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An interviewer once suggested to Barth that he followed a christo-centric principle in his theology.  Barth was not impressed.  He insisted that he had no interest in a christo-centric principle.  He was interested in Christ Himself. 

Whether Barth always achieved that is another matter (who does?).  But at least he identified the danger with which all theologians (i.e. all Christians) must reckon.  Is Jesus Himself our Lord, or have we tamed the Lion of Judah making Him serve our real theological agenda?

Let me play devil's advocate and describe four popular ways you can turn Jesus into a mechanism to serve some abstract theological concern.  (Please do add others in the comments).

1) A general ethic of inclusion

2) A general doctrine of universalism

3) A general object of devotion

4) A general concept of grace


1) A general ethic of inclusion

You know the kind of thing - "Jesus identified with the outsider, the persecuted, the marginalised.  He opposed the religious and those who would condemn or exclude."  Take the aforementioned generality, apply it to your cause celebre and, presto, one all-purpose inclusion ethic.  NB: Best not to pry too closely into Jesus' particular ethical pronouncements nor the Scriptures He claimed could not be broken.


2) A general doctrine of universalism

Here, as with the other examples, it is vitally important to think of Jesus in abstraction.  Again, do not pry into the actual teaching of Christ, especially His words concerning judgement, but think only of Christ as Cosmic Reconciler.  Now that you've turned Him into a principle, theologize away on the inevitability of universal salvation.  After all the universal Creator has taken universal flesh and wrought a universal victory.  Keep it in universal terms, in the abstract.  Don't get too close to the Person of Jesus - it's the principle of reconciliation you want. 


3) A general object of devotion

Take a prolix puritan, set them to work on some devotional writing, give them Song of Songs as their text and wait for the treacle to flow.  Delight in the mystical union.  Let the particularity of the One to Whom we are united be swallowed up in the general enjoyment of that union. 

Or take a modern worship leader strumming tenderly, synth strings in the background, congregation swaying.  Wait for the effusions of ardour - mountains climbed, oceans swum to be near to... Who?  Jesus of Nazareth?  Or some ideal Love?  Is this praise to Jesus?  Or praise to praise?  What's missing?  Very often the actual Jesus is missing.  This is key.  Make sure that you abstract Jesus from His words and works.  Do not think in concrete terms.  In fact it's best not to think.  Simply imagine Him as 'The Highest Object of Our Hearts' and just enjoy the gush. 


4) A general concept of grace

This one's very seductive, I'm always falling for it so I know whereof I speak.  Define yourself as 'a believer in grace'.  Define the gospel in terms of this abstract principle - grace.  Speak of the love of God.  Even speak of the sin of man.  But only speak of the Jesus who reconciles the two as a handy instrument - an instrument of Grace.  That's the main thing - Jesus fits into this grace paradigm.  That's why we love Him. 

When anyone asks what Christianity is - tell them: 'It's not works!  People think it's works, but it's not!'  And when they say 'Ok, alright, calm down.  Tell me what it is,' don't tell them it's Jesus.  And definitely don't introduce them to the walking, talking actual Jesus.  That'll only distract them from your excellent grace-not-works diagrams.  Major on the whole grace-not-works principle.  And if they ever want to receive this principle into their own lives (after all your diagrams make a lot of sense) tell them to accept 'grace' as a free gift and they're in.  They may well struggle to understand what receiving a concept actually looks like or whether they've done it properly (or at all).  They may well question whether their intellectual assent to your diagram really has decisive eternal significance.  But whatever you do, don't point them to the Person of Jesus.  Grace is the thing.   


In all of these examples Jesus is called on to serve a pre-existing theological programme.  He may be treated with the utmost respect.  He may be considered the very chief Witness or the Exemplar par excellence.  But He is at your service, not you at His.

Beware fitting Jesus into your pet theological programme.  We do it all the time but He resists all efforts to turn Him into a principle.  The Truth is a Person and will not be abstracted.


How should we respond to sin in our lives?

One response is to think 'Come on Glen, I'm better than that.'

Another is to think 'Come on Glen, Christ is better than that.'

The first may produce a very moral life.  But the devil is more than happy to concede to you a Christ-less morality.  Self-righteousness is a far muddier swamp than unrighteous living.  I am not better than my sin.  I am not even better than the foulest evil I've imagined.

Instead, when I sin I am revealed as the person I've always been.  Psalm 51:5 has often struck me.  Here is David with blood on his hands.  Yet his confession is that the man who committed adultery and murder is the man he had always been.

We think when we've sinned that it was just a blot on our otherwise acceptable record.  The word of God says our sins simply express the person we have always been (Matt 7:17f). My gross sins are not 'out of character' - they are me with the hand-brake off.

