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13

TFTEmma's written a great post on what people look for in conversion experiences.  It reminded me of this wonderful sermon by Tom Torrance on John 3.

Here he lays into the modern (20th century) notion of defining the new birth psychologically. Instead we must see regeneration - along with every other aspect of the Christian life - as something found in Christ.

We all know that our forgiveness, adoption, righteousness, election, holiness and redemption are found in Jesus. We ought to know that our new birth is found there too.  It is not a prior experience outside of Jesus which then brings us to Christ. It is the new life which Christ pioneered through His life, death and resurrection.  It is the begotten life of the Spirit which Christ eternally possessed and now shares with those who are His.

Therefore we do not find our conversion in ourselves but in Him. And we do not offer a conversion experience but a Christ who converts.

The implications of this for our discipleship and evangelism are far-reaching - perhaps I'll tease out more later - but for now let's just hear TFT...

 

Behind all that Jesus has been saying there lies the fact of His own birth and incarnation. All that Jesus has said in fact about the new birth refers ultimately to His own birth. He is the only begotten Son of God, and it is in Him that our humanity... is born again out of the old Adam into the new. In other words it is in Christ and through Christ only that we are born again.

...This is not very easy for us to understand today, because we have turned the new birth or conversion into a carnal experience of the soul, and have identified it with a psychological event in our lives. This makes it all the more imperative for us to listen carefully to Jesus here, and to look above and beyond our own historical or psychological experience and find the significance of our new birth in Christ Himself. Christ is the only one, strictly speaking, who is born of the Spirit from above, but He gives the right to all who receive and believe in Him or are baptised in His name to become sons of God - that is, not in their own name but in Christ's Name. Christ Himself is the truth and reality of our new birth...

We must learn to take refuge even from our experiences of conversion, or of new birth, in Christ and find in His birth and in His resurrection the truth and reality of ours...

...In Jesus Christ, from His birth to His death and resurrection, there took place the great "conversion" of our humanity, and its destiny, back to God.

...If we look into our hearts and lives we see how corrupt they still are, how desperately wicked we are, and indeed the nearer we get to Christ the more sinful we feel and know ourselves to be. No, we cannot see our new birth by examining our spiritual experience psychologically, by looking within. We must learn to look away from ourselves to Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith, for we are dead, as St Paul says, and our life is hid with Christ in God.

This habit that modern people often have of thinking and speaking of the new birth as if it could be perceived in the soul and is something to be possessed in themselves is a great snare to many humble and earnest believers; it drives them to despair or turns them into hypocrites, for though they try to live up to "born again and converted" lived, they know secretly how sinful they are, and that considered in their deepest selves they are not new creatures. That is not the way of Jesus but the way of the Pharisees.
-- When Christ Comes, and Comes Again.

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Here's a sermon of mine on John 3 which tries to make some of the same points in a more law-gospel kind of way. I.e. We must have this new birth. We can't conjure it up. But Jesus brings it down as a gift.

 

 

 

2

barth
Karl Barth

A grand title! And all I have are three little quotes. Still... enjoy...

Our Problem:

[Man] has turned his back on the salvation which actually comes to him. He does not find the fulfilment of his being in participation in the being of God by the gift of God. Instead he aims at another salvation which is to be found in the sphere of his creaturely being and attained by his own effort. His belief is that he can and should find self-fulfilment. He has himself become an eschaton. (IV.1, 8)

 

Christ’s Solution:

The man in whom God Himself intervenes for us, suffers and acts for us, closes the gap between Himself and us as our representative, in our name and on our behalf, this man is not merely the confirmation and guarantee of our salvation, but because He is God He is salvation, our salvation. He is not merely the redeemer of our being but as such the giver and Himself the gift of its fulfilment. (IV. 1, 11)

 

Our New Position

We are those whose place has been taken by another, who lives and suffers and acts for them, who for them makes good that which they have spoiled, who – for them, but also without them and even against them – is their salvation. (IV. 1, 12)

9

its-all-about-meWhen we hear a preacher talk about "our Jesus-shaped hole" we're sensitive to the dangers. It sounds instantly "me-centred" doesn't it? If a preacher goes on about our felt needs and how Jesus meets them, Jesus seems only as big as the hole that's in us. That can't be right.

