Why I Fell Out Of Love With Two Ways To Live Pt.1

OK OK, so in fairness, I don’t think I was ever “in love” with Two Ways To Live. To be honest, I’m not sure that I ever really felt that strongly about it. But nonetheless, it’s certainly been the default outline I’ve fallen back on when explaining the gospel, even if I haven’t explicitly started drawing out the six boxes.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Two Ways To Live, the whole presentation can be viewed here.

Even though I always seem to default to this outline, over the last year or so my attention has been drawn to a number of issues which have led me to question it’s helpfulness. Most of this has been a result of reading Glen Scrivener’s blog over at http://www.christthetruth.net which is undoubtedly  the best and most challenging thing I’ve been reading in the last year. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Two Ways To Live isn’t useful for anyone. It may well work  for you. But I think I’ve reached a point where I need to part company with it and over these next 4 blogs, I hope to be able to explain why and bring together the things I’ve been wrestling with in the last year. And that’s exactly what these blogs will be. Me wrestling. I’m not saying I’m right, or that I’ve got it all sorted, nor am I saying that some of my criticisms can’t be met with an answer. This is just where I’m at.

Briefly, here’s why.

It’s Not Very Christ Centred

Jesus doesn’t make his grand entrance until box 4 of 6. God is mentioned before this but Jesus isn’t. So when Jesus appears on the scene, we can’t help but say “well who is this guy?” He looks like nothing more than a third party stepping into a dispute between us and God that has nothing to do with him. Now of course, Jesus is our mediator so there’s an element of truth in there regarding the stepping in. The big problem though, is that Jesus isn’t a third party, he is in very nature God. But as Jesus hasn’t been mentioned at all until he enters the world, there’s real confusion over who he is. This is the problem I most commonly come up again when using the classic two ways to live outline. I get through boxes 1-3 alright, but when Jesus appears, the whole thing goes to pot.

Seeker: “Who is Jesus?”
Me: “Well he’s God.”
Seeker: “But I thought he was God’s son?”
Me: “Well yeh he is that too, because uh, you see…um… God is a trinity…”

Immediately, I’m back pedalling. Because I haven’t bothered to do the groundwork regarding the Trinity and Jesus’ divinity, it gets complicated very quickly. Now I can already hear people saying, “hang on, the trinity? With a non-Christian? Isn’t that quite advanced stuff (you gnostics you)? Do we really want to be dragging that in at this stage?” Well I want to answer with a resounding “YES!” Why? Because the trinity is at the very core of who God is. It’s inherently part of his nature. Before anything else was, God was Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God but three persons in unity. I’d say that’s pretty foundational stuff. In fact, the more I’ve thought about it, the stranger it seems that we try so hard not to talk about it.

And considering some of the great passages there are which can give clarity as to Jesus’ identity, it almost seems criminal not talk about it. John 1:1-18, Colossians 1:15-20, Philippians 2:5-8, Micah 5:2 are all stone cold classics and undoubted slam dunks in this area. They all clearly show us that Jesus is not a third party who “began”, so to speak, 2000 years ago. He’s the one whose origins are from ancient times, he’s the Lord of heaven, he’s God in the flesh, God with us, the visible image of the invisible God and in him the fulness of God was pleased to dwell.

If this isn’t naturally how we speak about Jesus, we’re always going to speak in a way that divides God and Christ, setting them up against one another and causing confusion for the non-believer. I’ve come to find this a big stumbling block for people and generally unhelpful.

As a slight addendum to this section, I’ve heard some Christians (who are pretty firmly entrenched in the two ways to live outline) almost sneer at this idea. “Oh you’re one of those people who thinks we need to mention the trinity in evangelism,” they say, implying that it’s just some passing fad. I’ve often felt the resistance here has come from those for whom the outline has become a bit of a sacred cow though. Let’s be careful not to be quick to dismiss and slow to re-evaluate. There’s a Pharisee lurking in all of us!

More thoughts on this in part 2. Coming soon!

The Depth of Brotherly Love in Philemon

The letter of Paul to Philemon strikes me as such a wonderful example of the love Christians should have for one another. Just look at the relationship between the two men:

  • Paul calls Philemon “dear friend” (v1).
  • Paul is so clearly encouraged by Philemon’s walk (v4-7).
  • Philemon had clearly helped Paul in the past (v13).
  • They would consider each other “partners,” suggesting a close friendship and relationship as fellow gospel workers (v17).
  • Philemon was likely converted by Paul (v19).
  • Paul desires to come to Philemon in person and stay with him(v22).

