Archive for the ‘Rob’s Thoughts’ Category

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.

Access Part I by clicking here

Access Part II by clicking here

In the previous post I examined how an individual’s experience of the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ creates a desire in the human heart to live for the glory of God.  In this post I would like to examine a bit more closely the most common means by which this happens.

Forty days after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead he appeared for the last time to the disciples.  He gave them one final note of encouragement and instruction before he ascended into Heaven.  Luke records it in his book, The Acts of the Apostles.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  (Acts 1:8-9 ESV)

There is much that could be said regarding this little excerpt from Acts but for our present purpose I will zero in on two things.  First, Jesus has promised that the Holy Spirit is coming and more than that, he will “come upon you.”  Second, Jesus will no longer be physically present with the disciples as the following exchange with the disciples makes clear.

And while they (the disciples) were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  (Acts 1:10-11 ESV)

The very simple point following from this is that Jesus is not physically present with us any longer.  There was a time when people experienced the sovereign grace of God in a very earthy, physical way.  For example when the Son of God placed his hand on a sick person, called the dead out from their grave, and spoke a word of pardon over desperate sinners.  But Jesus was “taken up from you,” and though there are notable exceptions in the unreached places of the world, by and large we should not expect to have a personal visitation from Jesus.  That is, we should not expect to have an experience of sovereign grace in the same way as those who walked the earth with Jesus did 2000 years ago.

So how then can we, who can no longer enjoy the direct benefit of Jesus’ physical presence, experience the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ?  While in college I remember reading an excellent book by Civil War historian Shelby Foote.  The book was called Shiloh and I found it to be a real page turner.  Foote had such a vivid style about him that at times I was convinced I could feel the wet, spring dew of the Tennessee countryside and smell the pungent stink of black powder spewing from the Enfield rifled muskets of the combatants.  The point I’m trying to make is that if you can’t be present at an event one of the best ways to experience the event is through a well written book.  You and I cannot see the miracles of Jesus however much we wish we could have.  You and I cannot see the savior’s eyes when he says “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  Nor can we behold the man on the cross, who gave up his life with the cry “It is finished!”  But just because we can’t see these things doesn’t mean we can’t have some experience of them.  One way by which people for thousands of years have experienced the sovereign grace of God through Jesus Christ has been through a good book, a book so vivid that the characters and events within its pages spring to life.

In an interview with Albert Einstein first published in the Saturday Evening Post, Oct 26th 1929, the famed theoretical physicist had this to say of his experience reading the New Testament:

“No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.  His personality pulsates in every word.  No myth is filled with such life.”

Einstein’s experience reading the New Testament is worth drawing particular attention to two features.  First, he said that reading the Gospels made him feel “the actual presence of Jesus.”  Second, he remarked that no matter how well told the story, “no myth is filled with such life.”  What are we to make of this?  What we might ask is whether or not the Bible is more than just a good story.  No matter how engrossed I was in Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, never for a moment did I feel the actual presence of General Ulysses S. Grant, or any of the protagonists at Shiloh for that matter.  And yet, when I read the Bible I find that I have an experience remarkably similar to what Einstein described.  Why is this?

The night before Jesus was murdered he spoke of his “going away.”  He said that it was necessary that he go away so that something special would happen.  Here’s what he said:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7 ESV)

What does this mysterious “Helper” do?  Jesus said that the Helper would come and convict us of sin (John 16.8), of righteousness (John 16.10) and judgment (John 16.11).  Also, Jesus said that the Helper would come and lead us into all truth (John 16.13).  As a crescendo to this whole section, Jesus said that the Helper would “glorify me,” that is the Helper in a very special way brings glory to Jesus (John 16.14).  I would suggest, if you wanted to simplify the work of the Holy Spirit, you could say that everything he does can be summed up under the banner of bringing glory to Jesus.

So the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ “Helper” has a job to do.  Most jobs require tools.  The doctor uses the scalpel.  The construction worker uses the hammer.  The writer uses the pen.  The Holy Spirit in this regard is no different.  He has a job to do and he has a tool.  The Holy Spirit’s tool for bringing glory to Jesus is principally done through Scripture.  Paul says in 2 Tim 3.16 that all Scripture is “breathed out” by God.

