Skip to content


Trinity sermon (text below)

Seems like a few more people have stumbled onto the blog recently (thanks for the links Dave, Dan, Ed, Paul, others).

I thought I'd bring everyone up to speed with where I'm coming from.  This is a sermon I preached a couple of years ago.  It's about the trinity and grace.

I reckon between preaching, trinity and grace that's covered a good chunk of what I rant about here.

(By the way, I stumbled on this trinity sermon by Jurgen Moltmann yesterday.  I tell you - agree with him or not - no-one writes more beautifully on trinity than Moltmann.)

My sermon audio

Trinity Sermon: Galatians 4:4-6

Let me ask you a question and let's see where you mind goes. 'What was God doing before the creation of the world?'  What do you think God was up to when there was no universe to run, no people to care for.  Just God, nothing else. What was that like?

Well the wrong answer to that question is basically to think about one solitary god.


God was not lonely before creation, He wasn't bored, He wasn't just itching to get on and create since He had only His thoughts for company!

No, what was God doing before creation?

They were enjoying one another. Who's they?

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.


Is that who you were thinking about when I asked my question? Or were you thinking about some other god - a god who is not Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

This morning we will learn that God is not, and never has been, lonely or aloof or self-centred or brooding or solitary or bored.  God is and always has been, loving and giving and other-centred and relational and sociable, companionable, friendly.  Because the real God is the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Christians call this relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit the trinity (and I'll tell you why in a second).  And this God, the trinity, is the living and true God.

But that other, solitary, self-centred god is not really God at all.

That god is simply an imaginary idea that reflects our own culture and times.  Other people in other times have imagined - perhaps - lots of different gods and warring people have imagined warring gods. Sensual people have imagined sensual gods.  Intellectual people have imagined that God is 'an eternal mind'.  And touchy feely people have imagined God as 'pure energy which we tap into'.  None of this tells you about the real God - instead it tells you a lot about the people who offer their opinion.  It's like the heavens are a gigantic mirror, we look up but all we really see is ourselves.  God has to tell us about God.  And we just have to listen and discard all our own opinions on the matter.

I'm convinced that most of the problems people claim to have with the trinity, are because they want to have the trinity AND the god of philosophy, or the god of our popular imagination.  For most of us it's an attempt to MIX the trinity with the solitary, self-centred god.  And you just can't do it.

So let's allow God's Word - the Bible - to tell us who He really is.  And let's be prepared to let go of your own dearest ideas of god.  And be shaped again by God's Word

Have a look with me at Galatians chapter 4 and verse 6.

6 Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father."

Now all three Persons are on show in this verse, that's why it's a good one to study.  Let's see who they are and how they relate to one another.

Look at who they are.  The One at the beginning of the verse called 'God' is also called at the end of the verse 'Father'.  And then there's the Spirit who God sends.  And there's the Son who (kind of ) owns the Spirit.  Three Persons.  Father, Spirit, Son.  And how do they relate?  Well the Father sends the Spirit.  And the Spirit calls out to the Father.  The Father is father of the Son and the Spirit belongs to the Son.  You don't have to get all of this, I just want us to see how inter-twined these Persons are?  The Father is father of the Son and sends the Spirit.  The Son is son of the Father and possesses the Spirit.  The Spirit is sent by the Father and belongs to the Son.

These three Persons - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - are involved in inseparable, loving relationships which go back and forth.  Which is why the Bible can say 'God is love.'  It doesn't just say 'God is loving' which would be true.  But God IS love - He is who He is because of these love-relationships between the Father, Son and Spirit.

And that's what that we mean when we talk about the 'Trinity'.  It's simply the unity of these three - it's the three-unity, the tri-unity.  The Trinity.  So what's God like?  God is Three Persons united in love. That's what the trinity means: Three Persons united in love. Simple.

The trinity is not a maths problem: "How can three be one?" It's clear how the Father, Son and Spirit are one - they are bound together in love.  In the Bible that's how real one-ness comes - love.  In the Bible, when people get married they become one.  In the Bible, when a whole group of people get together and agree on a certain direction, they speak as one.  There's even an example of this kind of one-ness in our passage.  In chapter 3, v28 we see lots of different people Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female but they are all one.  What does it mean that they're one? Have they all disolved into the one person, are they all thrown into a giant melting pot and all that's left is the single essence?  No, they are different people who are a community - united in love.  And God is different Persons, the Father, Son and Spirit, united in love.