No sin can shock me.  Not my own, nor the sins of my brothers and sisters who confess to me.  If the blood of God was shed for my sin (Acts 20:28) - then my sin is infinitely heinous.  No, I'm not better than sin.  But Christ is. 

This is true in two senses. 

First it's true in the sense that Christ is more desirable than sin.  In the wilderness of temptations, Satan can only offer me a bucket of salt.  Christ always stands before me with living waters (John 4:10; 7:38; Rev 7:17).  The father of lies tells me life is found in this sin.  Jesus tells me it's a broken cistern that can hold no water.  Only His waters are truly life-giving. (Jer 2:12-13)  I forsake even my precious sins because I have learnt that Jesus is more desirable.

But Christ is better than sin in another, much more important, sense.  For He is the good person that I fail to be.  He is the reality that stands before the holy Father - not my sin. 

My sin, though it clings to my bones and sinks to the depths of my heart, does not define me, Christ does.  When the Father looks to find me, He does not look in the record that stands against me (Ps 130:3; Col 2:14).  He looks to His Beloved Son and finds me hidden there. 

Which means even as the diseased tree of my flesh produces in me the very worst fruit, Christ is my Plea, my Status, my Righteousness.  Even as the chief of sinners, even in the act of my worst rebellion, Christ - the One who is infinitely better - defines me and not my sin.

So Christ is better in both these senses.  But - and here's where this post has been heading - without being utterly convinced of this latter sense, the former sense could easily lead to a Pharasaism not unlike the 'I am better than sin' response.

How so?

Well if I respond to sin simply by saying 'Jesus is more desirable' it basically throws me back on myself.  I am left with my own heart and its ability to desire Jesus.  The work of annihilating sin becomes simply my work of destroying my heart idols.  The work of liberation is simply the work of my affections desiring Christ with sufficient ardour.  Where is the locus of this redemption?  Me.

Now do my heart-idols need crucifying?  Yes.  Do I need Christ uppermost in my affections?  Yes.  But by golly, if I found it hard to reform my outward behaviour - how hard is it going to be to reform my inner world??!  Impossible.

So, you say, that's why we need the gracious work of the Spirit and diligently to employ the means of grace, etc, etc.  Well... there's a time and a place for that.  But let's think.  If that's our bottom line, doesn't it sound exactly like the Catholic view of grace?  "It's all of grace" says the Catholic "... supernatural, infused grace worked in us, with which we cooperate, making us better and better over time."  Doesn't that sound very similar to "We fight sin by enflaming our affections for Christ - flames stoked by the Spirit via His means of grace"?  

It's not that there's no place for the 'Christ is more desirable' approach.  It's that we must recognize it's true place - i.e. after we're assured of the extrinsic work of Christ.  "Grace" is not basically a supernatural empowerment to work at my salvation or to enflame my Christian affections.  "Grace" is the work of Christ alone on behalf of sinners who contribute nothing.  (This is similar to the points I made here - grace is not so much the bread David provides as the victory David wins).

Therefore my first reponse to sin is this - even in the very midst of sin, Jesus has been carrying me on His heart before the Father.  Even ensnared in the darkest selfishness, the Spirit has been calling 'Abba' from within me.  Even as my heart desired worthless idols, the Father loved me even as He loves Christ.

This is the truth that really changes us.  It reveals to us that not even our sin can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  We realize again that our darkness is not a locked basement to the Lord.  Even our self-willed rebellion cannot remove us from His embrace.  We sin in His face - this drives us down in contrition.  And at the same time He is lifting us up to the Father. 

The truth that really changes us is that our lives are not our own.  Jesus has taken possession of us in spite of ourselves and wills to do us eternal good.  The Spirit of sonship is already praying 'Abba' in you.  The affections you are so keen to enflame are already ablaze - and that, even as you quench Him!   

Now surrender.  Now be conquered. Now receive what is entirely beyond you.  And see if you don't love Him with renewed and supernatural vigour!  But don't begin with your heart for Christ.  Begin with His heart for you.

We love because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19


(I'll get back to the series soon, just thought I'd break things up).

I was reading some very familiar words again:

 Jesus then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."  (Mark 8:31-33)

Here are four shocks:

  1. The 'things of men' are satanic.  To simply buy into the things of men (as opposed to the things of God) is to be a conduit of Satan.
  2. Minding the 'things of men' is a simple matter of moving towards comfort and away from the way of the cross.  Satanism is simply the preference of comfort to cruciformity.
  3. Peter's sin is not even that he desires his own comfort but that he attempts to shepherd another away from the cross and towards comfort.  Peter thinks he is helping Jesus, in fact his encouragement to self-protection is demonic.
  4. The 'things of God' is Christ crucified.  Think of the highest heights of deity - mind the things of God - and what do you picture?  Jesus says picture Him bleeding for demons like Peter.  That's what 'the things of God' consist in.  To shy from this is to embrace the things of men and become a servant of Satan.