This is why when Einstein read the Gospels it felt to him as if a living, breathing Jesus was present alongside of him.  This was nothing short of the Holy Spirit of God, playing the chords of the reader’s heart like a skilled musician gently pulls on strings to make a beautiful melody.

This not only gives us a way of thinking through why the Bible has a vitality which other books do not, but it also gives us an important clue as to how we are meant to read the Bible.  If the Holy Spirit’s principle work is to bring glory to Jesus, then this must also be the principle work of the Bible.  The concept is put well in the Jesus Storybook Bible from which I excerpt a long quote from their introductory chapter:

Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do.  The Bible certainly does have some rules in it.  They show you how life works best.  But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing.  It’s about God and what he has done.

Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy.  The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all.  They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose).  They get afraid and run away.  At times they are downright mean.

No,  the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes.  The Bible is most of all a Story.  It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far away country to win back his lost treasure.  It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne- everything- to rescue the one he loves.  It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life

You see, the best thing about this story is- it’s true!

There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one Big Story.  The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.

One more thing remains to be said.  The Bible is but one of many voices that proclaim the wonderful story of “how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.”  C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one such voice that proclaims the Gospel story through allegory.  Your Pastor may be another voice that proclaims the Gospel story through preaching.  And of course the church, throughout the centuries has endeavored to be a voice for this wonderful story of how God “loves his children and comes to rescue them.”  What, if anything, differentiates the voice of the Bible as it proclaims the Gospel from the voice of the church, or your pastor, or C.S. Lewis?  To answer this most important question we turn to Jesus’ trusted disciple Peter who had this to say of the Bible:

And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV)

Lewis is helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  Your pastor may be helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  The Church has indeed throughout history been very helpful, but we have something “more sure.”  What is this that we have?  The “prophetic word,” which Peter here understands to the be the Scriptures.  He says that in the Bible men speak, but they speak as “from God,” because they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  In no other book, speaker, or institution is the promise to hear directly from God attached.  Thus it is in Scripture alone, or as the Reformers said Sola Scriptura, that one has the assurance that he hears from God.  And because it is in Scripture alone that we have the promise that God himself speaks “you will do well to pay attention to is as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”  Thus the Reformed Christian pays attention to the Scriptures like a man lost in a mine will look for sun’s light.  Here are three quick applications in closing.

  1. The Reformed Christian loves the Scriptures as a man lost in a mine loves sun’s light.  It is after all through seeing the sun’s light that the lost man is given hope for a way out.
  2. The Reformed Christian follows Scripture in the same way that a man lost in a mine will follow the path laid out for him by sun’s light.  It is after all through following this light that the man has a course charted for his own salvation.
  3. The Reformed Christian adheres to Scripture in the same way that a man lost in a mine will adhere to sun’s light.  Other voices may encourage the lost man.  Other voices may seek to guide the lost man.  Those voices that encourage the man to love and follow the light he listens to.  Those voices who seek to guide him closer to the light he is grateful for.  Those voices who cause him to stray from the light he disregards.  He disregards these voices because he adheres to the light, and he judges every encouragement, suggestion, claim, and guidance by how well it too adheres to the light.

In closing, I will say that just because we have something “more helpful,” does not discount other things from being helpful.  It simply means that whatever help you do find, you will find nothing as helpful as the Bible for it is the only place where we are spoken to as if “from God.”  In my next post, I would like to identify some helps and spell out exactly how they are helpful.  Topics I will address in the next post will be the Church in general, the role of tradition, and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?”  Being “reformed” is currently in vogue.  That is, it’s cool to be a Calvinist.  This growing trend which has been documented by the New York Times, Time Magazine, and U.S.A. Today has produced new interest in Reformed Christianity but it has also produced much confusion about what it means to be Reformed.  So it’s currently a hot topic worth addressing.