Yet, while we may be able to spot that error, another kind of me-centredness can beset the soundest of pulpits. Let me pick on perhaps the three most popular topics preached on in the churches I visit. These days the Trendy Trifecta is Trinity, grace and idols. Everything now is Trinity, grace and idols. Thinking back to last Sunday, I touched on all three, and if you're a preacher I hope you covered at least two of those!

But here's the danger, we are so self-obsessed, we can even make these truths all about us. We psychologize them and turn them into anthropology not theology.  So,

We're interested in "Trinity" because it resonates with our need for love.

We love love, we think it's lovely. So we love that God is love. And we preach the Trinity because it accords with our prior proclivities. We don't preach Trinity as the nature of God, we preach it as wish-fulfillment.

We're interested in "Grace" to the degree that it's a motivator in our lives. 

It's all about which regime produces the better Christian life - carrot or stick. Well, because we're "grace" people, we say CARROT. Loudly! But what we mean is "we believe in a certain shape to the Christian life" - not "we believe in a certain shape to God's life." Again, we don't preach grace as God's very nature (quite apart from how we feel about it), we preach it as wish-fulfillment.

We're interested in "Idols" as a psychological explanation for our patterns of addiction.

Idols-speak provides us with a window onto our own desires and we need little encouragement to think about ourselves. Idols-speak can become like the online personality test to discover the real me: delicious! But in preaching there's a real danger that we don't consider idols theologically. I find it rare for a preacher to define idols (as Scripture does) as false conceptions of God. Instead we consider over-investment in the world and the flesh and how we can solve our idolatry problem by determining to worship the right thing. In all this, God Himself is quite dormant, waiting for us to switch our allegiances. We are centre-stage. (More on idolising idols here).

It might sound "God-centred" to talk about Trinity and grace and idols, but so easily we make it all about us.

 

12

In the pageantry of All Hallows Eve (shortened to Halloween), the forces of darkness are given one final fling. This video reminds us of its Christian origins. The truth is: the Light is far stronger. (Here I explain the thinking behind the video.)

Thanks so much to 10 of those for suggesting the topic and making the video possible. Thanks to Sam at Cinematic Tide for directing, shooting and editing an absolute beaut. And thanks to Josh Lucas for an awesomely dramatic soundtrack (hear more of his stuff here).

Please do share the video on Twitter and Facebook etc. (You might like to wait until late October?) And please consider using the video in church, youth group or for Bright Parties etc.

Vast armies undead do tread through the night and
In hordes march towards hapless victims to frighten.
They stumble in step with glass-eyes on the prizes;
Bunched hither, hunched over in monstrous disguises;
In sizes not lofty but numb’ring a throng;
To unleash on their prey the dreaded DING DONG.
Small faces with traces of mother's eye-liner,
Peer up to the resident candy provider.

And there to intone ancient threats learnt verbatim;
They lisp "TRICK OR TREAT!" Tis their stark ultimatum.
Thus: region by region such legions take plunder.
Does this spector-full spectacle cause you to wonder?
Just how did our fair festive forebears conceive,
Of this primeval practice called All Hallows Eve?
The answer, if anyone cares to research,
Surprises, it rises from old mother church.

On the cusp of the customary All Saints Day
The Christ-i-an kinsfolk made mocking display.
These children of light both to tease and deride;
Don darkness, doll down as the sinister side.
In pre-post-er-ous pageants and dress diabolic,
They hand to the damned just one final frolick.
You see with the light of the dawn on the morrow,
The sunrise will swallow such darkness and sorrow.

The future is futile for forces of evil;
And so they did scorn them in times Medieval.
For this is the nature of shadow and gloom;
In the gleaming of glory there can be no room.
What force is resourced by the echoing black?
When the brightness ignites can the shadow push back?
These 'powers' of darkness, if such can be called,
Are banished by brilliance, by blazing enthralled.