But let me make something very clear - the trinity is a community far far superior to any other.  I could leave the community of St John's and somehow, you'd still get on without me.  You'd still be St John's and I'd still be me.  Gerri Halliwell can leave the Spice Girls and the Spice Girls, unfortunately, kept on going.  But with the Father, Son and Spirit - none of them are going to leave the band.  The Son is not going to split from these relationships and begin a solo career.  Why not?  Well think about who the Son is.  He is the Son because He has that relationship with the Father.  And the Father is the Father because He's always had His Son.  The members of this band don't have a solo career, they've never had one.  They don't just work as a team, they ARE this team.  There was never a point when the three Persons decided 'Hey, why don't we form a group!'  They have always been bound in loving relationships.  They were never solo artists in the first place and their band will never split up.  Their loving community is not just what they do - it's who they are and who they will be for all eternity.  God IS love.

So, to find the pulse of the universe (if you want to tap into the heart beat of reality) what do you find?  You find fierce, passionate, determined, life-giving love that flows between the Generous Father, His Beloved Son and the Life-Giving Spirit.

The life of these Persons, the relationships which they share IS the source of all true beauty, joy, goodness, holiness and love.  To belong to this God, to participate in this circle of divine friendship is the goal of all existence, it is the meaning of life.

The trinity is not a maths problem.  The trinity is the good news that God is love.

.... to be continued tomorrow...  part two here



...The younger brother came to himself and said, 'My dad's an old softy.  I reckon if I returned looking sufficiently contrite he'd bail me out.  It's worth a try anyway.' he reasoned. 

And so he rose and made the journey back to his father rehearsing his sorry-spiel along the way.  'Father, my father.  I know I messed up.  I know I don't deserve anything from you.  You'd be well within your rights to shun me forever.  But, father, my father,  I'm throwing myself on your mercy.  Here I am, your son - and I know you're a good dad - will you help me out?' 

By the time he got to his father's house his speech was pitch-perfect.  He rang the door-bell and waited.  Eventually he heard his father's shuffling steps, then the locks turning in the door, one after the other - four in all.  At last it creaked open a crack and the old man squinted up at his son. 

'Father, my father.  I know I messed up.  I know I don't deserve anything...' began the prodigal.  The father's look began to thaw.  The speech was good.  Perhaps the best yet.  By the end the old man couldn't help but blurt out, 'Ah my son!  You certainly know how to tug at my heart strings.  What can I do for you?' 

The son took a moment to congratulate himself on such powers of persuasion.  'Well, father,' he said, 'wild living ain't cheap!  And Lord knows how I'm going to afford my ticket back to the far country...'

'Far country?  You want to go back?' asked the father, his face falling.

'Well just for now.  Unfinished business you see.  But I'm definitely planning on returning...'

'...Because, son, you know there's always room for you here...'

'Yes, sure. Absolutely dad.  And I know I'll be returning.  Probably quite often.  But there's things I need to do and, well, I need your help.'

'How much?'

'Well there's the ticket.  Then I need the deposit on a new place.  I've found the perfect pad - downtown, the ladies love it.  But that's another thing,' he said chuckling, 'they sure are expensive those women!'

'How much?' he asked again.

'It's hard to put a figure you know dad, it could be anything.'

They looked at each other for a minute.  The father broke the silence.

'Blank cheque then?'

'Blank cheque would be great!  Yeah thanks.  Phew.  You're a real life-saver dad.  Wow.  I'd hug you, but I'm a bit smelly from the pigs.  Speaking of which, do you have any food?  Ham sandwich maybe?'

'Ham sandwich??  Look, come inside.  I'll kill the fattened calf.  Tonight we'll feast!'

'Gosh, dad.  That's sweet but I really don't have time.  Listen, I'll just grab something from drive thru.  The cheque's fine.  And, now that I think of it, don't make it out to the family name.  I've changed it.  Yeah, too many people were associating me with you and... well.  You know...'

