've been skimming over DA Carson's little book, "The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God".

I've been reminded of what a fantastic little book this is. In fact I think it is one of my favourites. For a long time one thing has riled me: badges, stickers, posters, ministers and well meaning Christians who proclaim to all and sundry, "God loves you". I remember being at a wedding where the minister had done his best to set before the mostly unconverted guests, the claims of Christ over their lives. All was going well until he came to the end when he said, "If you only remember one thing from all I've said, remember this: God loves you." I hung my head.

My problem stems from the fact that the most important thing for them to hear is not that God loves them, but that God is angry with them. If we keep telling people that God loves them, then they see no need to worry about meeting God when they die.

Of course I understand that in some measure God does love them, and that he loves enough to send his Son to provide salvation for anyone who repents and believes. But to walk about proclaiming scriptural truths without a context or without due precision is dangerous.

Whenever I expressed such thoughts to other believers sometimes they were quite shocked, especially when I followed it up with the idea that God might actually hate the same people that they were assuring that God loved them. Could God really hate? Surely he only hates sin, but loves the sinner?

This brings me back to Carson. In his book he clarified a lot of these things for me.

He points out that the bible speaking of God loving in 5 different ways:
  • The love of God Father for God the Son, and the love of the Son for the Father
  • God's providential love over all he has made
  • God's salvific stance towards a fallen world
  • God's particular effective selecting love toward the elect
  • The love God has towards his own people is sometimes said to be conditional on their obedience
Carson goes on to say that we cannot emphasize anyone one of these to the neglect of the others, otherwise the doctrinal and pastoral implications will be disastrous.

Carson also has a great section on whether God hates the sinner or the sin:

"How, then, should the love of God and the wrath of God be understood to relate to each other? One evangelical cliché has it that God hates the sin but loves the sinner. There is a small element of truth in these words: God has nothing but hate for the sin, but it would he wrong to conclude that God has nothing but hate for the sinner.

A difference must be maintained between God's view of sin and his view of the sinner. Nevertheless the cliché (God hates the sin but loves the sinner) is false on the face of it and should be abandoned. Fourteen times in the first fifty psalms alone, we are told that God hates the sinner, his wrath is on the liar, and so forth. In the Bible, the wrath of God rests both on the sin (Rom. 1: 18ff.) and on the sinner (John 3:36).

Our problem, in part, is that in human experience wrath and love normally abide in mutually exclusive compartments. Love drives wrath out, or wrath drives love out. We come closest to bringing them together, perhaps, in our responses to a, wayward act by one of our children, but normally we do not think that a wrathful person is loving.

But this is not the way it is with God. God's wrath is ... an entirely reasonable and willed response to offences against his holiness. But his love wells up amidst his perfections and is not generated by the loveliness of the loved.

Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at the same time. God in his perfections must be wrathful against his rebel image-bearers, for they have offended him; God in his perfections must be loving toward his rebel image-bearers, for he is that kind of God. "

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Book Review - Questioning evangelism

Questioning Evangelism
Randy Newman
Kregel Books

Randy: How's the weather down there?
Grandma Belle: How could the weather be in Florida in the middle of July?

Randy: How's your family?
Aunt Vivian: Compared to whom?

In this way Randy Newman starts off his book on evangelism. Responding to a question with a question was the daily routine for Newman as he grew up in a Jewish home. Yet he points to Jesus, the master evangelist, as the supreme example in this. For Jesus answering a question with a question was the norm; a clear concise direct answer was a rarity. Take the rich young ruler for example - if ever there was a great opportunity to demonstrate how to explain the gospel this was it. Yet when asked, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?", Jesus responds, "Why do you call me good?"

Newman argues that so often we are too quick to answer, and that as we answer with our perfectly accurate answer, they aren't listening anyway. His point is that we need to engage their minds as well as simply present the truth. He says, "Answering a question with a question… brings to the surface the questioner's assumptions. It also takes the pressure off you… this is important because as long as we're on the defensive, the questioners are not really wrestling with the issues. They're just watching us squirm."