The two men are clearly close friends but once Paul begins to talk about Onesimus, we really begin to see the extent of the love that Christians must have for one another. Onesimus was seemingly a valued slave of Philemon’s (v16) who had in some way wronged his master, most likely stealing some of his money (19) and then running away (v12, 15). It seems that at some point after fleeing from Philemon, Onesimus had come into contact with Paul and been converted (v10-11). The transforming effect that the gospel had on his life is clear to be seen. He became a fellow worker for the gospel alongside Paul (v11, 13) which led to a close relationship between the two of them:

  • Paul calls him his “son” (v10)
  • Paul describes Onesimus as “my very heart” (v12).
  • Onesimus had helped Paul during his imprisonment in a similar way that Philemon did (v13).
  • Paul says that Onesimus is very dear to him (v16).
  • Paul is willing to pay back what Onesimus owes (v19).

Clearly Onesimus’s life has changed for the better but Paul is writing to Philemon because he knows that the broken relationship between the slave and master needs to be addressed. We’ve already seen two great examples of the closeness Christians should share in their relationships but it’s in Paul’s plea for Philemon to welcome back Onesimus that we see how much deeper that love must go:

  • Paul has commended Philemon on his love for the other brothers and how he has ministered to them (v7). He appeals to Philemon to love Onesimus in the same way, despite the wrong he has done him (v9).
  • Philemon is to welcome Onesimus back not as a slave but as a fellow Christian brother (v16).
  • Philemon should welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul, as a partner, as if Onesimus was the man who had converted him and as a dear friend that he’d prepare a bed for (v17).

Paul and Philemon were clearly dear friends who had great love for one another and Philemon clearly had great love for other Christians too. But Paul’s challenge to him is to welcome back a thieving slave (who no doubt had cost him lots of trouble and money) as if he were Paul himself. Any previous wrongs in the relationship are to be put behind them and they are now to love one another as Christian brothers and not slave and master. Paul even suggests that by doing this, Philemon will refresh his heart (v20) which is surely a reference back to the joy and encouragement Paul had from Philemon’s love of his Christian brothers and sisters in v7.

I find this little letter profoundly challenging. Not only does it show the depth of relationships we should share with other Christians but it challenges us to forgive those who have wronged us and love them as if they were our nearest and dearest. It also shows the encouragement that this can be to others around us and therefore the discouragement that a refusal to do so can be.

This whole letter shows the incredible love Christians are to have for one another and in doing so, points to the greatest love, shown by Jesus on the cross. In many ways, we are all like Onesimus, having wronged our master and done our best to flee the scene of the crime. But where there is true repentance, Jesus welcomes us back like an old friend, like a brother.

No longer as a slave but…as a dear brother.

Hark The Herald Angels Sing, Death To The Newborn King!

Last Sunday morning we were looking at some Christmas passages with our 11-14’s and I was struck by this short passage about Herod and the birth of Jesus.

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied… …Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” – Matthew 2:1-7

What struck me was verse 4. Herod clearly understands that the one to be born is the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed one, His ultimate chosen ruler and King who will save His people. So how does Herod react to this wonderful news! He’s disturbed. Clearly Herod isn’t too chuffed about another King arriving on the scene, chosen one or not. And we know from later in chapter 2 that his request that the Magi report the child’s whereabouts is really a front for his plan to do away with him.

This is mind boggling when you think about it. The Jews have been waiting for the Messiah for hundreds of year, a whole people waiting for this momentous occasion. Children would have been brought up with the expectation of the coming Messiah as a part of the very fabric of their lives, Herod included, and yet his very first thought on hearing of the Messiah’s birth, is how he can ensure that he stays on the throne. He even goes as far as murdering babies so as not to give up his power and submit to another.

It just struck me how incredible it was, that at the announcement of good news on a universal scale, Herod’s immediate thought was for his own self. But the more I’ve thought about it, it’s not that strange at all really is it? Aren’t you and I just the same? Aren’t we all like Herod, little kings who don’t really want the real King to be on the throne? Everyday millions of people “do a Herod” (yes, I’m coining that phrase) and do everything they can to remain king of their own lives whilst rejecting the true King. No-one wants to hand over the throne to someone else. We’d all rather be in charge of our own lives.