So the bible begins with this fore-resolved fight;
For a moment the darkness.... then "Let there be Light!"
First grief in the gloom, then joy from the East.
First valley of shadow, then mountaintop feast.
First wait for Messiah, then long-promised Dawn.
First desolate Friday and then Easter Morn.
The armies of darkness when doing their worst,
Can never extinguish this Dazzling Sunburst.

So... ridicule rogues if you must play a role;
But beware getting lost in that bottomless hole.
The triumph is not with the forces of night.
It dawned with the One who said "I am the Light!"

 

not-feeling-it

A REPOST

To change internally through external acts can be flesh.

But to change externally through internal devotions can be just as flesh-ly.

Conversely, the external application of word and sacrament can have a wonderful effect internally.

And an internal resolve to look away to Christ can brilliantly impact your externals.

Neither outside-in nor inside-out is the right method for change.  The division the bible makes is between flesh and Spirit.

The real issue is whether the Spirit is leading us to Jesus and His finished work. It's the Spirit who takes us outside to Christ who offers up our true standing before the Father.

I talk about this here in a recent sermon on Romans 8 (audio here).

13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live,

What does it mean to put to death the misdeeds of the body by the Spirit.  Not by the law, not by the flesh, not by will power or human effort.  What does change look like that is by the Spirit?

Well, imagine you lie.  You lie to protect your reputation, you tell everyone you’ve done something that you haven’t done to sound like a big shot.  And afterwards you feel bad about lying.  And you want to stop lying like that because it’s getting to be a habit.

Now at that point – what is Christian about that resolve?  Non-Christians resolve to tell the truth too.  There’s nothing Christian about trying to be a better person.  There’s nothing Christian about putting sins to death.  It’s the WAY you put them to death that’s the real difference.

See, you could put it to death through the law.  You could say “The law says Thou shalt not lie.  I’ve broken the law.  I’ll punish myself and put myself under condemnation until I feel I’ve done my penance and then I’ll try really, really hard to be honest next time."

Two problems with the law approach.  First, it doesn’t work.  Second, I’ve just resolved to be my own Saviour.  I don’t need Jesus for this.  I don’t need the cross, I don’t need the Spirit.  I’m just trying to be more moral.  There’s nothing Christian about resolving to tell the truth.

But Paul tells me to put lying to death BY THE SPIRIT.

What’s that?  Well to figure out that, we need to figure out what the Spirit is up to in the world.  And verse 14 will tell us what we need to know.  Here’s what the Spirit is up to:

14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Verse 15 calls the Spirit "the Spirit of Sonship."  So the Spirit of the Son makes US sons and daughters of God.  The Spirit sweeps us up into Jesus so that we share Jesus’ relationship with God.  And what is Jesus’ relationship with God.  He is the Son, who calls out to God, “Abba, Father.”  And now, BY THE SPIRIT, so do we!

Abba is a word for Daddy in many middle eastern languages.  It’s intimate, it’s affectionate.  It’s also deeply respectful.  But here’s the question: Who on earth gets to call Almighty God, Abba?  Calling the Queen “Liz” is bad enough.  But at least calling her Liz doesn’t presume anything about your relationship to the Queen.  To call God “Daddy” you’re not only being incredibly intimate with God, you’re also making a claim on Him.  You’re saying “God, You are my Father and I am Your child.”  And children have certain rights.  In verse 17, Paul will tell us one of those rights – we have inheritance rights – as children of God we are heirs of the cosmos.

So that’s what the Spirit is up to – He’s communicating Christ to me, He’s testifying to me that I am in Jesus and in Him God is my Father, He’s communicating all that that means…

Now come back to verse 13 and ask “What does it mean to put to death the misdeeds of this Adamic body BY THE SPIRIT?”