Within five minutes the younger son was heading back down the drive.  He spotted his brother in the field and, holding the cheque aloft, called out.  "Ciao bro'!  Enjoy the slaving!"  



Do you ever wonder, like this blogger, if Jesus would actually like you?  Not whether some abstract principle of grace covers you.  But the question, How would the radical Jesus of the bible deal with you?

I mean the Guy's fierce.  Totally uncompromising, pure.  No double-standards, no tolerance for double-standards.  He sees you to the bottom.  He knows your heart.  One sentence from His lips will expose you to the world.

More than this He's walking the road to Golgotha and there's only one way to follow - take up your cross and join Him.  On the way, confess His name to the world, stand behind His words, own Him to His deadliest enemies. Love your would-be killers, pray for your persecutors.  Got money?  Give it away.  Got possessions?  Sell them.  Let nothing hinder you.  Don't settle your affairs first, don't even bury your father.  Follow. 


Now think.  Who is surrounding Jesus, following along the Golgotha way?  The religious keen-beans right?  The professionally moral?  No chance.  Those guys are walking away conspiring to kill Him. 

Who is flocking to Jesus?  Sinners and tax collectors.  They run to the Holy One of Israel - the One who could throw them body and soul into hell. 

Try this as a test:  Read the last ten verses of Luke 14.  In it Jesus turns to the crowds and says:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters- yes, even his own life- he cannot be my disciple.  And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple... any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

Now read the first verse of Luke 15 (and remember that chapter divisions are not part of the original Scriptures):

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear him.

Huh??  Shouldn't the 'sinners' be running for the hills?  How can Jesus turn up the discipleship temperature to nuclear and at the same time have the most notoriously immoral people draw near??

Well perhaps these words from Jesus will help.  They might just be my favourite:

"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:17)

Jesus is not the Health Police - enforcing wellness, punishing the sick!  He's the Doctor.  The sick do not run from Him but to Him.  It's the 'healthy' who run away.  The 'righteous' cannot bear His presence.  Ostensibly they worry about Jesus' reputation - eating with sinners.  In reality it is their reputation at stake - eating with the Doctor.  For to share His company is to admit to a deep spiritual sickness and to abandon the 'healthy' facade.

Yet for the sick, they have abandoned the healthy facade.  And they've come to realise that their sickness does not prevent them from coming to Christ.  Their sickness is why they come to Christ.  And so they come and find in Jesus a Doctor for Whom no disease is beyond His healing power. 

Jesus is the Doctor for sick sinners.  And this understanding is at the heart of the question 'How does the radical Jesus of the bible deal with me?'  Not as the Health Police but as the Doctor.  He calls me to Himself in all my sin - in all my inability to follow.  

So Christ's radical call to discipleship goes out.  If I'm seeing things clearly I know three things:

1) Jesus is right, that is the way. 

2) I have no chance of treading that path.  None. Zero. Squat.

3) Jesus is the Doctor - He and He only can take what is natural to me (desertion!) and turn it into discipleship.

In this way I answer Christ's call.  I draw nearer to the One who commands, not because I recognize in myself the strength to answer His call.  But I recognize in Him the power to redeem my weakness.  It's not about seeing health in us.  It's all about seeing healing in the Doctor.

In the future (when I've got some time) I'll look at Christ's actual healings as demonstrations of just this dynamic. 





Here's my ill-considered overstatement of the issue:  Our problem is not that we aren't telling the gospel to our pagan friends.  It's that we don't tell the gospel to our Christian friends!

When's the last time you looked another Christian in the eye and said 'Mate you're a sinner.  I know you have struggles, I know you're tired but, deep down you're wicked!  That's your real problem.  But Mate - you're clothed in the righteousness of Christ, carried on His heart before the Father, rejoiced over in the presence of the angels.'

I don't mean, When's the last time you talked about the toughness of the Christian life, or the state of the nation's morals or the soundness of certain bible teaching etc etc.  I'm talking about eye-balling your brother or sister and speaking God's word direct to them - His blood was for you, you are clean!

We all struggle to muster up the courage to evangelise non-Christian friends and family.  But I wonder whether a significant part of our difficulty is that we're not even used to speaking the gospel to people who should welcome it!