But that kind of attitude betrays a misunderstanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Of course we need to let Jesus be our Lord and take charge of our lives and that will be necessity mean submitting to him. But to quote Glen Scrivener:

“at the end of the bible, we’re not looking forward to man getting off the throne.  Precisely the opposite.  Salvation involves being invited onto the throne, to rule with Christ (Revelation 3:21).”

We do have to submit to Christ as our King, but in doing so we’re raised to share in a far greater rule, one that we share in now in part, but one day we’ll share in completely.

To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. – Revelation 3:21

If only Herod had known that.

Why Christian Teenagers Would Do Well Not To Listen To The Archbishop

Yesterday night, I was reading an article re-posted by a friend. The article was by an American giving his perspective on what had gone on in the church of England over the previous weeks. The article can be read in full here. There were a lot of good things said in the article but the paragraph that jumped out to me most was this one:

“But I was astonished when, the day after the vote, the Archbishop of Canterbury not only bemoaned the failure in his farewell speech to the General Synod, but also insisted that the Church had betrayed its responsibility to reflect the sensibilities and values of the general culture: “Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday,” Williams sternly lectured his flock, “whatever the theological principle on which people acted or spoke,” dissenters had to understand that their objection to woman bishops “is not intelligible to wider society. Worse than that, it seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of wider society.”

For me, this quote from Rowan Williams shows us exactly why the church is in such disarray, namely because the leadership of the church seem to think that the church has to fall in line with the trends and priorities of wider society. Our government seems to agree, with David Cameron even saying that the church needed to “get with the program.” And what did I say when I read these things?

“What horrifically misplaced and unbiblical ideas!”

Let’s leave out the issue of women bishops for now, as that will only muddy the waters, but let’s try and apply that principle in a consistent way across our faith. For example, should the early Christians have “got with the program” and endorsed the bloody and violent gladiatorial games of their age in order to reflect the trends and priorities of wider society? Should the early Christians have “got with the program” and worshipped the Emperor as a god in order to reflect the the trends and priorities of wider society? I mean, claiming Jesus as Lord and Saviour and the only way to the Father really isn’t intelligible to wider society. It’s pretty narrow minded and exclusive too. Should Wilberforce have “got with the program” and not stood against slavery in order to reflect the trends and priorities of wider society? Rubbish!

And what should we tell our teenagers today?

“Listen guys, this whole ‘saving sex for marriage thing’ doesn’t really line up with what societies saying is OK. It’s going to be quite hard for you to stick to your guns and be taken seriously if you do that so why not just ‘get with the program.’ And I get that you want to keep a clear head on a night out and not get drunk but that’s not really in line with the trends and priorities of wider society. Why not ‘get with the program.’ Life will certainly be easier for you.”

Can you see the ridiculousness of this? The church is to be led by what God has said, not by what society thinks. I can’t really see Jesus saying “live for yourself, do anything you like as long as it’s not hurting others.” What a warped Jesus that is but if we were to follow society, that’s what we should do. Live for self, put yourself first, more money, more possessions, more sexual partners etc etc. Do we really want the church “to reflect the sensibilities and values of the general culture.”

This might rile a few people but I’m not saying this off my own back. Just look at what God has to say on this issue:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. – 1 John 2:15

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Romans 12:2

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. – Matthew 5:13

“Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:12-17. (If we live the way God wants us to, we will be persecuted. It will be tough as we’ll clash up against society, but we should stick to the word of God).

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. – 1 Peter 2:9 (We’ve been called ‘out of darkness,’ and are to be a holy nation. We’re set apart i.e. separate and distinct from the world).

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. 20 You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. 21 Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self,created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. –  Ephesians 4:17-23 (We’re not to live as those outside God’s people do. They have no understanding or grasp of God. Why then are we to reflect the trends and priorities of our society?)

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light – Ephesians 5:8

14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify[a] them by the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. – John 17:14-21

14 Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe. – Philippians 2:14-15 (we still live in a crooked and depraved generation).

20 But our citizenship is in heaven. – Philippians 3:20

That’s just a handful of passages that say exactly the opposite of what the Archbishop was saying. This isn’t about women bishops, it’s about the dangerous ideas we’re letting creep into our church almost without even noticing.