Second, to speak of “Reformed” Christians is to speak of the heritage of the Anglican Church, which both me and my friend who asked the question are part of.  Unfortunately, just as people from Idaho will pretend they’re from somewhere else when they move to a big city so have many Anglicans forgotten where they’ve come from.  The Anglican Church was born in the fires (literal) of the Protestant Reformation, of which the Church of England adopted a fairly strict Reformed (yes Calvinist!) approach to theology in its first 100 years.  Just as visiting with your quirky friend’s parents is always an “aha” moment, so too knowing where this church has come from should prove a revealing experience.

Through several posts in the coming weeks I hope to address this question in a way that brings clarity to the term.  This might appear to be solely an academic exercise, but it most assuredly is not.  The clergy at Trinity Church consider those doctrines known as “Reformed” to be closest to the heart of the scriptures and they inform every sermon, Bible study, prayer, and counselling session done by us at this church.  Perhaps more importantly, these doctrines have sunk deep into the well of our lives and affected us profoundly.  I hope in the coming weeks as I attempt to engage this question, not only will your heads grow larger with new knowledge but more importantly so would your hearts.  The Reformed Christian, if anything, is a Christian deeply concerned with the heart and its “bigness” for the glory of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

In this first post I aim no higher than a simple introduction.  So where to begin?  How about the beginning!  The first four words of the Bible are “In the beginning, God…” (Gen 1.1).  Before the larger conversation of creation, humanity, culture, sin, redemption, and restoration can begin we must first pause and acknowledge that the conversation must always begin with God.  Whatever it is that we speak of, the Reformed Christian must always begin with “In the beginning, God.”   Renowned theologian J.I. Packer in his introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ puts it this way:

Calvinism is a theocentric (God-centred) way of thinking about all life under the direction and control of God’s own Word. Calvinism, in other words, is the theology of the Bible viewed from the perspective of the Bible—the God-centred outlook which sees the Creator as the source, and means, and end, of everything that is, both in nature and in grace.

By “all life,” Packer means our work, our friendships, our creativity, our imaginations, our exercise, our marriages, our sex lives, our parentings, our youth and old age, and death itself must be acknowledged as flowing from God.  But it is not enough to recognize that these things merely flow from God.  Rather, it must be acknowledged that they are not only from him but also for him (Col 1.16).

For the Reformed Christian, worship is not something done on a Sunday but rather since all things are “from him and for him” all of life is an act of worship.  During the Reformation this came to be distilled in the Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria, which means “glory to God alone.”  This means that all of life is invested with spiritual significance and is an act of worship.  Your job, no matter how worthless it might seem to you nevertheless has meaning because it is an act of worship aiming for the glory of God.  The intimacy between a man and a woman in marriage might seem like the farthest thing from church, but God alone will have the glory in the marriage bed.  Sex between a husband and wife is an act of worship aiming for the glory of God.  Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper puts it well when he writes:

And because God has fully ordained…all life, therefore the Calvinist demands that all life be consecrated to His service…God is present in all life, with the influence of His omnipresent and almighty power, and no sphere of human life is conceivable in which religion does not maintain its demands that God shall be praised, that God’s ordinances shall be observed, and that every labor shall be permeated with fervent and ceaseless prayer. Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of his God, he is employed in the service of his God, he has strictly to obey his God, and above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.(Kuyper, The Stone Lectures)

Thus the Reformed Christian is not satisfied with a spirituality that is confined to the church, the small group, or the fellowship hall.  The Reformed Christian brings God and his glory into every aspect of human life and makes every action an action of worship.  It is a spirituality that seeps into every aspect of the daily grind, unifying seemingly fragmented events and actions under the banner of God’s glory.

And there is one most satisfying aspect where the Reformed Christian must insist that God and God alone have glory.  This aspect is in the aspect of salvation.  I will say more (much more!) on this later, but for now one or two things will do.  Paul writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:8-9)

No one may boast says the Apostle.  But why would we boast?  We would boast, because in some sense we wish to glorify the object of our boasting.  And when my faith is strong, I will often boast in it!  If not to the whole world, perhaps to just myself.  When I am disciplined in scripture reading, in prayers, and in service I boast!  If not to the whole world, at least to my own conscience.  But on occasion, my faith becomes feeble.  On occasion, I do not read, pray.  On occasion the only reason I serve Christ is because I’m expected to by others.  And then where is my boasting!?!?  But more importantly, where is my assurance?