I flew a kite here for the notion of confession following our taking of communion.  It wasn't enthusiastically embraced!

I was reminded on Sunday of how brilliant Thomas Cranmer's 'Prayer of humble access' is.  In the Anglican church, this is what we pray before receiving communion.  Isn't it great?

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Now if the supper was explained to people 'On the night He was betrayed, Jesus took bread...'.  And people said this prayer, haven't we been sufficiently prepared?  Then, following my appropriation of Christ's grace, then I formally confess my sins - and let's take some time about it, let's mourn our sin and hate it.  But don't we confess best when humbled by grace?

(Even if you object to this, thought I'd share the prayer - good huh?)


How to attain humility?  Determine to think low thoughts of yourself?  You'd be defeated before you began.  Self-deprecation is still self-deprecation.  No, to be humble we need to be humbled

Daniel 4 gives us a great picture of this.  Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man in the world, is humbled by the triune God who is 'able to humble' 'those who walk in pride.'  (Dan 4:37).

As a young(ish) Australian male I know a little something about walking in pride.  What can I learn from Daniel 4 about humility?

 First, the hero of the piece, Daniel, accomplishes his work only in the power of the Holy Spirit.

"I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you." Dan 4:9 (LXX has 'Holy Spirit of God' - translating the plural 'gods' as elsewhere in Scripture)

"None of the wise men in my kingdom can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you." Dan 4:18.  See also 5:11,14 (LXX translates them all as Holy Spirit of God)

Without the Spirit, Daniel has nothing to offer.  With the Spirit, Daniel is wiser than the wisest men on earth. 

Second, the promised King of God's Kingdom is described as the Lowliest of Men.

"the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone He wishes and sets over them the Lowliest of men." (Dan 4:17)

In the great inversion of all our human expectations, God's choice for King is not simply a lowly man, but the Lowliest of men.  The King of all kings is the One who says "I am gentle and humble in heart." (Matt 11:29)  How can Nebuchadnezzar exalt himself when the Chosen One of the Most High is the Servant of all? 

Third, Nebuchadnezzar learns humility when he worships the Most High God:


34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes towards heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honoured and glorified Him Who lives for ever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; His kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as He pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No-one can hold back His hand or say to him: "What have you done?" 36 At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honour and splendour were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom.

With his eyes turned upwards, Nebuchadnezzar praises Him Who lives forever.  The sovereign glory of the Omnipotent Father draws out of him awed worship.  I'm told (and I can believe it) that the Grand Canyon will take your breath away - no-one stands on the rim with high thoughts of themselves.  And no-one can confess the majesty of our Father and not be correspondingly humbled in the process.

So how do I fight pride?  The doctrine of the trinity of course. I need to know that anything I have of worth in God's service is a gift of the Spirit - "What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Cor 4:7). 

I need to know that the Lord of Glory is Himself the Lowliest of men.  His glory is His service.  So how can I exalt myself above Christ?

I need to know that the Most High Father is awe-inspiring in His heavenly power.  As I worship Him I find a grateful 'nothingness' by comparison which is, at that very moment, my restoration to honour.

To be enfolded in the life of these Three is to be well and truly humbled. 


On humility, see also Bobby on Gospel Living 

-- to KC a fan of trinitarian theology!

Where would you place the 'confession' in a communion service? 

I was speaking about that yesterday with another gospel minister.  I 'flew a kite' for the idea of confessing after receiving the sacrament.  Perhaps, I wondered aloud, we could receive Christ in the bread and wine (of course with reverence recognizing the body of the Lord) and then repent of all our unworthiness.  Perhaps this would better model the fact that our repentance flows from the prior grace showered on us 'when we were still sinners.'  (Rom 5:8)  In our sin we are unable to turn to Christ, yet in His mercy He has turned to us to 'justify the wicked' (Rom 4:5).  And, as recipients of such undeserved mercy, our hearts are then humbled into repentance.  So should we put the confession after communion?

What do you think? 

I've been thinking about this especially because I'm writing a paper on repentance at the moment.  Here is the outline of my proposal. I'd love any thoughts you may have on it...

"I propose to write on the implications for pastoral ministry of our doctrine of repentance. Where should repentance fit into our soteriology and therefore how should we proceed in preaching and teaching, in evangelism, administration of the sacraments, in pastoral care, edification of the flock and in relations with the parish and wider world? In each instance the minister of the Word of grace encounters sin in its various forms. In each instance there is a danger that the covenant love of God will be presented as a conditional contract - a kind of "repent, then believe" ordo salutis. This would be to invert the Gospel in which Christ meets us exactly in our sin and does so unconditionally and with no respect to our capacity for Him or His new life. (Romans 4:5).