I came across this book while listening to some DA Carson talks. He recommended it as one of the best books he had read on evangelism. I think he's right. Certainly, it is extremely useful.

Throughout the book Newman illustrates with excerpts from his own work as a college evangelist over the last 20 years. With great openness he shows, not only the times he got it right, but also the times he got it wrong, and the lessons he learned from each occasion. He also gives practical suggestions throughout for questions you could ask, as well as giving dialogues to show how a conversation might go. These illustrations go along way to making the book practical, applicable, and easy to read. There is also a gentleness throughout the book that is extremely winsome. His way is not a triumphalist approach to evangelism, seeking to display wisdom and crush the opposition with knowledge, but a gentle way, seeking to understand the questioner, and seeking to provide real answers.

The book is divided into three sections, each full of useful content:

Part 1 - "Why ask questions?" - deals with the rationale and principles behind asking questions.
In Part 2 - "What questions are people asking?" - Newman shows how to, and how not to, answer questions like, 'Why are Christians so intolerant?' 'Why are Christians homophobic?' 'Why does a good God allow suffering?'. There is a lot of practical wisdom packed into these chapters.
The third part - "Why aren't questions and answers enough?" - turns the focus towards ourselves and deals with our lack of compassion for the lost, the problem of when our disgust at sin becomes disgust at the sinner, and how we can fail to listen.

Newman speaks about recognising the 'fool' of Proverbs who shouldn't be answered, of how and when to ignore questions, he speaks of asking questions to discover what really lies behind the original question, of grasping the hurt that someone has been through that may be disguised in a casual question.

As well as providing a useful method for evangelism Newman also conveys a lot of useful facts on a variety of topics that will strengthen the believer in their faith. This is a great book that will equip you for evangelism, and give you a way of thinking that will be much more useful than simply learning a set of rules or facts.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Mark who?

Sorry for the lack of posts these last few days/weeks. Things have been fairly busy around here.

On holidays last summer I was reading a newspaper interview with Nevin Maguire, the Irish chef. Afterwards, my wife and I had a bit of fun trying to answer the questions ourselves. It was quite an interesting set of questions, in fact it has become a fairly standard interview, based on two questionnaires the French writer Marcel Proust once filled in. Here's what I came up with:

1. What is your current state of mind?
Relaxed, it's Monday, my day off. And I'm just about to head for bed.

2. What is your favourite way of relaxing?
Reading a good book, cooking, walking with my wife, going to the swimming pool with my daughter, or flying my wife's kite.

3. Who are your favourite writers?
Non-religious books - Robert Ludlum, Terry Pratchett, Fredrick Forsythe, Alexander McCall Smith
Christian writers - John Piper, Jerry Bridges, RC Sproul, The Puritans

4. What was the last book you read?
A biography of Johnny Cash, "A Man Called Cash" by Steve Turner
And the last Christian book was, "Questioning Evangelism" by Randy Newman. (Review to follow at some stage)

5. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Heaven - no sin, no pain, no sadness, just pure happiness in the presence of God.

6. What historical figure do you most identify with?
Peter the apostle - a man who, although deeply flawed, loved to serve his Saviour.

7. Which living person do you most admire?
My mother, who copes uncomplainingly with Multiple Sclerosis.

8. Who is your favourite fictional hero?
Sherlock Holmes (& Winnie the Pooh)

9. Who are your real-life heroes?
Christians who are persecuted for their faith

10. What is your most treasured possession?
My Bible

11. When and where were you happiest?
In Letterkenny Hospital on 19th September 2003 at 6.31pm, when our daughter Eva was born.

12. What is your most obvious characteristic?
Some people would say my handshake, or my long stride.

13. What is your greatest fear?
That people whom I care for will not accept God's offer of forgiveness, and will end up in Hell.

14. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Lying & self-seeking vulgarity. You can hardly watch TV, go to the cinema, read a newspaper, or listen to pop music without there being some form of crudeness, mostly for publicity.