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.


Back from holidays now.  While away I was very tickled by this from Saturday's Guardian. 


One Million Tiny Plays About Britain by Craig Taylor


Two old women finish their tea at a cafe in Lichfield. One holds the bill...

Anna Oh, you. Now don't be so utterly ridiculous.

Eva I insist. I insist, my dear.

Anna Absolutely not and I won't hear another word from silly old you.

Eva Well, I won't hand it over.

Anna You give it to me right now.

Eva I won't. I won't, and that's the end of it.

Anna I can't have you paying for this, can I?

Eva You paid for the last tea.

Anna And that was nearly a year ago, silly.

Eva Exactly. Just put that wallet away now, you troublemaker.

Anna That's enough. Give it to me.

Eva I'm going to pay and that's that.

Anna Then I'm putting some money in your purse.

Eva You're going nowhere near my purse.

Anna I need to say thank you.

Eva Then a simple thank you's enough.

Anna You know how I feel about this, dear.

Eva Well, fair is fair.

Anna I don't believe it is fair, if you don't mind.

Eva Then you can take me out for a nice meal next time, can't you?

Anna This is my treat.

Eva It is completely my treat and I want to pay. The end.

Anna No. [Pause]

Eva Now sit down. I'm just going to put it on my credit card and we'll go on with our lovely afternoon.

Anna Tell me how much it is.

Eva And we'll see the dahlias out in Biddulph.

Anna I'll sit right here then. I'll just sit.

Eva Well, you're being silly.

Anna You're being silly.

Eva I don't want your money. A simple thank you is fine.

Anna I'd like to give you some money.

Eva Just say thank you now. Just say it.



The anger is palpable.

And notice that their civility isn't actually a cover for their rage - it is precisely the vehicle for it.  Far from hiding their hostility, their manners are the menacing thing.  They will kill each other with 'kindness.'

But what is this 'kindness' that they hurl at each other? 

'Fair is fair.' 'I want to pay.' 'I don't want your money.'

They may as well say 'I don't want your friendship.'  For what friendship is founded on 'fairness' and 'payment'?  No these are not the words of friends.  And this is not a demonstration of good manners.  Here their manners are their weapons.  And they destroy themselves and each other by them. 

What is the essence of this 'friendship'?  What throbs away at the heart of this 'civility'?   It is their refusal to receive in gratitude.  The turning of gift into duty.  A determination to achieve what can only be given.

And by this mentality, however cultured, they despise the gratuity of God's little pleasures and they despise each other.  Here is the clenched fist in the presence of grace.  It is the deepest perversion of all our natures. 

And it's all amply illustrated by two old ladies in a tea shop.


Tim VB put me onto this 9 week course about Gospel Centred Living which is freely available here.  It looks great.  They draw on material from World Harvest Mission - their Gospel Tranformation and Sonship courses.  To give you a flavour of these, here is the blurb about the Sonship course:

Sonship: Live the theology you believe!

Many of us understand the faith intellectually, but our hearts have not quite kept up with our heads. Sonship is designed to help you take some of the glorious theological truths of the gospel - truths that you may know in your head - and apply them to the nitty gritty reality of daily life.

You'll find that as the gospel re-makes you, there is greater joy and desire to share the wonderful news of God's lovingkindness with others.

I have to say I've been very impressed by what I've seen so far. 

One thing that struck me was this testimony found here in the Sonship course.  It illustrates brilliantly a truth I'll remark on at the end: 

One day when I was very young, I saw my older sister hanging up my father's white business shirts on the clothesline to dry. I was suddenly filled with the urge to hang up one of my daddy's white shirts. He was my daddy too, and I was his daughter; I loved him in my childlike way and wanted to express it. I couldn't reach the clothesline-it was too high, but I saw a wheel barrow in the yard and its handles were just the right height for me. I didn't notice how rusty it was and I rather joyfully clothes pinned the wet shirt to the handles.

When my dad got home and saw the shirt on the wheelbarrow, he became very angry with me and punished me severely for ruining his shirt. I had not realized the impact that event and others like it had made on me. However, as I was repeatedly convicted during the Sonship conference for not believing God concerning his delight in me and in the gracious nature of my relationship with him, this memory returned to me. Now, you cannot hardly get through 24 hours of a Sonship conference without realizing that your own heart is as murderous as anyone else's-so I wasn't primarily focusing on only being the innocent victim of my father's cruel anger.