If I trust in my faith, my works, my discipline I will inevitably be disappointed.  Thus it is not merely a doctrinal concern for the Reformed Christian to say “to God alone be the glory!,” but principally it is a pastoral concern.  For you and I to have assurance, to have joy and peace before God we need something or someone more dependable than ourselves.  Thus the Reformed Christian turns to Christ.  The Reformed Christians says of his repentance. “In the beginning, God!”  The Reformed Christians says of his faith, “In the beginning, God!”  The Reformed Christian says of his prayers, study, and service, “In the beginning, God!”  The Reformed Christian says of his perseverance, “In the beginning, God!”  And as the Reformed Christian dies, his faltering life turning the page on this life and opening up the new chapter of eternal life he will say, “In the beginning, God!”  For every good thing that happens in the life of the Reformed Christian he must say “In the beginning, God!

Thus the Reformed Christian sees the initiation of every good thing, whether it be faith, or fatherhood, hard work, creativity, salvation etc. all have their initiation in God and are ultimately for him.  The Reformed Christian leads a happy, grateful life, under the knowledge that God has thought of him graciously and affectionately.   Because God finishes what he starts, we not only thank him that he began something in us but we wholeheartedly trust in him to finish it.   So I will close with a brief paragraph from Charles Spurgeon:

“ it is not prayer, it is not faith, it is not our doings, it is not our feelings upon which we must rest, but upon Christ and on Christ alone.  We are apt to think that we are not in a right state, that we do not fell enough, instead of remembering that our business is only with Christ.  O soul, of thou couldst fix thy soul on Jesus, and neglect every thing else- if thou couldst but despise good works, and aught else, so far as they relate to salvation, and look wholly, simply on Christ, I feel that Satan would soon give up throwing thee down, he would find that it would not answer his purpose, for thou wouldst fall on Christ, and like the giant who fell upon his mother, the earth, thou wouldst rise up each time stronger than before.”

Spurgeon, “The Comer’s Conflict with Satan” Spurgeon’s Sermons Vol II pg 309

Read Part II of this series here

Click the title of the sermon that you want to hear

Easter 2010 preached by Rob Sturdy on Easter Sunday 2010

The Resurrection and other religions (John 20.19-28) preached by Rob Sturdy on April 11th, 2010

Can the Resurrection heal my guilt and shame? (1 Pet 5.6-11) preached by Iain Boyd on April 18th, 2010

Can the Resurrection help me know God?  (Acts 9.1-9) preached by Rob Sturdy on April 25th, 2010

Can the Resurrection help me understand human suffering? (Luke 24.13-35) preached by Rob Sturdy on May 2nd 2010

Sex and the Resurrection (1 Cor 6.12-20) preached by Rob Sturdy on May 9th, 2010

The Resurrection and Politics (Acts 1.6-8)  preached by Iain Boyd on May 16th, 2010

Click on the title of the sermon you want to hear

“The Discipline of Remembering” (Deut 26.1-11) preached by Iain Boyd on Feb 21st, 2010

“The Discipline of Waiting” (Gen 15.1-18) preached by Rob Sturdy on Feb 28th, 2010

“Leaving Egypt” (Exodus 3) preached by Iain Boyd on March 7th, 2010

The Discipline of Faith” (Josh 4.19-24) preached by Rob Sturdy on March 14th, 2010

“The Discipline of Hope” (Isa 43.16-21) preached by Iain Boyd on March 21st, 2010

Partnership in the Gospel (Phil 1.1-11) preached by Rob Sturdy on 9-13-09

A Joy that can’t be stolen (Phil 1.12-18) preached by Iain Boyd on 9-20-09

Jesus Christ on Trial (Phil 1.18-21) Preached by Rob Sturdy on 9-27-09

Prepare to Die (Phil 1.21-26) Preached by Iain Boyd on 10-04-09

Christ and Conflict (Phil 1.27-30): Preached by Rob Sturdy on 10-11-09

Lifting High the Cross (Phil 2.1-11): Preached by Peter Moore on 10-18-09

The Mind of Christ (Phil 2.5-11):  Preached by Iain Boyd on 10-25-09

“No one like him” (Phil 2.19-24): Preached by Iain Boyd on 11-08-09

“Dying for the sake of the Gospel” (Phil 2.25-30): preached by Iain Boyd on 11-15-09