Here’s what it means.  It means I open up my bible, I read the Spirit’s words and I allow Him to tell me:  “Glen, don’t you realize you HAVE the righteousness of Christ?!  You ARE God’s beloved child, unimprovably so.  So Glen, when you lied, who were you trying to impress?  Why lie?  You are dead to lying now, not because there’s an anti-lying law.  You’re dead to lying because, What need is there to lie?

The Spirit is constantly telling me, “I am a trillionaire walking around the millionaires club.”  And my lying exaggeration is like flashing around a counterfeit £50 note, trying to impress people.  That doesn’t impress people in the millionaires club.  And it completely forgets that I have a trillion pounds to my name?  What am I doing?

So put lying to death BY THE SPIRIT.

It works for all sins.

Put porn to death BY THE SPIRIT.  Why go after that counterfeit intimacy, when Jesus brings us into His eternal fellowship with the Father?

Put covetousness to death BY THE SPIRIT.  Do you really need the latest outfit or the latest gadget, when you’re about to inherit the universe?

Put anger and harsh words to death BY THE SPIRIT.  Don’t you realize you’re loved and appreciated and declared righteous in the heavenly realms?  Do you really need to assert your rights here and now?

Whatever the misdeeds of your Adam nature, put them to death BY THE SPIRIT.

To change by the Spirit means to have my gaze drawn to Christ who is my righteousness.  It means the Spirit re-reminding me that Christ is my standing before the Father.  All my sins spring from trying to live independently of Jesus and establishing my own standing in the world.  So look out to Christ who offers up the real you.  That's how Christian change occurs.

6

Luther PreachingRecently I taught on Luther's theology of the word. I spoke of the movement God's word makes with us - to kill and to make alive; to uproot and to plant; to tear down and to build.

Consider Genesis 1 - first darkness then light; first the seed then the fruit; first forming then filling.

Consider Genesis 2 - first the man goes into death-sleep then he's raised to unite with his bride.

Consider Genesis 3 - first Adam takes us into curse, then the promised Seed will bring deliverance.

Consider Abraham - first barrenness according to the flesh then life according to the promise.

Consider Moses - even before Israel enters the land he tells them of their inevitable exile and then the LORD will bring them home with an almighty atonement.

Consider Isaiah - he must proclaim the hacking down of Israel's tree until only the Holy Seed is left (Isaiah 6).

Consider Jeremiah - his word to the nation is first judgement then salvation (Jeremiah 1:4-10; cf Jeremiah 31)

Luther did not invent an arbitrary distinction with law and gospel. Rather, he named the pattern of the Word in evidence on every page. This patterns goes through death and, only in going through death, we then enter resurrection. (You'll notice how law-gospel preaching goes hand in hand with a theology of the cross).

Therefore our proclamation should take the same shape. We preach the inability of the flesh, of the will, of human effort when it comes to establishing the wondrously good life of God's kingdom. The law is good - really, fantastically good. But it reveals that we are bad - stinkingly, horrifyingly bad. We preach the reality of our own spiritual death and then we declare the life that comes from outside ourselves. We point to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. You could call that law-gospel preaching if you like, but Luther has no trademark on it. It's the kind of thing you have to preach if you believe salvation comes only from Christ and never from us.

Anyway... I was teaching these kinds of things recently and two people asked questions in quick succession. The first asked: "What about Leviticus 26-27 - that takes the pattern of blessings then curses." The second asked about Luke 6 - Jesus proclaims blessings then woes. If the shape of the word is law then gospel, why are these significant portions of Scripture proclaiming a 'positive message' and then a 'negative message'?

The answer is fairly straightforward - both blessings and curses are law! In fact they are the quintessence of law.

Law is: "If you... Then He'll..."

Gospel is "Since He... You are..."

Notice therefore that "If you... Then He'll..." is a message that could include curses or blessings. If you obey then He'll bless you. If you disobey, then He'll curse you. Whether the carrot is being dangled or the stick is being threatened the real issue is the phrase "If you...". What makes these messages law is not the curses or the carrots, it's the conditionality.