As I remembered these scenes from the past, I saw that through the years I had not been believing that my Father in heaven was any different than my earthly father. I had not been listening when he described himself. In short, I hadn't been believing the gospel, that by faith in Christ and his perfect atoning sacrifice, he now loves me, and is forever for me and delighted in me. In Christ, he has made me beautiful and pleasing to him forever.

So the next morning I told our counselor that I thought I was beginning to understand. I told him the memory and said that I guess if the Father saw me standing next to the wheelbarrow with the ruined shirt on it, he would forget the shirt and hug me. "You still don't understand fully," Jeff said. "God would not overlook the shirt, but take it, put it on, and wear it to work. And when someone commented on the rust marks, he would say, ‘Let me tell you about my little girl and how much she loves me.'" I was overwhelmed with that realization.

What a brilliant picture of the gospel!  Not just overlooking the shirt - wearing the shirt and celebrating his daughter!

Often we think of the gospel as God overlooking our sin, tolerating our presence and simply relenting from judgement.  We are left in the law court, the not-guilty verdict is passed and we're just relieved to have avoided hell.  But can such a gospel change our hearts?  Somewhat, I'm sure.

But the good news is not that God allows us to live in the suburbs of His presence.  We are adopted, indwelt, sung over, glorified, rejoiced in.  Letting the Father love us in Christ is the kind of 'overwhelming' that truly changes.



I was once in a preaching seminar with 15 other young guns.  We were being taught by someone you might call a living legend.  One session I remember was on how to preach Romans 3:21-30.  The point came when the living legend asked us what we thought the application should be.  Now aside from my various misgivings about application I reasoned to myself that if an application was there in the passage it was probably worth flagging that up.  I looked down and sure enough I saw what I thought was a pretty clear ""application"" of Paul's teaching:

Where then is boasting?  It is excluded. (v27)

So I stuck up my hand and suggested that the application might be humility.  More particularly it seemed that, since Christ had taken the work of salvation entirely into His own hands (and out of ours), we ought gladly to shut up about ourselves, our morality, etc etc. 

"Wrong!" said the preacher.  "The application should be 'Repent!'"

"Oh", I said. "Why?"

I immediately regretted asking 'why.'  Dagnammit we're evangelicals, we're supposed to preach repentance, it's union rules.  Besides, I don't want to appear soft in front of the 15 other young guns and this living legend!  The living legend was more than a little irked by my question and replied: "Because, dear boy, verse 23 says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Sin is the problem, therefore I would have thought that repentance would be a very good idea!!"

Those who know me may be surprised to learn that I didn't answer back to this one.  Oh I wanted to.  How I did want to!  But judging by the alarm in the preacher's voice and the mood of the room it felt wise not to imperil my standing any further among such sound folk.

But sometimes I fantasize about what would have happened if I'd said what I really thought.  The fantasy goes something like this:

I stand slowly, deliberately, with all the solemnity of the lone, faithful prophet.  All eyes are upon me as I bellow with righteous ardour:

"Sin is not the problem!   S i n   i s   n o t   t h e   p r o b l e m !!!"

All hell breaks loose.  Outrage.  Pained howls.  Torn garments.  Hurled stones.  I am immovable in the midst of the storm.

"... Sin is not the problem... God's wrath at sin is the problem!  No... better... God's wrath at us in our sin - that's the problem!" 

At once they are felled by Truth as by lightning.  Cut to the heart, the stones drop to the floor first, then the men.  One by one they slump to the ground, the hand of the LORD heavy upon them.  In breathless awe they ask: "Brave herald, what is this teaching you bring us?  It resounds from the very heights of Zion against our presumption and folly."

Sporting a fresh cut across my chiselled jawline, I am otherwise unruffled.  Ever magnanimous I continue:

"Dear friends" (the dust in the air has now leant a husky tone to my rich, commanding voice). "Dear friends, let us not define our predicament so anthropocentrically."