On the other hand Christ's salvation is precisely a salvation from sin - a deliverance from the realm of the flesh, the world and the devil. "The wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God." (1 Cor 6:9). The triune God embraces sinners and in that embrace, changes them (1 Cor 6:11).

How do we as church model this Gospel ordo salutis? How do we preach repentance from our pulpits? At what point do we call the enquiring non-Christian couple to live out a Christian sexual ethic? To whom do we administer the sacraments? (In this question lies, among other things, the balance between communion as a "converting ordinance" and the dangers of "eating and drinking judgement" (1 Cor 11:29)). How do we counsel our people towards repentance? What counts as repentance when various addictions and relational involvements muddy the waters?

I'm sure my research for this will take me in many directions, yet I propose that I begin with the Biblical material, in particular the Old Testament covenants and the NT Pauline corpus. I also hope to investigate the controversies regarding the Western 'ordo salutis' comparing historical positions with each other and the Biblical data. I intend to make use of Calvin's distinction between 'Evangelical and Legal Repentance', especially as it has been developed by JB Torrance. As I begin these lines of enquiry I expect that many others will subsequently open up."

Any help?



I'm preaching on this sobering passage on Sunday.

I'm struck by the sins of the fathers repeated in the children.  Just as 2 Samuel 11 showed lust => deception => illicit taking => death => further chaos so it is here.  In fact, just as Genesis 3 involved lust, deception, illicit taking, death and a spiral into chaos so this is re-played once again in the royal house.

From 1 Sam 16 until 2 Sam 10 we see good king David.  A wonderful mirror of Christ.  David is anointed among his brothers (1 Sam 16) then fights on their behalf to win victory for God's people (1 Sam 17).  While the world acknowledges one king, there is a faithful remnant who serve God's choice as king.  The women sing his praises, the mighty men join him in battle.  Eventually he is vindicated (2 Sam 5ff).  He ascends Zion and is enthroned.  He shows unfailing love to those in covenant with him (2 Sam 9) elevating the helpless to table fellowship.  He makes peace to the ends of the land/earth (same word in Hebrew) by defeating all his enemies and bringing peace. (2 Sam 8 and 10 - see my recent sermon on 2 Samuel 10).  There ends the narrative of good king David.  From chapter 11 we have bad king David.  In fact, from here, we see the outworkings of sin in the kingdoms of the world.  The house of David had been a mirror to the house of the LORD (see 2 Sam 7).  But now (see 2 Sam 12:20) the house of David is contrasted with the house of the LORD.

Think of how important the 'house' is in Scripture.   Just as the world is a 'house' (e.g. Isaiah 66:1), so is a kingdom, so is a family.  These family problems are a microcosmos - a little world in crisis.  (think of the Genesis 3 link above).  Everything that is so heart-breakingly wrong with this family is everything that is so heart-breakingly wrong with the kingdom of the world.  The sin we read about here cannot be held at arms length.  It is being brought home to us because it is the problem at the heart of every house, every kingdom, the whole world.

Note how these four men are distorted pictures of true men:

Amnon is a lover.  But it's love turned to lust. 

Jonadab is a wise man, yet it's wisdom turned to deceit. 

David is a king, but inactive in the face of evil. 

Absalom is an avenger, a rescuer - yet he silences Tamar and seems to protect his own reputation more than hers. 

How wonderful the lover, the wise man, the king and the rescuer could have been.  But they are perverted and together make for one dysfunctional house!

And what is the state of the virgin daughter in the royal house?   (This very broken mirror of the church (cf Psalm 45).  How is this virgin daughter in this kingdom treated?

Desired (v1)

Deceived (v11)

Disgraced (v14)

Despised (v15)

Discarded (v17)

Dismissed (v20a)

Destroyed (v20b)

And what a word to describe her in v20: Desolate!  Literally - destroyed.  It's such a violent word.  It's the word for Job and his household - devastated.  It's most used with regard to the curse of exile - the ravaged land, the desolated temple, the agriculture dried up.  She is destroyed like a war-torn country, like a shrivelled up vine, like a desecrated temple.  (There is hope though for the Desolate woman - cf Isaiah 54!)


Now v15 has intrigued me for a long time.  Can anyone help me with the psychology of this.  Literally it says that after he raped her "Then Amnon hated her with a very great hatred.  In fact the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her."  What's going on there?  What is it about this illicit taking that makes him despise what he had previously desired so fiercely??


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