So I plead with any of you out there who are in youth ministry, don’t tell your teenagers to try and fit in with the world. They are to be salt and light, set apart, distinctive and no longer conforming to the pattern of this world! If they do this, it will be hard and society will mock and vilify them (John 17:14-21, 2 Timothy 3:12-17) but we need to encourage them to have the same attitude as the apostles in Acts 5. The Apostles had been commanded not to speak about Jesus by the Jewish authorities. Their message probably wasn’t intelligible to or didn’t fit in with the trends and priorities of wider society! But what does Peter say?:

“We must obey God rather than men!”

Amen!

Three Great Books For Christian Teens

The right book can sometimes be very helpful for someone. Here are three that I’ve read recently and which I think are great for teenagers.

True Spirituality – Vaughan Roberts

True Spirituality is a very accesible overview of 1 Corinthians. As always, Roberts is very readable and provides helpful illustrations to show the relevance of the letter for the teenager/student today. Each chapter is followed by some questions to help the reader think about what they’ve read. It’s by no means a complete commentary and in fairness, it never tries to be, but as an overview it’s very good. I dipped in and out of it, borrowing some of Roberts questions, illustrations and insights, for a one2one series with one of my teenagers but it could equally be used for small group studies or a springboard for a series of talks or just for a teenager to read through by themselves.

The Cross – Andrew Sach & Steve Jeffery

Clocking in at only 44 pages, this little book is great for a teenager who may not yet have made a commitment or for the new Christian. It simply lays out what happened at the cross and what it meant. Sach and Jeffery are two thirds of the team behind the tome “Pierced For Our Transgressions” which was a thorough defence of penal substitution and all that the cross stands for, so they certainly know what they’re talking about. At less than £3 it’s a steal and would easily make a great stocking filler this Christmas or a helpful gift at Easter.

Genuine: Becoming A Real Teenager – C.B. Martin

This is actually a reworking of Warren W. Wiersbe’s book “Becoming a Real Teenager” which just goes to show that something doesn’t have to be new to be relevant for young people (good job, otherwise we’d have to chuck out the Bible for a start!). Again, this is a short book coming in at 81 pages but is aimed more at encouraging the converted teenager who wants to live out their faith or challenging the teen with a half hearted faith. Each chapter looks at a different teenager from the bible including Joseph, David, Daniel, Mary, Timothy and Jesus, although the focus is most definitely on Jesus throughout the book. Each chapter finishes with some questions for the young person to “make it real.” This would be suitable for most teenagers between 14-18 years old.

The Curse of the Christmas Tree

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at our Scout Carol service 2012, which I  followed as a rough outline. To set the scene, I had kicked off with a bit of banter about who had had their tree up the longest and whose would be up the latest.

Each year many of us will buy a Christmas tree and then we’ll set about decorating it . For some of us it might even be quite an occasion, the sort of thing the whole family gets involved in. We’ll break out the baubles, maybe a star or an angel, a bit of tinsel, Dad’ll be getting more and more wound up as he tries to unravel the lights, and then you’ve got to make sure that all the decorations are spread out evenly so it looks just right.

And you’ve got to decorate it haven’t you, because if you didn’t do anything to it, it wouldn’t look very attractive at all would it? Because it’s a Christmas tree! A Christmas tree has been wrenched up and torn from it’s natural environment and so it’s not got any roots. It’s not going to be getting any nutrients and things like that, it’s probably not going to get much sunlight and so it’s never going to blossom or produce any fruit. How can it? There’s no real life in it. It’s as good as dead and it’s not got long before it’s going to start rotting away. My wife always says not to get a tree too early otherwise it might have dropped all it’s needles and gone brown by Christmas and then all the decorations in the world won’t be able to hide the fact that the tree is dead. And no-one wants a brown decaying tree littering up the living room, no matter how many lights, baubles or bits of tinsel it’s got on it. A Christmas tree is by it’s very nature heading for the rubbish dump, good for nothing more than wood for the fire. It’s not something that’s going to be worth keeping in the long run.