I leave this dread word hanging in the air.  The mere mention of 'anthropocentric' elicits groans from the already contrite gathering.  Here was their shibboleth used against them.  It stung.  Yet they could not deny that they were indeed guilty of this greatest of liberalisms.

"I commend you friends..."  They look up nervously - could there yet be grace for them?  "...While many have merely scratched the itch of the modern age, you have refused to pander to felt needs. You have proclaimed the problem of sin and for this I commend you."  I pause.  "And yet... and yet... you have defined the problem so poorly, so slightly.  You have defined the problem from below.  If we define the problem as something lying in our hands then aren't we at least suggesting that the solution is in our hands?  But in fact the problem is above us - just as the solution is.  The problem is not fundamentally our sin, the problem is the Lord's wrath upon us."

"What's the difference?!" cries out one of the younger preachers, "Our sin, God's wrath, it's all the same..."  He is hushed by the living legend who slowly shakes his head.  It is clear now how wrong he has been. 

He stands, still shaking his head, unable to look at me or the others.  Eventually he speaks, "Glen's right. He's always been right!"  The living legend looks like he's been hung from the ceiling on meat hooks.  As though in great pain he exclaims, "You must understand...  We faced such terrible dangers in preaching.  We still face such dangers.  I wanted, we all wanted, to resist the me-centred pulpit.  I was so sick of hearing about 'filling the Jesus-shaped hole in your life'.  I couldn't stand the invitations to 'let Jesus into the passenger seat of your life'.  I wanted people to turn.  I still want people to turn." 

I put a re-assuring hand on his shoulder. He meets my eye for the first time and continues.  "I just thought, if we can show them that 'fulfilment' isn't the issue - that sin is the issue, well then maybe they'd come to their senses.  Maybe they'd see their errors and turn from them."  I give a look to the living legend, he nods, "I know, I know, that's the problem."

"What's the problem?" asks one of the young guns.

The living legend sighs deeply and turns to the others.  "It puts the focus on us.  If we just preach sin and repentance the whole focus is on us."

"It's anthropocentric" mutters a young gun, latching onto his favourite word.  He looks around to see if anyone else has noticed his firm grasp of the issues.

"I don't get it" pipes up another, "I thought sin and repentance was God-centred preaching?  Isn't that what you taught us??"

The living legend is speechless.  I break the silence.  Crouching down to their level, I ask, "If we simply preach sin and repentance how exactly is God at the centre?  He may well be over and above our conceptions of sin and repentance - but how is He in the middle?  In such a sermon isn't God actually on the periphery?  He's hardly the principal Actor!"  At this stage the one who muttered 'anthropocentric' is nodding in the way failed quiz show contestants nod when they're told the right answer.

I go on, "It's like our passage from Romans 3.  Sin is certainly there!  Sin is certainly a problem.  I mean we've been told from verse 9 that all are under sin.  And we've been told in verse 20 that observing the law will never get us out from under this condition.  But given that this is the case, wouldn't it be strange if Paul then told us that 'repentance' was this new work that was better than the old Mosaic works?  Actually Paul doesn't mention any of our works in this passage, not our obedience, not our repentance.  No, what does Paul point us to?  Verse 25, the blood of Jesus - a propitiation for our sins.  Now we all know what propitiation means right?"

Young noddy blurts out "A sacrifice that turns away God's wrath!!"  I gesture with my hands, trying to calm his wild-eyed enthusiasm.

"Ok, yes. Well done.  It turns away God's wrath.  Because that's the real problem.  The problem is, chapter 1 verse 18, the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against us.  It will culminate in, chapter 2 verse 5, a day of wrath.  And Paul is at pains to say we all deserve it, we are all unrighteous and there's nothing moral and nothing religious we can do to turn aside this wrath.  We are helpless.  BUT, a righteousness beyond us has come.  And He is the sacrifice who turns away God's wrath.  Through His redemption we are justified freely.  That's the gospel.  That's what we preach.  And who is at the centre of this story?  Not us.  Him."

"So we shouldn't preach sin and repentance?" asks another.