“To believe and to suffer for his sake” (Phil 1.6-7, 29-30): preached by Rob Sturdy on Nov 22, 2009

“Lose your religion” (Phil 3.1-10) preached by Iain Boyd on Jan 10th, 2010

“Enemies of the Cross” (Phil 3.14-4.1) preached by Iain Boyd on Jan 24th, 2010

“The Excellency of Christ” (Phil 4.1-9) preached by Rob Sturdy on Jan 31, 2010

“The Generous Heart” (Phil 4.10-20) preached by Iain Boyd on Feb 7th, 2010

“The Grace of the Lord Jesus” (Phil 4.21-23) preached by Rob Sturdy on Feb 14, 2010

An Introduction to Malachi (Mal 1.1-5) preached by Thad Butcher on 8-2-09

“If I am a Father, where is my honor?” (Mal 1.6-14) preached by Rob Sturdy on 8-9-09

Why we preach hard sermons (Mal 2.1-9) preached by Iain Boyd on 8-16-09

Dead Religion and the Power of the Gospel (Mal 2.10-17) preached by Rob Sturdy on 8-23-09

Jesus is a Refiner’s Fire (Mal 3.1-15) preached by Iain Boyd on 8-30-09

The Fear of the Lord (Mal 4.1-6) preached by Iain Boyd on 9-6-09

“You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.” (Ex 15.13)

The Bible, like life, is a messy piece of business. Anyone expecting to come to the Scriptures to find a nice, tidy, “religious” piece of literature is in for disappointment and more likely a good bit of shock. In the pages of the Bible you will find murders, adulteries, betrayals, wars, famines, horrific storms, oppression, blasphemies, and faithlessness. Even amongst the “heroes” of the Scriptures, very few of them actually are able to act heroically. Noah, though faithful, was in the end a drunk. Moses was a murderer. David was an adulterer. The list goes on and on.

What are we to make of this? First, we must praise the Scriptures for being honest about life. The heroes of the Bible are real men and women made with real flesh and blood who are without exception deeply flawed individuals. The people of the Bible are not removed from the world, but very much engaged in it. They experience profound joy and profound pain. They have moments of inspiring faithfulness and moments of devastating faithlessness. As Martin Luther once wrote “The first value of this is that the godly have the comfort they need in their weaknesses, because they see that at times even the saintliest men fell disgracefully as the result of similar weakness” (LW vol 2. pg 169). The Bible is not a piece of escapist literature. It unflinchingly presents a world with problems, filled with sinful and broken people.

But is that all there is to it? Thankfully not! For working through the chaos, pain, and sinfulness recorded in the Bible we also notice the constant and ever present “steadfast love” of the Lord. Sometimes, as in the redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt, the steadfast love of the Lord is obvious, clear and powerful. At other times, such as the darkest hours of Good Friday, the steadfast love of the Lord is hidden though just as strongly present. Either way, it becomes obvious as we read through the Bible that while it reflects the broken world we all know and experience, the main theme of the Bible is nevertheless the steadfast love of the Lord. His steadfast love works in sovereign power to redeem us from sin, release us from bondage, and restore us to our intended humanity often in spite of our failings and brokenness.

I bring this up so that we might use the Bible to help us reflect on our life together here at Trinity. As you know, our Bishop has called all the congregations in the Diocese of South Carolina to engage the chaos and brokenness that has come to typify our life together in the Episcopal Church. Taking the Holy Scriptures as our guide in this matter, we will not draw back or make light of the very bad situation our denomination now finds itself in but we will deal with it honestly and head on. But while we engage the sin and brokenness of our denominational life, we must remember the central theme of the Bible and make it our central theme as well. God’s steadfast love, ultimately revealed in the giving of His Son to save sinners, will and must remain our main priority. Take this letter as my pledge to you to engage our denominational brokenness, but not get sidetracked by it. We are now as always, committed to the Gospel. That will never change.

much love,

Rob