Both carrot and stick are law. And notice how Moses uses them. In Leviticus 26-27 (and in Deuteronomy) he outlines the potential blessings from Mount Gerazim and then the curses from Mount Ebal (of course he spends much longer on the curses!) By the time you get to Deuteronomy it becomes very obvious (see Deut 4 and Deut 30-34) that Israel will go into the curses of exile and only then attain to the blessings. Curses and blessings are not so much alternative possibilities but consecutive stages in their history.

Think how Jesus uses the blessings and woes in Luke 6. Blessed are those who have absolutely nothing. Cursed are those who think they have it made. Both sides of the coin uphold the one truth - we've got nothing, everything must come from heaven. In other words, it's all about the good law describing the good life that is entirely beyond us. Both the "positive message" of the blessings and the "negative message" of the woes are proclaiming our inability and God's all-sufficiency.

So let me draw a couple of points of application. First, there really is a shape to God's word. We know this supremely because God's Word is Jesus. And there's a shape to Jesus' life - down into the curses then rising into blessing. Certainly the little slice of Scripture we're reading might start with a "nice bit" and end with a "hard bit", but that slice of Scripture exists within a larger context. And if we're preaching, we're called to preach the larger context. We don't proclaim Luke 6:20-26, we proclaim Jesus from Luke 6:20-26. We never want to make the mistake of the Pharisees in John 5 - seeking life in the passage rather than the Person. If we preach the Person then we have to preach the pattern of that Person - a pattern that will be evidenced in the passage too, if we would only do our homework. But that pattern is down and then up, cross then resurrection, law then gospel.

Second, legalistic preaching (preaching law without gospel) is not always harsh-sounding preaching. It could be all about blessings, all about carrots, all about your best life now - if you.... If you only do this, or think that, or be the other - then you'll be blessed. Such a message might sound incredibly positive, but ultimately it's crushing because it's all about you.

Third, law-gospel preaching is not about balancing carrots and sticks. It's not about ensuring we play off the 'nice Scriptures' with the 'harsh ones' so that we're properly rounded. Some might be adept at sugar-coating some hard truths with some sweet verses. Others might temper their lovely promises with fearful warnings. But that is not law-gospel preaching - that is law-law preaching. "Christ is the end of the law that there may be righteousness for everyone who simply believes." (Romans 10:4)

Let's not leave our hearers in between Mount Gerazim and Mount Ebal. Let's take them on the journey that Scripture takes... through the curses into the blessings, through Golgotha and up to Zion. And let's make sure we preach Christ as the One who makes it happen.

 

 

5

salvation1) We are saved by God. (Jonah 2:9)

God does it all. He does not simply 'blaze a trail' or 'clear a path' or 'make it possible' to be saved. He saves. It's His work entirely.

2) We are saved from God. (Romans 3:25)

Our problem is not merely our disobedience, our problem is God's anger at our disobedience. We're not just saved from sin but from wrath. If our problem was "our sin" then "our righteousness" would be the (implied) solution. But no, the problem is out of our hands - just as the solution is.

3) We are saved for God. (Ephesians 2:18) 

Who cares if we simply receive a "not guilty verdict"? The good news is not that we escape hell. It's that we are reconciled to the Father, in the Son and by the Spirit.

4) Salvation is about our being. (2 Peter 1:4)

Our problem is not simply our behaviour but our being in Adam. God's solution is not simply "a clean slate" but a whole new nature in Christ. Atonement is not simply about scapegoats and blood sacrifices (though they are crucial). It's about our High Priest carrying His people into God's presence.

5) Jesus is God's salvation and perfectly reveals His saving will. (John 3:14-17)

Jesus means "The LORD is salvation." If we want to know God's will for salvation there is nowhere else to look. God is the God of Jesus - the God of the gospel.

6) God's love for Christ is primary. (John 3:35-36)

It's easy to get lost in debates about "God's love for the church" versus "God's love for the world." We might ask ourselves whether / how these loves might differ from each other. But we ought to begin further upstream. God loves His Son and He gives His Son to the world. Where Christ is received, that is the church. But the point is not so much about the church or the world (or the church versus the world). It's about Jesus.