"Of course we should.  But those are comprehended within a much more profound perspective.  Wrath and redemption are the deeper truths.  You know I'll bet that all the sermons you hear are about committed sin and sanctification?  You know the kind.  'God says: Don't do X, we all do it, let's ask His help to stop.'  Where are the sermons that major on original sin and justification?  Why don't we plunge them to the depths and then take them to the heights?  Why all this middle of the road stuff that puts us at the centre?"

A couple of young guns knowingly mouthe 'anthropocentric' to one another. 

I continue "Take Islam.  It's a classic religion of repentance.  God remains far above, it's down to us to clean up our act.  In fact all human religion is man justifying man before a watching god.  But the Gospel is God justifying God before a watching humanity.  He takes centre-stage and we need to move off into the audience to watch Him work salvation for us.  Christianity is not a religion of repentance, it's a religion of redemption.  And that's quite a difference don't you see?"

As I speak, the young guns have been picking themselves off the floor one by one.  The room has been won to the side of Truth.  I look upon them with fatherly benevolence.

"So now friends - now that you know these things: What would be a good application of Romans 3?"

In unison they reply "Humility!"  And for a moment all is right with the world.

Until, that is, the harmony is shattered.  One of the young guns, no doubt provoked by my impossible smugness, speaks up:

"Hey, if humility is so important, how come you're so proud?" 

The mood of the room takes a decisive turn.  Another piles in "And how come you've been dreaming us up for the last 10 minutes to feed your ego."  Here's where the fantasy turns pretty nasty.

"What kind of egotist spends his time winning theological debates in his head??"

"Yeah, debates he never actually won in the real world!"

Another pipes up: "I think I know 'Where then is boasting?' - he's rstanding in the middle of the room!!"

At this point the fantasy is basically unsalvagable.  So then, I hate to do it, but sometimes you just have to pull rank. 

"Quiet all of you!  This is my fantasy.  Either you submit adoringly to my theological genius or you can get out now." 

Faced with those options they instantly choose non-existence.  One by one they vanish, though somehow their looks of betrayal and disgust seem to linger on.

"You'll be back" I say to the departed phantasms.  "Pretty soon I'll need to feel right about something else and you'll be right back in my imagination, bowing to my unquestioned brilliance.

"Ha!" I say.  The laughter echoes around my empty head.



The means of grace (things like preaching and sacraments) are meant to be just that.  Means by which the grace of God reaches down to us.  I've been reflecting recently that often we try to absolutize the means of grace so that they become not means but ends in themselves, and not grace (i.e. His initiative) but works (i.e. ours!).

And then we divide over whatever our chosen 'means of grace' might be.

So the danger for the catholic is to see the eucharist not as a means of God's encounter with man but rather the moment in which they make God manifest (ex opere operato - by doing it, it is done). When the ritual is performed well/reverently/at all, Christ's presence is enjoyed. Christ is not present through the sacrament but rather the performance of the mass is Christ's presence. The mass becomes the point.

The danger for the charismatic is to view the singing of spiritual songs in the midst of the congregation not as a means of grace but as the time when ‘God's in the house'. When the band are playing well, God shows up - ex opere operato. In that case God is not present in and through ‘worship' but ‘worship' is equated with the divine presence.  Worship becomes the point.

The danger for the evangelical is to see preaching not as a means of grace but as the action we perform whereby we guarantee a divine speech act.  The Proclamation Trust states ‘When the bible is taught, God himself speaks.'  Now I want to draw the strongest possible link between preaching and God's speaking (see long paper here) but let's get the order right.  He graciously speaks through our preaching, we cannot bring Him down through our correct exposition.   The danger is that simple exposition of a biblical passage or theme is itself the encounter with God - ex opere operato.  Preaching becomes the point.

Yet surely, Christ is the point. And the Lord's supper and worship and preaching are ways that Jesus can and does make Himself known to us, among us and in us.  Yet He will not be brought down by our performance of these acts. They are His means (note means) of grace (note: grace!). He always remains free in His self-giving - in the bread and wine, in our corporate life, in His word.

That's why it's often great to hear a catholic preaching well, or an evangelical leading ‘worship' or a charismatic presiding at the Lord's table.  For then, they are less tempted to see the simple operation of this act as the point but as a means of making Christ known - He is the point.


Twitter widget by Rimon Habib - BuddyPress Expert Developer