15. What is your greatest extravagance?
A pair of Oakley sunglasses.

16. What is your favourite journey?
Any road with nice scenery and no potholes, for example, travelling over Knockalla towards Port Salon.

17. What do you consider the most over-rated virtue?
Tolerance. We are constantly being told that we must be tolerant of the actions and opinions of others, but there are some things that are wrong and that we must not tolerate.

18. On what occasion would you lie?
I can't think of any situation that justifies lying.

19. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
There are lots of areas where I need to become more like Christ.

20. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Persuading my wife to marry me!

21. Where would you like to live?
Thailand - I love Thai food

22. What is the quality you most admire in a man?
Godliness, manliness and strength of convictions

23. What is the quality you most admire in a woman?
Godliness and selflessness

24. Who has been the greatest influence on you?
Jesus Christ, my Saviour.

25. What is it you most dislike?
Cod liver oil

26. What do you value most in your friends?
Honesty, understanding and a sense of humour

27. How would you like to die?
Looking forward to Heaven

28. If you were to die and come back as a person or an animal, what do you think it would be?
Reincarnation is nonsense, but I am glad that God made me what I am, because only humans were made to know God intimately.

29. What is your motto?
To bring glory to God and enjoy knowing and trusting him.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Food for thought - Facing death without fear

(My local newspaper column)

Perhaps the saddest of Anna Nolan's three programmes in the series, "Is there anyone out there?", this third programme looked for people's views on life after death. There were a wide variety of opinions…

"Where to you go after this life?"
"There is no Heaven and no Hell; there is only today and what you make of it."

Another common response was, "A hole in the ground".

Some were adamant, some were wistful, "I hope there's something better". "There's nothing, but I pray that I could see my mum just one more time."

Some displayed all sorts of ideas, "I believe that people who die suddenly need help to pass through to the other side." "I believe that they [the dead] are up there looking out for those left behind." "Your bodily energy changes into something else, some other form of energy and becomes pure."

And then there were the plain honest, "Are you frightened of death?" "Yes, I'm terrified" said a girl in a travel agents. Anna Nolan herself said, "I'm petrified of death."

In the 1960s when most people generally believed in heaven John Lennon penned the song 'Imagine' which has the lines:

"Imagine there's no Heaven, its easy if you try,
no Hell below us above us only sky."

By 1990 we had imagined it; people generally didn't believe in Heaven or Hell. Chris Rea, another song writer, released his album titled "The Road to Hell". In the final song he is being asked by a little girl about all the suffering in life and the purpose to life. Rea's song realises that the utter injustice of this life, along with its brevity points to a time and a place where justice will be done, and where happiness will not be cut short. His plaintive song, as he seeks for answers to his little girl's questions, is entitled, "Tell me there's a Heaven."

There is something in us that cries out for there to be more to life. Someone interviewed on the show said, "There is something too unbearable about just vanishing into nothing, something cries out against it. It feels like such a waste." He is right; each of us has a spark of eternity in us. We were made to live forever; death is only the doorway to more life. We were made for relationship with God; how we relate to him here determines how we relate to him forever.

You might wonder how I'm so sure that there is life after death. A man interviewed on the show said, "I'd like to think there is, but nobody ever will know unless you could speak to someone who has been there, and the likelihood of that happening is pretty small."

He's right; and he's wrong. He's right about the only way to know is if someone came back to tell us that there was a place. He's wrong that no-one ever did.

Jesus said,

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going." (John 14:1-4)

Jesus' death and resurrection proves that there is life after death, and also proves what sort of life it is. It is not reincarnation, for Jesus came back as himself, not anyone or anything else. It isn't some sort of disembodied spiritual existence, for Jesus had a body. Jesus also tells us how we are to make ourselves ready so that we can face death without fear. "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me." We are to trust him, not ourselves. We are to trust him to save our lives, to save us from the power of sin and the guilt of sin; and not trust in our own efforts.

And if we are relying on Jesus, then we can face death without fear, and like the apostle Paul say,

"Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?"

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church and Letterkenny New Life Fellowship. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or