7) Every blessing is in Jesus. (Ephesians 1:3-14)

As we've just noted, God saves by committing everything into the hands of Jesus and then offering Jesus to the world (John 3:35-36). All of salvation happens in Christ (i.e. forgiveness, new life, adoption, election, justification, etc, etc). God doesn't do any of these things to us outside of Christ - He works them all in His Son and offers them only in Him.

8) Judgement and Salvation are not parallel tracks. (1 Peter 4:17)

It's not really a matter of either curses or blessings. The world goes through 'paradise lost' to a new Jerusalem. Israel goes through exile and then returns. Christ goes through the cross to the resurrection.  We're baptised into His death and, through our co-crucifixion with Christ, we enter into salvation.

9) Saving faith is not a thing. (John 1:10-13)

Some think of faith as a thing and then argue about whether it belongs to man or to God. But faith is not a thing. Christ is the one saving thing, given to the world. Where He is received - that is called faith. But faith isn't the saving thing, Christ is.

10) The gospel is the power of salvation. (Romans 1:15-16)

The power of salvation - the Almighty Spirit of Christ - works in and through the word. We must not divorce word and Spirit. We must not imagine that the preaching of the gospel is one thing and saving power is something else - sometimes active, sometimes not. That would be to locate the power of salvation outside the gospel. But no, the gospel is God's power to save. Most discussions about salvation would be improved if we had a stronger theology of the word.

Slave-shackles-Does-the-Bible-condone-slavery"Forgive each other just as God, in Christ, forgave you." Ephesians 4:32

That's the flow - grace comes down to us for our sins and then it's meant to flow out to others for their sins.

If that's the pattern, what does it mean when we find another's sin "unforgiveable"? Well at that point we're accusing them of blasphemy. Why do I say that? Well that's what God calls the unforgiveable sin - blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In Mark 3:28-30 we learn that rejection of Christ as Saviour is the blasphemy - it is the unforgiveable sin (for more on that, see here.)

But that language is interesting. When God says we've done something unforgiveable (i.e. finally and forever rejected Christ), He calls it a blasphemy. My point here is this: when we deem the sins of others to be "unforgiveable" we are saying that they have blasphemed.  They haven't blasphemed the Spirit, they've blasphemed our god.

I'll explain it like this. We might well find ourselves in the position of knowing:

1) Christ has forgiven me,

2) Christ commands me to forgive, and that...

3) the offences against me are minor - not only relative to Christ's forgiveness but even when compared to other atrocities in the world.

But, it can still feel impossible to forgive. At that point we're deeming the offender to have committed an unforgiveable sin.  In other words the offender has blasphemed our real god (our "functional saviour" to use a Tim Kellerism).

I might find countless offences to be "water off a ducks back" but if someone ruins my reputation, or if they harm my career or if they in any way hurt my children - that's unforgiveable.  At those moments it's good to be aware that "unforgiveable" is synonymous with "sacrilegious."  And it's good to identify the real god who we think is being blasphemed.

When the idol of "my reputation" or "my career" or "my family" is uncovered, it's actually a huge step forwards in forgiveness.  Because now I'm confronted with the reality of my own need. I must repent and seek forgiveness.  She may have ruined my reputation.  But worshipped it.  When I confront the ugliness of my own blasphemy, my eyes are taken off the horizontal and fixed on the vertical. I realize I'm not so much "offended party" as "offender".  In the language of Matthew 18, I start to realize the vastness of the ten thousand talent debt.  And the 100 denarii becomes instantly relativized - not just in theory, but hopefully as a felt reality.

So here's my contention - maybe I'm wrong, correct me in the comments - but I reckon...

If there's something "unforgiveable" in my eyes, there's something blasphemous in my heart.

 

12

triploidembryoEmma and I have been going through a modified IVF process. On Friday the embryologist told us our cycle had failed. She emphasized (as many have throughout the process) that we had given ourselves poor odds of success by requesting that only 2 eggs be fertilised. We replied (as we've had to do many times) that we did not want to create life if there was any chance of having to discard it.