Incredibly, when you read how the Bible describes us, it says that we’re basically just like Christmas trees. The Bible makes the analogy between people and trees saying that “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.(Luke 3:9)”. That shows us that what God wants from us is for us to produce good fruit, to live a life of obedience to him. But just like the Christmas tree we’ve been wrenched from our natural environment. Because of our sinfulness we’re all cut off from God, the source of real life. The Bible goes as far as describing us as spiritually dead. We might walk around and breathe the air but spiritually we’re dead, we’ve got no life in us. So if there’s no life in us, how can we produce the kind of fruit God wants? We’re like the Christmas tree, we just don’t have the means too.

Now sure we might try and be good, we might dress ourselves up in fancy decorations and good deeds and hope that God will think we’re good enough, but of course those things will never be good enough. Our incomplete, broken half attempts at obedience pale into insignificance next to the kind of obedience God really wants from us. They’re just like christmas decorations, they’re not real fruit.

And do we really think that that’ll be good enough? That’s like turning up in heaven and presenting God with bucket of baubles when he actually wanted real fruit. What an insult that’d be to God.You see, we can’t produce the fruit God requires from us, we can’t live the way God wants us to. We just don’t have the ability.

So like the christmas tree we’re heading for the rubbish dump, waiting to be thrown into the fire. All the half hearted obedience in the world can’t hide the fact that we’re spiritually dead and God doesn’t want to keep around a decaying corpse, no matter how many good deeds we might be clothed in. We’re not worth keeping, we’re worthless.

So this doesn’t sound like a very merry christmas does it? And if God had done nothing about it then we’d all be heading for the rubbish dump. But at Christmas time we remember how the God the Father sent God the Son, Jesus, to earth as a baby. God became man and stepped down to live among us.

And Jesus produced real fruit. He always lived a in complete obedience to the Father. Never once did the way he lived fall short of the standard God required. Never once did he bring God any baubles. He was in perfect relationship with the Father, spiritually alive, which meant he was able to produce the good fruit that the Father desired, in the same way that a tree that is rooted and nourished will produce fruit of it’s own too. So Jesus wasn’t heading for the rubbish dump. He was a keeper in the Father’s eyes.

But how does this help us? So far it just looks like Jesus is in a very good position and we’re in a very bad one. But you see, Jesus didn’t become a man just for the sake of it, to see what it would be like, or to try a new experience. No; Jesus’ sole purpose in coming to earth was to save us, to save you and me, to save this bunch of decaying Christmas trees, to replant us so we could be fruitful again.

You see, when Jesus died on the cross he swapped places with you and me. He took our bucket of baubles and presented it to His Father as if they were his and he was deemed to not be good enough. And so rather than you or I being thrown on the rubbish dump with all our pathetic baubles, Jesus was thrown on the rubbish dump instead. He willingly faced the consequences of being spiritually dead and fruitless, he took the punishment for our insult to God, so that we didn’t have to.

But more than that, Jesus didn’t just take our pathetic bucket of baubles but he gave us his own bowl of fruit. He gave us the fruit of a life lived in perfect obedience to God so that rather than coming to God with only our half hearted attempts at being good to show for ourselves, we can come to God with exactly what is pleasing to him.

But we only get the benefits of what Jesus has done for us if we believe in what he did, if we put our trust in him. The bible says “ I am right with God, not because I followed the law (so not because I was able to be obedient enough), but because I believed in Christ. God uses my faith to make me right with him,“ (Philippians 3:9) and “you have been saved by grace through believing. You did not save yourselves; it was a gift from God. It was not the result of your own efforts” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

We are saved by our faith in Jesus, not our own efforts. Our own efforts are rubbish. But when we put our faith in Jesus, he exchanges his fruit for our decorations so that when God looks at us, he sees the fruit of a life lived in obedience to him. And so God says “that person shouldn’t go to the rubbish dump, they’re a keeper.” We get brought into a relationship with God through Jesus and we get to enjoy the same relationship with the Father that Jesus enjoys, a relationship in which we can call God our Father and that will last through into eternity.

But following Jesus doesn’t just bring some future blessing because Jesus says “If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit.” (John 15:5). You see, when we trust Jesus we’re made spiritually alive, and the Holy Spirit can begin to be at work in us to make us produce fruit and begin to live in obedience to the Father. Our whole life will be changed.

And just think, this all started with a small child, a baby boy, Jesus Christ, born on that first Christmas morning over 2000 years ago. Maybe this Christmas, you’ll let Jesus bring you alive and make you fruitful.