For us the bottom line is the incarnation. Jesus was, after all, conceived by the Holy Spirit - it's right there in the creed. The beginning of His life as man (and for man) was conception. Luke records it for us in chapter 1, verse 31 - and he ought to know, he was a doctor. Knowing this, we don't want to treat an embryo as anything less than "our little one." (In fact in this process we have tried not to say "embryo" or "zygote" or (shudder) "blastocyst" - blastocyst is an adjective, not a noun!)

So that has been our position. We only wanted 2 eggs fertilised because we would only be willing for Emma to carry two little lives. But as of Friday our cycle failed, or so the embryologist said. We put down the phone, devastated but also confused. These things always dawn on you later, but we couldn't help going over the embryologist's words. She mentioned that one of them had fertilised "abnormally" and was "unusable." But when we asked her whether it would survive in the womb she said: "We wouldn't transfer it." At the time we were reeling from the news, but it only took a minute to realise: she didn't exactly answer our question.

We went for one of the most aimless, rambling walks you could imagine and ended up on a park bench 100 yards from the clinic. A thought occurred: "Shall we go and ask for some clarification?"  We dragged ourselves over and asked a series of questions. We learnt that the child is triploidy - a fatal chromosome defect. If the child survives pregnancy it will most likely be still-born or survive only a few hours. We were told that no clinic in the world would transfer a triploid embryo. The more we learnt, the more fearful we were of pressing the issue. We almost didn't ask, but then we did: "Are you telling us that you won't transfer the embryo even if we ask you to?" At that point she relented, she'd make some calls.

When she got back to us later in the day she had phoned many people - the clinic's director, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, their legal team, the clinic's legal team. She was finally assured that transferring our sick child to its mother was "legal" - but only if we signed a lengthy disclaimer. (I am very grateful that our clinic strove to accommodate our strange views but I think both sides found the position of the other party a bit nuts.)

We agreed that we would allow our little one to grow to blastocyst stage and then - if all was well - transfer to Emma. This was a massive call for Emma especially - she would have to carry the child. Our thinking was, if the child was conceived in the womb, we wouldn't discard it now.

We thought briefly about the life-support argument too - i.e. when there's no hope and you're just prolonging the inevitable, sometimes you switch off life-support. That certainly has its place in certain circumstances but 1) every baby needs life support and 2) the artificial medical intervention is the test-tube, "letting nature take its course" is the womb! So yesterday morning we were staring down the barrel of a traumatic 12 months.

When the phone rang this morning, it could have been the invitation to come in for the transfer. Instead, our embryologist said that our little one had not made it. We had prayed that our Father would take the child home in His good time and we thank Him for His kindness.  That doesn't stop the grief.  Many times in the last two days we have wished that our baby was with us, even knowing the implications. But this is what the Lord has wanted, and we are starting to see His wisdom.

So here we are 5 days after the phone call on Friday and we're emotionally shattered. Was anything achieved by our awkward request? We still lost the child after all.

Here are seven things we've learnt or re-learnt over the past 5 days. Maybe this is part of what the Lord is teaching us...

1) The belief that life begins at conception ought to be a totally respectable position, even scientifically speaking.

The reason we had a sick child is because humans are meant to have a perfect complement of chromosomes from conception. The reason they were able to diagnose the problem from the day of conception is because our child did not have a perfect complement of chromosomes. The reason the clinic was so sure this spelt doom for the child is that, from the moment of conception, your genetic make-up does not change. In other words, the genome is set from day one. Even scientifically speaking you are on the strongest grounds if you insist that life begins at conception.

2) Jesus really does call us to the good life.

It would be easy to think that following Jesus backed us into a corner where we had to make the "tough decision." But it wasn't the decision that was tough, it was the situation. The situation has been: we have a terminally ill child. That's what is tough - horrendously so. But no decision of ours can alter the situation.

Many times over the last 5 days we have had to remind ourselves: "The tragedy has already struck." Nothing about our decisions can stop things being horrible. Once we embrace that reality then the only decision is to do the best by our sick child. At that point, the really tough decision would be to discard our baby!

Jesus does not call us to obedience for the sake of it. His way is the way because it's good - because He's good and He walks along it with us. Every other road is the hard road.

3) Needing Christ is where we're supposed to be.

When you are out of your depth, it puts you in touch with a spiritual reality we should feel all the time: we are weak, needy fools desperate for Jesus.

This sermon by Mike Milmine really helped us on Sunday night (download). To be human is to be empty - constantly requiring our sustenance from beyond ourselves. It's so easy to become self-sufficient, but when uncertainty and sorrow hit, we are forced to realise our true dependence on Christ. And He really is enough.

4) Church family is crucial.

There's no way we could have gone through this week without our brothers and sisters. Our friends have been more than friends - they have put themselves entirely at our disposal, prayed with us, comforted us and pledged ongoing help no matter what the road ahead. The body of Christ is an incredible reality. Without church, every way is empty and confusing and the way of Christ is impossible. With church, the way of Jesus draws us closer together and puts us in touch with real life.

5) Sometimes The Moral Stand is more of a mumbling query

When we first received the call on Friday we were pretty clueless. We basically went along with what they were saying. After the call, we went for a wander and, unbeknownst to us, the Lord was nudging us towards the clinic. We gradually encouraged each other to go in and ask questions. In a roundabout way, we eventually got to the point. We asked how they'd react if we insisted. And we went from there. This was not a bold unwavering line in the sand!

Friday morning was not our Luther-esque "Here I stand, I can do no other".  But then again - that's not how it worked for Luther either. When he was asked to recant, his first response was pretty uncertain too, only later did the resolve grow. Maybe that's how it happens though - a stammering small voice that God won't allow to fall silent. That's how it felt for me anyway.

6) "Our witness" looks crazy to the world.

We talk about being a witness in the world (it's kind of my job to encourage Christians to "be a witness"). It's easy to think of "our witness" in terms of being incredibly likeable and a Christian. But so often our witness comes by being incredibly odd.  To certain of our friends and family and to all of the staff at the fertility clinic we seem a bit crazy. And all of these people want our best. But because they want good things for us, they are bound to see our choices as stupid and wrong. But right there, the potential for true witness emerges. Only once we stand apart is it possible to see a different vision of reality. Only when our lives are inexplicable in worldly terms will our true motivations be seen. And we're beginning to see the positive fruit of that crazy-looking witness.

7) The Gospel is expressed in honouring the despised things.

1 Corinthians 1:27-29 sets out the gospel of the crucified Christ in all its counter-cultural oddness:

God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

The whole way of the cross is the way of honouring the despised - lifting up the poor from the ash-heap and seating them with princes. Yesterday our Father did something very, very gospel-shaped (what a shock!). He lifted up a despised, disabled little life and took it to Himself. He exalted someone the world would say "is not" - not truly a life, not healthy, not fit for use - and He has brought them right to His heart, to be with Christ forever. He says to the rejected one: "You are choice in my eyes! Let the whole world take note and let the wise be ashamed, I am the God of weaklings!"

That gospel witness is part of how Jesus makes this path the good path. He hasn't just called us to a difficult ethical decision. He has called us to His own way of life - the Good Life - the life of witness to the good news, the life of suffering to bring blessing, the life of honouring the weak, the life of exalting the overlooked, the life of sacrifice for others, the life of sharing with God's family, the life of fellowship in suffering and the life of hoping in the resurrection. At the end of the day, it's not 'a tough decision'. It's the only life that is really life.

Galatians 4.8-20

Do you want to be a slave? When you put it like that, no-one's interested. But actually the whole world has a sick addiction to slavery. We find freedom frightening. We'd much rather the security of our little prisons. But in Galatians Paul wants to break us out. He's going to show how slavery works, how it looks and how it ends...

 

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